If you’re looking to build yourself a physique that an IFBB pro bodybuilder himself would be envious of, why are you sitting here reading this when you should be in the gym? Only kidding, it’s actually important that you do read this because the more you know about training, diet, nutrition, and supplementation in general, the more gains you will make.
When you’re training hard and training well, life is good. You get a great pump, your endorphins are flowing after training, and you find yourself looking and feeling better with each training session. Diet and training however, will only get you so far.
To give yourself a bit of a boost and to help take your training to the next level, it’s worth considering investing in great quality supplements. If used alongside a healthy diet and effective training program, supplements can really give you that competitive edge and can help you train that little bit harder during your workouts.
Today we’re looking at a bodybuilding and fitness staple in the supplement world. We’re talking about BCAAs, also known as Branched Chain Amino Acids. Here’s a better look at how they can help you in your quest to become more ripped and jacked than you could ever imagine.
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What the heck are BCAAs?
If you’re familiar with the world of bodybuilding, you’ll know that BCAAs, or Branched Chain Amino Acids, as they are also known, are incredibly popular with bodybuilders and athletes alike.
In fact, it is largely believed that, next to whey protein and creatine, BCAAs are actually the third most popular supplement currently on the market. So what does that mean for you, the consumer? Well, it means that, because they’re so popular, you’ll be spoilt for choice when you decide to purchase them and add them to your supplement stack.
BCAAs are essential amino acids. Essential amino acids are amino acids that the human body needs to perform various physiological processes, but cannot synthesize naturally. Because the human body is unable to naturally produce BCAAs, they must instead come from dietary sources. BCAAs get their name due to the fact that their chemical structure resembles that of a tree branch. BCAAs consist of three essential amino acids:
These amino acids are found naturally within whole food sources, and in particular, they can be found in meat, fish, and dairy. They are also naturally present in some plant-based sources, though the amounts found here are not as high as the amounts found in the animal-derived sources.
When it comes to the healthy functioning of your muscles, amino acids are very important. They are the building blocks of protein molecules, and as protein is essential for muscle growth and repair, they are technically the building blocks of muscle tissue by default. The human body utilizes around 20 different amino acids for the growth, development, and functioning of healthy muscles.
Did you know however, that within your muscle tissue, BCAAs make up one third of all of the amino acids found within your muscles. This shows just how important BCAAs are for the growth and repair of muscle tissue, and it shows why so many bodybuilders, athletes, and fitness fanatics are supplementing with BCAAs on a regular basis.
What are amino acids made up of?
We mentioned previously how BCAAs are made up of three essential amino acids. But what is it about each of these amino acids that makes them so special for people looking to get in shape and improve their physiques and athletic performance? Well, that’s what we’re going to take a look at right now.
In the world of bodybuilding, leucine is the amino acid that steals the thunder of the other two amino acids on our list. Some say it’s the most important when it comes to the growth and development of lean muscle tissue. But why is that? Well, leucine has been found to help stimulate the process of protein synthesis in the body.
Protein synthesis is a natural process whereby the body creates new muscle proteins to replace those which have been damaged and worn down in the gym and through physical exercise. Not only does leucine stimulate protein synthesis, it also helps to prevent protein loss in the muscles during physical exertion. On top of that, it helps individuals to maintain healthy and stable energy levels during exercise, as it helps to regulate glucose levels in the bloodstream, for a longer duration of time.
As you can see, from an athletic perspective, leucine is very desirable as it not only assists with the growth and repair of muscle tissue, but it also helps to create stable energy levels during exercise, allowing you to train harder before you begin to fatigue. Studies have found that leucine can, on average, increase protein synthesis rates by as much as 25%. More protein synthesis means faster rates of recovery, and more muscle, and who wouldn’t want that?
Up next we have valine. Valine is often overlooked in favour of leucine, and while it doesn’t directly promote muscle growth in the same way as leucine, it can still help people to build muscle during exercise. How? By increasing the amount of energy that they have when working out.
Valine provides additional levels of glucose for the cells in your muscles during exercise, which means that your muscles have more energy. The more energy they have, the harder they can work. This slight increase in energy may not seem like much, but it could be the difference between doing 9 reps and doing 10 reps.
When you’re looking to build muscle and make progress with your training, every single rep counts! Not only does valine help increase muscular energy, it also helps to strengthen the immune system. This makes you healthier, and if you can stay healthy and illness-free, your training won’t be disrupted so you can continue chasing those all-elusive gains.
