In the world of bodybuilding there are two supplements that are as popular as Arnold Schwarzenegger— namely protein and branched chain amino acids. Both of them are absolutely essential to building a ripped physique. While most people understand what protein is and how it works, very few know what BCAA’s are and why they are so important. With this article we will dig deep and talk about all things BCAA’s. More specifically we will discuss what BCAA’s are, how they work, the benefits of using them, how to improve their effectiveness and so much more.
What Are Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA’s)?
Since you’re reading this article we will assume your goal is to build a better body. If that’s the case you need to make sure you have the right building blocks in place for the purpose. Yes, its important to eat a clean diet and workout with great intensity on a regular basis, but that’s not enough. If you are serious about taking your body to a whole new level, you also need to make sure you are providing it with the supplements it needs to maximize your results.
Branched Chain Amino Acids are the very building blocks, or the foundation, you need to dramatically change your body. Not only do they make up 35% of the muscle mass currently on your body, but without BCAA your bodily growth and development are not possible. In all of the 21 standard amino acids the human body uses, 9 are considered essential, meaning your body cannot manufacturer them on its own, and the remaining 12 are considered non essential, which your body CAN manufacturer on its own with the help of the right nutrition.
Those who have a very limited understanding of what BCAA’s are and how they work will usually only associate them with building and repairing muscle. The reality, however, is they can do much more than that— including DNA and RNA formation, developing antibodies, help move oxygen throughout your body. These hormones also play a major role in your enzyme and hormonal system. In short, these hormones literally help you sustain life.
Amino acids make up proteins. In fact, without them proteins couldn’t and wouldn’t exist. The one key difference between amino acids and an off-the-shelf protein powder is the high amounts of artificial sweeteners, dyes and fillers found in protein powders. In order for your body to properly sustain life it needs 20 or more amino acids. And as previously stated, your body can produce 12 of them while the other 9 must come through other means, such as proper nutrition and supplementation. If you want to reach your maximum potential as far as fitness goes, you need to make sure you are consuming a complete amino acid profile every single day. Otherwise, you will find yourself spinning your wheels and not making any progress.
BCAA’s are also known to function as nitrogen carriers. These hormones help your muscles synthesize other amino acids so your body can be in an anabolic state. To break it down a little further, branched chain amino acids combine with simpler amino acids and form a more complex muscle tissue. When this happens the production of insulin is stimulated. The main function of insulin is to allow your muscle cells to take up circulating blood sugar and use it as a source of energy. When insulin gets produced it causes amino acid uptake by the muscle, ultimately leading to you getting bigger and stronger at a very rapid pace. This, of course, is what every bodybuilder wants.
How Do BCAA’s Work?
Anytime you participate in intense weight training your body will be in a highly catabolic state. And when your body is in a highly catabolic state glycogen stores tend to get depleted very rapidly. During the process your liver must synthesize glucose by converting it into L-Alanine. As you exercise your muscles release amino acid content, over half of the content of which is made up of Alanine.
When your muscles release Branched Chain Amino Acids it’s usually seen as a signal letting your body know its time to stop protein synthesis. This is especially true when your muscles are under stress. Providing your body with the needed Branch Chain Amino Acids when your muscles are under stress has the potential to allow protein synthesis to continue on, the results of which, of course, will have a huge impact on your overall results and how quickly you are able to get the gains you so desperately seek. Without branched chain amino acids your muscles won’t be able to handle the stress and will, therefore, take longer to rebuild.
Essential vs Non Essential Amino Acids
While we have already discussed the difference between essential and non-essential amino acids, with this section we are going to dive in a little deeper and break them down into groups. This way you will be able to easily see which branched chain amino acids are essential and which ones are non essential.
The 9 essential amino acids are as follows:
The term “non essential” can be quite confusing as your body needs all 22 amino acids to function at optimum levels. So in essence, all amino acids are essential.
Here are the 12 “non essential” amino acids your body can produce on its own with proper nutrition and supplementation:
6. Aspartic Acid
12. Glutamic Acid
6 Key Benefits of Branched Chain Amino Acids
Research has shown BCAA’s can have a profound affect on the body. While there are hundreds of benefits associated with the use of branched chain amino acids, with this article we will focus on just 6. Here are 6 ways proper BCAA supplementation will help you maximize your performance and reach your goals in record time.
