BCAAs: What You Need to Know About This Supplement

protein powder on a table

Protein powder | Source: iStock

Welcome to the Supplement 101 series. In each article, we will be discussing a popular supplement. Some of which may have already made their way into your supplement regimen, others you are considering giving a try, and a few you may have never even heard of.

This week, we’ll be breaking down BCAAs  branched-chain amino acids.

What are BCAAs?

protein powder and supplements grouped together on a table

Protein powder and supplements | Source: iStock

Branched-chain amino acids are essential amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine). They act as protein building blocks, hence “branched-chain” (the molecular structure these aminos take on).  Being that the body needs these aminos, but is unable to produce them, they are obtained from food, particularly meat, dairy products, and legumes  think whey, and milk proteins, beef, chicken, fish, soy proteins, eggs, baked beans, whole wheat, brown rice, almonds, brazil nuts, pumpkins seeds, lima beans, chick peas, cashew nuts, lentils, and corn, or as powder, tablet, or liquid supplements.

The remaining essential, unbranched if you will, aminos are phenylalanine, methionine, tryptophan, threonine, and lysine. The branched chain amino acids make up 40% of the daily requirements of essential amino acids.

What purpose do they serve?

man doing deadlifts at the gym

Man lifting weights | Source: iStock

Guys who are following a fitness program   be it strength, endurance, cut, and shred  incorporate BCAAs into their supplement regimen to …

  • Improve performance: BCAAs, especially isoleucine, have been known to delay the onset of fatigue allowing for training at a higher intensity for longer, as well as improving muscle function.
  • Prevent muscle breakdown: Intense training can really tear into your muscles, BCAAs, valine for one, reduce the rate of protein breakdown by inhibiting genes responsible for maintaining the breakdown pathway.
  • Increase muscle mass: BCAAs, particularly leucine, support protein synthesis during the muscle  recovery phase, which also happens to alleviate muscle soreness as damaged muscles repair. The most effective ratio for muscle growth is thought to be 4:1 of leucine to valine and isoleucine.

For the functional strength trainer: According to research published by the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, BCAAs improve strength development as they support increases in neuromuscular coordination. Not to mention, these aminos are metabolized primarily in skeletal muscles, instead of the liver, making them more accessible upon training.

For the aesthetic shredder: Here’s the thing about getting shredded  hard muscle is necessary if you’re looking for those cuts. And we know that when we diet we become leaner, but what most aren’t aware of is that solid muscle mass is lost in the dieting process as the body begins to rely on muscle  due to lack of access to fat  for energy needs. Fortunately, BCAAs aid in protein synthesis in turn combats the mass burn.

For the cardio powerhouse: We’ve all heard of “runner’s high,” some of us may have even chased it. Essentially, it’s just a boost of serotonin released by the body, but there’s a downside to this feel good endorphin it can cause fatigue. BCAAs however can reduce serotonin production via tryptophan pathways to the brain, not to mention help in delivering increased oxygen levels to overworked muscles, as a result combating fatigue and increasing endurance performance.

Are they effective?

man running and looking at his watch

Man running | Source: Thinkstock

While evidence has been inconsistent as to just how effective BCAAs are, many gym-goers will tell you otherwise. Factors such as BCAA type, amount, and time of dosage; as well as the intended purpose of taking them prove the supplement to be effective.

What forms do they come in? Which is most effective?

BCAAs come in powder, tablet, and liquid form. Again, it depends on the individual and fitness goals when it comes to level of effectiveness. What’s really interesting though is that when BCAAs are taken in supplement form they make their way directly to the bloodstream, instead of being metabolized in the liver, reaching the muscles more quickly, resulting in increased protein synthesis and delayed protein degradation. Plus, once they’re in the bloodstream, the aminos can be used as an immediate energy source during workouts.

When should BCAAs be taken?

You can take BCAAs pre, during, or post workout, depending on the effect you’re looking to get. If you’re looking to increase endurance and reduce muscle damage, they should be taken beforehand. If you’re looking to aid in muscle recovery as well as mass building, they should be taken afterwards  preferably within a 30-minute window. However, there are BCAA supplements that can be taken during your workout.

What are the downsides of taking BCAAs?

exhausted man at the gym who is weight lifting

Exhausted man at the gym | Source: iStock

Side effects can include fatigue and loss of coordination if taken in large amounts for a prolonged period of time. It’s important to keep hydrated while taking BCAAs. Individuals on medication for thyroid, diabetes, and inflammation issues should check with their doctor before adding BCAAs to their supplement regimen. And if you’ve got a surgery scheduled, consult with your doctor  it’s likely you’ll want to stop taking the supplement at least two weeks prior as it could affect blood sugar levels.

Ellen Thompson is a National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) certified personal trainer at Blink Fitness in New York City, where she serves as Head Trainer at the Penn Plaza location. Ellen’s approach to training is that “anything is possible.” Endurance, strength, and stability/agility training are at the core of her fitness programming. She holds a master’s degree in New Media Publishing and Magazine Editing from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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