A new contender for whey protein, BCAAs (short for branched-chain amino acids) have made a name for themselves among professional athletes and fitness enthusiasts.
Whether you're a gym-goer looking to speed up muscle recovery or a professional bodybuilder training for massive muscle gains before a competition, there are many benefits of BCAAs.
Below, we'll explain BCAAs and their benefits. We’ll also look at the optimal times to take BCAAs and what you can pair them with for best results.
Just like other amino acids, branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are the building blocks of protein. They consist of three essential amino acids — leucine, isoleucine, and valine — which aren't synthesized by your body and thus need to be obtained through your diet. Common options include whole foods (e.g., chicken, whole wheat, and eggs), whey protein, and dietary supplements.
Another thing to note is quality BCAA supplements usually contain leucine, isoleucine, and valine in the ratio of 2:1:1. This is because the three essential amino acids in BCAAs, specifically leucine, is primarily responsible for skeletal muscle protein synthesis.
BCAAs are metabolized through by skeletal muscle rather than the liver. Simply put, these building blocks have more of a direct impact on muscle protein synthesis and protein breakdown than other amino acids.
Let’s take a look at five ways BCAAs can benefit our bodies:
BCAAs are ideal for bodybuilders and anyone who wants significant muscle gains. According to a 2006 study in the Journal of Nutrition, these essential amino acids restrict protein breakdown while encouraging protein synthesis in skeletal muscle tissues.
Since BCAAs limit protein breakdown, they also help reduce exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD).
In a 2013 study featured in the Journal of Exercise Nutrition and Biochemistry, participants who performed endurance exercises were split into placebo and BCAA groups. The BCAA group had lower levels of creatine kinase and lactate dehydrogenase (markers of muscle damage) than the placebo group before, during, and after the exercise.
By reducing muscle breakdown, BCAAs can help increase muscle gains and enhance training performance.
There are two types of fatigue that affect your workout performance: Peripheral fatigue, which is due to high levels of lactic acid in the muscle tissues, and central fatigue, which is due to elevated serotonin levels in the brain.
Fortunately, BCAAs have been scientifically proven to reduce central fatigue by preventing tryptophan from entering your brain. Since tryptophan is needed for serotonin production, lower tryptophan levels in your brain will invariably lead to reduced serotonin content in the nervous system, and by extension, less central fatigue when working out.
After an intense gym session, achy limbs and tight muscles are signs of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS prolongs your recovery time when you’d rather do weight training exercises.
This is where BCAAs come in — they help reduce your post-workout recovery time.
A 2019 systematic review in the International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research explains that BCAA supplementation significantly reduces DOMS compared to placebo, thereby shortening muscle recovery time.
Also, a 2009 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed that BCAA supplementation during an eight-week resistance training program significantly increased fat loss and lean muscle mass compared to whey protein and sports drinks. Plus, it enhanced performance.
In addition to understanding the benefits of BCAA supplementation, it’s important to know when to take these essential amino acids.
There's much debate about whether it’s best to take BCAAs before or after exercising. A 2018 study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness points out that subjects given a pre-workout BCAA supplement (9.6 grams) experienced less DOMS and muscle damage compared to those who took BCAAs post-workout or not at all.
But, before you decide pre-workout BCAA supplementation is the only way to go, you might want to look at whey protein. For participants in a 2010 study in the Journal of Amino Acids, consuming BCAAs and whey protein before and after resistance training sped up muscle recovery and maximized their performance.
Therefore, while there is substantial evidence pointing to BCAAs as a helpful pre-workout supplement, it won't hurt to take them again post-workout to augment muscle recovery and improve performance.
It’s important to pay attention to when you take BCAAs as a pre-workout supplement.
A 2012 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed that BCAA plasma levels peaked half an hour after consumption. Translation: For optimal BCAA benefits, take a BCAA supplement at least 30 minutes before your workout.
To reap the full effects of BCAAs, you should consume them on your rest days as well. In fact, a loading phase, or taking the amino acid supplement for a few days before the actual training commences, is prudent.
A 2017 review published in the Journal of Nutrients recommends starting a daily BCAA supplementation plan at least seven days before resistance training and continuing it for at least three days after the exercise.
