You hit the gym hard and want optimal recovery and results. Protein and amino acid supplements are key to achieving these goals. Protein is made up of amino acids, the right ratio of which boosts the power of your protein in helping you get gains.
BCAAs, or branched-chain amino acids, are often encouraged as a post-workout supplement as well. You may think it's redundant to take both amino acids supplements and protein, but both are said to have an important role in your workout results.
Protein's Importance to Your Body
Protein is one of the major macronutrients required for a healthy, functioning body. As explained by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, it helps grow and maintain all the body's tissues, including skin, hair, nails, muscles and blood vessels.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Our bodies can produce some amino acids, but not others, so those essential amino acids have to come from the food you eat.
About Protein Powders
Examples of protein powders include whey or casein (derivatives of milk). Plant-based protein powders offer a combination of protein sources, such as peas, hemp and rice, to cobble together a complete sequence of amino acids. Soy protein is a complete protein, too.
High-quality, complete protein powders contain all nine of the essential amino acids you need. These help you meet your daily protein demands necessary for muscle gain and recovery. That's why protein powders, such as whey, pea and soy, are marketed as the perfect post-workout supplement. When you've dropped your last weight or have run your last mile, your muscles are ripe for receiving the amino acid supplements present in these powders and as a result, soak up the nutrients to foster repair and growth.
Whole foods are often the best place to get protein. Steak, chicken, fish, soy and low-fat dairy offer complete proteins with all the amino acids. What's more, the Cleveland Clinic points out that protein powders generally have fewer nutrients than whole foods. But, it's not always easy to throw a salmon steak in your gym bag. So, sometimes, it's simply the convenience of protein powders that makes them a valid choice over whole foods.
When to Take Protein Powders
Protein powders can be used to fill in if you just need a boost in protein and calorie intake and have trouble getting it from whole foods. This might happen if you have an illness that caused muscle wasting, are underweight or just lead a super busy life. Athletes also generally benefit from a slightly higher protein intake than the average person because of the demands they put on their bodies.
General recommendations suggest athletes and avid fitness enthusiasts benefit from a dose of protein within 60 minutes of a workout. Your muscles are most responsive to the use of protein for repair and growth during this window.
Protein Timing Controversy
Some recent research, including an August 2017 study published in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation, challenged the concept that there is a precise window. Instead, researchers argue that the timing of protein ingestion isn't as important as your total intake of protein and adequate calories over the course of 24 hours.
Another study, published in PeerJ in January 2017 also debated the need to take protein within an hour of your exercise session. The researchers found that the window for protein intake following exercise could be several hours or even longer, depending on what you ate prior to training.
A paper published in Frontiers in Nutrition in September 2018 notes, however, that taking in protein post-workout contributes to your daily intake and does offer some benefit. The researchers note that you definitely get "no benefit" from consuming nothing, so it's best to have protein within a short 30- to 60-minute window to cover your muscle-recovery bases.
Usually, as this study notes, whey protein, which offers a complete array of amino acids and is quickly absorbed by your body, is recommended for post-workout.
So, Why Amino Acids Too?
If you're an avid exerciser, adhere to your daily protein intake goals and take protein post-workout, do you really need other amino acid supplements?
Amino acids make up protein. Twenty different amino acids are often referred to as your body's building blocks because they make up your DNA, build muscle and provide the essential structure of your organs and tissues. You also need amino acids to support digestion, provide energy and create enzymatic reactions for hormone and neurotransmitter function.
Your body produces 11 of these 20 amino acids on its own, but nine must be acquired from food. Of these nine essential amino acids, three are called BCAAs, or branched-chain amino acids. These are leucine, isoleucine and valine.
About Amino Acid Supplements
Amino acid supplements usually include BCAAs, or branched-chain amino acids. These amino acids are part of your muscle protein and help preserve glycogen stores (energy) and reduce protein breakdown in your muscles as explained in a paper published in August 2017 in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
BCAAs are present in whey protein, but supplement sellers say whey alone doesn't give you maximum BCAA benefit. When taken as a supplement, the BCAAs are free and not bound to other amino acids in a complex chemical structure. This means they can be digested and absorbed more quickly, so your body can use them right away.
Amino Acid Supplements and Efficacy
Research on the benefits of BCAAs is mixed. A review of 11 studies on workout supplementation with BCAAs published in the October 2017 issue of Nutrients showed that supplementation with a high BCAA intake of 200 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day for 10 days or longer was effective in attenuating low-to-moderate muscle damage. The paper suggested that taking BCAAs two or more times daily, especially before intense exercise, offered maximal results in repairing damage from exercise.
The research published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition is, however, less optimistic. The researchers concluded that supplementation of BCAAs alone cannot support an increased rate of muscle protein synthesis. They note that the absence of other essential amino acids makes it harder, not easier, for your body to build and repair muscle. Their basic conclusion is that BCAA supplementation alone is not enough to promote muscle growth.
Go for Whole Foods
While BCAAs are heavily promoted to exercisers, it seems that good ol' protein powder post-workout is still a better bet because of the great array of amino acids. But, that's only when whole foods aren't available.
A paper in Nutrients published in February 2018 noted that whole foods that help athletes build a strong, functional body include animal-based proteins, such as eggs, beef, dairy and seafood, or, alternatively, the right mix of plant-based proteins such as legumes and grains.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Teaching Dietary Protein Basics"
- Cleveland Clinic: "7 Tips for Choosing the Best Protein Powder for You"
- Frontiers in Nutrition: "Effects of Protein Supplementation on Performance and Recovery in Resistance and Endurance Training"
- Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation: "Effect of Timing of Whey Protein Supplement on Muscle Damage Markers After Eccentric Exercise"
- Nutrition and Metabolism: "Effect of Protein/Essential Amino Acids and Resistance Training on Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy: A Case for Whey Protein"
- Nutrients: "Is Branched-Chain Amino Acids Supplementation an Efficient Nutritional Strategy to Alleviate Skeletal Muscle Damage? A Systematic Review"
- MedlinePlus: "Protein in Diet"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Branched-chain Amino Acids and Muscle Protein Synthesis in Humans: Myth or Reality?"
- PeerJ: "Pre- Versus Post-exercise Protein Intake Has Similar Effects on Muscular Adaptations"
- Nutrients: "Achieving Optimal Post-Exercise Muscle Protein Remodeling in Physically Active Adults Through Whole Food Consumption"
- PLoS One: "Protein Requirements Are Elevated in Endurance Athletes After Exercise as Determined by the Indicator Amino Acid Oxidation Method"