Performance enhancing supplements – a primer on BCAA’s (with experience)

Branched chain amino acids are supported by a wealth of research. Perhaps only inferior in terms of scientific support to creatine.

Study after study backs creatine. BCAA’s are backed by many studies too. They’re also a supplement we keep hearing great things about, and the typical impatient gym goer finds themselves ever tempted to see if there’s magic behind the noise.

BCAA’s are three essential amino acids: Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine.

For those unaware, ‘essential’ in this case means these are amino acids which cannot be produced by the body. And therefore must be obtained externally (diet/supplements).They are readily available from foods though. Animal proteins, dairy, and through correct combination of legumes, nuts, seeds and grains. The latter being incomplete proteins (not containing a full set of the essential aminos) – but when combined, they complete and compliment each other.

So based on this knowledge, we can say BCAA supplements aren’t mandatory at all.

A diet with sufficient overall calories – particularly protein and carb dense – will aptly supply all three magic aminos found in BCAA’s you’ll ever need. It’s when your diet isn’t supplying these amino acids adequately, that BCAA’s can be a godsend.

Two scenarios immediately come to mind where I believe BCAA supplementation may be viable. Anyone dieting down, and when I say ‘dieting down’, I am referencing a pretty aggressive approach. The form of approach that’s coupled with a deadline: Physique competitions, photoshoots, vacations and maybe even weddings. Shorter dieting periods will usually entail hypo-caloric energy restrictions. These calorie deficits pose a threat to precious muscle tissue. When calories are below maintenance – or significantly below maintenance, you need a plethora of protein present to act as a protective mechanism for muscle tissue.

In such cases, BCAA’s would offer those muscle protection properties.

The second scenario that could exploit the use of BCAA’s, would be those forced – (by lifestyle schedules) – to train in a fasted state. When there simply isn’t the time allowance to prepare a solid meal, eat and optimally digest it in addition. For them it’s: Train in the morning or don’t train at all? The former is the wiser answer.

I must highlight though, that even in scenarios such as this, BCAA’s may not be essential either. Overall nutritional consistency will determine how vital or warranted BCAA’s are. If said person is enjoying a large meal the night prior, and the meal is particularly rich in carbohydrates, then their muscle glycogen should be adequate to cover a productive and effective workout in the upcoming morning.

Only in scenarios where the person is very lean, (under 10 % bodyfat for men; women 18% or so), hasn’t stocked up on glycogen (via carb consumption) in the 12-18 hours previous, and whose schedules are rigid – would I then possibly suggest the use of BCAA’s.

Furthermore, the body processes free form BCAAs without the use of the liver or small intestine. They enter the blood stream rapidly. Accordingly, there’s a minimal waiting period for them to ‘get to work’. Hence their applicability to the aforementioned scenario(s).

Performance enhancement? 

Research is a little sketchy regarding definitively, whether BCAAs are useful for blunting fatigue and promoting greater endurance capacity. A common theory is BCAAs are processed by the same carrier system in the brain as Tryptophan.

Tryptophan is an amino acid also. It is a precursor to serotonin production; serotonin being a “yin” neurotransmitter: It is soft in nature and involved in anxiety release, relaxation and stress management. The premise is, the intake of BCAAs will suppress the natural rise of tryptophan during exercise; halt serotonin and subsequently allow one to train longer. (1)

This does make sense in theory, and some studies have made strong allusions to a connection between intra-exercise BCAA intake and fatigue resistance. (2) Other studies point towards BCAA use lowering the rate of perceived exertion during performance tests. (3) It seems at the very least, BCAAs could offer a positive placebo effect in terms of endurance.

Protein synthesis –

BCAAs – leucine in particular – have been shown to illicit greater rates of muscular protein synthesis (4). Primarily after physical exercise. This synthesis of protein is a key factor in how much you consume (in any complete form), actually goes towards the muscle tissue regrowth and repair process. This explains why bodybuilders will take BCAAs near the back end of their workouts. So when they eat a post-workout meal/consume powder, they are trying to optimize the ratio of protein used in the rebuilding of muscle tissue.

