Should You Use a BCAA Supplement?

There's a lot of debate on whether or not BCAAs are necessary to help you reach your goals. Learn how you might benefit from supplementing with BCAAs.

I have been heavily involved in the fitness industry for 30 years now, spending most of that time as a competitive bodybuilder, trainer, coach and physique transformation specialist.

I have also worked with many of the most prominent supplement companies, helping to research, formulate, and test hundreds of compounds and products meant to enhance performance, boost fat loss, augment muscle growth and increase overall health and wellness.

Some of these products showed great promise based on scientific research, but failed to live up to expectations in the “real world.” Others developed cult followings (at least for a time) despite never impressing those that work in lab coats.

However, only a handful of pills, potions and powders have truly stood the test of time – becoming essential pieces in the supplement puzzle of top athletes and bodybuilders the world over almost 365 days a year.

BCAAs is one of them.

Related: Intraworkout Nutrition - The Missing Link to Massive Gains

What are BCAA’s?

This is how Wikipedia defines them: "A branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) is an amino acid having aliphatic side-chains with a branch (a central carbon atom bound to three or more carbon atoms). Among the proteinogenic amino acids, there are three BCAA’s: leucine, isoleucine and valine."

Wow, sounds pretty technical, huh? Yeah, but who cares, right? You want to know whether you should be using them or not! Keep reading…

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What the Naysayers Will Tell You about BCAAs

While just about every high level coach (to bodybuilders, pro and Olympic athletes) I have communicated with about BCAA supplementation has related to me that they are absolutely essential (and I agree) in just about every phase of training for elite athletes, there are still skeptics out there who insist that a high protein diet is all that is needed.

They fervently argue that consuming BCAA supplements will do nothing more than thin out your wallet. So is it time to head to the cabinet and make some extra room by tossing out those canisters of BCAAs? Ummm – not so fast!

The vital difference between consuming foods high in BCAA’s such as meat, fish, chicken eggs, and yes, even whey vs. pure supplemental BCAA’s is the time it takes them to enter the bloodstream and exert their positive effects.

Related: How To Choose The Right Supplements According To Science

BCAA’s found in whole proteins are peptide-bound to other amino acids, and therefore need to be liberated via the digestive process before absorption, which is not nearly as efficient for igniting anabolism, fat loss, and energy production at the specific times the body is primed for these processes.

The BCAA’s found in supplements, however, are “free form,” and thus do not require digestion. Because of this, they rapidly enter the bloodstream and spike amino acid levels quicker and to a greater extent than BCAA’s from food and even whey protein.

Now are you getting the picture?

The BCAA Ratio is Vital

When discussing BCAA supplements it is important to consider the “ratio” of leucine to isoleucine to valine contained within the formula. There have been a plethora of scientific studies performed on this subject; all attempting to determine what is most effective for triggering anabolism and enhancing muscle hypertrophy.

Perhaps the most compelling was a study performed at one of the world’s premier amino acid research centers in Stockholm, Sweden, where DNA gene chip analysis was utilized to finally unlock the answer.

It was discovered that a ratio of 9:6:5 is optimal, increasing the direct p70sk cellular signaling by 350%!1

Benefits of BCAA Supplementation

How Can Supplementing with BCAAs Help You?

So, just how important are BCAA’s for enhancing the appearance and health of your body? Lets take a quick look at some of their most significant benefits.

