BCAA Supplements: Is It All Hype?

     If you Look at almost any ingredient label on the back of a supplement bottle it is not hard to find that it contains the words branch chain amino acids. Flip through a muscle or sports magazine and you can easily spot a fitness guru on the advertising pages endorsing BCAA containing products. Not only are these supplements widely used by professionals but amateurs alike, hoping to accelerate their bodies to a more advanced level. But what is all the hype surrounding these special kind of amino acids that are getting so much praise from the health and fitness community? Let’s take an in depth look.

 What are Branch Chain Amino Acids?

If you have ever eaten a thick juicy steak then you have consumed BCAAs. Three out of the 9 essential amino acids that can only be obtained through diet are classified as the branch chain type. They are leucine, isoleucine, and valine which are naturally found in a ratio of 2:1:1 respectively. What makes these three so special is that they are the amino acids largely responsible for protein synthesis or simply put, the chemicals needed to grow bigger, stronger muscles. Studies have shown that leucine is perhaps the greatest BCAA responsible for protein synthesis compared to the other two. Leucine can stimulate growth with or without isoleucine and valine. If you need further convincing, 35 percent of muscle proteins are comprised of these important amino acids. Furthermore, when the body breaks down the essential amino acids from the steak you ate for life sustaining purposes the BCAAs are oxidized (just a fancy word that means that chemicals combine with oxygen to form a reaction) in skeletal muscle, adipose tissue (fat), and the brain while the other six are processed through the liver. When oxidized, the aminos lose availability.


How Effective are BCAA supplementation for pre workout?

It is well understood that when resistance training or other forms of exercise is performed muscles go through a catabolic process. Catabolism is the breakdown of molecules into smaller units of released energy. Endurance and muscle building exercises break down the muscles to use as energy and unfortunately BCAAs are one of the types of chemicals that are utilized in the process. In addition, exercise creates fatty acid oxidation which further degrades our poor branch chain aminos. However, it has been shown that consuming BCAAs before a workout can prevent the degradation of precious hard earned muscle. Essentially the body would be supplied with fuel needed to endure the workout without having to resort to getting energy from the muscle itself.


What about post work out? 

Similar to pre workout supplementation, getting in BCAAs after a workout is just as important. Instead of catabolizing muscle, our bodies would now be undergoing an anabolic process. Anabolism is the construction of molecules from smaller units or in our case, growing the muscle bigger and stronger for future activities. In order to do so, the process of anabolism requires energy as well. For example, Studies show that Leucine by itself activates the increase of the hormone insulin (directs glucose into cells). The increase of insulin creates a process called hyper aminoacidemia, which enhances muscle synthesis by the uptake of amino acids. As we now from the previous sections protein amino acids are the building blocks of muscle and all 9 essentials are needed for the body to perform at its peak. In short, insulin is needed to maximize protein synthesis which leads to muscle growth.


Remember, it is called a supplement for a reason

Understand that food is just chemicals that the body uses. The body cannot determine if the branch chain amino acids come from an isolated source or from a piece of cheese. However, real food should never be neglected due to other valuable nutrients. The top foods that contain BCAAs are dairy, beef, legumes and other animal proteins. However, the amount of the three aminos differ in each food source and eating complete proteins should be considered. Eating meals containing carbohydrates and protein prior to and after working out is ideal and highly important in maintaining a healthy efficient body. Carbohydrates raise insulin and proteins contain BCAAs, so you will still be preventing muscle degradation, promoting synthesis and replenishing lost energy. If anything, adding a supplement of BCAAs may only enhance the effects. One abstract suggested, assuming no errors in testing, that these three proteins decreased body fat, increased strength, and increased muscle mass in an 8 week trial. For example subjects gained ~8lbs of muscle using supplementation compared to ~4lbs of muscle consuming whey protein drinks. It cannot be stressed enough that this abstract was not peer reviewed and may not be up to testing standards.


What Should I Do? 

Right now you are probably asking yourself “OK John, this is great and all but what should I do to optimize my performance?” Understand that BCAAs supplements are categorized as being possibly effective and should not be the focal point of your diet. However, consumption of BCAAs has been shown to be relatively safe and considered to have low toxicity within a normal range. In addition, essential amino acids that are present in animal proteins and/or protein powders are apparently effective in muscle promotion and prevents degradation. Here is the interesting part that is perhaps the most important; essential amino acids contain BCAAs. As you can tell more research has to be done on the matter to determine the exact role of amino acid supplementation on human development. For realistic and practical purposes a well-balanced diet contains all the BCAAs that you need to prevent muscle breakdown and increase mass. Taking in the right amount of daily protein would more than likely make supplementing not as effective because the body cannot utilize more than 2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. If you do feel like experimenting with supplements make sure it is from a reputable company and of the highest grade possible. To make the most out of your workout gains regarding muscle building follow these simple steps:

  1. Eat a well – balanced meal roughly an hour before working out consisting of a portion of lean and/or high quality protein, a complex carbohydrate, and a little bit of healthy fat. No need to be fanatical and measure unless you are prepping for a contest.
  2.  If you want to supplement realize that there is not a determined amount that should be consumed as of yet. Studies that showed promising results from BCAAs used 14 grams per day. Understand that most benefits would come from after working out and is adequate to take in 5 – 7 grams before and/or after the exercise phase.
  3. Do not forget to hydrate during and after exercise
  4.  Post workout should consist of a portion of lean and/or high quality protein and a high glycemic (or a quick absorbing carbohydrate) to promote synthesis and quickly replenish energy that was lost. Eat within two hours after working out to get optimal results.


Shimomura, Y., Murakami, T., Nakai, N., Nagasaki, M., Harris, R.A. (2004). Exercise Promotes BCAA   Catabolism: Effects of BCAA Supplementation on Skeletal Muscle during Exercise. The Journal of Nutrition, 134 (6), 15835 – 15875

Stoppani J., Scheett, T., Pena, J., Rudolph, C., Charlebois, D. (2009). 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 (S1).

Koopman, R., Wagenmakers, A.J.M., Manders, R.J.F., Zorenc, A.H.G., Senden, J.M.G., Gorselink, M., Keizer, H.A., van Loon, L.J.C. (2005). Combined ingestion of protein and free leucine with carbohydrate increases postexercise muscle protein synthesis in vivo in male subjects. American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism, 288(4), 645 – 653.

Kreider, R.B., Wilborn, C.D., Taylor, L., Campbell, B., Almada, A.L., Collins, R., Cooke, M., Earnest,C.P. (2010). ISSN exercise & sport nutrition review: research & recommendations. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 7(7).

Tamanna, N., and Mahmood, N. (2014). Emerging Roles of Branched-Chain Amino Acid Supplementation in Human Diseases. International Scholarly Research Notices, 2014. 8 pgs.

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John Machado

John Machado

John Machado is a co-founder/editor in chief of Bodyforward. He has a Bachelor's degree in Psychology from the University of Stony Brook, ACSM certified with 15 years of experience with fitness and nutrition, and he aims to achieve his Master's degree in Nutrition.

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