A picture-perfect diet is the goal. But in the real world, you might not be able to get all the essential nutrients you need from your current diet. That can naturally influence your decision to beef up your nutrition with supplements. When walking into your local supplement shop, you’re likely to see products ranging from vitamins all the way to whey protein. Somewhere in the middle, you might run across BCAAs.
Most serious lifters have heard of BCAAs at some point, but may not know exactly what they do. This guide will answer all of your questions relating to BCAAs and whether or not they are worth adding to your supplement regime or if they are simply taking up space in your cabinet.
What Are BCAAs?
BCAA stands for branched-chain amino acid. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and are required to help the body rebuild and grow new muscle. There are 20 amino acids that make up the various proteins found in the human body. Of these 20, 11 are considered “non-essential” or “conditionally essential,” meaning the body can manufacture them on its own, assuming it has enough nutrients and is not under severe stress.
The other nine amino acids are considered essential, meaning the body does not produce them on its own and thus you need to get them through your diet. BCAAs make up three of those nine essential amino acids within the body — leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They are called “branched” chain because of their unique branched molecular structure.
The three BCAAs are particularly important for those who want to build muscle, with the most important being leucine due to its role in stimulating muscle growth.
What Do BCAAs Do?
There are several different reasons why someone may want to take BCAAs. The most common reasons being improved exercise performance, reduced muscle soreness, muscle growth, and preventing the breakdown of muscle tissue.
Improved Exercise Performance
There is some research that suggests BCAAs may improve exercise performance when exercising under certain conditions like excessive heat or in a competitive race. This is primarily due to their effect on central fatigue, or the idea that your body naturally gets more tired across periods of sustained exercise. Studies indicate that BCAA supplementation reduces your level of perceived exertion, mental fatigue, and improves cognitive performance. (1)
While these findings aren’t necessarily completely applicable to lifting weights in an air-conditioned gym, they do serve as a nice proof of concept.
Reduced Muscle Soreness
One of the areas where BCAAs really shine is their effects on recovery and muscle soreness. BCAAs have been repeatedly shown to reduce incidences of muscle soreness. (2) Finding ways to decrease muscle soreness after your intense training sessions is great because it allows you to recover better.
In theory, if you recovered more quickly after each gym session, you would be able to do more work during the next workout and build more muscle long-term.
BCAAs also play an important role in stimulating muscle growth due to one of the amino acids in particular, leucine. (3) Leucine is important for stimulating muscle protein synthesis — you can think of it as the light switch that “turns on” muscle growth. It has been postulated through research that isolated BCAA supplements can help grow muscle, assuming you consume enough of the other essential amino acids throughout the day.
This is the reason why it is beneficial to space out your total protein intake during the day. Frequent “dosages” of leucine may encourage higher and more consistent rates of muscle protein synthesis.
Aside from a reliable BCAA supplement, the following whole foods contain several grams of leucine on their own:
- 4oz ground beef
- 1 cup cottage cheese
- 3.5oz chicken breast
- 9oz extra-firm tofu
Muscle loss is a relevant concern for more than just the average gym rat skipping a few workouts. As you age, you’re increasingly predisposed to losing lean tissue as well. Moreover, muscular wasting is particularly risky if you’re dieting for a bodybuilding show or just trying to shed some fat for summer.
When dieting, the goal is to change your physique by losing fat mass and preserving muscle mass. Unfortunately, when you diet there’s a chance you will likely not only lose body fat but also some muscle mass as well. Strategies such as continuing to lift weights and upping your protein intake can help maintain more of that muscle mass.
Along with proper training and eating heaps of protein, BCAAs may help you to maintain some of your muscle mass so that when you end your cut, you’ll have more overall muscle left to put on display.
Do You Need a BCAA Supplement?
Believe it or not, if you have been eating foods that contain protein, you have already been consuming BCAAs. Any high-quality, complete source of protein (chicken, beef, eggs, dairy, etc.) will contain all nine essential amino acids and thus the three BCAAs. The form you are probably more used to seeing BCAAs in is as a separate supplement.
