Research has been highly mixed in relation to BCAA’s. Before you take off running toward the nearest supplement store, there is an issue that needs to be addressed:
I’ll use an analogy to describe the crucial issue with BCAA’s:
Just because we have the ability to turn the light switch on, doesn’t mean that the light will light the room for hours to come.
We need the energy (a.k.a. energy and other 17 amino acids). The current line of thinking based on limited research of BCAA’s and muscle gain is that while they may provide some anabolic benefit when a meal/whey cannot be consumed, they are far inferior to food-based amino acids.
Let’s look at the information a bit closer…
What are BCAA’s?
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAA’s) is the name given to the three rate-limiting amino acids Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine. They are essential amino acids, and we must consume them in our diet because our bodies cannot synthesize them on its own.
These amino acids are rate-limiting because they are the most important amino acids for turning on the muscle building process, called ‘protein synthesis’. Of these, leucine is the most pivotal and is the master activator of protein synthesis. Because of the crucial role these three amino acids play in this process (over the other 17), isolated BCAA supplements have become one of the most commonly purchased.
Are they useful?
BCAA supplementation is a widespread strategy in muscle building. Much of the research is not yet solidified, but there are some agreements gathered from large-scale studies:
- BCAAs can provide an influx of amino acids in times when protein intake is suboptimal, or not possible (skipped meal)
- BCAAs are shown to reduce muscle soreness and enhance recovery from hypertrophy training
- BCAA intake may help to reduce fatigue
BCAA’s & Recovery
Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a common barrier to training. BCAA’s have been believed to expedite the recovery process. A review of 25 studies with over 479 young adults showed that BCAA supplementation reduced muscle damage and soreness at 24 and 48 hours; but had no effect on training performance in the days after.
BCAA’s & Muscle Gain
This is the most common question regarding BCAA supplements. “Can they speed up my muscle building journey?” This is a highly understudied aspect of BCAA supplementation. Early studies show that if optimal protein intake is reached consistently, then BCAA’s will have little benefit. If you are restricting calories, BCAA’s may have some small benefits for replacing meals, but will stimulate muscle building far less than a protein-based meal or whey.
BCAA’s & Fatigue
One cause of central fatigue during training is influx of one amino acid into the brain – tryptophan. This can increase seratonin levels and lead to fatigue (Hormoznejad et al., 2019).
Can amino acids prevent this?
One meta-analysis of 31 studies, found no effect on self-perceived fatigue in participants. However, several physiological markers of fatigue and muscle soreness were significantly improved in BCAA groups…
In terms of muscle soreness, recovery and fatigue, here are some more conclusive findings, (although the jury is still out on some aspects):
- BCAA’s seen to reduce fatigue markers after training, but this has not translated to meaningful change on the surface
- BCAA’s seem to effectively reduce muscle soreness. This is supported by improved levels of muscle damage markers after training.
Should I take them?
If you are highly active and there are points where you may not have access to a protein-based meal, BCAA’s may be helpful. If you experience muscle soreness frequently throughout your progressive training program, you may benefit from a BCAA supplement.
Remember to consistently focus on daily protein intake, protein quality, protein distribution throughout the day to get the necessary BCAA’s through your diet instead of supplementation.
BCAA’s only provide 3 of the 9 essential amino acids, all of which are required for the building and repair of muscle. Daily and meal-specific protein intake is much more important than BCAA intake, but it may provide some small benefits in certain applications.
- Prioritize daily protein intake
- Aim for 0.2 – 0.7 g/lb per meal, 4 to 5 times daily.
- If you can’t eat a meal, perhaps consider BCAA’s
Please talk to a medical professional if you have any questions regarding supplements..
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