Branched Chain Amino Acids or BCAA are one of the world’s most staple and popular supplements in the health and fitness world.
The word BCAA refers to 3 unique types of amino acids including Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine.
Together, these amino acids have taken the fitness world by storm due to their potent benefits for individuals looking to improve body composition in terms of losing bodyweight, increasing muscle mass and having better performance/recovery, both in and out of the gym.
When you need an extra boost in the gym or need to ensure the safety of your muscle mass when dieting, BCAAs are almost an essential item to ensure success.
In this article, I’ll discuss what BCAAs are, what benefits they include, how to optimize your BCAA intake, when to take them and why you should maybe consider using them to optimize your body composition and performance if you don’t already.
What are Branched Chain Amino Acids / BCAAs?
BCAAs (otherwise known as Branched Chain Amino Acids) include Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine; these three amino acids appear to promote more far reaching benefits than others.
These 3 amino acids are basically broken-down protein, which is made up of a combination of 20 different amino acids in total. Each protein source, for example meat vs nuts/legumes contain different amino acids, included at different ratios.
These amino acids are called branched chain due to their chemical structure including a separate branch that other amino acids do not have.
Additionally, the BCAAs are also considered to be a part of the essential amino acid family which has a total of 9. The “essential” means that they human body cannot synthesize them and so ingestion through your diet and supplement regime is necessary.
What’s So Special About Taking BCAA?
BCAAs have made their way to the top of the list due to containing the essential amino acid, Leucine.
In recent years, Leucine has made waves in the health and fitness industry due to the fact that ingesting it initiates a process called protein synthesis through a pathway called mTOR (1).
Via a symphony of different events, this cellular pathway results in the body being able to take all essential amino acids and form new proteins, or, in layman terms, new muscle!
Once synthesized, these new proteins can contribute to increased muscle size and strength. Over weeks and months of training, the daily increase in these muscle fibers helps you significantly increase muscle size and strength.
After a groundbreaking discovery determining that Leucine is a major driver of this process of synthesizing new proteins, BCAAs alone became a popular and very simple supplement (2).
Interestingly, all other complete protein sources such as meat, dairy and whey include BCAAs, but using a BCAA supplement ensures optimal stimulation of this process on demand – before, during or after a workout.
They are also key for people who eat less meat and absolutely essential for vegetarians and vegans who do not get enough BCAA or leucine from their diet.
What Are The Unique Benefits Of BCAA?
BCAAs have a wide range of benefits for performance and body composition. The most apparent benefits of supplementing with a BCAA supplement include the following:
Reduced Fatigue During Exercise
Athletic or your gym performance is a measurement based on many different variables.
Fortunately, supplementation with BCAAs has been shown to affect a wide range of different metrics of performance from improved aerobic performance to improving resistance to fatigue, such as during the final quarter of your workout (3, 4).
In fact, reducing fatigue brought on by exercise is one of the most common reasons that people consume BCAAs intra workout (it keeps you going!).
The theory is that during an exercise session, levels of tryptophan begin to build up in the brain. Eventually tryptophan becomes converted into serotonin, which can cause feelings of fatigue and tiredness.
By way of a little bit of background, brain chemistry is very tightly regulated. In order for most substances to actually make it into the brain, these molecules require a transporter, or a guide.
Interestingly, BCAAs and tryptophan actually compete for the same transporter into the brain. Since they compete, only BCAAs can be transported, thus inhibiting entry of tryptophan in the brain.
As a result, tryptophan cannot be converted to serotonin and thus cannot produce feelings of fatigue. As a result, you can train harder and for much longer than you could if you had not consumed BCAAs (5).
Directly for you and your gainz, the extra BCAA will let you train harder for longer near the end of the workout, when you may normally be getting tired, be struggling to hit the 10 reps (or whichever your goal) or wanting to leave early.
Improved Athletic & Gym Performance
In addition to a reduction in fatigue, supplementation of BCAAs has been shown to influence other metrics of athletic performance.
For instance, studies have shown that supplementing with BCAAs can help improve aerobic or endurance performance. It seems that using BCAAs may help extend the amount of time that it takes for you to reach failure, allowing you to go further and for longer (6, 7).
Interestingly, long duration endurance bouts rely heavily on the body’s ability to utilize fat as a primary energy source. Based on some research, it seems that BCAAs may actually improve this process, allowing for greater performance (7).
