Building muscle is a simple, yet not easy, process. You fuel up, you train hard, and you recover well. You follow a program with progressive overload; you hit your macros, nutrition, and hydration goals. Put all these pieces together, and you can create muscle protein synthesis.
BCAAs, or branched-chain amino acids, may play a key role in stimulating that process.
BCAAs exist in protein-rich foods and also come in supplement form. Including BCAAs in your diet and your training program may help you with everything from hypertrophy to reduced muscle soreness.
Here, you’ll learn about the biggest BCAA benefits and understand how these amino acids may help you build muscle, improve your recovery, and maintain your muscle as you age.
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.
What Is BCAA?
BCAA stands for branched-chain amino acids, and they include leucine, valine, and isoleucine. (1) That’s one benefit of BCAAs right there — they might come in supplement form, but they’re natural amino acids that your body uses to make protein.
Twenty amino acids make up muscle protein. The body naturally produces eleven of these amino acids. That’s where they get their “non-essential” designation. The remaining nine are essential amino acids that cannot be produced by the body and must be taken in through your diet. (1)
Three of the nine essential amino acids — leucine, valine, and isoleucine — are a group of branched-chain amino acids. The term refers to their molecular structure. They are vital to synthesizing new muscle proteins. (1)
Muscle Protein Synthesis
Muscle protein synthesis is a process where amino acids are bound into skeletal muscle. This process causes a change in skeletal muscle mass after resistance training. (2) Training will change the muscle, but nutrition is critical to building it.
That’s where the importance of BCAAs comes in. Research shows that increasing the availability of essential amino acids after exercise, including BCAAs, can enhance muscle protein synthesis. (3) Leucine, in particular, helps stimulate the process.
Sources of BCAA
Branched-chain amino acids occur naturally in several protein-rich food sources. That’s one benefit of BCAAs — it’s easy to get them in your diet. They can be found in both animal and plant sources of protein.
- Fish, eggs, chicken, turkey, beef, cheese
- Lentils, chickpeas, tofu, quinoa, beans, nuts
- Milk, whey, and soy protein
There are also many BCAA supplements to choose from. One of the advantages of BCAAs — you can get them from various sources, both through food and supplements.
Potential Benefits of BCAA
The benefits of taking BCAAS are all wrapped up in muscle protein synthesis. Muscle protein synthesis occurs after resistance training. If they can help stimulate this process, how can BCAAs potentially benefit lifters? Let’s dive in.
May Improve Athletic Performance
There is some evidence that BCAAs may improve athletic performance. When it comes to supplementing your diet to increase power output and strength before training, lifters may look to creatine instead. The role of BCAAs is to stimulate muscle growth after training.
A review of the effects of BCAA supplements on athletes showed that BCAAs are oxidized in the muscle, which may stimulate anabolic signals. It follows that they might, in turn, improve performance in the gym. (4)
May Increase Muscle Growth
For many, hypertrophy is the whole purpose of BCAA supplements. Much of the marketing surrounding BCAA supplements promises that taking BCAAs will help to build muscle due to their stimulation of muscle protein synthesis.
So do you need BCAAs to build muscle? It certainly seems helpful. But they don’t work in a vacuum. Studies also show that without the rest of the essential amino acids, BCAAs alone may not increase muscle growth. (6) While BCAA supplements may help you get your gains, this research suggests that getting all of your amino acids is essential for complete success.
May Decrease Soreness
Taking BCAAs for soreness may be fairly effective. Feeding your muscles the protein they need to rebuild after intense training may alleviate muscle soreness. Data suggest that BCAAs may decrease delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) caused by exercise-induced muscle damage (EMID). (7)
What about timing? One study was done on 15 cisgender males. Three groups were given placebos before and after exercise; placebos before and BCAAs after exercise; and BCAAs before and placebos after exercise. The research demonstrated that BCAA supplementation before exercise was more beneficial in alleviating DOMS after EMID. (8)
May Improve Recovery
Recovery is about more than just decreasing soreness; recovering from training in the hours and days after your session is when your muscles can grow bigger and stronger.
Research shows that taking BCAAs improves post-exercise recovery and may improve muscle function. (9) This can be especially helpful to athletes who need to reduce muscle damage and maintain muscle function in sports with short rest times. (9)
May Reduce Fatigue
Some claims suggest that BCAAs can stop the process of tryptophan converting to serotonin. A study on athletes ingesting BCAA before exercising showed reduced serotonin levels, which delays central nervous system fatigue. (11)
This is one of the many potential benefits of BCAAs for bodybuilding. In strength sports requiring you to train extensively at a high intensity, reducing fatigue may be a critical part of your training strategy. BCAA supplements seem to be helpful here.
May Prevent Muscle Loss
As humans age, they may experience sarcopenia or the loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength. Resistance exercise and nutrition have been shown to be helpful ways to maintain muscle and fight this process. (12)
Research on people aged 60 to 70 showed that lower blood levels of leucine — the key BCAA — were associated with lower skeletal muscle mass, grip strength, and athletic performance. (12) It suggests that including BCAAs in the diets of elderly folks, combined with training and complete nutrition, may help prevent naturally occurring muscle loss caused by aging.
There is plenty of misinformation surrounding BCAAs. Let’s take a look at some common misconceptions.
Myth: BCAAs alone will help me build muscle.
While BCAAs help stimulate muscle protein synthesis, research has shown that you’ll benefit most if you get all of your essential amino acids. (6) In addition to specific amino acids, it’s also recommended that you meet your daily protein goals for hypertrophy. Check out BarBend’s protein intake calculator to find your personal needs.