  1. BCAA’s enhance protein synthesis – Combined with weight training, BCAA’s turn on the mTORC1 pathway, which is our major mechanism for muscle growth. BCAAs in fact have the ability to trigger protein synthesis even in the absence of exercise, which can minimalize atrophy during time off from the gym.
  2. BCAA’s reduce protein breakdown – This is accomplished by decreasing activity of the protein breakdown pathway and decreasing the expression of several complexes involved in these actions.
  3. BCAA’s can keep energy boosted during exercise – By reducing the amount of tryptophan that gets through the blood brain barrier, BCAA’s help prevent the rise of serotonin produced while training, which reduces fatigue and keeps you alert and focused.
  4. BCAA’s support fat loss – The amino acid leucine has been shown, when used in conjunction with both isoleucine and valine, to increase energy expenditure and fat oxidation. Additionally, not only does isoleucine improve glucose tolerance on its own, but also the entirety of BCAA’s can support insulin sensitivity and metabolic rate. Combined, all of these effects will results in a leaner, more defined physique.
  5. BCAA’s decreases muscle soreness – This is a very important effect, especially for elite bodybuilders and athletes, who must be able to train and perform maximally with extreme frequency.
  6. BCAA’s improve hormonal profile while training – Studies have proven that consuming as little as 6 grams of BCAA’s for three weeks helped to keep testosterone levels higher and cortisol levels lower during intense training periods. This in and of itself will increase one’s ability to build, and or/maintain muscle mass during all the various yearly training cycles (especially vital when undergoing a hypo-caloric dieting phase).

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Dosage & Timing of BCAA Supplementation

There are three specific times per day I highly recommend the use of a BCAA supplement.

When: Immediately upon awakening.

  • Why: Since we get up in a fasted state, our muscles are becoming catabolic and primed for BCAA’s.
  • Dosage: 8-12 grams (you can go as high as 16 g if performing fasted cardio).

When: 45 min before weight training.

  • Why: To supply energy and support muscle tissue when undergoing intense stress.
  • Dosage: 8-12 grams

When: All throughout weight training workout.

  • Why: To help delay fatigue and keep blood amino acid levels high throughout workout, while additionally reducing (not stopping) the post workout inflammatory response.
  • Dosage: 8-12 grams

Note: When dieting on lower calories and carbohydrates, 4 grams of BCAA’s can also be consumed in between meals to help maintain energy and blood sugar, while also keeping appetite under control.

References
  1. Eva Blomstrand, Jo¨rgen Eliasson, Hakan K. R. Karlsson, and Rickard Ko¨hnke A˚strand Laboratory, University College of Physical Education and Sports, Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, and Department of Surgical Science, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden. Branched-Chain Amino Acids Activate Key Enzymes in Protein Synthesisafter Physical Exercise. J. Nutr. 136: 269S–273S, 2006.
  2. da Luz CR1, Nicastro H, Zanchi NE, Chaves DF, Lancha AH Jr. Potential therapeutic effects of branched-chain amino acids supplementation on resistance exercise-based muscle damage in humans. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2011 Dec 14;8:23. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-8-23.
  3. Zhenyukh, Olha; Civantos, Esther; Ruiz-Ortega, Marta; Sánchez, Maria Soledad; Vázquez, Clotilde; Peiró, Concepción; Egido, Jesús; Mas, Sebastián. High concentration of branched-chain amino acids promotes oxidative stress, inflammation and migration of human peripheral blood mononuclear cells via mTORC1 activation. Free radical biology & medicine, ISSN: 1873-4596, Vol: 104, Page: 165-177
  4. Gualano AB1, Bozza T, Lopes De Campos P, Roschel H, Dos Santos Costa A, Luiz Marquezi M, Benatti F, Herbert Lancha Junior A. Branched-chain amino acids supplementation enhances exercise capacity and lipid oxidation during endurance exercise after muscle glycogen depletion. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2011 Mar;51(1):82-8.
  5. Zheng L, Wei H, He P, et al. Effects of Supplementation of Branched-Chain Amino Acids to Reduced-Protein Diet on Skeletal Muscle Protein Synthesis and Degradation in the Fed and Fasted States in a Piglet Model. Nutrients. 2017;9(1):17. doi:10.3390/nu9010017.
  6. Carwyn P. M. Sharp, David R. Pearson. Amino acid supplements and recovery from high-intensity resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Apr; 24(4): 1125–1130. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181c7c655