Everyone knows that muscles need protein to grow. Not getting enough protein? Good luck getting bigger. But with myriad food and supplemental sources like beef, or whey protein isolate widely available, the notion of taking BCAA – branched chain amino acid –supplements, which comprise just a few of the many amino acids found in complete protein, may seem counterintuitive. Regardless, BCAAs taken in isolation uniquely and profoundly affect muscle growth and physical performance in ways that protein powder alone can’t.
What are BCAA?
BCAA supplements consist of three amino acids: Leucine, isoleucine and valine. These three amino acids have been found to be the main drivers behind muscle recovery and growth. They are so named because they have forked protrusions (on the molecular level, of course) which bear resemblance to a branch. Not only do BCAAs fall into the “essential” category – aminos the body needs but does not produce on its own – but make up an incredible one third of the amino acids found in muscle tissue.
What Makes Them Unique?
It’s all about metabolism. While the majority of amino acids are metabolized in the liver, BCAAs are metabolized primarily in muscle tissue. This means that muscles can quickly utilize these three amino acids as fuel by oxidizing them to create energy on a cellular level with ATP – adenosine triphosphate – a source of power critical for many physiological functions, not the least of which is muscle contraction. During extended periods of exertion, there is greater metabolism of BCAAs in response to the body’s energy requirements, which makes supplementing with them close to a workout a highly effective means of increasing energy and reaping greater benefits from every repetition.
Performance Enhancing Aminos
BCAA supplements increase performance in more ways than one. Their unique effects concerning glycogen allow for longer, harder training sessions, leading to greater muscle growth. If a person’s glycogen stores (stored carbohydrates in muscle tissue and the liver, and the preferred fuel for muscles under the stress of high intensity exercise) are depleted, BCAAs can increase fat oxidation – the process by which the body burns stored fat for energy. By allowing more of another fuel source to be used, the onset of fatigue is delayed, which matters when training for endurance. BCAAs also spare glycogen by as much as 25%, likely by increasing levels of another amino acid, alanine, in the blood, which the liver turns into glucose that the muscles can utilize during exercise.
Anabolic hormones play the most significant role in the development of muscle mass due to their effect on protein synthesis – the growth of muscle tissue. The three hormones of greatest note are testosterone, GH (growth hormone) and insulin. Supplementing with branched chain amino acids prior to training can positively impact the sustained release of testosterone. In the absence of supplemental BCAAs, testosterone levels drop to baseline levels when exercise is stopped. However, branched chain amino acids have been shown to keep testosterone elevated for up to several hours after exercise. This means that protein synthesis can take place long after the last repetition has been completed.
The benefits don’t stop there. BCAAs not only increase post-exertion testosterone, but decrease cortisol levels. Cortisol, unlike testosterone, is catabolic – instead of building up muscle mass, it breaks it down, and elevated levels can even result in increased body fat. Keeping it from soaring too high is a good thing. Finally, one of the branched chain amino acids – leucine – may increase insulin sensitivity. When the body is correctly sensitized to insulin, greater muscle growth and increased fat loss occur, in addition to a decreased risk of diabetes. The cortisol-blunting, glycogen-sparing (and hence muscle-building and fat-reducing) effects of BCAAs make them a must during any fat-loss regime when caloric intake may be reduced, not only to maximize fat reductions but minimize muscle loss.
Sending the Right Message
As we’ve learned, branched chain amino acids help build muscle by acting as a fuel, improving performance and endurance and positively impacting hormones. Here’s the icing on the cake: leucine (which works best in conjunction with isoleucine and valine in a 2:2:1 ratio) actually “sends a message” to turn on protein synthesis and increase the cellular capacity for new muscle growth. Just remember, for muscles to actually grow, the full spectrum of amino acids found in complete food and supplement protein sources are required. BCAAs offer unique benefits and are absolutely worth adding to one’s supplement regime, but are not a substitute for complete protein. Rather, they are an effective complement.
When To Take and How Much
BCAAs will serve you best when taken before, during and after exercise. Those who weigh 150 pounds or less may take 3 grams, prior to, during and following a workout. Those 151 pounds or above may do the same, but increase the dosage to 5 grams.
Taking BCAA With Whey Protein Powder
Some people may question why I would recommend taking BCAA with whey protein, because whey protein is rich in BCAA.
Firstly, the problem with the BCAA contained in whey protein is that they are “peptide bonded” and must be released in the digestive system before being absorbed and effective in the blood stream. Even though whey protein is a reasonably fast digesting protein source, it takes time for the amino acids to be digested and become effective.
BCAA supplements on the other hand are “free form” meaning they are free and require no real digestion which results in a rapid absorption and a spike in plasma BCAA levels. This is a highly beneficial situation because it will have a greater impact pre workout by reducing protein breakdown (muscle loss) during training and increase protein synthesis (muscle growth) post workout.
Secondly, studies have found that supplementing with whey protein and amino acids together leads to improved exercise performance and muscle growth. One particular study stands out with regards to the anabolic effects of mixing whey protein and BCAA. The study took sixteen healthy athletic male adults and separated them into two groups. One group consumed 40g of whey protein and the other group had 40g of whey protein plus BCAA per day.
Both groups then engaged in hypertrophy resistance exercise training under the guidance of an exercise physiologist. After 10 weeks each subject underwent body composition and exercise performance testing.
The group that consumed the blend of whey protein and amino acids gained significantly more lean muscle mass and improved strength compared with the group that consumed just whey protein alone.
“BCAAs are not only necessary as building blocks of protein for muscle growth and repair,” says Carwyn Sharp, PhD, CSCS, professor of exercise physiology at the College of Charleston. “They have multiple properties that enhance these growth processes well above and beyond normal amino acids.”