BCAAs in a Nutshell (What They Do and When To Take Them)

Here’s some quick tips on using this popular fitness supplement.

BCAA’s or “Branched Chain Amino acids”, are essential amino acid proteins, either leucine, isoleucine, or valine. The term “Branched-Chain” refers to their chemical structure. BCAA’s are found in protein-rich foods and can be taken in the form of supplements.

BCAA supplements are one of the most well-researched health supplements in the fitness community. This is because they have many benefits including:

1. Increased Muscle Growth

In particular, the BCAA Leucine helps to increase muscle growth by way of activating a neural pathway which stimulates protein synthesis. Protein synthesis is the main mechanism responsible for muscle growth. This can be especially helpful for people on a strict diet and workout routine, as dieting can cause muscle mass loss.

In one study, participants drank 5.6 grams of BCAA directly after their resistance workout. Results showed they had a 22% increase in muscle protein synthesis as compared to those who had the placebo drink.

While great, this muscle mass increase seen by BCAA supplements is shown to be 50% less than studies done with Whey protein shakes that contained BCAA’s and other essential amino acids. This is why people tend to opt for a Whey supplement with all three BCAA’s and all of the other essential amino acids required for building muscle.

BCAA’s are helpful when it comes to building skeletal muscle, but even more so beneficial when it comes to maintaining your muscle mass when on a calorie deficit diet. This can come in handy for competitive bodybuilders especially.

2. Increase your Workout Time

During exercise, your muscles utilize BCAA’s for optimal function. Depending on how long you have been working out, this causes the levels of BCAA’s in your blood to decrease. When this decline happens, the levels of the essential amino acid tryptophan simultaneously increase in your brain. Your brain converts tryptophan into serotonin, which is thought to be directly linked to exercise fatigue. Branched-Chain Amino Acids also reduce significant amounts of tryptophan from crossing the blood-brain barrier, further reducing the neurotransmitter serotonin from being produced.

Two studies have found that the participants who were given BCAA supplements had improved mental clarity and focus during their exercise routine.

3. They can prevent Muscle Soreness

The soreness that comes a day or two after a strenuous workout is known as DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). It usually develops 12 to 24 hours after exercising and can last 72 hours. It is thought to be caused by tiny muscular tears. BCAA’s have been shown to decrease muscle damage, which in turn, can help to greatly reduce the severity and pain associated with DOMS.

This is mainly due to the fact that various studies have found BCAA’s are able to decrease protein breakdown during exercise. In addition, they also can lower levels of the creatine kinase, which serves as an indicator for muscle damage. One study, in particular, concluded that those who supplemented with BCAA’s before their squat routine noted less DOMS as compared to the placebo group, who had the regular DOMS side effects.

Another reason for this is attributed to BCAA’s ability to regulate glucose. The liver and other internal organs continuously release BCAA’s to the skeletal muscles to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. They are responsible for most of your blood sugar production during a workout. This makes them super important for those who, again, practice a low-calorie diet and/or often have fast-paced workouts. Consuming a beverage that is high in amino acids, protein, and carbohydrates during and after your exercise routine stimulates an insulin response from the body. When an insulin response occurs, the aminos are transported to the cells to rebuild and repair muscle tissue.

4. Prevention of Muscle Waste

The process of continuous muscle breakdown and rebuilding is called muscle synthesizing. This balance between muscle synthesis and breakdown is what will determine how much protein is left in the muscle. When protein breakdown begins to exceed muscle protein synthesis, muscle waste occurs. It is a tell-tale sign of malnutrition and is common with chronic infections, cancer, fasting, and aging. BCAA’s make up about 35% of our essential amino acid muscle protein content and 40% of the total amino acid content required by our bodies.

This means that BCAA’s are crucial when it comes to halting or slowing muscle protein loss. They decrease the activity of the protein breakdown pathway as well as decreasing the expression of mRNA produced by the gene that allows for protein breakdown. There have been several studies that speak to BCAA’s ability to inhibit the breakdown of muscle protein in certain populations.

What is the most effective way to take BCAA’s?

As mentioned, a Branched-Chain Amino Acid supplement alone does not include all of the essential amino acids necessary for optimal physical gain and performance. Many fitness fanatics swear by whey protein, as it contains BCAA’s naturally. However, the BCAA’s in Whey protein are peptide-bound to other amino acids. This means that in order for your body to process them and in turn raise your BCAA levels, they have to be digested and absorbed into the bloodstream. Although whey protein digests fairly quickly, it still takes several hours before each amino acid is broken down and enters into the blood plasma.

On the other hand, Branched-Chain Amino Acid supplements on their own are free-form, meaning they require no digestion and they are absorbed into the bloodstream very rapidly. This results in a much quicker uptake in amino acid levels in the blood and at a much greater quantity than seen when taking just protein, peptide-bound aminos. Just a few grams of free-form BCAA’s will cause a surge in BCAA plasma levels much more than 30 grams of whey protein could provide. This is where the dilemma comes in.

As previously noted, Whey protein shakes containing all of the BCAA’s required for optimal muscle gain are 50% more effective at building muscle, however, considering they are peptide-bound, they take several hours to get to the bloodstream and much less of them are absorbed. This basically means that the whey protein mix with BCAA’s will not be able to help you in your workout immediately.

If your goal is ultimately bigger muscles and you’re not too concerned about your workout performance, a whey protein shake with all three Branched-Chain Amino Acids is the best bet. Alternatively, if you are looking for a better, longer workout, with gradual muscle gain over time, a free-form BCAA supplement on its own is great.

A lot of fitness folks tend to take both whey on its own as well as a purely BCAA supplement. This can be dangerous though, as an over-abundance of BCAA’s can overstimulate your insulin signals, resulting in insulin resistance. This is where the dosage becomes very important. (We’ll get to that later.)

Should I take BCAA’s Pre-Workout or Post-Workout?

The main purpose of Branched-Chain Amino Acids for fitness purposes is to replenish your body’s amino acid content in order to build and maintain your muscles and avoid exercise fatigue. For this reason, the best times to take them is right before your workout, during your workout on breaks, and post-workout throughout the day intermittently, particularly focusing on taking them between meals.

What is the correct Dosage for BCAA’s?

Dosing with BCAA supplements can get a little tricky, taking into consideration how much you get of each type from your regular diet in addition to your supplement. When it comes to isoleucine, the standard dosage is 48-72 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. For leucine, the standard dosage is recommended at 2-10 grams. This equates to 20 grams of amino acid intake to balance your ratio of both isoleucine and leucine.

From food sources of protein, this would be the equivalent of 1-1.5 grams of protein, per kilogram of body weight per day. For fitness purposes though, in order to get the necessary BCAA’s into your plasma, you must take them in supplement form on top of what you get from food. This entails monitoring your daily dosage accurately to avoid excessive insulin spikes and eventual insulin resistance, or diabetes.

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