Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) are the building blocks of protein that help reduce muscle soreness, encourage muscle growth, and prevent protein breakdown. They are comprised of three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These essential amino acids are are not metabolized to any significant degree by your liver, meaning they are able to absorb into your bloodstream to be used by your skeletal muscle.
Why use BCAA supplements?
BCAAs are one of the most widely studied sports nutrition supplements on the market and its popularity has continued to rise (3). Awareness has been continuously growing as more and more athletes are educating themselves with BCAAs and realizing the health benefits associated with proper intake.
There are a total of 20 amino acids that are the foundation of muscle protein in the human body. Of those 20 amino acids, nine are considered to be essential, meaning that the human body cannot produce these essential amino acids (EAAs) and they must be consumed.
Since muscle protein is in a “constant state of turnover” all 20 amino acids need to be present in the body so that protein synthesis may occur to replace lost protein due to protein breakdowns (3).
BCAAs are comprised of three essential amino acids; leucine, isoleucine, and valine and are so-named due to their branching chemical structure. These three essential amino acids are not metabolized by the liver and make it into the bloodstream in whole to be used by the skeletal muscle, the muscles attached to your bones, to increase your lean muscle mass.
Although whey protein naturally consists of BCAAs, the amount per gram, 20-23%, is insubstantial to preventing muscle breakdown. As a result athletes are turning to high quality BCAA supplements to increase their consumption to support their performance, prevent muscle loss, increase strength and energy, and protect their immune functions.
When to use BCAAs?
The best time to take BCAAs are before or during workouts to decrease percentage of body fat, increase lean muscle mass, increase strength gains, and prevent muscle breakdown and turnover (1).
An alternative way to use BCAAs, for those on a calorie restricted diet, would be as a meal replacement to support lean muscle mass and decrease one’s body fat percent. BCAAs will act as your protein source, while limiting your calorie intake and keeping your muscles fueled with the protein it needs to limit turnover and breakdown (1).
Each BCAA is a building block to protein synthesis and has its own properties…
Leucine: Critical for protein synthesis, repairs torn down muscles, stimulates healing, and produces growth hormones.
Isoleucine:Heavily concentrated in muscle tissue, promotes muscle metabolism, and is a key player in immune function and energy regulation.
Valine: Helps stimulate muscle growth, regeneration, and energy production.
Now, add these three together and you understand why they call BCAAs the building blocks of protein.
BCAAs’ role in athletics has been widely studied in relation to sparing muscle mass while reducing calorie consumption, improving immune system function, limiting fatigue, and promoting protein synthesis. We’ll be digging into the highlights of BCAAs and how proper consumption can give you great benefits.
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Increased Strength and Muscle Growth
As athletes we’re always looking to get stronger and push the limits. Getting swole and bulky is not the goal, but increasing our output on the mats, in the gym, or during WODs is ideal.
In 2009 an eight-week double-blind study was conducted to evaluate the effects of consuming BCAAs during a resistance-training program. Participants of the study were randomly given either 14 grams of BCAAs, 28 grams of Whey protein, or 28 grams of carbohydrates from an unnamed sports drink.
Throughout the study, participants followed a training program that worked all major muscle groups “once per week using a four-day training split” (2). At the end of the eight weeks, participants given BCAAs experienced greater lean muscle mass, decreased body fat, and significant increased muscular strength on their 10-rep max for both bench and squat compared to those of the Whey and Sports Drink groups (2).
The study concluded, that proper supplementation of BCAAs had greater benefits of Whey and common sports drinks that are ever so popular. Taking BCAA’s prior to working out as well as during provides your body with the energy and strength needed to push the limits.
During workouts our bodies use amino acids for muscle output and strength. Supplementing workouts with BCAAs replenishes the aminos and protein that was lost as a consequence of protein breakdown. When workouts are properly supplemented with BCAAs new muscle proteins are being synthesized which in turn increases your performance, resulting in a reduction of fatigue and increased endurance in athletes.
Amino enriched supplements increase muscle protein synthesis by up to 30% (5). The primary function of muscle protein synthesis is to help repair and build new muscle tissue. While you’re breaking down your muscles you’re also feeding it the nutrients it needs to repair itself.
BCAA's benefits may also extend into the brain. It has been suggested that the changes to the brain's 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) levels cause central fatigue. BCAA's (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) play an important role in the synthesis of 5-HT by affecting the transportation of tryptophan across the blood-brain barrier and reducing the uptake of tryptophan by the brain. This inhibits the synthesis of 5-HT and thereby reduces fatigue.
A study examined the effects of BCAA's on marathon athlete's ability to push through perceived exertion and the ability of BCAA's to reduce central fatigue.
The subjects were two groups of marathon athletes, one group that BCAA’s were given during the race, and a placebo group. Subjects that were given the BCAA’s had a lower perceived exertion level and lower mental fatigue than the placebo group (4). The studied concluded that BCAA’s may in fact reduce central fatigue and reduce perceived exertion in endurance sports.
