Branched-chain amino acids (BCAA’s) are one of the most popular muscle building supplements on the market.
They’re surrounded by a lot of hype.
Are they worth your money?
What are BCAA’s?
So the BCAAs are three branched-chain amino acid
They’re usually taken as a supplement before, during and after training, sometimes all three.
The benefits of BCAAs that supplement companies will claim are:
- They improved muscle recovery and growth since leucine is the primary amino acid involved in protein synthesis.
- They improve training performance
- That they reduce delayed onset muscle soreness.
So let’s go over each one of these.
BCAAs Improves The Overall Benefit Of Improving Muscle Recovery And Growth
It is true that the branched-chain amino acids play a very important role in the muscle building process
Leucine specifically is critical in this.
It sometimes referred to as the anabolic trigger.
However, what a lot of people don’t really take into account is that BCAAs are already found in quite high amounts in the regular dietary protein sources that you’re eating throughout the day.
For example, the branched chain content of whey protein is about 25% and egg is 20%. These are just a few examples.
So if you went ahead and ate, say 30 grams of protein from chicken or you took a scoop of whey protein, you’re already getting around alone.
Even a lot of vegan protein sources are pretty high as well, things like brown rice, pea protein, soy, hemp, these are all very high in BCAAs on a gram-per-gram basis as well.
As long as you’re eating enough total dietary protein each day from a variety of sources then you’re already getting sufficient BCAA intake just from that alone.
Again, it’s not that the branched chain themselves aren’t effective or useful, they definitely are.
They’re crucial for that matter but it’s just that dumping an extra 10 or 15 grams in a supplemental form on top of what you’re already getting from your diet, that’s probably not going to benefit you in any noticeable way.
Just Because Some BCAA’s Are Good It Doesn’t Mean That More Is Automatically Better
There’s a finite cap on how much of them you can actually use to maximize protein synthesis at any given time.
If you look at the actual research then what you’ll see is that the only time they really provide clear benefits is when they’re taken on their own in isolation without any whole food protein.
For example, a lot of studies will have, one group, taking just BCAAs and then another group taking just dextrose.
But it’s not surprising that using BCAAs in comparison to using pure dextrose would have positive benefits
That really doesn’t tell us anything about whether or not free-form BCAAs are superior to just eating regular whole food protein sources.
And I don’t really see any reason to assume that they are.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids Improve Training Performance
So you’ve probably seen those guys walking around the gym with giant 4-liter jugs filled to the brim with bright pink or bright green liquid that they sipped on during the workout.
Maybe you are one of those guys, and the chances are those jugs are at least partly filled with BCAA powder.
Now the reason people used intra-workout branched chains is that because as your workout drags on and BCAA levels get depleted in your body, tryptophan levels increased and that causes increased in serotonin levels, which makes you feel tired.
And so by supplementing them intra-workout, you prevent tryptophan from entering your brain and that helps to keep serotonin levels lower and it boosts your energy as a result.
However, a couple of points on this;
- Usually, this is only going to be a concern when we’re talking about long duration exhaustive workouts that someone like an endurance athlete might perform.
If you’re going to the gym and just performing a standard bodybuilding workout with normal rest periods for an hour to an hour and a half, it’s probably not going to be necessary for that context.
- Even though BCAA supplements do decrease tryptophan uptake they also decrease tyrosine uptake as well Tyrosine is an amino acid that improves your mental focus and improves your energy.
And so it is possible that there could actually be a counteracting effect there.
- The issue of muscle soreness.
But again, the research that was done on this, was done in the absence of proper protein intake so it really doesn’t say much.
All that tells us is that there’s a benefit to taking BCAAs as opposed to nothing at all, but it’s perfectly possible that just having a scoop of whey or eating a regular serving of dietary protein that already has BCAAs in it, perfectly possible that that would have the same effect.
Almost everyone as long as you’re eating enough total daily protein, so between weight daily, then you’re likely already getting enough branched chain amino acids to get all of the benefits that they offer.
And not only that, but you have to weigh it off against the cost as well because of this possible ounce of muscle growth.
It’d be one thing if they were really inexpensive and you could just throw them into your program for the possibility that they might help, but they are fairly costly on a gram-per-gram basis, and that will add up quite a bit over the long term.
The Only Situations Where BCAA Supplements Might Be Of Use Are
- If you’re training fasted
In that case, 10 grams or so taken pre-workout might be helpful in terms of reducing muscle break down.
And I say might because I can’t even say for sure if they would make a significant difference, so that’s really more of a “just in case” kind of thing.
- If you’re someone who does train with a long duration
High volume workouts and you’ve found that they do improve your focus and your energy during your training sessions.
But even there, I’d still be skeptical because the research is very mixed on that and even the research that supports it still only shows a small effect.
So in my guess that a lot of what people report there is largely a placebo effect, but it’s up to you to decide.
If you really feel that they helped then I can’t argue with that.
- If for some reason you’re eating a low protein diet.
Now, I’m not sure what the reason for that would be.
If you are eating significantly lower than 0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight daily then BCAA supplements would likely be beneficial just to make sure that you’re getting enough to maximize protein synthesis.
- If money is not an issue at all for you and you are very serious lifter trying to squeeze up every possible ounce of muscle growth that you can.
There’s no real downside to BCAA supplementation and so you could still just use them in case.
They do provide a very small long-term benefit.
Branched-Chain Amin0 Acids Have Appetite Stimulating Effects
If you’re using them during a cutting phase then that is something to consider.
And lastly, don’t fall for the idea that BCAAs are calorie free.
BCAA actually do contain calories, even higher than a typical whole food protein.
They have about 6 calories per gram.
For some reason, the FDA doesn’t require that calories be listed unless it’s coming from a whole food protein.
If you are tracking calories and macros then don’t forget to count your BCAAs as well.