Branched chain amino acids have proven themselves over and over, from scientific studies to practical experience from people who have actually used them. Their effectiveness is still questioned though, with a host of people still wondering if they actually work. Yes, they do. But perhaps it is too naïve to think they are a universal thing? You know, what’s good for me is good for you. It all depends on your goals and what you want to do.
First, let’s break BCAA’s down. They are made up of three amino acids, namely; leucine, iso-leucine, and valine, that have aliphatic side-chains and a central carbon atom bound to three carbon atoms, otherwise known as a branch (hence branched chain amino acids). They are deemed as ‘essential’ amino acids because the body cannot synthesise them by itself, and we have to get it through diet. Whey protein has one of the highest concentrations of leucine, and there a multitude of whole foods that you get BCAA combinations through. What makes a BCAA supplement so different, is that it doesn’t need to pass through the gut and liver due to digestion, so it sent straight into the bloodstream.
How BCAA’s work
What do we need them for? Well, since Leucine is one of three amino acids in BCAA’s, and leucine plays a vital role in the activation of muscle protein synthesis (MPS), BCAA’s are largely responsible for reducing muscle damage and activating muscle growth. MPS is the process by which proteins are sent to the muscle to begin repairing them, as well as regulating protein metabolism (how protein is broken down and absorbed), and suppressing protein breakdown (wastage).
Therefore, taking a scoop or two of BCAA’s before training can reduce the breakdown of muscle tissue (catabolism) by increasing protein synthesis while you train, effectively repairing muscle tissue as it breaks down. BCAA’s might not be directly responsible for an increase in strength and size, but findings from studies on BCAA’s paint their own definitive picture.
Aside from increasing protein synthesis, BCAA’s have shown to lessen the effects of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). This shows that there is a positive correlation between the BCAA’s and the reduction in the breakdown of muscle. Furthermore, BCAA’s are used by the body as an immediate energy source while training. Also, while you can just get it through whole foods, you can’t choke down a chicken breast while training, so a powdered BCAA is a better option (clearly). This all means that while there may be no direct link to increasing muscle mass, BCAA’s do help you get back in the gym faster, and increasing the rate at which your muscle repairs. Simply, the muscle gets bigger faster, and you can train more often.
Studies have found that there is a link between low-level BCAA concentrations in the blood, and an increase in serotonin concentrations in the brain, which in turn contribute to the increase in the feeling of fatigue while you are training, particularly when it comes to endurance events. Therefore, adding BCAA’s into your intra-workout can be helpful as an energy source if you are on a low-carb or fasting diet, as well as limiting muscle catabolism, by encouraging the brain to activate fat cells as energy while being in a glycogen depleted condition.
BCAA’s have a host of benefits. Even though there is no scientific study that proves the increase in strength and mass, this doesn’t mean that they do not help increase your performance or increase your muscle mass. They largely assist in the recovery process, helping it get there just a little faster by activating MPS, and limiting the breakdown of muscle mass. The less muscle that is lost, the more opportunity there is for growth. BCAA’s also assist in providing an immediate energy source, encouraging fat stores to be used as energy in a carb-depleted state, and rids the blood of ammonia to increase blood flow. If your goal is to increase your muscle growth, increase in performance, or just enhance your recovery, BCAA’s are a must have.