I remember myself taking every kind of supplement I could put my hands on, in the hope that it would help me get stronger, faster, better.
BCAA (branched chain amino acids) supplements were a big part of the picture when I first started. I specifically say “were” because I stopped using them after discovering what they really do, how they work, and in what circumstances a supplementation would be recommended.
I’ll also tell you when it’s most appropriate to use them and why. But first, let’s see what are BCAA’s and if are there any benefits associated with supplementation.
What Are BCAA’s?
They are called branched chain amino acids because of their branching chemical structure. They are formed of three EAA (essential amino acids) named valine, leucine and isoleucine.
It’s known for many years that they are treated in a strange way by your body when compared with other amino acids. I say this because after ingestion, BCAA’s are going straight into bloodstream instead of getting degraded and metabolized in the liver.
From there, they will be taken up by the skeletal muscle (this effect is more pronounced as muscle glycogen is depleted). This is why many people call them muscle food.
The total dietary contribution of BCAA’s a typical person gets from her diet is 15-20 g of BCAA/100 g of total protein ingested. Diets that are supplemented with whey protein contain even more.
I mentioned this because I want to bring up that getting sufficient protein in your diet might be enough or might render BCAA supplementation useless.
I want to clear something about branched chain amino acids supplementation. There are no BCAA side effects associated with supplementation!
Any BCAA Benefits If I Supplement?
BCAA supplementation has been studied extensively so we have a large data to play with.
The benefits include improved immune system function, sparing muscle mass in certain dieting circumstances, promoting the protein synthesis, limiting fatigue, and many other little benefits that are not worth mentioning.
Some studies (1) even found that diets high in protein (specifically leucine) might help with protein sparing and glucose stability when you are on a diet.
Let’s take a look at some of the most important BCAA research studies, the characteristics, and also what they really discovered:
Link: 1st Study
In this study, supplementing 0.2 g/kg of BCAA’s before and after training was compared with supplementing with nothing around training. The group that consumed the additional BCAA’s showed positive improvements in bench press and barbell squat performance.
This study is one of the most used studies which prove that supplementing BCAA’s around and after your training session is beneficial.
That’s why there are so many people consuming many spoons of BCAA’s.
Wait a little bit, there’s something more to this…
Everybody knows the importance of pre and post workout nutrition. The results of this study makes me laugh.
The consumption of BCAA’s before training showed improved results.
Of course that consuming something before workout versus nothing will always go in the favor of the first.
If there was food added to the pre workout nutrition to both groups, the results would most likely be the same (when proper pre workout nutrition is present, BCAA’s are most likely useless).
Link: Second Study
This study found that 6 g/day of BCAA’s for 16 days, decreased the probability of infection after a triathlon. BCAA and glutamine metabolism are related. Supplementing BCAA’s can be a good way to protect your immune system because it tends to protect your body’s glutamine stores.
Endurance athletes are known for under consuming protein. Even a small dose of ~30g of whey protein would provide them with over 6 grams of BCAA’s to improve the immune system function
Link: 3rd Study
The study found some BCAA benefits with a possible role in preventing central fatigue.
BUT this controlled study using BCAA supplementation failed to show any effect
Link: 4th study
BCAA intake in endurance athletes might prevent exercise induced drop in GH (growth hormone) and testosterone levels.
It’s demonstrated that consuming even small amounts of protein during endurance exercise can limit these muscle damaging effects.
Link: 5th study
In this study, a small supplementation of leucine (3g for a 68kg athlete) increased their performance
Their protein intake was 0.4g/lb which is far too low for what I recommend. Of course that adding amino acids helped.
Link: 6th study
This study found that supplementing swimmers with 12 g of branched chain amino acids for 15 days resulted in less muscle breakdown following intense training.
These swimmers probably had insufficient protein intake to start with. There are studies showing improvements in certain markers of performance but the set-up is incorrectly done (inadequate protein intake).
Link: 7th study
In this study, 0.1g/kg of BCAA during and after resistance exercise resulted in increased activity in pathways involving muscle hypertrophy.
Again, consuming small amounts of whey protein or some sort of protein powder can do the same thing
Link: 8th study
In this study, 50 mg/kg of leucine supplemented to strength/power athletes that used low protein intakes (1.26g/kg), prevented the decrease in blood leucine levels after 10 weeks of training time. It had no effect on the performance hormones.
By simply getting more protein in their diet, these athletes would have had enough BCAA’s and leucine in their diet without the requirement of supplementation.
Branched chain amino acids by themselves are quite important for overall immunity, health and muscle growth. Plus the additional benefits to endurance athletes by positively enhancing their hormones and immune function.
But are there any real benefits of additional BCAA supplementation when your total protein intake is in check?
The majority of the BCAA studies are done in such a way that the protein intake is too low. Normally, they can have some benefits (when your protein intake is low).
The only real BCAA benefits with supplementation can be found ONLY IF you are in a period of dieting, and your protein intake is fairy low.
Save yourself the money and just adjust your diet to get your protein intake higher. That should fix the need of any additional supplementation.
Do you use BCAA’s?
If yes, what was the reason or at least what did you thought at that time about them?
If no, why?