Protein Intake Calculator
Above, you’ll be able to calculate how much protein you need per day based on your current activity level, goals, and other factors.
Myth: BCAAs will make me lose weight.
BCAAs on their own will not cause weight loss. However, if your goal is losing body fat, including amino acids and adequate protein in your diet may be beneficial. Protein helps to keep you full longer, so it might help it become more emotionally sustainable to eat at a caloric deficit.
BCAAs and other amino acids are important to keep your body and muscles strong and nourished, especially in a caloric deficit. But on their own, they won’t cause weight loss.
Myth: BCAAs will give me energy for training.
While BCAAs can be taken with your pre-workout for muscle-building benefits, they are not a direct energy source for your workouts. They might help reduce your fatigue development — which can certainly have advantages in terms of energy. But unlike caffeine, for example, BCAAs are not explicitly related to energy levels.
Potential Drawbacks of BCAA
With potential benefits come potential drawbacks. Here are a few possible downsides of BCAAs.
May Cause Nausea and Headache
Several side effects have been reported with taking BCAA supplements. Each individual may react differently, but some experience nausea and headaches with BCAAs. As with any food or food-based supplement, take note of how your body tends to respond after ingestion.
Not Recommended for Pregnant People
BCAAs are generally not recommended for pregnant people. Research suggests that there may be an association between BCAAs in early pregnancy with gestational diabetes. (13) So if you’re pregnant, BCAAs will likely be up there with the list of foods, drinks, and supplements you take a break from.
BCAA Supplements May Include Additives
BCAA supplements — like all dietary supplements — do not need FDA-approved for marketing and sale. Since they are unregulated, some supplements may include inactive ingredients and additives that you may not want. It’s always advisable to read the ingredients and research what you’re putting into your body.
Amino Acid Power
BCAAs are three powerful essential amino acids that you can get from food and supplement sources. Plenty of research indicates they may be beneficial to lifters to help stimulate muscle protein synthesis, leading to muscle growth, improved recovery, and more.
While they may give you a little boost combined with your training, it’s still recommended to get the rest of your amino acids and daily protein in addition to those BCAAs.
- Wolfe RR. Branched-chain amino acids and muscle protein synthesis in humans: myth or reality? J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017 Aug 22;14:30.
- Witard, O. C., Bannock, L., & Tipton, K. D. (2022). Making Sense of Muscle Protein Synthesis: A Focus on Muscle Growth During Resistance Training, International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 32(1), 49-61. Retrieved Feb 1, 2023, from https://journals.humankinetics.com/view/journals/ijsnem/32/1/article-p49.xml
- Atherton PJ, Smith K. Muscle protein synthesis in response to nutrition and exercise. J Physiol. 2012 Mar 1;590(5):1049-57.
- Martinho DV, Nobari H, Faria A, Field A, Duarte D, Sarmento H. Oral Branched-Chain Amino Acids Supplementation in Athletes: A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2022 Sep 27;14(19):4002.
- Fouré A, Bendahan D. Is Branched-Chain Amino Acids Supplementation an Efficient Nutritional Strategy to Alleviate Skeletal Muscle Damage? A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2017 Sep 21;9(10):1047.
- Santos CS, Nascimento FEL. Isolated branched-chain amino acid intake and muscle protein synthesis in humans: a biochemical review. Einstein (Sao Paulo). 2019 Sep 5;17(3):eRB4898.
- Weber MG, Dias SS, de Angelis TR, Fernandes EV, Bernardes AG, Milanez VF, Jussiani EI, de Paula Ramos S. The use of BCAA to decrease delayed-onset muscle soreness after a single bout of exercise: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Amino Acids. 2021 Nov;53(11):1663-1678.
- Ra SG, Miyazaki T, Kojima R, Komine S, Ishikura K, Kawanaka K, Honda A, Matsuzaki Y, Ohmori H. Effect of BCAA supplement timing on exercise-induced muscle soreness and damage: a pilot placebo-controlled double-blind study. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2018 Nov;58(11):1582-1591.
- Arroyo-Cerezo A, Cerrillo I, Ortega Á, Fernández-Pachón MS. Intake of branched chain amino acids favors post-exercise muscle recovery and may improve muscle function: optimal dosage regimens and consumption conditions. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2021 Nov;61(11):1478-1489.
- Yamashita M. Potential Role of Neuroactive Tryptophan Metabolites in Central Fatigue: Establishment of the Fatigue Circuit. Int J Tryptophan Res. 2020 Jun 29;13:1178646920936279.
- AbuMoh’d MF, Matalqah L, Al-Abdulla Z. Effects of Oral Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) Intake on Muscular and Central Fatigue During an Incremental Exercise. J Hum Kinet. 2020 Mar 31;72:69-78.
- Rondanelli, M., Nichetti, M., Peroni, G., Faliva, M. A., Naso, M., Gasparri, C., Perna, S., Oberto, L., Di Paolo, E., Riva, A., Petrangolini, G., Guerreschi, G., & Tartara, A. (2021). Where to find leucine in food and how to feed elderly with sarcopenia in order to counteract loss of muscle mass: Practical advice. Frontiers in Nutrition, 7. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2020.622391
- Li N, Li J, Wang H, Liu J, Li W, Yang K, Huo X, Leng J, Yu Z, Hu G, Fang Z, Yang X. Branched-Chain Amino Acids and Their Interactions With Lipid Metabolites for Increased Risk of Gestational Diabetes. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2022 Jun 16;107(7):e3058-e3065.
Featured Image: puhhha / Shutterstock