What if you could take a supplement that would make you stronger, aid fat loss, and preserve your lean muscle all at the same time…
Sound too good to be true?
In recent years, branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) have come back into ‘vogue’ in the fitness and bodybuilding communities.
One reason for this is the promise to protect the muscles against the catabolic effects of a low calorie intake.
This has made BCAAs a hot product for those wanting to take their physiques to the lean extreme, as well as those simply wanting to lose a few pounds.
Protein, Amino Acids and BCAAs
As I’ve mentioned many times here in the past, good quality protein sources are absolutely essential for optimal health.
If we think specifically about muscle growth, the muscles cannot grow without protein, so you need to get it into your body somehow, preferably from sources like lean meats, poultry, fish, legumes, eggs, nuts and dairy, but other acceptable sources include whey protein and BCAAs.
So, what are BCAAs?
The building blocks of proteins are amino acids, and there are 22 amino acids in total. Some of these are deemed essential, and some are non-essential.
The 9 essential amino acids, which cannot be synthesized by the body are;
It is specifically the ‘branched chain amino acids,’ I want to focus on today, namely leucine, isoleucine and valine.
They make up approximately 1/3 of muscle protein. In this they are unlike the other amino acids, which are metabolized in the liver.
The fact that leucine, isoleucine, and valine are metabolized within muscle tissue allows them to be a quick energy source when the body needs it.
Why Take BCAAs?
You may, however, be wondering why you would want to take BCAAs rather than relying on a healthy diet to supply all of your protein needs.
Well, it’s true that for many people a BCAA supplement is unnecessary.
But not for all, and so I want us to take a closer look at some of the main BCAA benefits…
1. BCAAs Make You Stronger
For any of you who are exercising regularly, I imagine one of your aims is to become stronger, and gain a little muscle.
As you know, muscle is more metabolically active, which means you’ll end up burning more calories, even at rest.
Now, I’m not talking Schwarzenegger-style here! But, being lean and toned is a fantastic goal to have whether you’re 20 years old, or 70 years old.
And, research suggests that amino acid supplementation (BCAAs) can actually help you become more muscular and stronger.
One review into this area concluded that taking BCAAs before or during endurance exercise may prevent or decrease the rate of protein degradation, and may improve both mental and physical performance.
Improving performance during training is of utmost importance no matter what your fitness goals are, whether you’re an athlete, bodybuilder, or someone involved in a form of intense exercise, there are benefits to be had by supplementing with BCAAs.
2. BCAAs Aid Fat Loss
As I’ve mentioned already, often when people follow very low calorie diets they end up losing muscle as a result.
However, BCAAs have been shown to help limit this lean muscle loss.
In fact, consuming just 12 grams of BCAAs per day led to significantly less muscle breakdown in one study.
This could be incredibly important if you are dieting.
Maintaining your lean mass is absolutely vital for maximizing your fat loss potential. The last thing you want to be doing is losing muscle.
BCAAs are also connected with increasing visceral fat loss.
Visceral fat is the deadly fat which accumulates around your central organs, and can wreak havoc on your health. One study concluded;
The combination of moderate energy restriction and BCAA supplementation induced significant and preferential losses of VAT (visceral adipose tissue), and allowed maintainance of a high level of performance.
So, combining a lower calorie intake with a BCAA supplement, could significantly help you to lose fat around your middle.
This is very exciting research, considering how problematic many find losing weight from the mid-section to be.
3. BCAAs Prevent Muscle Loss
When your body is under stress (i.e. intense exercise), or when you take a break from training and do very little physical activity, you are at a risk of losing lean muscle to some extent.
This is of particular significance in surgical patients, and for that reason there has been some very interesting research around this area.
In one study, patients who were given BCAAs did not move into negative nitrogen balance (indicative of lean muscle loss) during their recovery period;
The results suggest that early nutritional suppport in the postoperative period will result in nitrogen equilibrium and that the infusion of the three BCAAs only in the postoperative state is as effective in preventing muscle catabolism as other more balanced amino acid solutions.
They also suggested that those out of action due to serious injury could benefit from a BCAA supplement to help speed the rate of recovery.
There is very promising evidence that a rapid influx of amino acids into the muscle cells immediately after training will protect the muscle from break down.
One study concluded;
These data suggest that BCAA supplementation results in significantly greater muscle NH3 (ammonia) production during exercise. Furthermore, the increased intramuscular and arterial BCAA levels before and during exercise result in a suppression of endogenous muscle protein breakdown during exercise.
Another interesting study compared blood levels of amino acids after each of three possible treatments; branched chain amino acids (trial 1); cottage cheese (trial 2), or a mix of the two (trial 3).
Each treatment consisted of a similar range of amino acids, and totaled about 23g protein, 5g carbohydrate and 2g fat.
This is a fantastic comparison, since it allows us to see what effect BCAA supplement verses a real food protein source has on the body.
After 15 minutes, the first and third treatments produced a much higher level of circulating amino acids than the whole protein group.
This research demonstrates that the use of a BCAA supplement immediately after training may be beneficial.
BCAAs vs Whey Protein
I am a big fan of whey protein, if you are looking for a good quality protein source to take in liquid form.
But, the evidence definitely sides with the BCAAs.
The thing is, the BCAAs found in whey protein are bound to other amino acids. That means they need to be freed via digestion, and then absorbed into the bloodstream.
Actually, whey protein is pretty fast digesting, but it’s not to be compared to BCAAs in that sense.
BCAAs are in a free form, so they don’t need to be digested.
This means they can rapidly be absorbed into the bloodstream, and therefore a small amount of BCAAs will raise plasma levels to a much greater extent than a larger dose of whey protein.
Think about it this way, an oral supplement of BCAAs is more like an infusion, reaching the bloodstream rapidly, and therefore having a rapid impact on protein synthesis.
Which BCAAs Should You Take?
If you’re interested in using a BCAA supplement, my personal recommendation is Biotrust BCAA Matrix.
This is a fantastic product, because it has a double dose of leucine for a 4:1:1 (leucine:isoleucine:valine) ratio, which other BCAA products do not have.
Why is this important?
Well, leucine’s muscle-sparing effects are greater than that of the other two BCAAs, so a bigger dose of this is a good thing.
And secondly, research suggests that a BCAA blend with a high level of leucine can actually help get rid of belly fat .
I’ve looked at a number of BCAA products in recent days, and this is hands-down the best product currently on the market.
If you check out their BCAA research page, you’ll see they’re offering a generous 20% discount at the minute, too.
When To Take BCAAs
A common recommendation for taking BCAA supplementation is to consume it before an early morning training session.
This is ideal, if you are someone who prefers to train on an empty stomach.
As I discussed in a recent post about morning exercise, supporters of fasted exercise emphasize the idea that working out on empty forces your body to burn stored fat as you workout.
But, some critics of this point out that while you may burn more fat during your workout on an empty stomach, your overall workout output will be lower.
This is why taking BCAAs in the morning is the perfect solution, because they do not inhibit the oxidation of carbohydrates and fats, yet they work to maintain your lean muscle mass, as well as boosting performance and delaying fatigue.
If this is something you’d like to try, the standard recommendation it to take one dose during, or immediately following exercise, then another just before bed.
What are your thoughts on taking BCAAs? Is this something you would consider? Or, perhaps you currently use this supplement, please share your insight with us below…