Lastly, one study evaluating supplementation with BCAA supplements indicated a reduction in perceived exertion. Secondary to an improved ability to utilize fat, BCAAs may give you the perception of requiring less effort, in effect allowing you to do a bit more when training (4).
Stimulate The Key Driver of Muscle Growth – ‘Protein Synthesis’
Arguably the most important aspect is the ability of BCAAs to initiate protein synthesis (1).
During the day, our bodies are constantly breaking down and building up new proteins. It is only if building supersedes breakdown that you can grow new muscle. This is a concept termed protein turnover.
It is theorized that by using a BCAA supplement regularly throughout the day, you can increase the amount of proteins being built, while stopping the process of breakdown. This is largely due to the fact that Leucine is the most potent initiator of protein synthesis.
In essence, you’re influencing the body to continue growing, to ensure that building proteins are the winner.
Drive Carbohydrates to Muscle
Interestingly, studies have also revealed that the BCAA Isoleucine may play a significant role in ensuring that carbohydrates get sent to muscle.
Studies have shown that Isoleucine is a potent activator of a glucose transporter called GLUT 4 (8).
When your muscle contracts during exercise, this transporter migrates to the membrane of muscle cells, presenting itself to glucose molecules. Then this transporter can shuttle glucose from the blood, into muscle to be stored as glycogen for later use.
Ingestion of a BCAA supplement containing isoleucine may in fact stimulate this migration, in absence of exercise, allowing for better control of blood glucose.
How to take BCAAs
For maximum results, I suggest that you take at least 3 doses of our BCAA supplement, spread out over 3 different servings.
Of course, you can just take it once or twice if you are on a budget. The best time to do this would be pre and/or post workout.
If you can take 3 times per day, try it first when you wake and take one scoop to begin initiating protein synthesis. Secondly, I recommend either using directly before or during your workouts to help combat fatigue and reduce protein breakdown.
Lastly, consider taking 1 serving in between meals to ensure a maximal anabolic response or, if on low protein meals, to boost the leucine content!
It’s no wonder BCAAs have become arguably the most popular performance booster on the market.
Studies have shown that BCAAs not only reduce fatigue and improve performance, but also initiate protein synthesis and even help drive carbohydrate into the muscle, allowing for optimal muscle growth, body composition and improved ability to use food.
If you’re not using a quality BCAA supplement, you’re selling yourself short (especially if you want to improve muscle growth or recovery).
- Wullschleger, S., Loewith, R., & Hall, M. N. (2006). TOR signaling in growth and metabolism. Cell, 124(3), 471-484.
- Norton, L. E., & Layman, D. K. (2006). Leucine regulates translation initiation of protein synthesis in skeletal muscle after exercise. The Journal of nutrition, 136(2), 533S-537S.
- Wiśnik, P., Chmura, J., Ziemba, A. W., Mikulski, T., & Nazar, K. (2011). The effect of branched chain amino acids on psychomotor performance during treadmill exercise of changing intensity simulating a soccer game. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism, 36(6), 856-862.
- Blomstrand, E., Hassmén, P., Ek, S., Ekblom, B., & Newsholme, E. A. (1997). Influence of ingesting a solution of branched‐chain amino acids on perceived exertion during exercise. Acta Physiologica Scandinavica, 159(1), 41-49.
- Blomstrand, E. (2006). A role for branched-chain amino acids in reducing central fatigue. The Journal of nutrition, 136(2), 544S-547S.
- Blomstrand, E., Hassmen, P., Ekblom, B., & Newsholme, E. A. (1991). Administration of branched-chain amino acids during sustained exercise—effects on performance and on plasma concentration of some amino acids. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology, 63(2), 83-88.
- Gualano, A. B., Bozza, T., Lopes, D. C. P., Roschel, H., Dos Santos, C. A., Luiz, M. M., … & Herbert, L. J. A. (2011). Branched-chain amino acids supplementation enhances exercise capacity and lipid oxidation during endurance exercise after muscle glycogen depletion. The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness, 51(1), 82-88.
- Watson, R. T., & Pessin, J. E. (2006). Bridging the GAP between insulin signaling and GLUT4 translocation. Trends in biochemical sciences, 31(4), 215-222.