Benefit #1 – Fat Loss Stimulation
No matter what your ultimate goal, whether it be to build muscle or loss weight, the first step is to lose fat. When you are dieting there is always a deep layer of fat that just doesn’t seem to want to go away. This layer of fat is also known as visceral fat: it is by far the most stubborn fat on your body. In fact, you can workout 5 hours a day and it won’t budge. It’s true that building a better body goes much deeper than just working out. You have to transform your body from the inside out.
A study done on 25 competitive wrestlers showed those who consumed a diet high in BCAA’s were able to lose 17.3% more body fat than those who did not. The interesting part is most of the fat lost was in and around the abdominal area. This may be why many believe using BCAA’s is a great way to spot reduce the abs. Another study done on this topic focused on 2 groups of climbers. One group was a control group and the other group was a BCAA supplemented group. While both groups were able to lose weight, the group that supplemented with BCAA’s was also able to gain muscle mass. On the other hand, the group that didn’t supplement with BCAA’s actually lost muscle mass.
The theory behind this is that, when high amounts of BCAA’s are present during exercise, the body senses and views it as a sign that too much muscle is being broken down. In an effort to protect you, the body stops all muscle breakdown and starts using more fat as its source of fuel. At the very same time, the extra BCAA’s in your system are stimulating insulin production which causes the amino acids to be driven right back into the muscles. The result is astounding: being able to lose fat and gain muscle all at the same time has never been easier.
Benefit #2 – Maximizes Endurance
A 4 week experiment done by Japanese researchers used rats to study how BCAA’s can affect endurance. During the process, the rats were broken into two groups. One group received BCAA’s while the other group received a placebo. The rats were then exercised to the point of exhaustion to see how they would respond. The group that was given BCAA’s showed spared glycogen stores in both the skeletal muscle and liver.
This basically means they showed the ability to train at a high intensity for a longer period of time. The result is indicative of the fact that BCAA’s can have the same affect on you. When you are working out there will come a point when the energy provided by your diet starts to fade away. Supplementing with BCAA’s can help you maintain your level of intensity throughout the day, even though the energy from food has been used all up.
If you are currently on a low carb diet, or you have been on one in the past, you understand how important this benefit is, especially on high volume days when you are doing 20 or more reps per set. If there is nothing to keep your muscles strong and able to endure the punishing workout, you will stop before you ever really get started.
Benefit #3 – Faster Recovery Time
If you are an athlete who trains hard everyday you will absolutely love this benefit. Recovery time is also important as it is what allows your body to properly repair so you can continue making gains. When you supplement with branched chain amino acids you will see an immediate increase in metabolic recovery. Many athletes have also noticed a decrease in muscle soreness once they begin taking BCAA’s.
Keep in mind your muscles only grow when you damage them through lifting weights. When you supplement with BCAA’s you provide your muscles with what they need to grow faster in size and strength. And as your muscles are able to recover in a shorter period of time, you will be able to hit the iron harder and more frequently. This, of course, means you can reach your goals sooner than expected.
Benefit #4 – Gives Your Immune System a Boost
When you aren’t feeling well its very difficult to have a great workout. If you aren’t able to train hard you won’t grow. And to make matters worse, it’s not easy to maintain strength and size when you are dealing with an illness. Add that to the fact that when you train at a high intensity on a regular basis your immune system will take a hit, and you see why proper supplementation is so important.
Supplementing with BCAA’s is a great way to reverse the loss of glutamine and keep your immune system functioning the way it should. BCAA’s also help prevent your body from going into a catabolic state: preventing your body from going into a catabolic state is a great way to improve recovery time and limit the amount of damage high intensity workouts can do to your body.
Benefit #5 – Stimulates Protein Synthesis
Research shows BCAA’s have the ability to stimulate muscle protein synthesis on their own. In other words, regardless of how you are training, just taking BCAA’s can cause your muscles to grow. Several studies have shown supplementing with BCAA’s can increase the 3 key hormones—- insulin, growth hormone and testosterone. These three hormones are of course highly anabolic.
Another study on BCAA supplementation showed when your body is under extreme stress, BCAA’s can help increase overall muscle mass. The important thing to remember is your body is able to build muscles even if you aren’t weight training; that’s the power of branched chain amino acids. With that being said, taking branched chain amino acids is not enough. You need to combine proper nutrition, the right workout regimen and BCAA supplementation to get the best possible results.
Benefit #6 – It Reduces the Amount of Muscle Proteins Your Body Uses for Fuel
The anabolic effects you get from BCAA supplementation are usually a result of anti catabolic activity. What this means is, BCAA’s help limit the amount of muscle proteins your body uses for fuel. The result is less breakdown of muscular protein. One of the reasons this is possible is because BCAA’s are able to sacrifice themselves to be used as fuel.
