Also known as branched-chain amino acids, these are the building blocks of protein in your body.
Popular among the bodybuilding crowd, many regular gym goers now turn to BCAAs in hopes of seeing better results and more bang from their workouts. Let’s break down the basics of what exactly a BCAA is and how it works in the body, food sources of BCAAs, why gym goers want in on the benefits and do you need them?
What Are BCAAs?
There are three essential amino acids — meaning ones your body cannot make — that makeup BCAAs, including leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These three amino acids are the only molecules that have a branch off to the side (hence, the branched-chain amino acids).
In terms of how these amino acids work in the body, leucine helps with protein synthesis in the muscles(2), while isoleucine helps your cells take in glucose, your muscles’ prime energy source. Most of us who are not in ketosis, use glucose as our primary fuel source and need glucose to push through tough workouts or even walk around during the day. The definition of what valine does for your workout is still up in the air, though some resources say it can also help with protein synthesis as well.
Often times, when people refer to BCAAs, they’re referring to supplements containing these three amino acids. The recommended dose is a combination of 20 grams (with a balanced ratio of leucine to isoleucine). However, you can get BCAAs straight from food with no supplement required, particularly from high-protein products like meat and eggs, as well as beans and lentils.
If you consume high amounts of protein (about 1 to 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight) every day, then you likely don’t need to supplement your BCAA intake. Again, these are just raw facts from what the studies are showing us, there are always situations where people depending on their goals and also their health status, may need more or less than this suggested amount — but you knew that already!
What Are the Potential Benefits of BCAAS?
- Muscle protein synthesis. As mentioned, leucine helps with protein synthesis in your muscles. This means it can help rebuild muscles after a tough workout—a mechanism you want to work more efficiently in order to build muscle and strength.
- Delayed fatigue. BCAA supplementation may stop the serum decline you normally get during exercise. This normally leads to tryptophan in the brain and serotonin release and that’s when you experience fatigue (5). By stopping that serum drop, you can delay the tiredness you feel during a workout.
- Reduction in muscle soreness. Some studies suggest that BCAA supplementation can suppress muscle damage from a workout, which would help to reduce the soreness you feel post-exercise (4). However, these studies are typically small.
What the Science Says About BCAAs
Despite the talked about benefits of BCAAs, some recent research has found that these advantages may not be as significant as some people think. One recent study from the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition says that BCAAs won’t necessarily increase protein synthesis, in fact, it could decrease it (1). The researchers mention that studies lack science on human subjects and the benefits of these three specific amino acids together.
Other research found that while there was just a slight increase in muscle building with BCAA supplementation, the results were much better when paired with whey protein (3).
The Bottom Line: Supplements v. Food
While there is some evidence out there that BCAAs could enhance your workouts and the results of those workouts, it’s not 100 percent sound. More research is still needed to fully support the claims that you’ll build more muscle, reduce soreness and delay fatigue.
I personally enjoy working out first thing in the morning, so early that I’ll workout in a fasted state and if it’s for a prolonged amount of time, then I’ll enjoy a BCAAs in my water before my workout sometimes during if I didn’t have a chance to sip them beforehand, but always follow it up with a great balanced meal including protein, fiber, a bit of healthy fat, and carbohydrates.
Also, because supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA, it’s best to stick to whole food sources to get your BCAAS. That way, you’re getting other necessary nutrients along with the amino acids. If you’re looking to increase your results at the gym and need help deciding what to eat before and after a workout, sign up for a nutrition counseling session today.
Do you take supplements? Or practice a whole food approach? Share your experience workout-enhancing strategies with the community.
- Robert R. Wolfe. (2017, August) Branched-chain amino acids and muscle protein synthesis in humans: myth or reality?
- Kimball SR, Jefferson LS. (2006, January.) Signaling pathways and molecular mechanisms through which branched-chain amino acids mediate translational control of protein synthesis.
- Sarah R. Jackman, Oliver C. Witard, Andrew Philp, Gareth A. Wallis, Keith Baar, Kevin D. Tipton. (2017, June.) Branched-Chain Amino Acid Ingestion Stimulates Muscle Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis following Resistance Exercise in Humans.
- Shimomura Y, Inaguma A, Watanabe S, Yamamoto Y, Muramatsu Y, Bajotto G, Sato J, Shimomura N, Kobayashi H, Mawatari K. (2010, June.) Branched-chain amino acid supplementation before squat exercise and delayed-onset muscle soreness.
- Blomstrand E. (2006, February.) A role for branched-chain amino acids in reducing central fatigue.