The workout world is abuzz with hype about supplements made of BCAAs or branched-chain amino acids. But the recommendations for how to best support your workouts with nutrition, protein and amino acids are confusing. How do you know if there are benefits to using BCAAs versus protein?
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Before deciding which supplement is for you, take a look at how protein powder and BCAAs improve performance, when they're recommended for use and if they're really effective.
About Amino Acids
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Twenty amino acids make up proteins, and 11 of these your body can produce itself, explains MedlinePlus. The other nine you have to get from outside sources and are thus considered "essential." The branched-chain amino acids are three of these essential amino acids and include leucine, isoleucine and valine.
BCAAs claim to promote muscle growth, delay fatigue, boost your immune system and help with fat loss, notes the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. So you work out and take protein but still wonder if you're following the right strategy to make muscle gains. Should you put down your shake made with protein powder and have BCAAs instead?
Athletes and people who work out a lot benefit from consuming more protein than the average person. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for athletes, depending on where they are in their training cycle. A kilogram is equal to 2.2 pounds, so if you weigh 150 pounds, that's a recommendation of 68 to 136 grams per day.
This protein intake should be spaced out throughout the day, including partly after workouts. Some people choose to get their protein from added supplements such as protein powder. But, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics notes that most athletes can easily get the recommended amount of protein through food alone without the use of supplements.
Benefits of Protein Powder
You may opt for protein powders, however, simply because they're convenient and efficient. A paper published in the July 2017 issue of Sports Medicine explains that whey protein is quickly digested and used effectively by worked muscles to repair and build fibers broken down during workouts.
The researchers noted that other protein powders, such as soy and casein, aren't usually considered as effective for post-workout recovery and growth as whey, but can be used to boost your overall protein intake, which counts. Research published in the September 2018 issue of Frontiers in Nutrition reminded readers that what really counts long-term in your ability to grow stronger and recover faster is total daily caloric and protein intake.
Read more: Is Whey Protein Good or Bad?
Consuming protein powder before and after a workout helps you accumulate all the grams you need to support your performance and physique goals, but isn't required for success.
Where Do BCAAs Fit?
Protein powder, such as whey, is considered a "complete" protein, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids your body can't produce on its own. This means it contains BCAAs. There really shouldn't be a debate about BCAA versus whey or BCAA versus protein, but there is.
The specific amino acids that are BCAAs are of particular benefit to athletes. The August 2014 issue of Advances in Molecular Biology explains that leucine is known as a muscle builder, that isoleucine can help regulate your blood sugar and maximize oxygen delivery and that valine may boost your energy levels.
BCAAs are said to complement your workout results, performance and recovery. You might choose a supplement as a convenient way to replace whole-food sources of these amino acids, especially if you find it hard to eat steak or eggs right before or after a workout.
Effectiveness of BCAA Supplements
Supplement makers sing the praises of BCAAs, but research truly supporting their effectiveness is not as certain. The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition notes in research published in 2017 that a review of the evidence doesn't show that BCAAs alone spur muscle growth in humans. The presence of other essential amino acids is necessary to the process of muscle protein synthesis.
Evidence does exist for the ability of BCAAs to help with muscle recovery after mild-to-moderate damage. The September 2017 issue of Nutrients showed that supplementation with 200 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day for more than 10 days can help calm muscle damage. This means faster recovery between workouts. The researchers suggest you take the BCAAs in several doses over the day, especially before intense exercise.
BCAA vs. Protein Powder
Protein powder, especially whey, is a proven post-workout supplement. Plus, it contains all the essential amino acids, not just isoleucine, leucine and valine, so it leads to better muscle gains. BCAAs may have a small impact on muscle growth, but whey is superior.
Read more: The 6 Rules of Gaining Muscle Mass
A BCAA protein powder shake could be a good post-workout choice. The array of amino acids in whey and the extra BCAAs can boost recovery. BCAAs are available in both capsule and powder form. For a quick post-workout recovery meal, add a serving, along with whey protein, to a shake that also has fruit and ice.
Better still, take BCAAs before your workout to reduce soreness and DOMS — delayed onset muscle soreness. A small study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness in November 2018 showed that when young men took BCAAs for just three days prior to exercise, they experienced reduced DOMS and exercise-induced muscle damage compared to those who took nothing or those who consumed the BCAAs post workout.
Whole Foods When Possible
Whole food sources of protein and BCAAs include meat, dairy and eggs. If, before and after your workouts, you can include these options rather than processed supplements, all the better. A paper published in Nutrients in February 2018 suggests that whole foods contain proteins along with a vast array of vitamins, minerals and other macronutrients that not only stimulate muscle protein growth and recovery, but also improve your overall diet quality.
Read more: 13 Surprising Vegetarian Sources of Protein
Of course, whole foods prior to and after exercise aren't always convenient. You may feel digestive upset if you chow down a steak prior to your lifting session, and an omelet doesn't make the most portable food. The point is: Go for optimal protein and amino acids daily. Get them from whole foods when you can and high-quality supplements when necessary.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Supplements and Ergogenic Aids for Athletes"
- MedlinePlus: "Amino Acids"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Protein and the Athlete — How Much Do You Need?"
- Sports Medicine: "Selected In-Season Nutritional Strategies to Enhance Recovery for Team Sport Athletes: A Practical Overview"
- Frontiers in Nutrition: "Effects of Protein Supplementation on Performance and Recovery in Resistance and Endurance Training"
- Advances in Molecular Biology: "Metabolic and Physiological Roles of Branched-Chain Amino Acids"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "Branched-chain Amino Acids and Muscle Protein Synthesis in Humans: Myth or Reality?"
- 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: "Achieving Optimal Post-Exercise Muscle Protein Remodeling in Physically Active Adults Through Whole Food Consumption"