As such, you'll need to take BCAAs for 10 days or more to enjoy benefits such as reduced muscle damage and quicker muscle recovery.
If you're doing endurance exercises or resistance training in a fasted state, a pre-workout BCAA supplement can help you maintain energy levels, prevent muscle loss, and maximize fat loss.
As an example, consider a 2011 study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. The study shows BCAA supplementation reduces muscle fatigue and promotes fat loss in glycogen-depleted individuals.
Another 2016 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition highlights the amino acid supplement preserves muscle mass in individuals who performed resistance training while on a hypocaloric diet.
The optimal dose is 0.2 grams of BCAAs per kilogram of body weight each day, according to a 2017 review published in the Journal of Nutrients. This means if your body weight is 90 kilograms, you should consume about 18 grams of BCAAs (in a 2:1:1 ratio) per day, preferably split into multiple doses.
If you already consume lots of protein-rich foods (e.g. poultry, dairy products, and beef), feel free to skip the BCAA powder.
Also note that whey protein is rich in BCAAs. So, if you currently take a whey protein powder pre- and/or post-workout, chances are you don't need a separate BCAA-only supplement.
There are several foods and sports supplements that synergize with BCAA supplementation.
Unlike BCAAs, glutamine is a conditionally essential amino acid produced in your body. Thanks to glutamine's ability to reduce muscular fatigue and promote protein synthesis, it's widely used for enhanced muscular endurance and muscle growth.
One thing to note is that endurance exercises and overtraining significantly reduce glutamine levels, as a 1998 study in the Journal of Sports Medicine cautions. Since low glutamine plasma levels take a long time to replenish, it's best to avoid glutamine deficiency in the first place.
Since BCAA is catabolized to form glutamine in skeletal muscles, taking both types of dietary supplements together can prevent glutamine deficiency and muscle damage while accelerating muscle recovery.
This dietary supplement can be taken before, during, and/or after your workout for greater muscle gains and reduced muscle damage.
Pairing BCAAs with carbs will maximize the protein-synthesizing effect of these essential amino acids, particularly leucine.
This is supported by a 2012 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, which states "a fast-acting carbohydrate source such as maltodextrin or glucose" should be taken with BCAAs as a post-workout muscle growth stimulant. If you’re interested in a sustained-release carbohydrate source without the blood sugar spikes, try Transparent Labs StrengthSeries Carb Powder which contains Cluster Dextrin® (a novel form of maltodextrin).
Additionally, another 2011 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition explains a trio of BCAAs, carbs, and caffeine increased participants’ cardio performance and reduced their central fatigue.
Take the Transparent Labs CoreSeries BCAA Glutamine (8 grams of BCAA) with a bowl of steel-cut oats or your favorite carbs (aim for healthy foods) 30-45 minutes before your workout on training days or in the morning on rest days.
If you want serious muscle gains, we recommend taking the PreSeries BULK Pre-Workout (4 grams of BCAA) with carbs before exercising. For enhanced fat loss while preventing muscle loss, try the PreSeries LEAN Pre-Workout (2 grams of BCAA) instead.
Creatine monohydrate has the ability to boost energy levels (ATP) and increase muscular endurance, making it one of the most popular sports supplements on the market. It's also why creatine is often paired with BCAA in multi-ingredient dietary supplements.
According to a 2010 study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, individuals who took a pre-workout supplement containing creatine and whey protein (rich in BCAAs) improved their training performance.
Pair the ProteinSeries 100% Grass-Fed Whey Protein Concentrate (high in BCAAs) with the StrengthSeries Creatine HMB, which contains 5 grams of creatine. Bonus: Our creatine supplement is flavorless, which makes it great for mixing with protein powders.
If you're trying to maximize weight loss, pair creatine with the fat-free 100% Grass-Fed Whey Protein Isolate. For best results, take BCAA and creatine immediately after your workout.
From increased muscle growth, reduced muscle damage and recovery time, and potential weight loss, there's really nothing to lose once you start a BCAA supplementation plan.
Of course, knowing when to take this amino acid supplement is key to achieving optimal results. While it's highly recommended to take BCAAs pre-workout, consuming them again after your gym session will promote greater body transformations over time.
Remember, for the full benefits of BCAAs, it's ideal to take a 2:1:1 BCAA supplement daily (even on rest days).