What Are BCAAs: A Short Guide to Branched Chain Amino Acids
I am sure you’ve seen BCAA products before, whether it be at your local supplement shop, gym counter, or in your buddy’s workout bag.
I will be the first to admit it: a lot of muscle building trends these days fade away as quickly as they emerge. But, BCAA supplements are not like that.
Nope, these branched chain amino acids boosters are here to stay because of the proven benefits they provide for beginner or pro athletes alike who are looking for an edge in their training.
In today’s article, I am going to go over all the facts about BCAA and how these branched chain amino acids supplements can be your new secret weapon to fitness, no matter what kind of sport or gym routine you follow.
What Exactly is a BCAA?
To understand BCAA and how they work, we need to talk science and biology for a brief moment here.
The first, most important thing to understand? Amino acids.
These are tiny organic compounds that work to build protein cells in your body. And, we have a lot of them! 21 in total, to be exact.
But, here is the catch: of these 21 different amino acids that are the building blocks of protein in our body (and therefore the makers of gains), 9 are singled out and labelled essential amino acids. This means that they are essential to building protein, but don’t occur naturally in our bodies. We need to consume them through our diet or supplement intake.
Now, let us break this down further. Of these 9 essential amino acids, 3 are called branched chain amino acids (science knows these guys as leucine, isoleucine, and valine).
Now, these branched chain amino acids are the superstars of muscle building. They grow, they repair, and they even regulate how your immune system functions- all things vital for optimal gym performance.
As I said, you can get these branched chain amino acids (or BCAA) from your diet, but we all know that no matter how intense your meal planning methods are, life happens.
If you want to increase your branched chain amino acids intake, BCAA supplements may be your best solution.
What are the Benefits of BCAA for Athletes?
I will start this section off by saying that BCAA foods and supplements have numerous benefits that naturally will vary for each person.
As I always advise, before you begin taking a new supplement or change your diet, it is best practice to first consult with a medical professional. Gains are great, but your core health comes first.
The first and most sought after benefit of increasing your branched chain amino acids with BCAA rich foods or supplements is muscle gains. These biological powerhouses are so effective at growing and repairing your muscles because they trigger muscle protein synthesis.
Keep in mind though, that branched chain amino acids are just 3 of the 21 amino acids our bodies need. So, if you are under the impression that all you need to do is consume a BCAA supplement and you’ll be shredded, think again.
All these amino acids work in tandem with each other, so think of BCAA supplements as an added helper to muscle growth alongside a solid diet (and maybe even a protein shake).
On that note, many protein powders contain a rich amount of BCAAs and amino acids which you can see on their nutritional label.
Research shows that BCAA compounds help an athlete’s recovery in two key ways: decreasing both muscle soreness and muscle fatigue.
Have you heard of DOMS? If not, I bet money that you’ve felt it. DOMS is delayed onset muscle soreness. It is essentially the reason why you feel okay right after an intense leg day, are sort of sore one day after, but the real killer muscle soreness kicks in two days following.
DOMS is caused by muscle tears, and because BCAA rich foods and supplements help repair those muscle tears faster, your DOMS can be reduced.
Similar logic works for the impact BCAA boosters have on muscle fatigue. BCAA supplements help restore an amino acid that lives in your brain and is in part responsible for serotonin production (it's called tryptophan). This is how some BCAA supplements can claim that they improve mental focus.
How to Increase your BCAA Intake
1. Eat BCAA Rich Foods
I recommend adding BCAA rich foods to your diet as a simple way to increase your branched chain amino acids levels, naturally. However, keep in mind that a balanced diet is key to health; too much of anything, even a good thing, can be unhealthy. Here is a list of my favorite foods that are high in branched chain amino acids.
2. Take BCAA Supplements
Athletes might opt for a BCAA supplement if they find that they are not consuming enough food-based proteins throughout the day, or if they want to increase their BCAA intake through the convenience of a supplement.
BCAA products most often come in two forms: power and tablet. There are benefits to both.
BCAA powders are popular as pre-workout or post-workout drinks. They mix easily with water and can be easily digested when you drink them, to get those building benefits to your muscles sooner. Side benefit: they can come in some delicious flavors.
On the flip side, BCAA tablets are convenient. No shaker cup or container and scoop needed, so they take up less space in your gym bag, too.
Here is the low down on how to add BCAA supplements to your workout routine: Most folks take BCAA products before their workout. I recommend up to 15 minutes before you start your training warm up. This can help boost your muscle protein synthesis throughout your workout, and reduce DOMs afterward.
Keep in mind though, many BCAA supplements are made differently which impacts the portion/serving size.
These Optimum Nutrition BCAAS come in tablet form, but powder form is also common.
The amount that you need to take depends on your individual size, age, gender, and activity level.
Read the product label and follow its guidelines carefully to ensure proper use and effectiveness.
Are BCAA Products Safe?
Yes. BCAA supplements are safe, as long as you are following the BCAA product’s recommended dosage and instructions.
Athletes who compete in drug test regulated federations might have concerns about whether or not BCAA supplements could result in a failed drug test.
The answer is no: BCAA powders and tablets are not considered performance enhancing drugs.
If you are worried, read the list of ingredients on the BCAA supplement you intend to take, and compare them to your federation’s banned substance list.
You may also want to consider that a lot of the supplement world does not need to adhere to the same regulations as the food we buy in grocery stores or medicine at a pharmacy. You want to make sure that you are purchasing your BCAA products from a reputable and reliable supplier.
Another point to keep in mind is that BCAA can get pretty pricey. For some people, that money might be better spent on purchasing whole foods to improve your diet.
If you are not sure which direction to go, I recommend talking with a registered dietitian to make sure your food is really fueling your workouts, and the supplements are just icing on the cake...or salmon on the brown rice.
BCAA Supplements: The Bottom Line
In summary, BCAA or branched chain amino acids are powerful protein building blocks that are naturally found in protein rich foods.
Additionally, you can increase your body’s branched chain amino acids levels by taking BCAA supplements.
These BCAA boosters can help athletes benefit from improved muscle growth and reduced fatigue, to push past even the most intense workouts.
If you are looking to take your training to the next level, BCAA products might be your key to longer runs and stronger lifts!