Taking amino acids pre-workout can help you recover, giving you a slight edge over someone who isn't taking the supplement. As a supplement, amino acids can't replace proper nutrition or hard work in the gym. However, if you feel that you've mastered the basics and are looking for something to give you an extra push, you can try amino acids.
Walk into a health food or supplement store and you'll see an array of bottles, pills and powders that can seem quite intimidating. There are so many different supplements on the market that they're hard to keep track of. Amino acids might sound foreign, but they're simply a derivative of something you eat every day: protein.
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Amino Acids and Protein
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are 20 different, naturally occurring amino acids. Eleven of these are nonessential. That means your body makes enough and you don't need to get them from food. There are nine essential amino acids which you need from food because your body can't make them.
There are also eight conditionally essential amino acids, which means that you don't normally need them in your diet unless you're ill or your body is under stress. Those amino acids are:
When you eat a protein source, like chicken, your body turns it into amino acids. According to a University of Hawaii-published book Human Nutrition, the amino acids are absorbed by cells and used to build protein or other macromolecules like DNA.
Digestion of amino acids starts in the stomach with something called pepsin, which breaks down protein. It continues in the small intestine where protein is further broken down by two enzymes that are produced by the liver. Human Nutrition describes that the process of digesting protein is slower than digesting carbs but faster than digesting fat.
Amino acids are then sent into the bloodstream and make their way to the liver, where they can be redistributed to different parts of your body. You can't store amino acids, but they're usually in demand because your body is constantly breaking down and creating new protein.
Getting All Your Amino Acids
Meat, fish, eggs and dairy products are the richest source of amino acids, according to the University of Michigan's Michigan Medicine. These foods have a wide array of amino acids. Plant sources, on the other hand, may not have all the amino acids your body needs.
Read more: What Amino Acids Do Vegans Tend to Lack?
Michigan Medicine states that you can overcome these deficiencies by eating a wide variety of plant food. You don't have to get them all in one meal — your intake can be spaced out throughout the day. Most people get enough protein per day to satisfy their amino acid requirements. The two exceptions are either athletes or people in a calorie deficit, meaning they're losing weight.
Your body is constantly breaking down and building protein, according to an August 2017 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. To build muscle, the rate of protein synthesis has to be greater than the rate of protein breakdown. Therefore, you need to either make protein faster or slow down the breakdown of muscle.
If you lack any of the essential amino acids, you won't build muscle as quickly, according to the study. Lacking the non-essential amino acids isn't an issue, because your body can simply make more of them. However, if your body needs essential amino acids, meaning you're not getting enough from food, it will break down muscle and redistribute them elsewhere.
Therefore, if you ingest essential amino acids, your body can make muscle faster and prevent the further breakdown of muscle tissue. The bottom line is that you need to consume essential amino acids to build muscle.
Supplementing With Amino Acids
There are two types of amino acid supplements: essential amino acids (EAAs) and branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). There are three branched-chain amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine, according to the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition study.
They're called branched-chain amino acids because of their branched chemical composition. All three branched-chain amino acids are also essential amino acids. They're considered the most anabolic of the nine essential amino acids — meaning that they're most likely to be tied to muscle protein gain — although evidence for that is lacking, according to the study.
If you've decided to start supplementing with either BCAAs or EAAs, you're probably wondering when to take them and how much to take. First you have to decide if you want to take BCAAs before or after a workout. Then, decide if you want EAAs or BCAAs. Each method of supplementation has benefits, but taking them before your workout might be best.
Amino acid supplements are helpful before a workout because you can drink them quickly They don't require further ingestion and won't make you full. Feeling full before or during a workout can make you sluggish and tired. If your goal is to grow muscle or recover faster, you can take an amino acid supplement before your workout instead of eating a full meal.
Read more: What Do Amino Acids Do for Your Body?
Taking Amino Acids Pre-Workout
The benefits of taking amino acids before a workout are mostly from improved recovery. A September 2017 research review published in Nutrients looked at 11 different studies on the effects of amino acid supplements on performance.
The study found that BCAAs are effective for recovery. As long as muscles aren't damaged too much from workouts, taking a BCAA supplement before workouts is helpful in minimizing muscle damage from exercise.
The researchers also found supplements to be more effective when taken before a workout. The recommended dosage per day from the study is 200 milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight or more.
A smaller, pilot study published in September 2017 in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness found that a BCAA supplement was better at preventing muscle soreness and damage from a weightlifting workout when taken before exercise as opposed to after.
An August 2018 study published in Frontiers in Physiology also looked at the benefits of taking essential amino acids before a workout. The researchers split the subjects into two groups: One group took a placebo and the other took essential amino acids. Both groups performed a weightlifting workout, then tested the strength of their biceps. The researchers found that the group who ingested essential amino acids before the workout had more strength after the workout than the placebo group.
If you forget to take your amino acid supplement before you work out, don't fret. You can still take it afterward and have some improvement in recovery time. An October 2017 study published in Nutrition analyzed eight different studies looking at the effects of BCAA supplementation. It found that taking amino acids after a workout was better for recovery than resting.
- Nutrition: "Branched-Chain Amino Acid Supplementation and Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage in Exercise Recovery: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials"
- Frontiers in Physiology: "Essential Amino Acids (EAA) Mixture Supplementation: Effects of an Acute Administration Protocol on Myoelectric Manifestations of Fatigue in the Biceps Brachii After Resistance Exercise"
- The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness: "Effect of BCAA Supplement Timing on Exercise-Induced Muscle Soreness and Damage: A Pilot Placebo-Controlled Double-Blind Study"
- Nutrients: "Is Branched-Chain Amino Acids Supplementation an Efficient Nutritional Strategy to Alleviate Skeletal Muscle Damage? A Systematic Review"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Branched-Chain Amino Acids and Muscle Protein Synthesis in Humans: Myth or Reality?"
- University of Michigan: "Amino Acids Overview"
- University of Hawaii: "Protein Digestion and Absorption"
- MedlinePlus: "Amino Acids"
- University of Arizona: "The Chemistry of Amino Acids"