Recently I have noticed a trend on health/fitness accounts on social media. For whatever reason, in the past few weeks everyone has been bashing BCAAs. If I spend 2 minutes on the “Explore” page of Instagram, I will find at least 10 posts explaining (entirely unscientifically) why BCAAs are a waste of money and do nothing for you. In this post, I am going to refute these claims, and defend BCAAs as a performance supplement. If you want to geek out on science with me, read the whole post. If you don’t care about that and just want some answers, skip to the last paragraph right now.
In this post, I’m going to start by explaining what BCAAs are, outline why they are important, and offer recommendations on when/how to use them.
Step 1 – What are BCAAs?
BCAA stands for “Branched Chain Amino Acids” of which there are three: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These little guys are found in many foods (cheese, meat, seafood, beans, etc.), and are incredibly important for building muscle and regulating energy levels. And in case you were wondering, building muscle and maintaining high energy levels are both good things.
As we all probably learned in high school biology, amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Now, why are BCAAs special or different than any other amino acids? Nearly every amino acid is broken down in the liver, besides BCAAs. These three amino acids are used in the muscles directly, and we need a constant supply of them.
During exercise, our body is constantly pulling from our amino acid pool to aid in protein synthesis (protein synthesis = building protein = repairing muscle tissue that is damaged during workouts). This amino acid pool needs to constantly be replenished with new amino acids.
Step 2 – Why is this important?
As I just began to answer in the previous paragraph, our muscles need a steady flow of new amino acids. If we run our amino acid pool dry and continue to lift weights or train, we will be damaging muscle tissue that our body is unable to repair.
Sidebar: people often think they get bigger and stronger by lifting weights. In reality, this is not what happens. Lifting weights provides a stimulus that damages our muscle tissue. The recovery process (food, sleep, rest, stretching, hydration, etc.) then repairs the damaged muscles, and overcompensates to protect against future damage. This is how we get bigger and stronger.
So, if we are not constantly repairing muscle tissue as we break it down, we will not see results from training, we will simply increase the risk of injury. Furthermore, we will run the risk of “muscle-wasting” if we are in a calorie deficit. This occurs when your body uses up its stored glycogen, and begins breaking down muscle tissue to use as energy. If we are repairing the muscles faster than they can be broken down, we decrease this risk.
Therefore, training without BCAAs can potentially be worse for your body than not training at all. Especially if your nutrition has not been dialed in throughout the day.
Step 3 – How/When should I use BCAAs?
I should clear one thing up: most protein powders (as well as many high-protein food sources) have plenty of BCAAs in them. When I say our body needs BCAAs, I am not strictly referring to their supplemental form.
That being said, I am still a fan of the BCAA supplement for certain people.
If you are in the gym, you are most likely have one of two goals: you want to gain muscle and get bigger, you want to “lean out” or gain muscle and drop body fat, or you simply want to increase your athletic performance.
If you want to get bigger: drink protein during your workout. In addition to providing your body with the amino acids it needs, you will also be getting a good deal of calories from the drink, which will help gain muscle and mass.
If you want to get lean: drink BCAAs during your workout. Most supplemental BCAAs have anywhere from 0-5 calories per serving. I use Scivation brand Xtend BCAAs, and have loved the results from them, as well as how I feel during my workouts.
Another situation in which the supplemental BCAAs can be effective would be for someone who cannot stomach protein during workouts. I have seen a handful of people with weaker stomachs that can’t put down a full 30-40g of whey protein during a workout without throwing up after. If you fall into this category, BCAAs are likely for you, since they sit very easy in the stomach and go down like water.
BCAAs are a necessary part of the human diet. They can be obtained through high-protein foods, protein shakes, or BCAA powders. In the absence of BCAAs, our bodies will see significant dips in energy, a poorly-functioning metabolism, and an inability to gain muscle mass. If you are a human being that wants to gain muscle, lose fat, and increase peak performance in the gym, you should be making sure you get BCAAs in one form or another before and during workouts.