BCAA vs Creatine | What's Better for Muscle Growth?

BCAA vs Creatine | What's Better for Muscle Growth?

If you engage in a frequent regiment of resistance training, chances are you’re not just doing it for the sake of showing off how much weight you can lift — although if you are, there’s a sport for that, too! 

However, assuming you’re into breaking down your muscles for reasons other than the sheer spectacle of it, there’s a strong likelihood that you’re hoping to see some muscle growth at the end of it all. There are plenty of supplements that will claim to help you with that, and two of them are BCAA and creatine.

So what are the differences between BCAA and creatine when it comes to muscle building? Well, chances are there’s a whole lot more going on within your muscle cells and muscle tissue than you realize. 

The good news is that if you’re hoping to improve exercise performance and build muscle mass, you can’t go completely wrong with either creatine supplements or BCAA supplements. However, if you’re looking for a definitive winner in the BCAA vs creatine competition, that’s going to require a bit of investigation.

What is BCAA?

BCAA is simply a way of packing the words branched-chain amino acids into far fewer letters. The branched-chain amino acids contained within a standard container of BCAA supplements are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They represent just three of the nine essential amino acids that your body is incapable of producing on its own. 

In total, muscle protein is composed of 20 amino acids, which means getting adequate amounts of the nine essential amino acids is necessary for you to build and maintain strong muscles. The three BCAAs differ from the rest of the essential amino acids because your liver lacks the enzymes necessary to catabolize them. 

In addition, BCAAs have shown some ability to stimulate protein synthesis and inhibit protein catabolism, while amino acid mixtures lacking BCAAs have not demonstrated these abilities.

In short, BCAAs are sought after because they are believed to initiate muscle protein synthesis, alleviate muscle soreness, and increase lean muscle mass. These benefits are all highly desirable as your muscles recover at the conclusion of high intensity exercise.

Where Can I get BCAAs?

You’ve certainly been told that BCAAs are a pathway to enhanced muscle growth and more lean muscle mass. The question is, how do you go about acquiring them?

BCAAs in Food Sources

Fortunately for all of us, BCAAs are common in several types of food. If you have ever seen a list of complete proteins, these foods contain all nine of the essential amino acids. The majority of the food products containing all nine essential amino acids are animal-based. This includes all forms of meat, along with eggs and dairy. 

There are some non-animal sources that qualify as complete proteins, most notably quinoa, buckwheat, hemp seed, and soy. Beyond that, there are common combinations of plant-based protein sources that are frequently paired together by vegetarians in order to compensate for whichever amino acid might be missing from any individual food source. 

Outside of complete protein sources, there are some foods that still contain all three of the BCAAs. These include peanuts, chickpeas, and fenugreek seeds. Therefore, if you are searching for the potential benefits of BCAAs outside of the known sources of complete proteins, these are three reliable places to find them.

BCAAs in Supplements

If you’re hoping to find the three essential amino acids that compose BCAAs in supplement form, you won’t have any difficulty locating them. A majority of those popular forms of protein supplements — like whey protein, casein protein, and soy protein — are complete proteins that contain BCAAs, along with all of the other amino acids required for stimulating muscle protein synthesis and forming complete proteins.

Of course, if you are purely interested in BCAAs, you can acquire them through supplements containing only BCAAs, or others that are enriched with nutrients like Vitamin C and L-glutamine. 

Because not all complete proteins contain the nine essential amino acids in the same volume, these BCAA supplements can eliminate the guesswork of ensuring that your protein source is doing everything it can to spawn new muscle growth and max out your creation of new muscle mass. 

What is Creatine?

Creatine is a natural organic compound derived from three different amino acid compounds — glycine, arginine, and S-Adenosyl methionine — and is stored in your skeletal muscle tissue as creatine phosphate. Its primary purpose in your body is to serve as a mechanism to sustain the production of adenosine triphosphate, commonly known as ATP. 

