Some unscrupulous supplement marketers are sometimes more focused on catching attention than delivering results, and it can be hard to avoid potentially questionable claims. It’s important to know which foods, nutrients, and nutritional supplements can actually offer reasonably measured health, psychological, or performance benefits.
Many lifters know that protein is a critical nutrient for building muscle. Some lifters also know that protein is composed of amino acids. But one specific type of aminos — branched-chain amino acids — could play a particularly significant role in supporting your training program. Here’s a closer look at this often discussed, rarely understood, power-packed trio.
What Are BCAAs
Amino acids are organic compounds that serve as the building blocks of proteins. We need 20 different amino acids for a properly functioning, well-performing body. Of these amino acids, nine are considered essential because our bodies cannot form them on their own. We must consume them from protein-rich foods such as meat, dairy, and eggs, or from specific nutritional supplementation.
Three of these essential amino acids — leucine, isoleucine, and valine – are considered “branched-chain amino acids” (BCAAs) because of their unique structure and roles in the body. BCAA supplementation, in particular, may be extremely useful for lifters looking to train harder, recover faster, and push themselves toward better overall results.
Because nutrition information spreads quickly and frequently on the Internet, sometimes without regard to factual accuracy, it’s useful to refer to academic literature for the benefits of consuming specific nutrients or supplements.
It’s important to acquire a well-rounded understanding of the available data if you want to make the most well-informed decision before investing your time, money, and health. Here’s a look at some of the research-based benefits of BCAAs.
Reduced Muscle Soreness
BCAAs have been shown to lessen muscle soreness by mitigating muscular damage after exercise. In one study, subjects had reported significantly less muscle soreness and showed less decrease in muscular force two and three days after a squat session. (1) Other research has shown that delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), range of motion, and indicators of muscle damage were all significantly improved in subjects who consumed BCAAs before or after training, compared with those who ingested a placebo.
Interestingly, stronger benefits were shown in those who consumed them before exercise. (2) With that in mind, it could make sense to choose a pre-workout (if you use one) which includes BCAAs.
Improved Muscle Growth and Maintenance
Another benefit provided by BCAAs is increased muscle protein synthesis — the process in which muscle is built or maintained. Jackman et al. (2017) had young resistance-trained men complete two trials in which they performed a leg workout consisting of leg extensions and leg presses, ingesting either BCAAs or a placebo immediately after training. (3)
Muscle biopsies taken one and four hours after each session showed that BCAAs ingested after exercising resulted in a significant increase in stimulation of myofibrillar muscle protein synthesis. In other words, having BCAAs after training may lead to more muscle growth.
BCAAs have also been shown to increase endurance. Research showed that subjects who consumed BCAAs before an incremental treadmill workout had “times to exhaustion” significantly lengthier than those who received a placebo. (4)
Runners taking BCAAs were able to stay on the treadmill for longer periods, while running at higher intensities, compared to running without BCAAs. Cumulatively, performing cardio at a higher intensity and longer duration can contribute to improved conditioning, increased endurance, and a stronger training stimulus (for example, more calories burned per training session).
Reduced Mental Fatigue During Exercise
Ingestion of BCAAs have been shown to offer a psychological benefit during exercise, which can possibly aid in exercise compliance or “persistence” in competitive performance. One study had subjects complete a 60-minute stationary bike workout in the morning, after performing an exercise session the previous night in an attempt to lower glycogen stores — making the morning session that much more challenging. (5)
Subjects consumed BCAAs or a placebo before morning exercise sessions. Every ten minutes during the workout, they provided their rates of perceived exertion and mental fatigue — self-reported methods of gauging effort, fatigue, and overall difficulty of a workout.
Although both the placebo group and the BCAA group completed the same amount of work, those who consumed BCAAs reported significantly lower levels of perceived exertion and mental fatigue. In a previous study, researchers had subjects in long distance runners consume BCAAs or a placebo.
Results showed that mental well-being was improved for runners who consumed BCAAs. The data also showed that relatively slower runners had faster completion times than slower runners who had consumed a placebo. (6)
How to Use BCAAs
With any supplement, including BCAAs, dosing and timing can be make-or-break factors that determine whether or not they actually deliver the intended benefits. In the literature reviewed, anywhere from six to 20 grams of BCAAs were used per serving. BCAAs were typically consumed one hour before, during, or immediately after exercise.