Also, the ingestion of BCAAs will prevent further potential muscle breakdown that’s coupled with workouts surpassing 45 minutes or so in duration. Their presence will halt the rise of cortisol and it’s catabolic properties when timed intelligently.

This makes logical sense. And science seems to support this phenomenon.

Conclusions & some personal experience – 

I’ve used BCAAs in the past, and in all honesty I haven’t noticed any detriment to terminating my use. I was encouraged to try them as I was eating quite low-carb at the time, and wasn’t eating carbs pre-workout. It’s also worth consideration, that my dosage was on the conservative side when compared to some guidelines. I took 5 grams pre and post workout, only on workout days. Again, this is because if I were to follow the directions on the products and even on some websites (generally affiliated with supplement companies), I would be getting through at least 2 tubs of capsules per week!

Many claim doses of 10 grams pre, during and post workout are ‘optimal’ for noticeable results. Similar sources advocate consuming them on rest days too – between meals. It’s easy to see how this becomes less of a “are BCAAs good?” issue, and more a…….”does my budget allow BCAAs?” predicament.

The expense is just not feasible (with general finances), for someone with traditional training frequency and volume – i.e. once per day, 3-4 times per week, 45 mins per session.

If performance was of absolute necessity, as among athletic populations, then given the research……I’d strongly consider the supplementation of BCAAs.

This is a completely unbiased and hopefully detailed, summary of branched chain amino acids. This is also coming from a source completely unaffiliated with any supplement company – unlike many other sources. I’m offering a neutral view intended to aid anyone who’s debated whether to use BCAAs.

Takeaways –

  • The majority don’t need BCAAs.
  • BCAAs are beneficial for those who have no option but to train fasted.
  • Those with poor performance capacity may benefit from the usage of BCAAs.
  • Those with diets lacking in protein, carbs and/or calories may reap greater benefits from BCAAs than those with adequate nutrition.
  • Be wary of suggested dosages. Start low and increase in absence of results.
  • They can be purchased in capsule form and powder form. Powder form tends to last longer, but tastes worse and needs to be mixed with water etc…
  • BCAAs aren’t wonder pills, you still have to train smart and in a manner that promotes super-compensation. Which is hard work with plenty of progressive overload.
  • All supplements are just that……..SUPPLEMENTS! An adequate diet will reduce the demand for any supplements (generally)
  • If your budget is flexible enough, by all means experiment with BCAAs. They can only offer positives. But if the criteria I’ve alluded to is inapplicable to you, the benefits you’ll see may not be as obvious or instant.
  • If you do indeed use BCAAs, the primary result you’re likely to see is greater training volume tolerance and reduced post workout soreness (DOMS)

Have you had any experience with BCAAs?

References:

1: Castell LM, Yamamoto T, Phoenix J, Newsholme EA. The role of tryptophan in
fatigue in different conditions of stress. Adv Exp Med Biol. 1999;467:697-704.
Review. PubMed PMID: 10721121.
2: Blomstrand E. Amino acids and central fatigue. Amino Acids. 2001;20(1):25-34. 
Review. PubMed PMID: 11310928.

3: Blomstrand E. A role for branched-chain amino acids in reducing central
fatigue. J Nutr. 2006 Feb;136(2):544S-547S. PubMed PMID: 16424144.
4: Blomstrand E, Eliasson J, Karlsson HK, Köhnke R. Branched-chain amino acids
activate key enzymes in protein synthesis after physical exercise. J Nutr. 2006
Jan;136(1 Suppl):269S-73S. Review. PubMed PMID: 16365096.
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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Dave E, RD says:

    Good info. I always here good things about BCAA but have never tried due to cost/need.

    Mybelief is they are useless based how the liver handles amino acids but if I’m being honest, I have not tried the, so I have no clue

    Like

    1. I’m always hearing people intrigued by them, so I felt compelled to do a write up. But from experience, they definitely AREN’T needed at all. And there’s plenty of strong guys who’ve never touched them! I honestly think much of the hype is due to marketing strategies and affiliations.

      Liked by 1 person

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