Whenever we, fitness freaks, visit a supplement shop we come across a wide range
of supplements and most of them, if not all, have such things written on them like,
proven to increase strength and performance, proven to reduce fatigue and
soreness, proven to improve recovery, proven to burn 30 lbs of fat, proven to
increase muscle size in 30 days! (yes, they are certain products which claim
Now a person who does not have any information or knowledge about these
products or those who are instructed by their trainers or “gurus” to buy certain
powders and pills often end up buying such products that are not only worthless
but are just a waste of money.
The thing is, most of the supplements lying there are nothing but bottles of
ineffective (or sometimes, dangerous) ingredients, or otherwise effective
ingredients in small doses, which are marketed in a manner that you end up
believing that they are some magical bottles or powders that will give you the
physique of your dreams.
But, in reality, most of them are just worthless.
In this article, I will discussing about one such popular and over-hyped
supplement, Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs).
First let’s talk about what exactly is BCAA?
Well, as the name suggests, BCAA is a group of three branched-chain essential
amino acids, Leucine,Isoleucine and Valine.
Out of the trio, leucine is the most important as leucine is an essential amino acid
that is directly involved in the muscle growth process.
Basically, leucine stimulates the activity of an enzyme, known as the mammilian
target of rapamycin(mTOR) that is involved in the process of protein synthesis.
The other two, isoleucine and valine are also important and have various important
functions to perform but leucine does the main job.
Foods such as chicken, eggs, meat, fish, beef and vegan sources like quinoa,
soy, etc are rich in BCAAs.
Now, you must be wondering why not take leucine based supplement only instead of whey protein or BCAA, then allow me to tell you that our bodies require 9 essential amino acids to complete the process of protein synthesis. Leucine definately does the role of directly stimulating this process but remaining amino acids are very much required to complete the process. In other words, all 9 essential amino acids work together in a team to complete the process of protein synthesis i.e., muscle building. If we are not able to provide ourselves with all essential amino acids except leucine then, leucine alone will not be able to carry out the whole process. If we are not able to provide ourselves with all essential amino acids except leucine then, leucine alone will not be able to carry out the whole process.
So, why people supplement with BCAAs? What advantages does it have?
Well, proponents of BCAA claim that BCAA helps in:
➢ Reducing soreness and fatigue
➢ Improving workout performance
➢ Increasing protein synthesis thus resulting in bigger muscle gains
➢ Improving post-workout recovery
And, all that things that are required to get an ideal physique.
Now, such claims comes from a study that was conducted on a group of wrestlers.
We’ll not get into the details of the study but here’s what this study concluded:
After giving BCAA supplement to the participants over the course of 6-8
weeks, researchers observed slight muscle growth and improvement in the
strength of the participants.
That’s why proponents and manufacturers of BCAA claims that it does
wonders for you.
However, the study had serious flaws in it like:
- The participants were all eating a very low amount of protein per day i.e., ~50g protein/day, despite of being weighing over 200lbs, and we all know to build muscles we require 0.8-1g/lbs protein/day.
- The participants were all in a caloric defecit throughout the study, a scenario considered as worst for muscle growth.
Now, since all of the circumstances that hinders muscle growth (like less protein intake and caloric defecit) were present in this study, adding a scoop or two of BCAA would obviously confer some benefits.
It’s like you are in a situation, where all things that are deterimental to your muscle growth are present and by adding anything in the form of some nutritious food item or supplement, it would obviously bring some slight improvements in your situation.
So, does adding BCAA to a caloric surplus diet that is full of adequate amount of protein will give an additional boost?
Because, a person who is already having a diet full of high quality protein would already be getting sufficient BCAAs from that diet only. Moreover, a person taking whey protein would also be getting sufficient BCAAs as whey protein supplements already have BCAAs in them.
So, then what is point of adding additional BCAA in the form of supplement when you can get them from chicken, eggs, meat, or whey protein?
And also there are some people who say we should take BCAA as an intra-workout. Now, the thing is if you are taking a good pre-workout meal that is full of carbs and protein and even if you are taking some pre-workout supplements, then there is no need to take an intra-workout drink.
Also, even if you don’t feel energetic or not able to train effectively during your workout, then first consider improving your pre-workout nutrition and still if you feel there’s need to supplement then, consider taking a good pre-workout supplement like citrulline malate, beta-alanine or creatine rather than relying on BCAA.
But, there is a scenario where you can consider taking BCAA and that is when you are training in a fasted state which most of them does not do.
The reason for this is simple, since in a fasted state insulin levels are at a baseline, adding BCAA would not change them (and if you eat something, the insulin levels will again start increasing thus removing the slight benefits you can achieve while training in a fasted state) and thus helps in preserving muscle mass while you workout even though you remain in a catabolic state.
And in this case also, only leucine is important as it is more effecient in preserving muscle mass while you workout in comparison to the other two.
And further more, a large amount of lecuine is required to serve this function, so you would need to take 3-5 scoops of BCAAs for this purpose, again a point that makes BCAA supplements a complete dud.
So, to conclude, I would suggest that rather than wasting money on such worthless supplements, always focus on getting required amount (0.8-1g/lbs) of high quality protein throughout the day from your diet or whey or if required, consider taking some useful pre-workout supplements like citrulline malate,creatine, or beta-alanine or even coffee.