From this, we can conclude that it would be effective to follow these guidelines for the benefits discussed. You can experiment with doses in the aforesaid range to see what works for your particular situation based on your training plan, overall nutrition, workout timing, and other individual variables.
For example, you could spend several weeks using six grams before training, while monitoring your rate of progress, general feeling during workouts, and recovery between sessions, before changing to supplementation during workouts. You might also experiment with higher doses, 10 to 15 grams, around workouts that involve higher training volume (more exercises or more sets/reps) or higher training intensities.
As with other nutritional supplements and dietary approaches, there are some misunderstandings that can, and have, arisen regarding BCAAs. Here are some of the most common points of confusion.
Some people might believe that, as long as a BCAA supplement is consumed, they can neglect other aspects of their diet, such as total protein intake, protein quality, and caloric amount.
Such is not the case, as all elements of a diet are important for proper function, physical performance, and body composition. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking an effective supplement like BCAAs can counteract a suboptimal nutrition plan — that unbalanced approach will lead to wasted money, general frustration, and a lack of results.
BCAAs can be effective under many conditions, but they are not a panacea. Although studies have shown that they aid in cognitive well-being, muscle recovery, protein synthesis, and decreased muscle soreness, adequate exercise programming is vital for health and performance.
Following a well-designed training program, supported by a goal-focused nutrition plan, can yield plenty of results. While BCAAs can help support muscle growth and recovery, they’re not an effective substitute for strategic deloads from training as a way to avoid overtraining.
Although the academic literature reviewed did not include dietary control, the available research indicates that BCAA supplementation can aid in a number of nutritional situations.
Instances in which BCAA supplementation may be beneficial include: diets lacking in adequate nutritional value (for example, a diet dense in highly processed foods); vegan diets with insufficient total protein intake; periods of high training volume which can demand greater recovery; athletes training in a caloric deficit to qualify for, or maintain, a given weight class; and the intentional underfeeding (calorie deficit) required during bodybuilding contest preparation.
The ABCs of BCAAs
There’s significant evidence that BCAAs have been shown to provide several key benefits for gym-goers looking to increase muscle, strength, and/or endurance. Although BCAAs shouldn’t used as a “crutch” for a poorly planned diet, they can deliver an extra edge for situations when your nutrition plan falls short on some nutrients or when your training volume/intensity is high. For reinforced muscle recovery, or even to help fight off any diet or training-related brain fog, consider adding BCAAs to your sports supplement arsenal.
- Shimomura, Y., Inaguma, A., Watanabe, S., Yamamoto, Y., Muramatsu, Y., Bajotto, G., Sato, J., Shimomura, N., Kobayashi, H., & Mawatari, K. (2010). Branched-Chain Amino Acid Supplementation Before Squat Exercise and Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness, International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 20(3), 236-244. Retrieved Jun 5, 2023, from https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.20.3.236
- Ra, S. G., Miyazaki, T., Kojima, R., Komine, S., Ishikura, K., Kawanaka, K., Honda, A., Matsuzaki, Y., & Ohmori, H. (2018). Effect of BCAA supplement timing on exercise-induced muscle soreness and damage: a pilot placebo-controlled double-blind study. The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness, 58(11), 1582–1591. https://doi.org/10.23736/S0022-4707.17.07638-1
- 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. Frontiers in physiology, 8, 390. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2017.00390
- AbuMoh’d, M. F., Matalqah, L., & Al-Abdulla, Z. (2020). Effects of Oral Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) Intake on Muscular and Central Fatigue During an Incremental Exercise. Journal of human kinetics, 72, 69–78. https://doi.org/10.2478/hukin-2019-0099
- BLOMSTRAND, E., HASSMÉN, P., EK, S., EKBLOM, B. and NEWSHOLME, E.A. (1997), Influence of ingesting a solution of branched-chain amino acids on perceived exertion during exercise. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, 159: 41-49. https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-201X.1997.547327000.x
- Blomstrand, E., Hassmén, P., Ekblom, B., & Newsholme, E. A. (1991). Administration of branched-chain amino acids during sustained exercise–effects on performance and on plasma concentration of some amino acids. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology, 63(2), 83–88. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00235174
- Wesley David Dudgeon, Elizabeth Page Kelley & Timothy Paul Scheett (2016) In a single-blind, matched group design: branched-chain amino acid supplementation and resistance training maintains lean body mass during a caloric restricted diet, Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 13:1, DOI: 10.1186/s12970-015-0112-9
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