Within your body, all of your energy systems are designed to convert fuel sources into ATP. During a period of athletic performance, your body will dip into its creatine reserves for additional energy, most notably during the engagement of the ATP-CP (adenosine triphosphate-creatine phosphate system). That’s when your body relies upon the ATP already stored in your muscles, and then draws upon the creatine contained within your muscle to extend the output of this system. 

In summation, creatine is stored within your muscle for the specific purpose of helping you draw upon stored energy, and converting other available fuel sources into additional energy.

Where Can I Get Creatine?

If you want to use creatine monohydrate to aid you during high intensity exercise, its name may suggest that it’s a chemical that is hard to come by. Nothing could be further from the truth. Creatine monohydrate is actually one of the easiest assets to come by in your efforts to build new lean muscle and improve muscle function. The truly critical question is one of quantity.

Creatine in Food Sources

Creatine is easily attained through common foods you eat, and most easily through animal products. Beef, chicken, pork, turkey and fish are all abundant sources of creatine. Creatine can also be found in significantly smaller quantities through dairy products, like milk and cheese.

If you are a vegan, or you have a general preference not to consume food from animal sources, your body can still synthesize creatine by acquiring three amino acids that compose it. This means that a diet that includes beans, peanuts, and oatmeal should provide your body with sufficient amounts of these three amino acids to create creatine on its own.

However, it’s very important to note that it is almost a requirement that you make use of a creatine supplement in order to ingest enough creatine to extract the full benefits from it. This is because the loading phase of creatine requires the ingestion of 20 grams of creatine on a daily basis. 

Because beef contains an average of two grams of creatine per pound, you would need to eat the equivalent of 10 pounds of beef daily just to complete the creatine loading phase, and substantially more of some of the less creatine-rich forms of protein. This is impractical for most people, hence the need for creatine supplements.

Creatine in Supplements

For the overwhelming majority of people who monitor their creatine consumption for the purpose of boosting their strength, speed, or muscle endurance, creatine supplements are their way of reaching the necessary threshold. Creatine supplements are safe, readily available, well-researched, and proven to work.

Creatine is available in several forms, including micronized creatine, creatine ethyl ester, and creatine hydrochloride. However, creatine monohydrate remains the most trusted source of creatine in the world, and is the most reliable method of creatine supplementation.

Differences Between BCAA and Creatine

BCAAs and creatine claim to administer many of the same benefits to your body, including the enhancement of muscle function. However, there are several key differences between them, both in terms of how they are formulated, and how they operate.

BCAAs are Essential; Creatine is Not

One of the core differences between creatine and BCAA supplements is that BCAAs are essential nutrients and creatine is not. BCAAs are literally the essential amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine, each of which is considered an essential amino acid because your body cannot synthesize them on their own. Therefore, you must ingest them from some alternative sources in order to benefit from them.

Meanwhile, creatine is formed from the two amino acids glycine and arginine, and s-adenosylmethionine, which is a derivative of methionine. To put it another way, creatine is composed of a byproduct of one essential amino acid, and two non-essential amino acids. Therefore, in order for your body to synthesize creatine on its own, only methionine is absolutely required to be acquired from food, since your body can create arginine and glycine by itself. 

Creatine is Stored; BCAAs are Not

As your body ingests or creates creatine, it is stored in your skeletal muscle as creatine phosphate until it is required for use. This means your body essentially has a reservoir of creatine phosphate to draw from as long as creatine supplementation continues to take place.

BCAAs are essentially more of a use-it-or-lose-it scenario. Once you digest those three essential amino acids, whether they enter your body in the form of ordinary food or supplements, your body fully digests and absorbs them within hours. If you ingest BCAAs over and above your body's ability to utilize them, your body degrades them and eliminates them in various ways.

BCAA vs. Creatine for Muscle Growth

Branched-chain amino acids and creatine are both regularly supplemented in order to generate new muscle growth. Frankly, both contribute admirably to the job, but one will enhance muscle protein synthesis far more directly than the other.

