Complete Guide to BCAA's
BCAAs, or branched-chain amino acids, are a very popular workout supplement, designed to decrease muscular damage and improve recovery time. Some claim they do nothing, while some swear by them - like most things, the answer is probably somewhere in the middle. Let’s define what branched-chain amino acids are, how they work, and how they are meant to be taken.
We’ll start with amino acids in general. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, which our body uses to build and repair itself. A complete protein has 20 amino acids, with various foods ranging in the actual amount of amino acids they contain. Of these 20, 9 amino acids are called essential amino acids, meaning our bodies cannot produce them. Non-essential amino acids can be produced by the body, while essential amino acids must be consumed through food or supplementation.
THE THREE BCAAS
Of these nine essential amino acids, three of them are known as branched-chain amino acids, which simply refers to their molecular structure. The branched-chain amino acids, BCAAs, are leucine, iso-leucine, and valine. Some amino acid supplements will contain more than these three, but the basic BCAA supplements contain those three amino acids, in varying ratios. Typically they are dosed in a 2:1:1 ratio, with leucine being the highest.
There are several reasons it would be beneficial to use BCAA supplements. Leucine is the main trigger of muscular protein synthesis. In other words, leucine is what flips the switch to turn your body into muscle-building mode, once you consume the correct amount. After activities that break down and damage muscle tissue, such as intense activity, or weight training, having leucine available in the blood is a good way to start the recovery process quickly.
HOW THEY WORK?
The exact mechanisms of how they work in the body aren’t 100% clear, however, they do appear to prevent, or least reduce, muscular breakdown. One study looked at blood testing around exercise, specifically for indicators in the blood that muscles were damaged. When participants supplemented with BCAAs before and after training, blood testing indicated reduced muscular breakdown, and participants reported less soreness. Other studies have shown similar findings, so BCAAs are often marketed as “intra-workout” supplements, meaning, they are meant to be consumed before and during your workout, rather than after.
Some claim that BCAAs aren’t necessary, since many whole-food protein sources, and most protein powder supplements include BCAAs which would still be available in the bloodstream, rendering additional supplementation unnecessary. While it’s true that with adequate protein intake, BCAAs may or may not be as effective, there are still certain times that they can be very useful if you want to optimize your results.
WHEN ARE THEY USEFUL
The first time would be during fasted training. If you train or exercise first thing in the morning, or before you have consumed any food, BCAAs can help supply your body with the aminos it needs to prevent muscle breakdown, and aid recovery. If you haven’t eaten since the previous day, giving your body the fuel it needs to recover can prevent it from breaking down muscle tissue to acquire the same amino acids.
In addition, if you are trying to maximize your muscle building potential, it may be a good idea to supplement with BCAAs between meals, if they fit your budget. Every time your body reaches the leucine threshold, which means blood leucine levels rise above a certain amount, it gets switched into muscle building mode. If you are going a long time between meals, or don’t have a lot of protein with a meal, a BCAA supplement is quick and easy way to hit the leucine threshold and make sure you stay in a muscle-building state.
If you do decide to take it, look for a formula that has a 2:1:1 ratio, or something similar, with leucine being the highest. The exact dosage will vary, but in general you should be aiming for 3-5g of total leucine per serving, so refer to your specific brand’s label to see how much you need. Many BCAA supplements on the market also contain electrolytes, so taken during a workout, this can be an added bonus, as it hydrates you while you train.
Howatson, G., Hoad, M., Goodall, S., Tallent, J., Bell, P., & French, D. (n.d.). Exercise-induced muscle damage is reduced in resistance-trained males by branched chain amino acids: A randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled study. J Int Soc Sports Nutr Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 20-20.