BCAA’s are also a great source of energy!
After your body has depleted its glucose store you can rely on the energy provided by a BCAA supplement, giving you close to 40% more energy than having nothing (1).
Studies show that aminos can compete as an energy source with glucose (1) meaning that consuming BCAAs during or before your workout will give you that extra kick to go the extra mile.
Speaking of extra mile...participants of a BCAA study were put to the test during prolonged exercise under heat stress to test the effects of BCAA supplementation (9).
Six women and seven men were either given a placebo or a BCAA drink every 30 minutes during a cycling test, where participants were cycling at their peak VO2 until exhaustion. The results concluded that the BCAA group cycled 12% longer than the placebo group, proving that BCAA supplementation prolongs energy during exercise (9).
Who doesn’t want a secondary energy source?
Branched-chain amino acids can be used to prevent weight gain, enhance fat loss, and maintain lean muscle for athletes wanting to rid of unwanted fat.
Taking BCAA’s between meals, especially on a calorie restricted diet will help maintain lean muscle and help your body remain in a fat burning state. A 2011 study proved that BCAA supplementation “enhanced lipid oxidation during exercise in glycogen-depleted subjects” causing a decrease in body fat percentages (3).
There have been numerous studies that show supplementing with BCAAs can result in fat loss…
Twenty-five elite wrestlers were studied for 19 days to determine the effects of a restricted caloric diet supplemented with BCAAs.
The study found that participants who were given BCAAs throughout the 19 days had a significant higher body weight loss and decrease in body fat percent compared to those in the controlled group, who were given a soy protein supplement (8).
Participants in the BCAA group had lost 0.6% more body fat than their counterpart, while still maintaining energy and performance levels (8).
In a separate study, 36 weightlifters, with a minimum of two years experience, were randomly assigned to receive either 14 grams of BCAAs, 28 grams of Whey protein, or 28 grams of carbohydrates while participating in an eight-week resistance training program (2).
The study found that participants in the BCAA group lost more than 1% body fat compared to their counterparts.
While losing body fat, the BCAA group on average gained 4.4 lbs more lean muscle mass compared to the whey and carbohydrates groups (2).
Now remember, BCAAs aren’t some type of magical dust that instantly sheds the pounds, but proper supplementation to your diet and workout routine can help you rid of unwanted body fat while still maintaining your lean muscle.
So that’s it folks...
We’ve covered the highlights and benefits of BCAAs as well as the research behind supplementing with BCAAs.
Does the source of BCAA's matter? Did you know that the majority of BCAA's on the market are derived from duck feathers and animal fur? Be sure to check out our guest post on BJJ Heroes where we discuss the differences between plant-based BCAA's and Traditional BCAA's.
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Tessari P, e., Inchiostro S, Biolo G, Duner E, Nosadini R, Tiengo A and Crepaldi G (2018). Hyperaminoacidaemia reduces insulin-mediated glucose disposal in healthy man. - PubMed - NCBI. [online] Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3910497 [Accessed 13 May 2018].
Stoppani, J., Scheett, T., Pena, J., Rudolph, C. and Charlebois, D. (2018). Consuming a supplement containing branched-chain amino acids during a resistance-training program increases lean mass, muscle strength and fat loss. [online] Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Available at: https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-6-S1-P1 [Accessed 13 May 2018].
Gualano AB, e., Bozza T, Lopes De Campos P, Roschel H, Dos Santos Costa A, Luiz Marquezi M, Benatti F and Herbert Lancha Junior A (2018). Branched-chain amino acids supplementation enhances exercise capacity and lipid oxidation during endurance exercise after muscle glycogen depletion. - PubMed - NCBI. [online] Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21297567%20 [Accessed 13 May 2018].
Blomstrand E, Hassmén P, Ekblom B and Newsholme EA (2018). Administration of branched-chain amino acids during sustained exercise--effects on performance and on plasma concentration of some amino acids. - PubMed - NCBI. [online] Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1748109 [Accessed 13 May 2018].
Wolfe, R. (2018). Branched-chain amino acids and muscle protein synthesis in humans: myth or reality?. [online] Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Available at: https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12970-017-0184-9 [Accessed 13 May 2018].
Bassit RA et. al. Branched-chain amino acid supplementation and the immune response of long-distance athletes. Nutrition. (2002) 18(5):376-9.
Bloomstrand E. A role for branched-chain amino acids in reducing central fatigue. J Nutr. (2006) 136(2):544S-547S.
Mourier A, e., Bigard AX, de Kerviler E, Roger B, Legrand H and Guezennec CY (1997). Combined effects of caloric restriction and branched-chain amino acid supplementation on body composition and exercise performance in elite wrestlers. - PubMed - NCBI. [online] Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9059905 [Accessed 13 May 2018].
Mittleman KD, e., Ricci MR, and Bailey SP (1998). Branched-chain amino acids prolong exercise during heat stress in men and women. - PubMed - NCBI. [online] Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9475648 [Accessed 12 May 2018].