BCAAs and Muscle Growth

Muscle growth is the area where BCAAs shine most brightly. This is due to the fact that amino acids are the building blocks of dietary protein, which plays a number of vital roles with respect to your muscle structure. Dietary protein will not only prevent muscle protein breakdown, but it will also enhance muscle protein synthesis.

Because the remaining six essential amino acids have not demonstrated any ability to initiate muscle protein synthesis in the absence of the amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine, it is believed that branched-chain amino acids can similarly increase lean muscle mass even when not ingested along with the other essential amino acids.

Therefore, BCAAs are believed to play a role in the development of new lean muscle tissue primarily when they are ingested right before, during, or after strength training. This allows them to get right to work preventing muscle breakdown and building new muscle proteins.

Creatine for Muscle Growth

In contrast to the role BCAAs play in directly increasing muscle mass, creatine supplementation prompts the creation of lean body mass on the front end by boosting your power output, enhancing your muscle strength, and intensifying your muscle contraction. 

This boosted power output furthers muscle breakdown, thereby contributing to the generation of more muscle fibers. Therefore, taking creatine supplements contributes to the need for muscle repair and the creation of new muscle proteins, even if the creatine doesn’t directly increase muscle mass on its own.

BCAA vs. Creatine for Athletic Performance

If you’re choosing between BCAAs and creatine to help you with high intensity exercise performance, this is one of the areas where you’re likely to find a clear winner between the two. This is not because one supplement is incapable of helping you. It has more to do with the fact that the attributes of the other supplement are so well researched that they are impossible to ignore.

BCAAs and Athletic Performance

An increase in your levels of branched chain amino acids is unlikely to be felt directly during exercise. This is because the role of amino acids is primarily one of muscle recovery and muscle building as opposed to direct strength enhancement. 

Any sensation of additional energy felt as a result of consuming BCAAs in the midst of intense exercise is likely to be owed to BCAAs’ ability to mitigate muscle damage even while training is in progress.. 

Creatine and Athletic Performance

Creatine monohydrate is one of the most predictable and reliable enhancers of athletic performance in the world. The presence of creatine in your muscles will delay muscle fatigue, and maximize your power output during each of your training sessions.

In short, creatine is one of the places you should turn first if you’re in the market for a supplement that will almost immediately boost your muscle strength on the front-end of your workout, and sustain your endurance throughout.

BCAA vs. Creatine for Recovery

BCAAs and creatine both shine as efficient muscle recovery tools. Again, the methods they use to effectuate your recovery are very different, but the results are undeniable.

BCAAs and Recovery

Repairing damaged muscles is one of the areas where BCAA supplements are designed to thrive. That’s because the act of resistance training results in exercise-induced muscle soreness from the micro-tearing of muscle fibers. 

BCAAs are intended to act as a primary driver of muscle protein synthesis in the same way that protein operates. In addition to building muscle mass, it repairs muscle damage and alleviates muscle soreness.  (1)

Creatine and Recovery

Athletes supplementing with creatine have been shown to recover far more quickly from intense bouts of exercise than athletes using a placebo. Creatine monohydrate was demonstrated to have played a role in reducing muscle soreness and damage to muscles. 

Specifically, post-workout levels of creatine kinase — a marker of damaged muscles — were lower in athletes who supplemented with creatine monohydrate. (2) This means that creatine’s presence was sufficient to reduce the damage inflicted upon muscles during strength training.

When to Take Both BCAA and Creatine

Timing is often critically important when it comes to supplementation, and BCAAs and creatine are no different. This isn’t to say that there is any harm to taking either creatine monohydrate or branched-chain amino acids whenever you like. However, you may not be getting the most out of your supplements if you take them without a strategy in mind. 

Take BCAAs before or after your workout

Study results have proven that BCAAs can be ingested both immediately before a workout to mitigate muscle damage, and immediately after a workout to accelerate muscle recovery. 

