• Isaac J. Wedig MS, CSCS

BCAA Supplementation: Making gains or wasting money?

Branch Chain Amino Acids, better known as BCAAs, are one of the most popular sports supplements on the market, promoted for their muscle building and performance enhancing benefits.

If you see someone at the gym drinking a florescent colored fluid out of a milk jug, it’s not anti-freeze, it’s probably BCAAs.

They get a lot of anecdotal praise from muscle heads and supplement companies, but do you really need to be using a BCAA supplement to maximize your progress?

Amino acids are the individual building blocks that make up proteins. Essentially, they can be thought of as biology’s Lego pieces, the very molecules that are used to construct life.

From only 20 different amino acids, assembled in various combinations, the human body is able synthesize nearly 100,000 different proteins, each possessing a unique functional role within our physiology.

The body uses amino acids to make enzymes, hormones, transport and signal molecules, structural proteins, and every fitness enthusiasts favorite body tissue, skeletal muscle.

The body obtains most of its amino acids from the diet. Once consumed, the protein that you eat is chopped up into its constitute amino acids, they are taken up into the blood, and then distributed to cells where they can be utilized for protein construction.

Unlike carbohydrates and fat, protein contributes relatively little to overall energy production and its primary role is to supply cells with amino acids to be used for protein synthesis.

Of the 20 amino acids that the body uses, nine of them are termed essential, meaning that they cannot be made by the body itself, and therefore, the essential amino acids must be obtained through the diet. This makes them a critical dietary nutrient.

The remaining eleven amino acids are termed non-essential, as the body possesses the ability to synthesize these amino acids in the event that they are not acquired from the diet in sufficient amounts.

Of the essential amino acids, three of them tend to get all the recognition when it comes to sport and exercise nutrition; leucine, isoleucine, and valine.

Collectively, these three amino acids are referred to as the branch chain amino acids (BCAAs), which derive their name from their unique molecular structure, each containing a branched side chain.

The BCAAs make up about one-third of the amino acids found within skeletal muscle, reflecting their importance in the process of muscle building and retention. By far, the most noteworthy of the BCAAs is leucine, which plays the most significant role in stimulating muscle protein synthesis, thereby promoting muscle growth and muscle retention.

BCAA supplements, most commonly sold as powders, contain isolated free-from versions of the BCAAs. In other words, it's protein powder that strictly contains leucine, valine, and isoleucine, each present as a single amino acid unattached to one another.

Typically, it is recommended to supplement with BCAAs by taking a 5-10g dose either before, during, or after a workout. It may also be recommended to consume additional doses throughout the day.

The BCAAs have been demonstrated to improve muscle growth, promote recovery, enhance workout performance, reduce fatigue, and reduce muscle soreness.

Given the fact that BCAAs supply so many benefits, then why the heck wouldn’t you want to supplement with them? It seems like a no brainer.

Well, here’s the cool thing about BCAAs that most people don’t realize;

The BCAAs are present in almost all protein containing foods, especially in high-quality animal-based protein sources such as chicken, beef, turkey, fish, eggs, milk, and dairy.

In fact, the protein found within most animal-based sources is approximately 20% BCAAs. Chicken breast is about 18%, therefore, if you consume 6oz of chicken breast, which contains approximately 36g of protein, then you’re getting roughly 6.5g of BCAAs. This is a dose greater than that typically supplied by one serving of a BCAA supplement.

Here’s the take home message. If you consume an adequate amount of protein per day (0.6g/lbs of your bodyweight or greater), coming from relatively high-quality animal protein sources, then BCAA supplementation is simply unnecessary.

A 180lbs individual who is consuming 1g/lbs of their bodyweight per day of protein is getting roughly 36g of BCAAs a day, equal to about seven servings of a BCAA supplement.

Not only are they getting enough BCAAs per day, but there is a large body of evidence suggesting that complete proteins coming from whole foods are far more effective and advantageous than BCAAs taken alone in isolation.

Protein that contains an adequate dose of the BCAAs in addition to the other essential amino acids has a far more potent effect on muscle tissue than BCAAs themselves. Therefore, BCAA supplements are not as effective at stimulating muscle protein synthesis when compared to complete protein sources such as poultry, dairy, beef, and eggs.

Additionally, whole protein sources offer nutritional value outside of their amino acid content alone, providing you with vitamins, minerals, and fiber, unlike that of most BCAA supplements, which are nutritionally void of these things.

What about the timing of BCAA ingestion around the workout?

Normally, its advised to consume BCAA supplements during your workouts in order to prevent muscle protein breakdown. They may be even more anabolic when consumed out of a one-gallon milk jug. That’s a ‘bro’ joke for those of you that don’t follow.

Here’s the truth. The timing of protein ingestion doesn’t seem have a large impact on muscle adaptations when other factors such as total daily protein intake are controlled for. The general recommendation is to consume a meal containing an adequate dose of protein (20-30g) within 1-2 hours either before or after your training. If that meal is comprised of a quality protein source, then you’re getting a sufficient dose of BCAAs that will available during the post-workout period.

BCAA supplementation may be beneficial if you’re exercising in a fasted state, but even in this situation, a complete protein source such as whey is probably still a better choice. For a more extensive review on protein timing, and all thing protein consumption, read my blog post on protein consumption.

Okay, let’s wrap it up;

  • When it comes to BCAAs, don’t fall into the fallacy of thinking that if some is good, then more is better. In fact, some research suggests that too much can be detrimental to progress, as the amino acids compete for absorption into the blood and muscle.

  • If your consuming enough total protein per day, coming from relatively high-quality animal sources, then BCAA supplementation isn’t needed.

  • Whole, complete-proteins, containing all the essential amino acids are more effective than consuming the BCAAs alone, warranting the use of complete proteins over that of BCAA supplements.

Basically, save your money, eat a sufficient amount of total protein per day, and train properly.

Resistance training is BY FAR the most potent stimulator of muscle tissue, therefore, optimizing your training should be your first concern. Your second concern should be consuming a sufficient total amount of protein per day. BCAA supplementation won't outweigh poor training and nutrition.


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