Isoleucine is another amino acid that plays a key role in muscular endurance, as well as a number of other important physiological processes and functions. As you have probably guessed from the name, isoleucine is very similar to leucine. However, one notable difference is that isoleucine’s metabolic pathway is different to that of leucine.
Leucine’s metabolic pathway means that it fat has to be present in order for the body to process it and utilize it properly. With isoleucine however, the body can also use carbohydrates to process it, as well as fat. It’s a small, but notable change. In simple terms, isoleucine helps to increase the body’s capacity to utilize glucose during physical exertion. This means that, during exercise, you’ll have more energy, and on top of that, you’ll also be able to utilize carbohydrates more effectively, rather than storing them as body fat for use at a later date.
Combining all of the three amino acids together, means that you have the perfect mix of energy and muscle-building capabilities needed in order for you to perform at the very highest level.
Different types of BCAA supplements
As you can see, BCAAs are very beneficial when it comes to working out and getting in shape. We’ll be looking at the main benefits of BCAA supplementation in more detail a little later on in this guide, but for now, we’ll take a look at some of the different types of BCAA supplement currently available for purchase.
Remember, it’s important to choose the right BCAA for you, which is why we’ve compiled this guide in the first place. Don’t just assume that all BCAAs are the same, because they aren’t. Here’s a look at some of the different types of BCAA supplement currently available to choose from.
– BCAA powders
By far, the most common form of BCAA supplement, is that of a powder. Powdered BCAAs have been around for decades now. In the early days of BCAA supplements, all powdered BCAA products were flavorless. The powder was simply mixed with other beverages, or just water if people were really feeling brave, and they did the job they were designed to do. They were supposed to be flavorless, but they had a sharp and bitter taste and would often make beverages and protein shakes taste pretty-gross if we’re being honest. Sales soon dropped off and market research concluded that the reason for this was the fact that they tasted so vile.
So, what did the supplement companies do? Easy, they created BCAA powders in an array of different flavors. There are literally hundreds of flavor combos out there to choose from now, with flavors such as: tropical punch, mixed berry, cherry lemonade, lemon lime, and red grape, being just a few examples of the different choices now available. The powders are simply added to water, ideally in a shaker cup, mixed or shaken, and then enjoyed on the spot.
– BCAA tablets and capsules
Although branched chain amino acid tablets and capsules are still not as common as BCAA powders, they’re still holding their own in the supplement industry. They are made in precisely the same way as BCAA powders, except for the fact that they come in tablet or capsule form and should therefore be consumed whole. This is one reason why BCAA powders are more popular than the tablets and capsules.
In order to get the necessary dosage per serving, multiple tablets/capsules must be swallowed, and as they are much bigger than your typical vitamin tablets, some people struggle to get them down. They’re also flavorless. What’s more, because they have a smaller surface area than powder, when swallowed they take much longer to break down and be absorbed than powder.
– BCAA liquids
Although very rare nowadays, BCAA supplements do sometimes come in liquid form. Now, although they are flavored, most people agree that the taste of most liquid BCAAs is disgusting. The liquid is supposed to be mixed with water, but the end result is not a pleasant taste. The benefits and effects of the amino acids are still there, but most consumers cannot get past the awful taste. This is why BCAA liquid supplements are a whole lot rarer than BCAA powders.
Benefits of using BCAA supplements
It’s all well and good to sing the praises of a supplement without going into great detail about what it is that makes it so great, but that’s not how we roll.
We want to provide as much info about BCAAs as possible, and we want to show you why these supplements are so awesome, and how they can help you to transform your physique and improve your athletic performance. So, with that said, here’s a detailed look at some of the key benefits associated with utilizing BCAA supplements as part of your training regime.
– Increased energy levels
BCAAs are fantastic for anybody looking for an energy boost during their workouts. BCAAs have been found to boost the metabolism in a variety of different ways, thereby increasing the amount of energy that the consumer of the supplement is able to enjoy. It all comes down to the metabolic pathways of each of the three amino acids making up BCAAs.
Most amino acids are metabolized within the liver. BCAAs however, bypass the liver and make their way directly into the muscles. This is why one third of all amino acids found in the muscles, are BCAAs. As they are metabolized in the muscles, they’re stronger and more potent as they haven’t been pre-metabolized by the liver, like other amino acids will have been.
