What Are BCAAs – Branch Chain Amino Acids?
You should be familiar with the main macro nutrients – carbohydrates, proteins and fats – and that carbohydrate and protein are both essential for muscle development. BCAA’s are also vital to healthy muscular development. They are found in many food sources to varying degrees.
After intensive exercise the body starts to synthesize proteins in the muscle (process called catabolism). This acts to breakdown muscle tissue for energy. Studies have shown that increasing BCAA levels can reduce protein deterioration after exercise. If you are trying to improve performance or muscle growth then avoiding muscle breakdown is as important as aiding new muscle growth.
BCAA’s are 3 of the 9 essential amino acids. Essential amino acids are ones that cannot created by the human body so must be present in the diet, there are 20 amino acids in total, 11 of which can be synthesized by humans from other nutrients.
BCAA’s received widespread attention in 2010 after reports that BCAAs may prolong human lifespan. The research by D’Antona et al (2010) published in Cell Metabolism discussed how BCAA improved age related muscle deterioration as well as other health factors, although the research was conducted on mice.
Many bodybuilders and athletes have reported that consuming protein that is higher in these 3 amino-acids leads to better muscular growth and development than more general protein supplements. BCCAs can be used as an energy source in muscles and so conserves glucose levels. Also, research has shown that weight loss diets that include proteins and amino acids lead to less muscle wastage. Such a diet plan is our Whey Protein and Amino Acid Diet Plan.
3 Essential Amino Acids of BCAA
The 3 amino-acids are called leucine, isoleucine and valine.
- Leucine is used in the formation of sterols (essential for cellular health) and is the only dietary protein that stimulates muscle protein synthesis. Food sources include soy protein concentrate, peanuts, wheat germ, almonds, oats, pinto beans, lentils and chickpeas.
- Isoleucine is used in the formation of hemoglobin, it helps to regulate blood sugar levels as well as muscular development. Main food sources are eggs, soy protein, seaweed, turkey, chicken, lamb, cheese and fish.
- Valine is needed for muscle metabolism, repair and growth. It helps to manage nitrogen levels in the body. Food sources include dairy, meats, grains, mushrooms, soy protein and peanuts.
General recommendations for athletes and bodybuilders is to take 5g leucine, 4g valine and 2g isoleucine each day. However, not all protein sources are the same, different sources contain varying amounts of HCAA.
Some whey supplements provide additional BCAA, for example Whey Supreme from Ultimate Nutrition contains:
- L-Leucine 2680mg
- L-Isoleucine 1294mg
- L-Valine 1003mg
Two servings a day should provide adequate HCAA to ensure you maintain a healthy immune system and muscle health. All whey proteins contain these BCAAs though, you do not need to take one with an additional BCAA supplement unless you really feel that you want to experiment with more essential amino-acids.
When To Take BCAA
There have been some studies to determine to role of BCAAs in muscle development, and these have provided some insights into how and when the body uses the additional BCAA supplements.
According to Blomstrand and Saltin (2001) BCAA’s only need to be taken after exercising to aid muscle recovery. Their studies showed that taking BCAA supplements led to an anabolic effect on protein metabolism and a reduction in protein degradation after exercise.
“The main findings in the present study suggest that BCAA have an anabolic effect on muscle protein metabolism during the recovery period after exercise rather than during the actual exercise. It is not possible with certainty from the present data to make conclusions about whether the initial muscle glycogen level influences the effect of BCAA during recovery. Ingestion of BCAA repeatedly during exercise and recovery in an amount of 100 mg/kg body weight does not increase the rate of release of ammonia from the muscle.”
This suggests that the best time to take BCAA is after exercising. However, many bodybuilders also suggest taking it several times per day.
There is an article on a forum thread at Bodybuilding.com which discusses various BCAA options, here is one of them:
- 10-15g upon waking. This will get you quickly back into a positive nitrogen balance after fasting for 6+ hours while sleeping.
- 5-20g preworkout. Help give you some extra energy before you workout. Personally I take 15g preworkout and feel much stronger and more energized than when I forget to.
- 5-15g during workout
- 5-20g post workout with carbs followed 15 minutes later by another protein source (I take my BCAA with some malto/dex and then whey 15 minutes later)
However, as seems to be the case with any discussion regarding bodybuilding supplementation, there is a lot of debate over which method is best.
Koba (2007) and Coombes (2000) both tested varying rates of BCAA supplementation on muscle soreness after endurance exercise, and also examined the effect of BCAA supplementation on reducing muscle loss during recovery. Their conclusions suggested that somewhere between 3 and 12 grams taken in a carbohydrate based sports drink an hour before exercising has the greatest benefit.
