You know that gallon of pink liquid all the hardcore bodybuilders lug around at the gym? Chances are it’s a cocktail of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), and that they’ll swear by its muscle-building powers.
If you listen to the hype, the BCAA supplement is as fundamentally useful as whey protein and as powerful as creatine in its ability to help you build muscle and strength (or even moreso if you listen to some companies).
But, as is the case with many supplements, you’re not being told the whole story. Simply put, while BCAAs do have a valid use (which we’ll talk about), they’re not nearly as effective as they’re sold to be.
In this article, we’ll break down why. But let’s start at the beginning: what exactly are BCAAs, anyway?
Branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs for short, are a group of three essential amino acids (amino acids that your body must get from your diet):
Leucine is the star of the trio, as it directly stimulates protein synthesis via the activation of an enzyme responsible for cell growth known as the mammalian target of rapamycin, or mTOR.
Isoleucine is number two on the list, as it improves glucose metabolism and increases glucose uptake in the muscles.
Valine is a distant third as it doesn’t seem to do much of anything when compared to leucine and isoleucine.
You find high amounts of these amino acids in quality proteins such as meat, eggs and dairy products, with whey protein isolate being particularly high.
If that’s the case, then, are there benefits to using BCAA supplements in addition to eating such high-quality proteins? Is it worth the extra expense?
If I wanted to sell you a BCAA supplement, it wouldn’t be too hard. I could cite a variety of scientifically validated benefits, such as…
Basically, I could just tell the same story that just about every supplement company selling BCAAs tells, and it would be hard to refute at first glance.
But there are two very important points you’re not told about BCAA research:
1. Research commonly cited that demonstrates muscle-related benefits of BCAA supplementation was done with subjects that didn’t eat enough protein.
For example, this study is one of the poster boys for selling BCAAs. It examined the effects of BCAA supplementation on a group of wrestlers in a calorie deficit. After three weeks, the supplement group, who ingested an additional 52 grams of BCAAs per day preserved more muscle and lost a bit more fat than the control group (who didn’t supplement at all).
Sounds pretty cool, right? Well, what you won’t hear is that subjects, whose average weight was about 150 pounds, were eating a paltry ~80 grams of protein per day. If we look at research on the protein needs of athletes in a calorie restriction, we learn that they should have been eating double that amount of protein to preserve lean mass.
So all that study really tells us is if we feel like eating half the amount of protein we should be eating, a BCAA supplement can help mitigate the damage. Not too exciting.
Other studies that demonstrate various muscle-related benefits of BCAA supplementation have promising abstracts, but are almost always hampered by lack of dietary control and/or low protein intake, and in almost all cases, subjects are training fasted, which is a very important point we’ll talk more about in a minute.
2. You can simply get your BCAAs from food instead, and this is cheaper and far more satisfying.
Research that demonstrates the anabolic effects of BCAA supplementation before, during, and after exercise is often used to sell the powders. But this misses the forest for the trees.
What such research tells us is that acutely raising BCAA levels (and leucine in particular) before and after exercise helps us build more muscle. There is no evidence that doing it through the ingestion of a BCAA supplement is more effective than food, however.
In fact, there’s research to the contrary: food, and whey protein specifically, may be even more effective than amino acid drinks.
This is why I recommend you eat 30 to 40 grams of protein before and after working out, and why I use whey protein for these meals. It’s cheaper than BCAA powders, tastes better, and is more effective.
So that’s how things currently look when we strip away the hype and marketing angles. But before I move onto one legitimate use for BCAAs, I want to address a question that may have occurred to you:
Isn’t there a study that has resistance-trained subjects lift weights and supplement with BCAAs while also on a high-protein diet? I wish, because that would lend great insight into the controversy.
All we currently have is an unpublished study paid for by Scivation–the creator of the popular Xtend BCAA supplement–and headed up by Jim Stoppani, that…cough..demonstrated?…some remarkable results:
Daily intra-workout BCAA supplementation was twice as effective as intra-workout whey protein supplementation, and resulted in a whopping 9 lbs of muscle growth and 2% reduction in body fat in just 8 weeks…in strength-trained men with at least two years of weightlifting experience…who were eating 2.2 – 2.4 grams of protein per kg of body weight…and were in a calorie surplus according to Harris Benedict…
Wait…what? If I take BCAAs–no sorry, not just any BCAAs but Xtend–while I work out I can be in a calorie surplus and achieve steroid-level muscle growth and get leaner? Wow! Take all my moniez Scivation!
Not. Color me skeptical here. To quote Alan Aragon in his monthly research review:
“The skeptic in me is tempted to chalk up some of the results to not just funding source (Scivation), but also the longstanding friendship [my link] between Jim Stoppani and the Scivation staff. The fact is, there’s no way to quantify the degree of commercial bias inherent in this trial – or any other for that matter.”
Okay then, so BCAAs don’t look to be nearly as exciting as the supplement companies say. They do, however, have one scientifically validated, legitimate use…
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If you were on the fence about buying a BCAA supplement for general use, you’re probably off it now. It turns out, however, that this supplement does one scientifically supported use, and it relates to fasted training.
