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When Do You Need BCAAs?

There are literally thousands of different supplements on the market -- many of which are advertised to make a world of difference when it comes to your training.

But let's face it, not all of them can be that good.

In fact, this was the reason Amino Z was started in the first place -- to offer useful scientifically supported supplements at a wholesale price point.

And one supplement that has become increasingly common in the health and fitness industry are Branched Chain Amino Acids (or BCAAs for short).

But are they really that useful? And when should you take them?

What are BCAAs?

As I have already mentioned, BCAA is short for ‘branched chain amino acid’ – which is a unique type of “amino acid”.

Just to provide a little background, amino acids are described as the building blocks of the human body. They are the little compounds your body uses to make every single protein molecule it needs.

In essence, anything in your body that has a physical structure is made from amino acids -- and yes, this includes muscle tissue.

Building on this a little further, there are two different types of Amino acids: “essential amino acids” and “non-essential amino acids”.

Non-essential amino acids are considered as such because your body has the capacity to make them, meaning they do NOT have to be consumed through diet. Alternatively, those that are considered essential cannot be made in your body, and MUST be consumed through diet.

BCAAs are categorised as “essential” and therefore must come from external sources.

I should note that of the 9 essential amino acids your body needs, three of them are BCAAs -- being leucine, isoleucine, and valine

Interestingly, although there are only three of them, BCAAs make up about 35% of the muscle protein in your body. And it appears to be for this reason that when they are consumed, they stimulate the production of new muscle tissue.

Which explains why they are one of the most commonly recommended supplements on the planet.

What are the Benefits of BCAAs?

Given that BCAAs boost muscle protein synthesis (the production of new muscle tissue), there is mechanistic rationale to believe that they can have some serious benefits for your -- but is this really the case?

BCAAs and Muscle Growth

As one would expect, because of their ability to increase muscle protein synthesis, there is evidence to suggest that they can also enhance muscle growth.

In fact, one study demonstrated that, when combined with a progressive resistance training routine, those who supplement with BCAAs after training observe greater improvements in strength and muscle size than those who do not [1].

All of which explains why BCAAs are one of the most commonly used supplements among bodybuilders and weekend warriors alike.

BCAAs for Muscle Retention

Some people like to suggest that BCAAs can help promote fat loss during a cutting phase -- but this is not really the case.

However, they do appear to be very useful when it comes to muscle retention, by slowing down the rate your body breaks down muscle tissue during prolonged periods of energy deficit.

See, when you undertake a weight loss phase, the primary goal is to lose fat. However, this will also come with some associated loss of muscle tissue (it is an unavoidable side effect of being in a calorie deficit). Over the duration of a training phase, this loss of muscle can negatively impact your metabolism, which makes losing fat harder in the future.

This also has some negative implications for your physique, in which you end up looking smaller after your cut.

But taking BCAA supplements while you workout during a cut seems to mitigate the muscle loss that so often occurs when you lose weight [2]. This can keep your metabolism high, while making sure you don't lose any of your hard earned muscle in the process.

BCAAs and post-exercise recovery

BCAAs increase muscle protein synthesis, all while simultaneously preventing the breakdown of muscle tissue -- which has obvious implications for muscle growth and retention.

Importantly, this also has an impact on post-training recovery.

Evidence has shown that  supplementing with BCAAs around your workout leads to reductions in muscle soreness after training. This also appears to occur with improved gym performance during any training sessions that occur over the next couple of days [3].

In the short term, this obviously has you feeling better -- but that's not really the biggest benefit.

If you can perform better every single workout, this will compound over the course of a training block. Over time, this could conceivably cause much greater improvements in strength and muscle growth than you would observe otherwise.

When do you need BCAAs?

Now, something that I really want to hammer home is the fact that when it comes to optimizing muscle growth and recovery, the most important factor appears to be your total daily protein intake [4].

In short, if you are eating adequate protein (1.6 to 2.2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day), then it is highly likely that you are maximising muscle growth and recovery without the need for BCAAs. This is going to be especially true if you consume a lot of animal protein because it is already relatively high in BCAA content (remember, BCAAs make up a lot of muscle tíssue).

With this in mind, if you are in a calorie deficit (i.e. a cutting phase) and struggling to hit your protein requirements OR eat a lower protein diet (vegetarians and vegans come to mind here), then BCAAs are probably going to be really useful.

Similarly, if you like to train early in the morning under fasted conditions, taking a BCAA supplement before training could offer some serious benefit.

However, when you are training in a fed state and on days where you are hitting your protein requirements, they are not really necessary.

This does not mean that you should not take them (I mean, why not cover all your bases), just that they are unlikely to have a huge impact.

How should you take BCAAs?

One thing that doesn't get spoken about often enough is when and how you should take your BCAAs.

Which is what I plan to cover.

Some of the evidence outlined in this article appears to show better results if you take them both before and after training. Within this, you want to try and have them between 30 and 60 minutes either side of your workout.

Doing so ultimately ensures that you have BCAAs readily available for muscle repair and recovery both during and after your workout -- which is key.

And when it comes to dose, the primary recommendation that appears within the published research is to obtain an intake of 200mg per kilogram of bodyweight. This means that if you weigh 80kg, you want to strive for 16 grams of BCAAs spread around your workout (i.e. 8 grams before, and 8 grams after).

Do BCAAs Have any Side Effects?

As far as safety goes, BCAAs are arguably one of the most well-tolerated supplements on the market. In fact, research has shown that even taking high doses of up to 35 grams per day appears to have no really negative effects.

However, some people do experience side effects if they exceed this dose, which can include:

  • Stomach discomfort
  • Impaired exercise performance
  • Worsened recovery after exercise

But let's face it -- you really should have no reason to exceed 35 grams per day.

Final Message

Evidence suggests that BCAAs can boost muscle growth, increase strength, aid with muscle retention during a cut, and enhance recovery after training.

While BCAAs are not necessary if you are already eating adequate amounts of protein, they can be very beneficial if you train in a fasted state, struggle to hit your protein requirements, or simply want to ensure you are maximising muscle protein synthesis around your workouts.

Within this, they may offer even greater benefit for people who do not eat much animal protein, and struggle to get BCAAs into their diet naturally.

 

References

  1. Stoppani, Jim, et al. "Consuming a supplement containing branched-chain amino acids during a resistance-training program increases lean mass, muscle strength and fat loss." Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 6.1 (2009): 1-2.
  2. Mourier, A., et al. "Combined effects of caloric restriction and branched-chain amino acid supplementation on body composition and exercise performance in elite wrestlers." International journal of sports medicine 18.01 (1997): 47-55.
  3. Osmond, Adam D., et al. "The Effects of Leucine-Enriched Branched-Chain Amino Acid Supplementation on Recovery After High-Intensity Resistance Exercise." International journal of sports physiology and performance 14.8 (2019): 1081-1088.
  4. Aragon, Alan Albert, and Brad Jon Schoenfeld. "Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?." Journal of the international society of sports nutrition 10.1 (2013): 5.

 

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