Also sipping on a drink containing BCAA during a workout was shown to benefit recovery when a session lasted for longer than an hour.
The size of the supplement should be changed according to the size of the athlete. Small female athletes need only to take around 4 grams, whereas larger bodybuilders (over 200 pounds / 90kg) should take 8-9 grams. Schena et al (1992) suggest that endurance athletes, such as marathon runners and cyclists, should take up to 12 grams.
Remember that if you are already taking a whey protein supplement this will contain some BCAA already. Some contain over 5g in a standard serving, so always read the label.
Another Recommended Dosage
This recommended dosage is suggested by a bodybuilding blogger. The advice is for those that are training several times a week with a medium intensity / medium volume system based on 5 sets of 5 reps for each exercise, 3 times a week;
“You need High quality protein rich in BCAA’s (Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine) with ratio of 2:1:1.
1 scoop of Whey protein has only 5 grams of BCAA’s (2.5 gm of leucine, 1.25 gm of isoleucine and 1.25 gm of valine) from 24 gm of protein in 30 gm scoop of whey.
1 egg white = 3 grams of protein with 2.18 gm of BCAA’s. (1.09gm of leucine, 0.54gm of isoleucine and 0.54gm of valine)
It’ll b much better to take 3 egg (6.54gm of BCAA’s) whites rather than 1 scoop of whey (5 gm of BCAA’s)”
His recommendations are to just have more egg whites. This seems to be the method used by the pro-bodybuilders such as Jay Cutler who can eat 30 egg whites in a day. Also the ratio of 2:1:1 is close to the ratio provided in the specialist BCAA Whey Protein supplement from Ultimate Nutrition.
HCAA Reduces Muscle Soreness
Shimomura (2004) noted that supplementing diets with HCAA also helped to reduce muscle soreness after exercise, which suggests that it does indeed suppress the breakdown of muscle tissue. Although the exact reason for DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) is not totally understoon, one theory is that they are caused by inflammation that results from damaged muscle tissue.
“The amino acid supplement also diminished muscle soreness that usually follows exercise. BCAA supplementation before and after exercise has beneficial effects for decreasing exercise-induced muscle damage and promoting muscle-protein synthesis; this suggests that BCAAs may be a useful supplement in relation to exercise and sports. Although in many human exercise studies, a dose of >5 g of BCAA was used as a supplement, the minimum dose to produce the beneficial effects of BCAA supplementation remains to be established.” Shimomura (2004)
There is certainly a lot of evidence that taking BCAAs is recommended if you are exercising intensively, however how much you take and exactly when you take them is still open to some debate.
It is always best to ensure that your diet provides as a good variety of foods which contain essential amino-acids, so before relying on supplements ensure that you are eating plenty of eggs, soy protein, seaweed, turkey, chicken, lamb, cheese and fish, dairy, grains and mushrooms. Remember, to supplement is to top up your diet, not to replace or substitute.
“BCAA intake affects protein metabolism in muscle after but not during exercise in humans” by Eva Blomstrand and Bengt Saltin. Pub. in American Physiological Society – Endo August 2001 vol. 281 no. 2 E365-E374. Full article.
“Branched-Chain Amino Acid Supplementation Promotes Survival and Supports Cardiac and Skeletal Muscle Mitochondrial Biogenesis in Middle-Aged Mice.” D’Antona G, Ragni M, Cardile A et al. Cell Metabolism, Volume 12, Issue 4, 362-372, 6 October 2010. Article
“Exercise Promotes BCAA Catabolism: Effects of BCAA Supplementation on Skeletal Muscle during Exercise” by Yoshiharu Shimomura, Taro Murakami, Naoya Nakai, Masaru Nagasaki and Robert A. Harris. The American Society for Nutritional Sciences J. Nutr. 134:1583S-1587S, June 2004
“Branched-chain amino acids supplementation attenuates the accumulation of blood lactate dehydrogenase during distance running.” by Koba T, Hamada K, Sakurai M et al. Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2007;47(3):316-22.“Effects of branched-chain amino acid supplementation on serum creatine kinase and lactate dehydrogenase after prolonged exercise.” By Coombes JS, McNaughton LR. J Sports Med Phys Fitness 2000;40(3):240-246.”Branched-chain amino acid supplementation during trekking at high altitude. The effects on loss of body mass, body composition, and muscle power.” Schena F, Guerrini F, Tregnaghi P, Kayser B. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1992;65(5):394-8