BCAAs: The Benefits Of Branched-Chain Amino Acid Supplements

by Carmen Grange


     In earlier articles, I’ve discussed the importance of whey and casein protein supplementation in relation to exercise, and I even discuss the differences between the two proteins and when it’s best to consume them; however, I left out one very popular protein supplement that fitness enthusiasts ingest as well…BCAAs.  


     What are BCAAs?  Branched-chain amino acids (aka BCAAs) are essential nutrients found in various types of proteins.  The term “branched-chain” refers to the chemical structure of the products, while “amino acids” refers to proteins.  In this case, we are referring to 3 proteins (leucine, isoleucine, and valine).  These 3 proteins make up half of the amino acids that can be metabolized my muscle, and their combination may be the perfect tool for enhancing certain aspects of exercise if used properly.


     BCAAs are typically used as an intra-workout supplement.  Would you believe me if I told you that supplementing these proteins during your workout is pointless?  You probably wouldn’t believe me…but you should.  Nearly everyone you talk to in the gym, or anyone who regularly participates in some kind of exercise regimen can tell you that the body metabolizes carbohydrates, fats, AND proteins during exercise: so, it only seems right to supplement with those macronutrients during your workout, right?  In some cases, yes.  But in the case of BCAAs, no.  During exercise, skeletal muscle allows for an influx of BCAAs from the liver, so common sense would tell you to supplement with BCAAs during your workout to allow for a greater influx of protein to the muscle, but common sense does not work in this case.  In fact, research tells us that intra-workout BCAAs supplementation has a negligible impact on skeletal muscle.  Finding out this truth about branched-chain amino acids may be a bit hard to swallow, because if you look on the instruction panel of most BCAAs supplements it will tell you to ingest the protein blend during your workout.  Not only that but if you cease to consume BCAAs during your workout, your water has lost its flavor.  No matter, though, taking BCAA during your workout won’t hurt any, so if you feel the need to spice up your intra-workout water consumption, feel free to supplement away, but if you’re doing it for the results it has the potential to yield, continue reading.


     Interestingly, BCAAs provides multiple benefits, some relating to protein and others a bit further from it.  The secret, however, is to consume BCAAs before and/or after your workout.  If you read the article on whey protein, you know that whey is most beneficial if consumed just before and right after exercise, and BCAAs are no different.  The benefits provided from the protein blend are best observed when consumed just before and right after exercise.  And just like with whey protein, the main impact provided by BCAAs is an increase in protein synthesis.  That means that if your goal is to get bigger, stronger, or more “toned”, BCAAs will help you get there more quickly if supplemented properly.


     In addition to enhanced protein synthesis, BCAAs supplementation is useful in decreasing the effects of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).  This is that achy, tired feeling your muscles exhibit 2-3 days after exercise.  Some of us enjoy that feeling, while others of us could certainly do without it.  If you’re one of those people who does not look forward to muscle soreness, BCAAs supplementation of approximately 92-100 mg/kg body weight will help elicit an approximate muscle soreness reduction of 20% in the days following exercise.  But that isn’t the only benefit: three benefits as a result of branched-chain amino acid supplementation work in accordance with one another: increased performance, increased lactate threshold, and decreased muscle fatigue.  As a result of BCAAs supplementation prior to exercise, the lactate threshold is increased causing muscular fatigue to be greatly reduced.  A higher lactate threshold indicates a slower rate of lactic acid release into the blood stream, allowing for more work to be done.  The more lactic acid that is in the blood, the more fatigued and sickly the body feels.  Similarly, the respiratory exchange ratio (aka RER) accounts for feelings of fatigue and athletic performance.  The RER is a value, which identifies how much CO2 is produced during metabolism and the amount O2 used.  The lower the value, the more efficient the muscle is (less fatigued), the more work can be done, the greater the performance.  Interestingly, while there is conflicting evidence on the topic, BCAAs supplementation leads to an increase in some of the fat metabolism signaling pathways and a decrease in insulin resistance, contributing to an increase in fat metabolism as an energy source and increased lean body mass.


     Exercise promotes BCAAs catabolism, therefore, supplementing with them prior to and after exercise will assist in protein synthesis, as well as several other attractive exercise-related characteristics.  BCAAs supplementation before exercise increases BCAAs as an energy source to the working muscle during exercise.  This oxidation of branched-chain amino acids promotes fatty acid oxidation, leading to the contribution of increased lean body mass, it increases the lactate threshold and decreased the RER, causing lesser muscle fatigue to occur, and it decreases the effects of DOMS in the days following exercise.  Because of these changes, as a result of BCAAs supplementation, it would be wise to consider adding the protein blend to your daily exercise regimen, keeping in mind that intra-workout ingestion is pointless beyond flavor, whereas pre- and post-workout consumption yield various benefits.


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