Branched Chain Amino Acids, or BCAA’s, are an important part of any balanced diet but it can be argued that they are even more important for those participating in a serious fitness regime to increase muscle mass. But to find out why, we must first understand what BCAA’s are, what they do, where they come from, and appropriate dosages for efficient use.
What are Branched Chain Amino Acids?
The term ‘branched-chain’ refers to the chemical structure of certain amino acids, where three or more carbon atoms are bound to a single central carbon atom. There are four known types of BCAA’s, the majority of which are proteinogenic, meaning that they create proteins during translation. 2-Aminoisobutyric Acid is the only one that is non-proteinogenic and is rarely found naturally.
Proteinogenic BCAA’s, on the other hand, is the bodies main source of fuel when it’s running low on glycogen stores. They deliver additional protein for burning, and therefore, energy when our bodies need it the most. This provides you with a boost in endurance as well as recovery.
Types of Proteinogenic BCAA’s
Of the four BCAA’s, three of them are proteinogenic and are able to create a variety of proteins without assistance from other functions. This makes proteinogenic BCAA’s a vital building block for structural and functional proteins that our bodies depend on. Altogether, the three Branched Chain Amino Acids make up about a third, or 70%, of the proteins found in our muscles.
Furthermore, BCAA’s are the main fuel source for anabolic reactions, so they provide a sensible and innocuous alternative to steroids. Together, they provide a wide range of training advantages such as enhanced muscle protein metabolism and a simultaneous decrease in exercise induced protein degradation. Additionally, they also assist oxidative metabolism in the muscles.
Leucine is considered to be an essential amino acid due to its wide range of metabolic functions.
- Muscle Health – Leucine is the most common BCAA supplement taken for muscle health, and for very good reason as it helps to promote both muscle and bone tissue recovery. One of the primary ways that it does this is by stimulating the release of insulin into the blood stream. The availability of insulin and other vital nutrients, such as amino acids and glucose, triggers muscle protein synthesis.
- Balanced Blood Sugar Levels – While many amino acids have the ability to produce glucose, Leucine is an adequate alternative for sugar while fasting. Additionally, Leucine is the fastest BCAA in the production of glucose, making it the most efficient amino acid of the three. Since the body heavily relies on glucose stores as its primary source of fuel, any additional intake in sugars will prevent the body from burning muscle for energy.
- Other Functions of Leucine – Some studies show that this particular Branched Chain Amino Acid significantly aids in the production of the human growth hormone (HGH). HGH is a key nutrient in muscle and bone growth, as well as the regulation of fat and sugar metabolism. Leucine may even be responsible for improved sensitivity to leptin, the hunger hormone, which helps you feel fuller for longer periods of time. . .
Isoleucine is an isomer of Leucine and provides similar functions, such as the regulation of blood sugar levels through the production of glucose, and muscle recovery.
- Increased Energy – As the body breaks down Isoleucine, it produces the same energy rich molecule as is produced by the breakdown of sugars, acetyl-CoA. Furthermore, Isoleucine produces ketone bodies in the heart and other body organs, providing additional energy. This provides a very rich source of fuel for the body, thus boosting energy levels and increasing endurance.
- Assists in Quicker Recovery – Not only does Isoleucine help to heal muscle tissue after intense exercise, but it also prevents muscle deterioration. In the case of serious injury, or sometimes even surgery, this BCAA has been known to promote tissue repair. When you consider all of these benefits together, it is clear why BCAA’s are a preferred choice among athletes and body builders alike.
Valine is the final proteinogenic Branched Chain Amino Acid. Similar to leucine and isoleucine, this BCAA aids glucose levels and muscle recovery.
- Positive Nitrogen Levels – The consumption of valine has been known to help support a healthy balance between anabolism and catabolism, which is known as nitrogen balance. Maintaining a positive nitrogen balance leads to better overall health, such as improved healing and muscle building. Having a negative nitrogen balance, on the other hand, may cause the liver to become overworked due to having to handle excess nitrogenous waste.
- Improved Cognition –There are several health benefits associated with this particular BCAA, many of which have to do with enhanced mental stamina, better control over emotions, and overall cognition improvement. It has also been known to help alleviate disorders such as anxiety and insomnia. Additionally, valine has been shown to improve the function of the immune system, as well as appetite and muscle coordination.
Where Do BCAA’s Come From?
There are no processes or systems within our bodies that naturally produce BCAA’s, which means that the only way we get them into our system is by ingesting them. They can either be through proteins found in food or through supplements.
BCAA’s found in food are obtained primarily from animal protein, but there are some non-meat products which have a good amount of BCAA’s. Some of these foods include:
- Chicken breast
- Turkey breast
- Eggs (3 per serving)
- Lean beef
- Wild salmon
- Brown rice
- Legumes such as peas, beans, and nuts
If you are not getting enough BCAA’s through your diet, you can also try supplements. However, there are a few things that you should look out for when choosing your preferred supplement. First, do your research to ensure that any chosen supplements are certified by a reputable group. This will make sure that you are getting true BCAA supplements, instead of some cheap knock-off.
