Branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) have been gaining popularity to help athletes achieve more endurance, build strength, and gain muscle. However, do they live up to all of the hype? In this article, you will learn what a BCAA is and what role it may play in your nutrition to build the muscle and physique you are working towards.
The goal of taking BCAA before an exercise routine is to decrease muscle fatigue and give your muscles a boost of extra energy when you need it.
Using BCAA before exercising may speed up muscle recovery and helps to repair damaged and sore muscles.
Athletes supplement their diet with BCAA because the body does not naturally produce these amino acids.
Athletes take BCAA to help recover faster from strenuous exercise while simultaneously building lean muscle. Because the body does not produce these amino acids, athletes need to eat a healthy, nutrient-rich diet to benefit from BCAA. The amino acid supplements help ensure that people with very active lifestyles receive the necessary nutrients for efficient recovery if they are not consuming enough protein in their diet.
What are BCAA?
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) are three essential amino acids that your body metabolizes, or processes, to use as a source of muscle energy. They are called “branched” because their molecular structure includes branches.
Foods like whey, dairy products, and animal proteins contain BCAA. Additionally, you can also find nutritional supplements that contain BCAAs. Many athletes take to improve their performance, reduce muscle damage, and promote muscle growth. However, temporary muscle damage can occur from exercise and result in muscle tightness, muscle soreness, and temporary muscle weakness. Therefore, BCAAs are used to prevent these negative effects experienced after working out.
BCAA benefits for athletic performance
Many athletes engaging in regular moderate physical activities at any level use BCAA as an alternative energy source while working out. When sugar is not used as an energy source, it prevents lactic acid from being produced, which allows athletes to maintain their exercise performance.
BCAA supplementation is suggested to:
- Promote muscle growth
- Decrease muscle damage
- Reduce muscle soreness
- Prevent muscle fatigue
- Promote the recovery of muscle function
There is conflicting data on the effects of taking a BCAA. However, some studies have shown that athletes who consume BCAA supplements regularly can maintain their athletic performance longer than those who do not use BCAA supplements.
Other studies show that taking BCAAs without the other essential amino acids does not maximally support muscles. For example, in one study, male subjects ingested 5.6g of BCAA following their workout, resulting in only 22% of protein synthesis. This is only about half of what was achieved compared to males who had an equivalent whey protein dose containing all of the essential amino acids.
Why use BCAA?
There are 20 amino acids — nine are considered essential. This means that your body is unable to make them, so you have to obtain them from your diet.
Athletes take BCAA because they contain three essential amino acids our bodies need — valine, leucine, and isoleucine. Our bodies use these amino acids as a source of energy. Furthermore, BCAAs are known for helping promote muscle growth and reduce muscle damage, which can result in less muscle soreness and fatigue.
- Valine. Promotes muscle growth and tissue repair.
- Leucine. Increases muscle protein synthesis, used for building muscle.
- Isoleucine. Boosts body functions, including growth, immunity, protein metabolism, fatty acid metabolism, and glucose transportation.
When we exercise, our muscles contract and stretch repeatedly. This causes small tears in the fibers of our muscles. When this happens, we may experience sore and fatigued muscles. Taking BCAAs prior to working out has shown good results in decreasing muscle soreness post-workout.
Is BCAA effective if not exercising?
Because your body cannot make BCAAs, it is important to get these in your diet from other sources such as food or supplements. BCAAs are found in all protein-containing foods. Meat and dairy products are highest in BCAAs. This includes chicken, beef, bison, lamb, turkey, tuna, goat cheese, milk, and Greek yogurt. It can also be found in protein drinks or powders that contain whey or soy proteins, fish, eggs, baked beans, lentils, chickpeas, whole wheat, and brown rice.
There are also a variety of supplements you can take to get additional BCAAs in your diet. When choosing a BCAA supplement, it is essential to read the labels to be sure you are getting a quality product. A BCAA supplement should include leucine, isoleucine, and valine to increase bio-availability for faster results in order to receive the positive benefits of BCAAs faster and more effectively. Avoid BCAA products that contain synthetic fillers as these are unnecessary ingredients. Nothing else should be added to the ingredients as this can decrease the effectiveness of the wanted results.
The best results of BCAA were achieved when taken prior to exercise. Maximum benefits were achieved when BCAA was taken for at least seven days prior to exercise to limit muscle damage from exercise. The recommended dose of BCAA is 20 grams with a balanced ratio of leucine and isoleucine. Leucine and isoleucine can also be taken separately. The standard dose of leucine is 2-10 grams, and isoleucine is 48-72 milligrams per kilogram of body weight for a non-obese person. Additional research is needed to determine valine's optimal supplementation dosage.
Even if you are not planning to engage in physical activity, you should continue taking your BCAA supplement daily to achieve maximum results on the days you exercise.
Can BCAA change body physique?
While some data suggest that consuming BCAA helps improve endurance and strength and can help you achieve a more muscular physique, there is limited evidence that the BCAA alone can cause this.
There is evidence that it is more effective to achieve these results when choosing supplements or proteins containing all the essential amino acids instead of BCAA alone. Data from studies showed improved results from BCAA when taken with a protein source. When BCAA was taken alone, participants did not experience increased muscle protein synthesis like they did when taken with a protein source. This finding suggests that stimulation of muscle protein synthesis by essential amino acids may be more effective from certain essential amino acids instead of all of them.
Leucine has been shown to play a unique role in muscle protein synthesis and is thought to start the process of muscle protein synthesis. It is debated whether leucine can activate muscle protein synthesis alone or if other essential amino acids are needed for this process. More research is needed to determine this.
While BCAA is important, to achieve maximum results in your workouts, it is best to ensure you are getting all the essential amino acids in your diet. If you are getting plenty of protein and BCAA from natural sources in your diet, taking a BCAA supplement is unnecessary.
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