Though they are structurally very similar to each other, each of the three amino acids making up the BCAAs actually has a different metabolic pathway. Leucine for example, is broken down via fat pathways. Next up is valine, which is broken down through carbohydrate pathways. Finally, we have Isoleucine, which is broken down through both fat, and carbohydrate pathways within the body. This means that we metabolize both fats, and carbohydrates for energy, after consuming them.
Furthermore, as they are metabolized within the muscles, they can be oxidized and utilized by the cells within the muscles to generate energy for the cells, in the form of Adenosine Triphosphate, or ATP for short. Needless to say, with all of this extra energy, it’s no wonder why weightlifters and endurance athletes alike, swear by BCAAs.
– Increased muscle growth
If you’re looking to pack on the muscle tissue, BCAAs are again very useful. The MVP of the show in this instance is Leucine. Just to refresh your memory, leucine is an amino acid that has been found to initiate and increase protein synthesis within the body.
Protein synthesis is a natural process responsible for the growth and repair of muscle tissue. After training, once you’ve damaged your muscles, the rates of protein synthesis that your body conducts will determine just how much new muscle tissue you are able to build. The greater the rate of protein synthesis, the greater the amount of muscle you pack onto your frame. Studies have found that leucine alone, can boost protein synthesis rates by as much as 25%. From a bodybuilding point of view, this is hugely important.
The other two amino acids still play a key role in muscle growth however, and that is largely due to the fact that they help boost your energy levels. The more energy you have while training, the harder you will train, the more intensely you will train, and the more weight you should be able to lift.
If you’re doing the bare minimum in the gym, you will of course not make any real progress when it comes to packing on muscle. If, however, you are lifting heavier weights, doing more sets, busting out more reps, and training with the intensity of three-hundred angry Spartans, you’ll get bigger and more jacked than ever before.
– Increased rates of recovery
Contrary to what some people believe, when you lift weights in the gym, you aren’t actually building muscle at all. What you are actually doing is destroying your muscle. Our bodies generate new muscle tissue when we rest, especially when we sleep. BCAAs however, have been proven, time and time again, to help increase the rate in which you recover from a strenuous workout.
When you lift weights, the reason why your muscles are sore is because you have literally damaged the tissue. With each rep you performed, you created tiny tips and tears. Our bodies repair these rips and tears when we rest, as long as the right nutrients are present. BCAAs play a key role in this recovery process. This soreness we experience is known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS for short.
DOMS can hinder your training performance the following day. If you’ve ever experienced leg DOMS then you will instantly know what we mean. DOMS causes you to feel tired and ache and if you feel that way, your mobility will be affected, as will your performance in the gym. BCAAs help to reduce DOMS by speeding up recovery rates, so you feel better and experience less pain and discomfort. The harder you can train, the more gains you will make.
– BCAAs have a positive effect on our hormones
Ask any keen bodybuilder which hormone he would naturally increase in his body if he could, and 99.9% of the time, the answer would be “Testosterone”. Testosterone is the king of the bodybuilding hormones, and the more of it we naturally have in our bodies, the more muscle we will likely be able to build.
Anabolic hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone, play vital roles in processes such as protein synthesis, which is why they’re so beneficial for bodybuilders. Unfortunately for us, as we grow older, anabolic hormone levels naturally begin to decline. Testosterone for example, plummets sharply as we reach our 30s. The less testosterone we produce, the harder we find it to build muscle. The good news in this instance is that BCAAs have been found to have a very positive effect on a number of naturally-occurring anabolic hormones within the body, including testosterone.
When we exercise intensely, testosterone levels increase. This is why some men feel overly aggressive and ‘wired’ during a strenuous workout. After they finish training and begin to relax, testosterone levels quickly drop back down to normal. Studies conducted on BCAAs and their effects on this hormone however, found that, when individuals supplemented with BCAAs before training, not only did their testosterone levels spike during training, but they remained elevated much higher than normal for several hours after the workout had ceased.
On top of that, BCAAs also have a positive effect on cortisol levels, and by a positive effect, we mean that they help us to produce less of it. Cortisol is a stress hormone which negatively impacts testosterone, growth hormone, and other anabolic hormones within the body. Cortisol is catabolic, which means that it promotes muscle wastage. Nobody wants that, so what can be done? Well, as mentioned, BCAAs help to reduce the amount of cortisol we produce during exercise, which helps us to maintain a constant anabolic environment, which is optimal when it comes to muscle hypertrophy.
– BCAAs promote fat loss
Not only can BCAAs help us to build muscle, they can also help us to strip away unsightly body fat, which is handy, because beach season isn’t too far off right now. Losing weight is difficult, but thanks to BCAAs, it just became a whole lot easier.
