If you’re getting serious about taking your fitness to the next level, you’ve likely run across branched-chain amino acids — or BCAAs for short.
BCAAs are one of the most popular dietary supplements used by both bodybuilders and everyday fitness enthusiasts. But they’re also one of the most controversial. While some argue that they’re not necessary, proponents of BCAAs claim they can:
- Help improve lean muscle mass
- Shorten recovery time
- Support weight loss
- …and more
So, are BCAAs worth it? Or is it all hype?
In short, yes. BCAAs are worth it if you’re looking to train longer and recover faster while improving your body composition.
Keep reading to learn more about BCAAs, including how they work and if you should consider adding them to your diet.
- Branched-chain amino acids are essential amino acids. This means your body cannot make them. You must get BCAAs from your diet or supplements.
- Research suggests they play a key role in building muscle mass, improving training performance, and reducing exercise-induced muscle damage. BCAAs are considered very effective because they are directly metabolized into skeletal muscle instead of the liver.
- For maximum benefits, BCAAs should be taken 10-20 minutes before your workout or as an intra-workout supplement.
WHAT ARE BCAAs?
To help you understand what BCAAs are, here is a quick and dirty refresher on amino acids.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are 20 different amino acids that combine to make up the proteins in your body.
Of the 20 amino acids, 11 are non-essential amino acids, and nine are considered essential. While your body can produce non-essential amino acids, essential amino acids cannot be made by your body. You must get them from your diet or supplements.
Leucine, isoleucine, and valine — three essential amino acids — are known as branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) because of their molecular structure.
Leucine has shown to be the most important of the three BCAAs for initiating muscle protein synthesis. Because of this, you’ll usually find that most BCAA supplements supply twice as much leucine as isoleucine or valine, which is also referred to as a 2:1:1 ratio.
WHAT DO BCAAs DO?
Unlike other amino acids, branched-chain amino acids are unique because they are mainly metabolized in the muscles instead of being broken down by the liver. This allows them to fuel your muscles during training and help you push through strenuous workouts.
According to research, supplementing with BCAAs:
- Stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis
- Reduces Soreness and Supports Muscle Recovery
- Increases Energy and Metabolism
- Aids in Weight Loss
STIMULATES MUSCLE PROTEIN SYNTHESIS
One of the most popular uses of BCAAs is to help athletes stimulate muscle synthesis and build muscle.
While it’s important to note that your total protein intake does matter, BCAAs play an essential role in muscle development.
Leucine, in particular, is considered to be the most important amino acid to promote muscle growth.
Studies suggest that leucine activates a pathway known as mTOR.
The mTOR pathway is one of the most researched pathways of muscle growth. Upon consuming leucine, the amino acid then signals mTOR to initiate muscle protein synthesis. This helps us rebuild damaged muscles and recover faster.
Basically, you want to get optimal amounts of leucine to increase mTOR activity to boost protein-building and muscle growth.
One 2017 study looked at ten young males who regularly performed resistance exercises. Researchers found that drinking a beverage with 5.6 grams of BCAAs post-workout had a 22% increase in muscle protein synthesis compared to the placebo.
REDUCES SORENESS AND SUPPORTS MUSCLE RECOVERY.
Muscle soreness is an annoying and often uncomfortable side effect of an intense workout. Exercise-induced muscle damage can cause soreness and discomfort for several days following physical activity. This is known as delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS.
While they can’t completely soothe your sore muscles, studies suggest that branched-chain amino acid supplements may be able to limit the muscle damage caused by exercise.
One 2012 study looked at twelve resistance-trained males who were randomly assigned to a BCAA supplement or placebo. Compared to the placebo, the BCAA group experienced reductions in creatine kinase (a marker of muscle damage) and overall muscle soreness.
A decrease in muscle damage after BCAA supplementation suggests that it can shorten the length and severity of DOMS as well as muscle recovery time.
INCREASES ENERGY AND METABOLISM
You may observe many gym-goers sipping on bright-colored beverages throughout their workouts. This beverage probably contains BCAA powder.
Branched-chain amino acid supplements are often used intra-workout to help fight fatigue and improve mental and physical performance.
During exercise, BCAAs can be broken down and used for energy, helping you to train longer. Supplementing with BCAAs during prolonged exercise can also preserve glycogen stores — the primary fuel your muscles use for energy production.
Moreover, as BCAA levels in the body decline, levels of the essential amino acid tryptophan begin to increase.
Tryptophan is converted into serotonin in the brain, which is associated with fatigue during physical activity.
Valine competes with tryptophan to enter the brain and usually wins. This reduces the amount of tryptophan converted into serotonin which ultimately allows you to crank out more reps and perform longer.
During a hard-hitting workout, a higher number of BCAAs will be utilized for fuel. Taking BCAAs can help you work out at high intensity for more extended periods of time.
For example, one 2001 study found that BCAA supplementation led to a 17% increase in time to exhaustion compared to the placebo.
According to a 2014 study, BCAAs may also benefit metabolic health. Researchers suggest they have a large influence on energy metabolism and can reduce the risk of obesity.
AIDS IN WEIGHT LOSS
In addition to muscle building, BCAAs may also have the ability to increase fat loss and prevent weight gain, leading to overall improved body composition.
One older study found that competitive wrestlers who ate a high protein, moderately calorie-restricted diet with BCAA supplements lost 3.5 more pounds than those given a soy protein supplement within 19 days. The wrestlers who consumed the BCAA supplement also lost more body fat than the soy protein group.
BCAAs may also help preserve lean body mass during periods of calorie restriction.
For example, one 2016 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition examined the effectiveness of a BCAA supplement combined with heavy resistance training and a caloric-restricted diet on body composition and muscle fitness.
Researchers concluded that BCAA supplementation helped maintain lean mass and preserved skeletal muscle performance while losing fat mass.
BCAAs have a lower calorie content than other protein sources and can benefit someone who wants to preserve healthy muscle during a cutting phase.
WHEN SHOULD I TAKE BCAAs?
Technically, you can consume BCAAs at any time.
This is because BCAAs can help stimulate protein synthesis and energy production, which can help improve stamina and give you more energy during a workout. They can also help prevent muscle breakdown during exercise.
Many athletes also take BCAAs in the morning and before going to sleep as well.
Although we need more research to define the optimal dose for athletes, studies suggest that consuming a daily dose of 10-15 grams of BCAAs provides the best results.
BOTTOM LINE: ARE BCAAS WORTH IT OR NOT?
Although they cannot replace real food and getting enough protein, BCAAs can help athletes improve training and exercise performance. They can also preserve lean mass, support muscle growth, and aid in weight loss.
Some people argue that you can get enough BCAAs from animal protein sources or protein powders like whey protein.
However, whey protein and BCAAs can be used together to promote maximum muscle gains when used correctly.
BCAAs are more readily available and can enter the bloodstream rapidly to help reduce fatigue and supply you with sustainable energy during a workout.
If you follow a vegan diet that lacks animal protein or find it challenging to get enough protein (less than 0.8g of protein per pound of body weight), BCAAs can be especially beneficial for building and maintaining lean muscle