Typically, BCAA products will contain anywhere from three to 10 grams of BCAAs with five-gram servings being the most common. They may also contain other ingredients such as electrolytes, other amino acids, or creatine.
To get the most from your BCAAs, you’ll want to find a supplement that contains several grams of leucine specifically. Most BCAA products meet these criteria as they contain roughly five grams of total BCAAs, with a higher proportion of those 5 grams coming from leucine.
As with any supplement you’re eyeing, read the supplement facts label carefully before purchasing to make sure it actually contains what you’re looking for.
BCAAs vs. EAAs vs. Whole Foods
There’s a new contender in the supplement market — Essential Amino Acids, or EAAs. EAAs are products that contain all nine of those essential amino acids mentioned earlier. Along with EAAs, you can also get your amino acids directly from your favorite protein powder.
As new research emerges, some studies suggest that EAAs or protein powder supplementation may be superior to BCAAs because they provide a comparable amino acid profile, along with a whole slew of other amino acids that your body needs. (4) Regardless, that doesn’t mean BCAAs should be totally cast aside. There are some distinct incidences where BCAAs may be your preferred supplement.
BCAAs tend to be more digestible than the other amino acid or protein products like EAAs or whey protein. For this reason, taking BCAAs before training may give you some of the benefits of taking in amino acids without the possibility of an upset stomach if you have a lactose intolerance or other dietary contraindication.
BCAAs are going to be the cheapest option per serving when it comes to getting in isolated leucine, isoleucine, and valine as compared to EAAs and whey protein. If you’re trying to stock your supplement cabinet on a budget, BCAAs are probably more up your alley than some of the alternatives.
This cost difference can be a huge consideration when trying to decide what supplements to incorporate into your stack.
Palatability and Availability
Some consider BCAAs to be more palatable than dairy-based whey protein due to the palatable flavor profiles of most products. Along with this, BCAAs are going to be much more widely available than EAAs on most supplement store shelves, so you as the consumer should have more options to choose from.
Who Would Benefit From Taking BCAAs?
No supplement, despite what you might read in a magazine or on an advertisement label, is necessary for everyone. A product is only as useful as the context in which it is applied. That said, there are plenty of different reasons that you might enjoy adding a BCAA supplement to your diet.
Those In a Caloric Deficit
If you find yourself in a caloric deficit in an attempt to shed weight, BCAAs can be a great addition to help retain muscle mass and help fuel your exercise performance. When you’re dieting, you must be extra considerate of your overall caloric intake. Many supplements come with associated calories that could build up and ultimately affect your rate of fat loss — BCAA supplements contain very few calories at all, making them a safe bet.
Those Struggling to Get Enough Protein
Even if you’re a devoted meal prep practitioner, it’s not always easy to hit your nutritional benchmarks. Protein can prove particularly challenging, especially if you don’t have a lot of time to cook at home, or are on the heavier side and thus require a higher total nutrient intake.
If your overall protein intake is not up to par, then adding in additional BCAAs can help with building muscle and keeping it by giving your body additional amino acids that you need.
Vegetarians or Vegans
If you follow a plant-based diet, kudos to you. But you should be aware that your diet’s protein quality may be less than optimal. Plant-based proteins are typically incomplete, meaning they do not contain all nine of the essential amino acids. Additionally, they are more poorly absorbed when compared to animal-based proteins. Supplementing with BCAAs can help improve your diet’s overall protein quality and make your physique goals a bit easier to achieve.
Who Would Not Benefit from Taking BCAAs?
If you consume a bunch of protein throughout the day, especially from high-quality sources such as animal products, then BCAAs may not provide you as much benefit. You get plenty of BCAAs from complete sources of protein like chicken, fish, or steak. Taking additional BCAAs would therefore be potentially redundant.
Even if you regularly consume lower-quality protein sources such as plant-based proteins, if you have some animal products and a higher overall total daily protein intake, you are likely getting sufficient amounts of amino acids. Additional supplementation is unlikely to provide any additional benefit.
