BCAA’s also known as Branch Chain Amino Acids are the building blocks of protein found in free form. They are comprised of three different BCAA’s, which are Leucine, isoleucine, and valine. The difference about these BCAA’s is that they are not made by our bodies but found in the foods we eat and the supplements we can take to gather those BCAA’s. BCAA’s are found in any protein source that you do eat or utilized in any BCAA supplement (or bulk powder). What makes these so significant for bodybuilding or an average athlete and what benefits can come from these products? Well that is exactly what this article is all about. I will also go into detail about science and research being done on BCAA’s and the views of many out there on why they may be beneficial and why they may not be beneficial.
Branch Chains first and foremost are not similar in free form compared to whole form like if you ate a chicken breast or had a whey protein shake. BCAA’s in free form are instantly digested. Meaning they are taken right into the blood stream with no digestion at all, this is why they are crucial at opportune times. The most important time to dose amino acids would be during your workout. Why? Because when you workout your body is constantly breaking down amino acids as you tear down your muscle. When your muscles are breaking down, how do you stop your body from going catabolic? Automatically restore those lost Amino’s with a BCAA product to keep the body in an anabolic state and slipping into a catabolic state. Hence why they are very important at this time. Another great time to use BCAA’s would be for fasted cardio or weight lifting (similar to above). Since the body has nothing in it and we are doing activities that can cause extensive breakdown of muscle BCAA’s would be very wisely utilized at these times.
Now my last stance on why these are important is a different method of dosing Branch Chain Amino’s Acids. A very smart individual named Layne Norton who is a competing natural pro, studies Branch Chains for a living, and is a very strong power lifter has put in quite a bit of research and has conducted a Muscle protein Synthesis study that shows how important these can be towards MPS (Muscle Protein Synthesis).
In his research he had individuals dose Amino acids between further spaced out meals. The current dogma that is preached in bodybuilding is eating every 2-3 hours to speed up the metabolism and keep the body in an anabolic state just got overturned with Layne’s research. He showed that eating more times per day decreased muscle protein synthesis due to the fact that there are still present Amino’s in the bloodstream and the constant spiking of protein without letting it reach its refractory stages did not have greater muscle protein synthesis compared to eating every 4-6 hours and dosing at least 3g of leucine (found in BCAA products or bulk leucine powder) is all that is needed to maximize the anabolic response of a meal. For example lets look at certain foods, which would produce around the same amount of leucine. Beef and Pork weighed in around 5.5 oz, approximately 5 large eggs, a little over 1 scoop of whey protein (getting around 27-30g of protein), or 7oz of fish would also provide the optimal amount of leucine to be eaten at your meals that would be further spaced apart and the Branch Chain/Leucine dosage in between.
Layne also showed with his research that leucine triggered mTOR signaling and MPS through refractory responses between meals (optimizing the amount of time necessary before spiking protein levels again). In other words that 3g of leucine you got in the above references to the protein source you chose may trigger MPS again in 4-6 hours and not in 3 hours like many bodybuilders preach. Muscles are still digesting that previous meal and protein can take several hours longer to digest than most people think. The last piece of information given in Layne’s research is that an additional 20-30g of carbohydrates taken between meals with 3g of leucine or a BCAA product can give a greater MPS response compared to dosing no carbohydrates alone. Not everyone will be able to do that given their overall carbohydrate intake, but that is some information to take into consideration if you do decide to give this a try in the future compared to your current meal frequency.
A few other sources I researched that showed benefits for Amino Acids were the American Journal of Physiology reinstating what I have already preached about Amino’s and stating that they can convert the catabolic state of working out into an anabolic state with post-workout or intra-workout dosage of Branch Chain Amino Acid supplements. Keeping a positive net protein balance from a negative (catabolic) to positive state (anabolic). The athletes that were studied in the American Journal also showed how well they were able to utilize phenylalanine (the absence of which causes stunted growth, energy, or overall recovery from training) at a rate of 70% greater dosing a Branch Chain Amino Acid supplement. Again this is reinstating the point of the anabolic response given from Amino Acids during a very opportune time in training. Some of the first studies done on Branch Chain products were on endurance athletes or runners, which again showed drastic, increased in overall recovery from day to day activity.
Now is there any conflicting research or thoughts on Branch Chain products? There was a Branch Chain Amino Acid roundtable with a few individuals that have written some incredible documents about nutrition and supplementation and they had to share their thoughts on their overall perspective. Martin Berkhan of Leangains.com who specialized in intermittent fasting (a different meal frequency pattern) stated that unless you are training fasted the use of BCAA’s will be gathered through whole foods alone granted you reach your protein levels for the day (at least 1-1.5g per pound of protein). He stated “there is no benefit showing excessive dosing of BCA’s because of how glucogenic they can be which is just adding excess glucose in the bloodstream.” The only time Martin would recommend dosing BCAA’s would be prior to fasted training (as stated above in the article) dosing at least 10g prior to workouts, and then every 2 hours after their workout until their first meal is consumed.
Alan Aragon’s thoughts is that BCAA is not necessary unless you are consuming enough BCAA’s through whole food protein (which he is in agreement with Martin). Alan continued to preach in his roundtable discussion that many individual’s are not aware of how many BCAA’s they get in real foods especially animal proteins (chicken, beef, fish etc.). Given an individual is meeting 1-1.5g of protein per day and getting adequate BCAA’s he has seen no additional research that dosing more BCAA’s or BCAA supplements is necessary given that individual has adequate pre/post workout nutrition to fuel their body for anabolism after breaking down their bodies from a workout. Even using BCAA’s himself and on his clients he has tried adjusting those clients to a higher protein intake and has seen visual evidence of improved body composition and performance
Last but not least a great writer named Lyle McDonald who has published multiple books regarding nutrition (such as The Protein Book, The stubborn Fat protocol, The Ultimate Diet, and many more) had a very generic stance on BCAA’s and that they do have benefits, but most individuals are already meeting BCAA requirement through whole food so increased usage may not be necessary. His stance is very similar to Alan Aragon’s. His statement off his website (bodyrecomposition.com) “In most studies BCAA’s had a benefit on recovery and triggering the anabolic state, but most of the studies done on BCAA”s involved inadequate protein intake to supply adequate BCAA levels through whole food.” Lyle also went on to say that BCAA’s may protect immune system and athletes involved in very heavy training, as they should only be used in 10-20g amounts if those bodybuilders or athletes have their diets taken care of. Adding in a small additional amount will only be a safety blanket especially if the individual is dieting in a caloric deficit.
With the research supporting both sides, and as Pubmed continues to pile out information regarding Branch Chain Amino Acids it is pretty clear that they do have benefits and they can also be a pricy investment given you match the standards above. My overall consensus on Branch Chains is that they should be viewed as a luxury. Supplements are exactly that, they supplement your diet and training as many of the individual above would agree. If you have money to spare on top of covering your basic supplements (whey, creatine, multi-vitamin, and fish-oils) then I would invest in a branch chain product to dose for my workouts. The benefits showed during resistance exercise/training is only going to help that individual in the long run. If you do have the money to dose as Layne Norton has showed in his MPS study then that would also be icing on the cake.