Branch Chain Amino Acids FAQ
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Branch-chained amino acids or BCAA is a term used to describe the three essential amino acids L-leucine, L-isoleucine, and L-valine.
These amino acids play a vital role in the stimulation of protein synthesis within the body, enabling us to absorb and utilize the proteins we eat to the fullest extent so that they can be used for cell repair and for the growth of new muscle tissue.
BCAA typically comes in the form of a free-flowing powder and you may also see it packaged into individual capsules for convenience.
Because of the effectiveness of BCAA, and in particular L-leucine, it has become one of the most popular bodybuilding supplements on the market to date, quickly becoming a staple supplement in the regimen of every aspiring athlete.
What Types of BCAAs Are there?
As we mentioned above, the three branch-chained amino acids are leucine, isoleucine, and valine, and more often than not you will find these packaged together as a single supplement.
When sold as a single product, you will usually see BCAA formulated in a radio of 2:1:1 or 3:1:1 in favor of leucine.
There is some data to suggest the L-leucine is the most important of the three BCAA, greatly overshadowing the possible relevance of isoleucine and valine.
We will touch on the use of BCAA versus standalone leucine a little later so keep reading and we’ll get to that shortly.
Do any foods contain BCAAs?
Many complete protein sources such as meat and dairy products contain BCAA; however, we have seen that BCAA is primarily relevant in the context of intra-meal and pre-workout application.
For this reason, whole food sources of BCAA are somewhat irrelevant because most BCAA-containing foods are already staple bodybuilding foods anyway.
How Do BCAA Products Work and What Are the Benefits?
Leucine has been demonstrated to work by way of the mTOR pathway, which plays a vital role in regulating cell growth.
To put it in as simple a manner as possible, the mTOR pathway is our best friend when it comes to building muscle as it is highly favoring of muscle protein synthesis and reduction in body fat as opposed to muscle protein breakdown and fat storage.
The main function we are concerned with here is protein synthesis, and this is what BCAA, especially leucine, is known to stimulate.
From this we can extrapolate that the main benefit of BCAA supplementation is an increase in our rate of protein synthesis, leading to enhanced muscle growth, improved recovery from training, and an overall boost to our performance in the gym.
It should be noted that although a correlation has been drawn between leucine and mTOR activation, there is as of yet no direct evidence to suggest that this translates into an increase in muscle mass.
Assessing the Quality of BCAA Products vs. Other Sources
BCAA is a very common ingredient in many pre-workout supplements, and you will often see brands of protein powder boasting about their BCAA content.
The BCAA content found in whey protein powders is useful to us, as it is in the chicken, eggs, beef, and other foods that you will find it in; however, it is important to remain mindful of the context we wish to use these products in.
Free form BCAA is useful to us when taken between meals, pre-workout, intra-workout, and post-workout, so the lactose and fat content of whey protein is not conducive to the rapid digestion we are seeking in these scenarios. This is exactly why BCAA is found in pre-workout formulations.
Having said that, there is a relatively popular practice of adding 3g or so of leucine to meals in order to enhance protein synthesis and theoretically increase the anabolic effect of our dietary protein sources.
Who Can Benefit from Taking BCAAs and How?
Just about anyone who lifts weights or exercises on a regular basis could stand to benefit from supplementing with BCAA because of its highly probable effects on muscle protein synthesis.
Increasing the rate of protein synthesis within the body, as we established above, is going to increase your recovery capacity as well as promoting greater muscle growth and repair, which is exactly what we want in any athletic endeavor.
How and When to Take BCAAs
The timing of your BCAA intake is going to be somewhat open to question based on factors such as your training split and existing diet, but the best times to take it appear to be first thing in the morning on an empty stomach, pre-workout, intra-workout, post-workout, and between meals.
These are the times of day that you will either see the greatest absorption rates, or when your body will be most primed to utilize the amino acids.
Of course you are always advised to refer to the manufacturer’s recommendations with any supplement you purchase.
How Much to Take
There is a lot of debate in the bodybuilding and fitness community over how much BCAA is actually necessary, with some people sticking to a small dose of around 5g taken some time around their workouts.
Depending on your budget and the amount of muscle mass you currently hold, there should be no harm in taking 10g, 20g, or even 30g of BCAA per day, with ¾ of that amount taken during the pre, intra, and post-workout period.
Speaking purely anecdotally, individuals weighing less than 200lbs will likely see a point of rapidly diminishing returns when using dosages over 20g per day because they simply lack the muscle required to actually utilize such a large amount of amino acids.
Do BCAA Products Have Any Side Effects?
There are no major precautions that need to be taken by healthy adults who no pre-existing medical conditions.
Having said that, you should always consult your doctor or physician prior to using BCAA if you have any pre-existing medical conditions, or if you are currently using prescription medication. This also applies to pregnant or breastfeeding women, and individuals under the age of 18.
Note: We recommend speaking to a doctor before taking any supplements.
My Whey Protein Powder Contains BCAA so Do I Really Need a BCAA Product?
To ask whether or not you really need any supplement is somewhat of a misnomer, especially with something like BCAA, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to reap great benefits from adding it to your supplement regimen.
This is especially true if you are smart about your supplementation and choose to add some BCAA to your intra-workout drink.
As we established above, the BCAA found in whey protein powder or other food sources is not particularly relevant because BCAA powders are primarily used in their free form variety because of their ease of digestion, low calorie content, and ability to rapidly stimulate protein synthesis.
Drinking a whey protein shake during your workout is not ideal because your stomach will need a supply of blood in order to digest it; blood that should be in your muscles.
Using free form BCAA means that there will be essentially no digestion required, so the amino acids will be sucked straight up into your bloodstream and delivered right into your muscles where they will be needed the most.
Choosing the Right BCAA Supplement
Whether you opt for a standalone BCAA powder or one that comes bundled up with other ingredients in a pre-workout formulation is entirely up to you, and it will largely depend on the budget you have available.
If you are looking to keep things nice and simple then there is nothing wrong with simply adding some plain BCAA powder to your workout water; it doesn’t taste particularly pleasant but it will definitely get the job done!
Please note: This FAQ has not been written or reviewed by a doctor or medical professional and is therefore not to be used to prevent, diagnose, or treat any disease or illness. Nor should it be used as medical reference.