When your body breaks down less muscular protein during a training session, protein synthesis is increased and you end up with more muscle! It’s simple: the more muscle you have the better your body will look. One last study we will mention is one where a group of obese individuals were put on a diet where they ate very few calories: it was basically a starvation-like diet. Those who were given BCAA supplementation were able to burn body fat due to induced anabolism and nitrogen sparing.
Where is BCAA Found?
The good news is all foods containing protein also contain BCAA’s. That means you have quite a few options as far as where you will get your BCAA’s from. The best sources, however, are red meat and dairy products. Both of these products contain the highest amounts of branched chain amino acids. Egg protein and whey protein are also great sources of BCAA’s.
How Much BCAA Should You Take and When Should You Take It?
For optimal results you should take 4-8 grams of BCAA’s both before and after you workout. While lesser amounts have proven to still be effective, if your ultimate goal is to improve performance and accelerate recovery, you must take a higher dosage. If you do strenuous workouts on a regular basis you should also supplement with BCAA’s during our workout; the practice will help you increase performance. Taking them with your post workout meal is also a great option as it will help speed up the rate at which BCAA’s are replaced in the muscles.
When this happens your muscles will be able to recover faster. For optimum results take your BCAA supplements separately from other amino acid supplements.
Getting The Most Out of Your BCAA Supplementation
If you really want to get the most out of your BCAA supplementation, there are a few co factors you need to combine it with. Below is a list of 4 co factors you should combine with your supplementation of BCAA’s.
Co-Factor #1 – Zinc and Vitamin B-6
Zinc is extremely important as it helps regulate insulin. Vitamin B-6 is the natural co-factor of Zinc. When it comes to amino acid metabolism vitamin B-6 plays a vital role. If your diet is high in amino acids you will need more vitamin B-6 than someone who doesn’t supplement with BCAA’s. Having enough vitamin B-6 will dictate the transport of amino acids within your cells.
Co-Factor #2 – Vitamin B-12
Vitamin B-12 is another important nutrient you need in order to get the most out of BCAA’s. When it comes to protein metabolism and amino acid synthesis this water-soluble nutrient must be present.
Co-Factor #3 – Blotin
Blotin is yet another member of the powerful vitamin B family. Blotin plays a major role in protein synthesis. It is also responsible for manufacturing glycogen.
Co-Factor #4 – Chromium
Chromium is a trace mineral that helps your body regulate insulin. Insulin is a hormone that is made up of 91 amino acids. It’s manufactured in the pancreas through beta cells and is, without a doubt, the most important link in the muscle building process. As you very well know by now, protein synthesis has to take place in order for your body to build muscle. To that end, Chromium helps your body synthesize protein at a much faster rate. Additionally, it also raises the level of intracellular uptake—- or in other words, it helps your cells better absorb the nutrients from the free amino acids.
It delays or holds back the rate at which protein wears down in your body. If you are serious about getting the most out of your workouts you absolutely must include a quality chromium with your branched chain amino acid supplementation. While chromium comes in a variety of different forms, the best form is chromium picolinate.
Top 10 Branched Chain Amino Acid Supplements
Now that we know what BCAA’s are, how they function, what benefits they provide, how to use them and where they come from, its time to list the top 10 supplements in this category. One thing you will learn very quickly with regard to supplements is they are not all created equal. For instance, some supplements are filled with fillers and unnecessary ingredients that do more harm than good. Those are the type of supplements you want to avoid.
Here are the top 10 branched chain amino acid supplement, according to Bodybuilding.com.
#1 – Optimum Nutrition Essential Amin.O. Energy
#2 – BPI Sports Best BCAA
#3 – JYM Post JYM Active Matrix
#4 – BSN Aminox
#5 – MusclePharm BCAA 3:1:2
#6 – JYM Post JYM Carb
#7 – Cellucor Alpha Amino
#8 – Evlution Nutrition BCAA Energy
#9 – RSP Nutrition Regen BCAA
#10 – Evlution Nutrition BCAA 5000
When it comes to benefits and effectiveness, branched chain amino acids are at the top of the list. They are, without a doubt, one of the best supplements in the world of sports nutrition. While BCAA’s have been around for a very long time and a ton of research has been done of their importance and effectiveness, there are still a lot of people who don’t understand the benefits of it.
Hopefully this article has shined a light on why it is important to start supplementing with BCAA’s. Especially if you are serious about losing fat, building muscle and increasing your energy while in the gym. If you have been struggling to get results BCAA’s may be the missing piece.