You’ve probably heard people talking about them, but if you’re anything like me you’re sitting there wondering “What the heck are BCAA’s?!” Well, here’s a brief explanation to help you understand what they are, what they are doing in your body, and how you can benefit from adding them into your diet.
Quick refresher- there are 22 standard amino acids necessary for producing hormones, enzymes, proteins, and maintaining basically every biological process in your body. Of those 22, nine are considered “essential amino acids” because they are not naturally produced by your body, and you must obtain them through food and/or supplemental sources. Of those nine, three are called Branched-Chain Amino Acids, or BCAA’s. These three are leucine, isoleucine and valine, and they do a LOT of things for your body. Primarily, they stimulate protein synthesis which builds and strengthens your muscle fibers. Leucine is the key BCAA for protein synthesis, increasing the rate by as much as 145% when taken after strength training(1). BCAA’s not only help your body synthesize protein, but they can potentially increase your cells’ capacity for protein synthesis, so you can build more muscle, faster. It’s been shown that those who consume adequate amounts of BCAAs have more lean mass, and less belly fat.
While the science behind BCAAs and protein synthesis is still being explored, there has also been research devoted to understanding the use of BCAAs during exercise. They are oxidized in muscle tissue and not the liver like the other amino acids, which means they are burned for energy during exercise. An excess of BCAAs in your body can give you greater endurance, as it increases your available energy. These BCAA’s also help maintain your blood sugar levels so that you have consistent energy during workouts. You lose BCAAs during exercise as they are used up for energy, and they are used after workouts to build up your muscles, so it is especially important for athletes to have enough BCAAs in their body. The most common places to find BCAAs are in meat, dairy products and legumes. If your diet is lacking in protein, or you are working out at an intensity and frequency that your BCAAs are in a deficit, then a supplement might be right for you.
Perhaps the greatest benefit from BCAAs is their prevention in muscle breakdown and assistance with recovery. Taken immediately after workouts, BCAAs inhibit muscle damage from occurring and accelerate the recovery process.(2) They can also lead to a reduction in soreness and feelings of fatigue.(3) They reduce recovery time because less muscle damage occurs, so your body is ready to go sooner for your next workout. BCAAs can also combat the negative effects of extreme environments, such as high altitude or high heat. They prevent muscle loss that naturally occurs at high altitudes and can also prolong endurance performance in the heat.(4)
So, with all these potential benefits, should YOU be taking BCAAs? Elite athletes, or those working out at the most intense, and highest levels will be the most likely to benefit. Those looking to build muscle mass and lose fat can also use BCAAs to help achieve those goals. And if your diet isn't high in protein, particularly vegetarians, then a supplement can help fully equip your body with the necessary amino acids. Even if you don’t fit into those categories, you don’t have anything to lose from testing out BCAAs. Add some into your fueling routine, before and after your hardest workouts, take inventory of your body and if you feel more power and less fatigue or recovery time, then we say go for it!