Best BCAA Supplements
If you’ve decided that a BCAA supplement is what you need to excel in the gym, power to you. The next logical step is making a specific selection. To avoid paralysis by analysis, or if you don’t know where to look, you can check below to find some high-quality selections.
Best Overall — Huge Supplements Huge BCAA
A solid BCAA supplement contains the amino acids you need in spades with none of the fluff. The price you pay should be for the product you’re seeking and not necessarily a bunch of unrelated additives that drive up the dollar cost or cram in extra calories for no reason. To that end, Huge Supplements Huge BCAA is a stellar pick.
Huge Supplements contains 8,000mg of BCAAs in a 2:1:1 ratio. This supp also includes an added dose of calcium, potassium, and sodium, as well as coconut water powder for a potential boost in hydration.
If you’re on the prowl for a BCAA supplement, this one packs 15g of amino acids, including 8,000mg of BCAAs in a 2:1:1 ratio of leucine, isoleucine, and valine. You’ll also find coconut water powder, which may be able to help with hydration during and after your workouts.
For Muscle Growth — Transparent Labs BCAA Glutamine
When hypertrophy is the priority, it’s okay to have a supplement fulfill more than one purpose at a time. Transparent Labs offers a powder that not only brings all the amino essentials to the table, but can provide some in-gym performance aid as well. This BCAA supplement also includes a 5,000mg dose of glutamine, which may help you recover faster between your muscle-building workouts.
This glutamine supplement is gluten-free, non-GMO, and free of artificial preservatives. Each container provides 30 servings that contain 5000 milligrams of L-Glutamine and 1,535 milligrams of Vitamin C.
Transparent Labs’ aptly-named offerings are straightforward and thus appealing for those who value simplicity and efficacy above all. The inclusion of glutamine helps this product edge out its competitors.
For Convenience — Xwerks Motion
No supplement should make you retch when you drink it. If you can’t stomach aggressive, artificial flavors or poorly-textured powders in a glass of water, Xwerks offers a BCAA supplement that is second-to-none in terms of taste and mixability.
Xwerks contains three grams of BCAAs in a 2:1:1 ratio. Plus, there’s an added dose of calcium, magnesium, and sodium for hydration to make sure you’re hitting all your marks during and after your workout.
It is undeniably on the pricier side, but the payoff is actually enjoying each sip of the powder. A better-tasting supplement is also likely to help you remember to take it each day for maximum effectiveness.
The Big Picture
In the right context, BCAAs can be a useful addition to any serious lifter’s supplement stack. If you want to cover your bases and ensure you’re improving your performance, reducing the potential for muscle soreness, and maximizing hypertrophy, BCAAs are worth a look.
As far as supplements in general go, be sure to keep in mind that no product will make gains for you. Some people will naturally reap more or less benefit from BCAAs — make sure you’re poised to profit from them before you make a purchase.
- Blomstrand, E. (2001). Amino acids and central fatigue. Amino Acids, 20(1), 25-34. https://doi.org/10.1007/s007260170063
- Rahimi, M. H., Shab-Bidar, S., Mollahosseini, M., & Djafarian, K. (2017). Branched-chain amino acid supplementation and exercise-induced muscle damage in exercise recovery: A meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. Nutrition, 42, 30-36. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nut.2017.05.005
- Jackman, S. R., Witard, O. C., Philp, A., Wallis, G. A., Baar, K., & Tipton, K. D. (2017). Branched-Chain Amino Acid Ingestion Stimulates Muscle Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis following Resistance Exercise in Humans. Front Physiol, 8, 390. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2017.00390
- Santos, C. S., & Nascimento, F. E. L. (2019). Isolated branched-chain amino acid intake and muscle protein synthesis in humans: a biochemical review. Einstein (Sao Paulo), 17(3), eRB4898. https://doi.org/10.31744/einstein_journal/2019RB4898
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