People usually think “fasted training” means “training on an empty stomach,” but it’s a bit different. Fasted training means training in a “fasted state,” and this has to do with insulin levels in your blood.
You see, when you eat food, it gets broken down into various molecules that your cells can use, and these molecules are released into your blood. Insulin is released as well, and its job is to shuttle these molecules into cells.
Now, depending on how much you eat, your plasma (blood) insulin levels can remain elevated for several hours (anywhere from 3 – 6+). Why is this important? Because insulin blocks lipolysis (the breakdown of fat cells in the body).
When your body is in this “fed” state–when its insulin levels are elevated and its absorbing nutrients you’ve eaten–little-to-no fat burning occurs.
Your body enters a “fasted” state when it has finished absorbing all nutrients from the food you’ve eaten and insulin levels return to their normal, low “baseline” levels.
So, as you can see, just feeling like you have an “empty stomach” doesn’t necessarily mean your insulin levels have returned to baseline.
The easiest way to work fasted training into your routine is to work out first thing in the morning, before you eat breakfast. This has an added benefit, as well: fasting for longer than 6 hours increases your body’s ability to burn fat.
There is a downside to fasted training, however, and this is where we get to BCAAs.
When you exercise in a fasted state, muscle breakdown is increased and this is bad simply because too much muscle breakdown impairs total muscle growth over time.
You can prevent this with proper supplementation, however.
As BCAAs include leucine, and as leucine suppresses muscle breakdown, a BCAA supplement is useful for preserving muscle while training in a fasted state.
And in case you’re wondering why you can’t just use food, remember that food will spike your insulin levels and you will no longer be in a fasted state. In fact, whey protein is more insulinogenic than white bread.
BCAAs, on the other hand, have a smaller impact on insulin levels than food, which allows you to remain in a fasted state while you train. This is why many people “in the know” supplement with them before fasted exercise.
While BCAAs are good for preserving muscle, they have two significant drawbacks:
1. You’re paying for three amino acids but leucine is the only one of the trio that effectively suppresses muscle protein breakdown.
You could save money and achieve the same results by buying pure leucine instead (but be warned–leucine tastes really, really bad).
2. Most BCAA supplements are comprised of 2 to 3 parts leucine and 1 part isoleucine and valine, which means you need to take quite a bit (about 10 grams) every time
You need 3 to 5 grams of leucine to effectively counteract the muscle loss that results from fasted exercise, which means you burn through bottles of BCAAs fairly quickly if you’re training fasted 5 to 7 days per week.
Thus, I’m not particularly excited about using BCAAs for fasted training. You just don’t get much “bang for your buck,” so to speak.
Fortunately, there’s a better alternative…
β-Hydroxy β-Methylbutyrate (also known as HMB) is a substance formed when your body metabolizes the amino acid leucine, which is an amino acid that directly stimulates protein synthesis.
HMB is often sold as a muscle-building aid but the research purported to demonstrate these benefits is shaky at best, hindered most by design flaws. Thus, I’m not comfortable making anyclaims about muscle growth.
There is one benefit of HMB that’s well established, however: it’s an extremely effective anti-catabolic agent.
That is, it’s very good at preventing muscle breakdown, which means you will recover faster from your workouts and experience less muscle soreness (and the free acid form shows the most promise in this regard).
It also has no effect whatsoever on insulin levels, which means it can’t break your fasted state.
This makes HMB perfect for use with fasted training. Its powerful anti-catabolic effects and non-existent insulin effects means you reap all the fat loss benefits of training fasted without any of the problems relating to muscle loss or insulin secretion.
It’s also worth noting that HMB is superior to leucine in suppressing muscle breakdown because it’s more anti-catabolic than its “parent” amino acid.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I want you to know that the following supplement that I recommend below isn’t just what I personally use but it’s from my supplement line, LEGION.
As you probably know, the supplement industry is notorious for its lies and shenanigans. The truth is the majority of the supplements you see in the magazines and on the shelves aren’t going to help you reach your goals faster.
That’s why I decided to create the products I myself have always wanted: science-based formulations, clinically effective dosages of all ingredients, no fillers or unnecessary junk, and natural sweetening and flavoring.
And if you like what you see and decide to support my work…you’re awesome. 🙂 It’s because of people like you that I get to spend my time writing articles like this that help others get into the best shape of their lives.
Anyway, on to the supplement, which is called FORGE.
FORGE is a fat burner made specifically for use with fasted training and it contains clinically effective dosages of…
Research shows that supplementation with CDP-choline improves attentional focus, and I included this in FORGE because most people find fasted training more mentally draining than fed training and CDP-choline can help counteract this.
The bottom line is FORGE helps you lose fat–and “stubborn” fat in particular–faster, preserve muscle, and maintain training intensity and mental sharpness.
BCAA supplements are big moneymakers but they just don’t live up to the hype.
If you eat enough protein every day, and if you eat protein before and after you train, you have no reason to add BCAAs to your monthly supplement bill (unless you just like tasty water).
If you train fasted, however, BCAAs can help mitigate the increased muscle breakdown rates, but HMB does a better job and is more cost effective.