Today I’m going to be doing a review of BCAAs or branched-chain amino acid supplements. So BCAAs are one of the most popular muscle building supplements on the market, they’re surrounded by a lot of hype and here I’ll be giving you the honest, unbiased facts so that you can decide whether or not you think they’re worth your money.
So the BCAAs are three branched-chain amino acids, of course, leucine, valine, and isoleucine, and they’re usually taken as a supplement before, during, and after training, sometimes all three. And the benefits of BCAAs that supplement companies will claim are:
1. They improved muscle recovery and growth. Since leucine is the primary amino acid involved in protein synthesis.
2. They improved training performance
3. Which isn’t mention quite as often, is that they reduced delayed onset muscle soreness.
So let’s quickly go over each one of these.
The first just being the overall benefit of improving muscle recovery and growth. So it is true that the branched-chain amino acids play a very important role in the muscle-building process, again leucine specifically is critical in this, and 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%, the egg is 20%, beef is also around 20% these are just a few examples. So if you went ahead and ate, say 30 grams of protein from beef or you took a scoop of whey protein, you’re already getting around 6 grams of BCAAs just from that one serving alone.
Even a lot of vegan protein sources are pretty high as well, thinks like brown rice protein, pea protein, soy, hemp, and these are all very high in BCAAs on a gram-per-gram basis as well. So 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 the 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 BCAAs are good it doesn’t mean that more is automatically better, and there’s a finite cap on how much of them you can actually use to maximize protein synthesis at any given time. And 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've taken on their own in isolation without any whole food protein.
For example, a lot of studies will have, you know, 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, but 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.
The second claimed benefit is that they 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 an 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; first off, usually this is only going to be a concern when we’re talking about long-duration exhaustive workouts that someone like and endurance athlete might be performed. If you’re going into the gym and just performing standard bodybuilding workout with normal rest periods for, say an hour to an hour and a half, it’s probably not going to be necessary for that context.
And secondly, even though BCAA supplements do decrease tryptophan uptake the also decrease tyrosine uptake as well, and 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.
And the third benefit is the issue of muscle soreness. But again, the research that was done on this, as I’d mentioned before, 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.
If you do want a supplement for reducing muscle soreness that my suggestion would be to check out coralline malate instead.
So everything that I’d mentioned so far is the reasons why I personally don’t think that BCAAs supplements are worth the money for most trainees in most situations. And I say most situations because there can be an exception which I’ll mention in a second here, but or almost everyone as long as you’re eating enough total daily protein, so between 0.8 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body 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 these are not a cheap supplement. 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; first off, 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.
The second situation is if you’re someone who does train with 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 for you to decide. If you really feel that they helped then I can’t argue with that.
The third situation would be if for some reason you’re eating a low protein diet. Now, I’m not sure what the reason for that would be, but 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.
And the last situation would just be if money is not an issue at all for you and you are a 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.
One last thing I’ll mention here, keep in mind that branched chains do have appetite-stimulating effects. So 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, because they actually do contain calories, even higher than a typical whole-food protein, they have about six calories per gram. For some reason, the FDAA doesn’t require that calories be listed unless it’s coming from a whole food protein, but if you are tracking calories and macros then don’t forget to count your BCAAs as well.