Branched chain amino acids (or BCAAs) play an essential role in muscle development, and more and more people are turning to them for their purported performance benefits. In this article, we explain everything you need to know about the benefits of BCAAs and how they can help you.
What are BCAAs?
BCAAs are versatile allies for your muscles. They’re composed of leucine, isoleucine, and valine, which are three essential amino acids our bodies cannot make on their own. During exercise they can be an immediate source of energy, though you’ll reap the recovery benefits long afterwards, too.
Find out which foods contain branched chain amino acids from the list below:
1.7g leucine, 1.1g isoleucine, 1.2 g valine
1.7g leucine, 1.1g isoleucine, 1.1g valine
1.8g leucine, 1.2 g isoleucine, 1.4 g valine
0.54g leucine, 0.3g isoleucine, 0.4g valine
0.67 g leucine, 0.33g isoleucine, 0.46g valine
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BCAAs are integral to your muscles. The more you consume through your diet or supplements, the better able you’ll be to build new muscle and maintain what you already have. They can be an ideal tool in your kit whether you’re trying to lose weight or bulk up.
BCAAs are especially essential during intensive exercise because they prevent your body from drawing energy from your muscle mass, which in turn helps prevent muscle breakdown. They also ensure that your body continues to burn fat and build muscle even after you’ve stopped working out.
They boost muscle development immediately after training
When BCAAs promote muscle building, this is known as the anabolic effect, and is greatly appreciated by professional and amateur athletes alike. When consumed along with carbohydrates, BCAA supplements stimulate the secretion of insulin, a hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. Studies have shown that they can cause an increase in insulin response of up to 66%. And because insulin is a powerful anabolic hormone, this has a positive impact on muscle development.
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Other studies have shown that BCAA supplements can help with weight loss. In one, trained participants lost an average of 2.2% fat over an eight-week period and gained 4.2kg of muscle mass. You can think of BCAA supplements as weight loss and muscle building Swiss army knife.
Protecting against losing muscle
The more of an effort you make, the more energy you need. BCAA supplementation before a workout will provide a source of protein for your muscles, rather than drawing on the amino acid reserves in your muscles, keeping them healthier in the long run.
Studies have shown that regularly consuming BCAA supplements can significantly reduce muscle protein breakdown after long, intense exercise.2
Other research has shown that BCAAs decrease the activity of enzymes that stimulate protein breakdown and muscle protein synthesis.3
BCAA supplements are versatile and can perform different functions depending on when they’re taken.
Taken just before a workout, they can serve as an energy source for higher exercise performance, as well as a shield for your muscles from catabolic processes (the breakdown of molecules) and late-onset muscle soreness.
Taken after a workout, they may stimulate muscle protein synthesis and promote both development and recovery and reduce exercise induced muscle soreness as well as muscle protein breakdown.
People who exercise intensively several times a week may find it beneficial to take a portion of BCAAs early in the morning. This may activate the body’s regeneration processes, minimize muscle soreness, and allow you to continue exercising intensely over the long run.
Side effects of BCAAs
Though BCAA supplementation can be beneficial, you will also get them naturally from many of the foods already in your diet. BCAAs are amino acids that are also present in the proteins of a typical diet. The musculoskeletal system is made up of approximately 35% BCAAs.
They’re also completely non-toxic. Even when taken in large amounts, evidence-based studies have shown no adverse effects.6
That’s not to say you should throw back BCAAs with abandon. Taking more than 10 grams per day may eventually cause you to develop a mild intolerance like aerophagia or skin reactions.
When do BCAAs begin to take effect?
Unlike typical pre-workout supplements and boosters, such as l-arginine, BCAAs have no noticeable immediate effects (muscle protein synthesis or otherwise).
The benefits manifest themselves in the mid and long term. After a while, you’ll notice an increase in muscle mass, reduction in fat, improved physical capabilities, and an overall feeling of well-being.
BCAAs are rapidly absorbed by the body, and muscles really benefit from this speedy muscle protein synthesis.
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BCAAs are composed of valine, leucine and isoleucine. Unlike other amino acid types, they can be used directly by the body because they don’t need to be metabolized by the liver.
During training, we need BCAAs to resynthesize ATP (adenosine triphosphate) – an enzyme compound that skeletal muscle uses as its main source for energy production. Taking BCAAs prior to exercise increases energy levels by preserving the muscles’ BCAA reserves.
As a result, you’ll feel more energized even during prolonged exercise – no muscle damage in sight.
When there’s a higher concentration of BCAAs in the blood the body takes this as a signal that muscle tissue is being destroyed. As a result, we instead begin to pull energy from fat, thereby burning fat in the process.
BCAAs may have several positive effects on muscle growth. For one, they promote the secretion of somatotropin (or STH), a growth hormone that stimulates muscle protein synthesis and enhances metabolism.
Leucine also activates the mTOR protein, which is essential for all growth processes. Additionally, BCAAs promote insulin release, especially when consumed after a session and with carbohydrates. This last effect is often considered to be the most significant for muscle growth.
Our tip: To get the results you’re looking for, we recommend using our free Body Check before getting started. For best results during your weight training sessions, we recommend that you take our free body check. We’ll calculate your BMI and give you personalized nutritional and training advice to train efficiently and sustainably. And if you’re up for more after that, check out some of our free body weight HIIT or Tabata workouts!
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Gannon/Kalogeropoulou/LaFave/Nuttall/Schweim: Leucine, when ingested with glucose, synergistically stimulates insulin secretion and lowers blood glucose. Journal of Metabolism, pp. 1747-1752, 2008.
Charlebois/Pena/Rudolph/Scheett/Stoppani: 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, 1150, 2009.
Mero: Leucine supplementation and intensive training. Sports Medicine, pp. 247-358, 1999.
Coombes/McNaughton: Effects of branched-chain amino acid supplementation on serum creatine kinase and lactate dehydrogenase after prolong exercise. Journal of Sports Medicine, Physics and Fitness, pp. 240-246, 2000.
Agell/Alvarez/Argilés/Busquets/Llovera/López-Soriano: Branched-chain amino acids inhibit proteolysis in rat skeletal muscle: mechanisms involved. Journal of Cell Physiol. pp. 380-384, 2000.
Fernstrom: Branched-chain amino acids and brain function. Journal of Nutrition, S. 1583-1587, 2004.