As such, you can’t truly go wrong taking BCAA supplements either immediately before or immediately after your workout if you want to alleviate muscle soreness, reduce muscle fatigue, and accelerate muscle protein synthesis.

Take Creatine before, during, or after your workout

The most often-cited studies of creatine monohydrate’s benefits suggest that it is more beneficial to consume after a workout to achieve the greatest increases in muscle size, and subsequent exercise performance. (3)

Still, other studies have shown that taking creatine either before or during a workout can benefit the body in other ways, as muscle contraction during training could increase blood flow to the exercised muscle, and simultaneously elevate the amount of creatine delivered to the muscle cells as well. (4)

Conclusion: BCAA vs. Creatine - Who Wins?

The beautiful thing about BCAAs vs creatine is that it isn’t a true either-or proposition. Both BCAAs and creatine are intended to help fatigued muscles, minimize delayed onset muscle soreness, and improve your body composition. The two supplements go about their business through entirely different methods, but the end result is accelerated muscle growth, increased muscle mass, and smoother exercise performance.

If you absolutely had to choose one or the other, there is a chance that you are already getting BCAAs in significant numbers through your diet, or your ordinary protein supplementation. In that case, a creatine monohydrate supplement would be advisable, as it is virtually impossible to acquire supplement levels of creatine monohydrate through ordinary dieting, and the effects of creatine monohydrate on exercise performance are extremely well researched. However, if you can afford both and want to ensure that all of your bases are covered, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t add both BCAAs and creatine to your supplement regimen.


If you still have questions as to whether you need to pick a winner in the BCAAs vs creatine debate, these answers may help.

Are BCAAs and creatine chemically the same thing?

No. While both have an amino acid connection, BCAAs are made of the essential amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine, while creatine is composed of two amino acids and an amino acid byproduct.

Do BCAAs and creatine function the same way in your body?

No. While both substances are contained within ordinary foods, both influence your body differently. Creatine supplementation results in the storage of creatine in your skeletal muscle for later use, whereas BCAAs require usage within a more precise time window in order to be beneficial. 

Is creatine better than BCAAs if I want to increase muscle mass?

In the BCAAs vs creatine argument, it is a key question as to which can more effectively build lean muscle mass. Creatine supplementation is usually intended with the dual purposes of boosting exercise performance and reducing recovery time in mind. While boosting performance contributes to greater muscle protein breakdown, which is a precursor to an increase in lean muscle mass, the amino acid mixture of BCAAs plays a more direct role in muscle repair, and can more predictably increase muscle mass.

Sources for Further Reading

  1. Kim DH, Kim SH, Jeong WS, Lee HY. Effect of BCAA intake during endurance exercises on fatigue substances, muscle damage substances, and energy metabolism substances. J Exerc Nutrition Biochem. 2013 Dec;17(4):169-80. doi: 10.5717/jenb.2013.17.4.169. Epub 2013 Nov 28. PMID: 25566428; PMCID: PMC4241904.

  2. Wax B, Kerksick CM, Jagim AR, Mayo JJ, Lyons BC, Kreider RB. Creatine for Exercise and Sports Performance, with Recovery Considerations for Healthy Populations. Nutrients. 2021 Jun 2;13(6):1915. doi: 10.3390/nu13061915. PMID: 34199588; PMCID: PMC8228369.

  3. Antonio, J., Ciccone, V. The effects of pre versus post workout supplementation of creatine monohydrate on body composition and strength. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 10, 36 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-10-36

  4. Ribeiro F, Longobardi I, Perim P, Duarte B, Ferreira P, Gualano B, Roschel H, Saunders B. Timing of Creatine Supplementation around Exercise: A Real Concern? Nutrients. 2021 Aug 19;13(8):2844. doi: 10.3390/nu13082844. PMID: 34445003; PMCID: PMC8401986.

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