BCAAs have been found to increase energy levels. The more energy you have, the more physically active you can become, which means that the more calories you can burn off. Not only that, but they also speed up the metabolism, even when you’re in a rested state. This again means that you burn more calories as they are converted into energy.
This is not an excuse to binge eat and stuff your face with junk food if you happen to be supplementing with branched chain amino acids, but it does mean that if your diet is on point and you are physically active on a regular basis, you will likely burn more fat than if you weren’t using them in the first place.
How to take BCAAs?
This is where some people find themselves becoming slightly confused. You see, like most things in life, if you speak to one person and ask them ‘when the best time to take BCAAs is’, they’ll tell you something completely different to what the last person told you.
Some people are adamant that BCAAs work best when consumed before a workout, while others are convinced that they get better results when they sip on BCAAs during their workouts. Some take BCAAs after a workout as they believe that it speeds up their rates of recovery. So, when should you consume your BCAAs? Well, in reality, that all depends on you.
Many experts recommend that you experiment with your BCAA intakes at your own leisure, and see what works best for you. You could try taking them before training for a week, during training for a week, and after training for a week, and see when you noticed the most benefits. Some people even consume BCAAs in the evening, to help prevent muscle catabolism and to keep their bodies in a constant anabolic state.
If that sounds too much like hard work however, many personal trainers and nutritionists advise you to begin sipping on BCAAs for training, and that you continue to sip on them during your workout, to help maintain your energy levels. This is a pretty sound strategy to be honest, and it is one that many people have had a lot of success with.
In terms of dosages, if you weigh less than 150 pounds, experts recommend that you consume between 3 and 10 grams of BCAAs per day. If you weigh more than 150 pounds, you should aim to consume between 5 and 15 grams of BCAAs per day. If you are on the higher end of the scale, split your BCAA dosages up throughout the day.
BCAA buying guide
As we have mentioned a few times now, BCAAs are hugely popular in the world of health and fitness. Because they’re so popular, more and more supplement companies are creating their own blends, and unfortunately, not all of them are beneficial. When you choose a BCAA supplement, you want one that you know is going to work for you, and one that is safe and reliable.
To ensure you don’t get ripped off, and that you choose the best BCAA products that money can buy, here is a quick BCAA buying guide for you to follow:
First and foremost, when choosing a BCAA supplement, you should take the time to read the label and find out the correct ratio of ingredients. Many people assume that the higher the ratio of leucine, the more effective the product will be.
Leucine is the star of the show when it comes to building muscle, but in order for it to work effectively, it needs to be combined with the correct balance of the other two amino acids. Ideally you want a ratio of 2:1:1 in favour of leucine.
Numerous studies on BCAA supplements have been conducted over the years, and experts have found that this does seem to be the magic blend when it comes to ratios. Don’t get suckered in by BCAA supplements crammed full of leucine, because in truth, they won’t offer you any additional benefits at all.
While nobody should be buying a BCAA supplement purely for the flavor alone, as it is a supplement you will be taking every day, you need to make sure that you actually enjoy drinking it. Most BCAA flavors are fruity and sweet, which can be refreshing, especially served with iced water on a warm day. Try to source a few samples of different flavors before you commit to a large tub, as that way you will know whether or not you really enjoy the taste or not.
When choosing a BCAA supplement, it’s also a good idea to browse the web beforehand, and read a few reviews left by previous customers. Reviews are important because they help you to get an idea of whether a product really is as great as the supplement companies would have you believe. Once you’ve found a product that you like the look of, you can then take the time to read reviews and see what other people have to say.
If for example, you find that the product has a lot of negative reviews, with people complaining about stomach cramps and digestive issues for example, you will probably want to give that product a miss. On the other side of the spectrum, if people are singing the praises of a BCAA supplement and giving it great reviews, this is a good sign and you could very well have found the product you’ve been looking for.
When it comes down to it, supplements are no substitutes for whole foods. If your budget will not allow you whole foods and supplements, your money should always go on whole foods. Assuming you can afford both however, finding the right BCAA supplement will really benefit you in the long run. Realistically, set yourself a budget for buying a BCAA product, and see how many products fall into that specific category.
Don’t focus on the cheapest products you can find, because if they are much cheaper than all of the others, there’s a reason for that. The most likely reason for that is that they are simply inferior and poor quality. You also do not need to assume that the most expensive products are always the best. Realistically, work out what you can afford and see what you can find that won’t take you over budget.