When and How Much BCAA’s Should You Take?
The Best Time to Take Branched Chain Amino Acids
Deciding when to take BCAA’s depends on your goals. This is because taking them before you exercise has different effects on the body than when you take them after working out.
Where you get your BCAA matters too. Supplements take effect much faster than BCAA from animal protein. This makes supplements a good option for those who don’t like to exercise with food in their stomach, and they can be taken directly before working out. Since it takes the body longer to fully digest whole foods, consumption of animal protein should be done at least an hour before exercise.
- Pre-Workout – Taking Branched Chain Amino Acids before you work out can positively impact muscle development. They are the most beneficial when paired with an intense exercise routine, such as High-Intensity Interval Training. This is because high-intensity work outs are likely to cause small tears in the muscle, and when that muscle begins to repair itself, it becomes stronger than it was prior. Taking BCAA’s shortly before the work out speeds up muscle recovery, meaning that you will experience reduced muscle soreness as well.
- Intra-Workout – Taking BCAA’s as you exercise, on the other hand, helps to further improve cognition functions. They also assist in reducing feelings of fatigue and body tiredness by keeping you alert. Additionally, if fasting is a part of your fitness plan, consuming BCAA’s during exercise will give you a much-needed boost in physical performance.
- Post-Workout – Taking BCAA’s after you exercise is the least beneficial to your health. Consuming them can also be insignificant when you are already in the habit of taking other nutrient supplements, such as a whey protein shake. However, BCAA’s have been known to aid the body in achieving and maintaining an anabolic state, which is good for you regardless of your weight goals.
The Appropriate Dosage
The ideal dose for men is five to ten grams, whereas the ideal dose for women is three to five grams. You can get that amount by consuming approximately one ounce of cooked animal protein for every gram of BCAA.
For supplements in the form of capsules, the specific dosage will be on the packaging and should be followed. Supplements also come in the form of BCAA powder, which can be taken in 5-gram doses, two to four times a day. Regardless of what type of supplement you choose, you should look for something with a higher ratio of leucine over isoleucine or valine such as 2:1:1 or 3:1:1, as that will increase health benefits.
What Do BCAA’s Do for Your Health?
Branched Chain Amino Acids have many health advantages. For starters, they increase valuable nutrients and molecules within the body. This initiates various other processes and functions which lead to additional improvements in health.
Some of these benefits include:
- Protein Synthesis – One of the biggest draws of Branched Chain Amino Acids is their ability to accelerate protein synthesis. BCAA’s are able to increase the rate of protein synthesis, more so than usual dietary protein, since they are already made up of the appropriate amino acids that are needed to carry out the reaction. Not only does this mean that protein synthesis can be achieved faster, but the cells that perform the process are able to do so at a much higher rate.
- Balanced Glycogen Stores – BCAA’s make workouts more efficient by helping to preserve glycogen stores within the body. This creates additional fuel for your muscles while diminishing the breakdown of protein during physical activity. This ultimately leads to quicker recovery times after intense work outs as well as substantial gains in physical fitness over time.
- Improved Strength and Endurance – An increase in strength and stamina comes as a result of several of the processes that Branched Chain Amino Acids initiate. Increased fuel for the body through both protein and glycogen and the excess energy that it creates, paired with amplified muscle recovery and building, leads to growth in overall strength and endurance.
- Significant Fat and Weight Loss –Fat burning exercises, such as cardio, can sometimes burn muscle as well. Since BCAA’s help to reduce the breakdown of protein, and therefore the burning of muscle, the body burns an additional amount of fat than it would otherwise. This leads to higher fat, and ultimately, weight loss.
- Decreased Fatigue – Another great benefit of BCAA’s is their ability to reduce tiredness. This is especially helpful during training sessions, which are typically strenuous on energy supplies. There are two ways that BCAA’s diminish fatigue. First is the additional energy that the excess of protein provides to muscles. The second way is by hindering the production of serotonin, which has been known to make the body feel tired quicker.
- Decreased Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) – DOMS is the muscle pain that is common during the days following an exercise regime that is either intense or works out new muscles. Fortunately, the excess protein provided by BCAA’s help to repair and build muscle faster. This makes it so that you will experience significantly reduced soreness after working out.
- Improved Concentration – Branched Chain Amino Acids stimulate the central nervous system and aid the transport of tryptophan across the blood-brain barrier. This improves the brain's ability to focus for longer periods of time by reducing distractions and increasing awareness.
The three Branched Chain Amino Acids, leucine, isoleucine, and valine assist in boosting overall health while offering specific benefits to the athlete or body builder. One of the most appealing side effects among trainers seems to be their known ability to advance muscle repair and growth, which is crucial to the body during times of intense training. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that Branched Chain Amino Acids have many functions and benefits that increase the work outs effectiveness.
Article by: Marc Shulman
Divided Labs Athlete
2014 Mr Illinois Bodybuilding Champion
Nationally Accredited Trainer