BCAA (or BCAA in short) have been around longer than any other supplement, and are among the most beneficial and effective supplements in any sports nutrition program for men and women. And for a good reason! This guide will teach you everything you need to know about BCAAs and their impact on muscle building, performance, recovery and fat loss.
What are BCAA and how do they work?
BCAA stands for Branch Chain Amino Acids and consists of three essential amino acids which help protein synthesis in the body. Meaning the old wimpy proteins are removed or repaired and new stronger, healthier proteins are brought in. This means more strength and muscle mass for the athlete.
These three amino acids, leucine, isoleucine, and valine, work together to give your muscles all the nutrition they need to keep from dwindling away. In fact, one-third of all your muscle tissue is made up of these three key amino acids.
The reason they are essential is that our bodies are not able to make them out of other amino acids. So the only way of getting them is either through food or supplementation.
BCAAs are found in some food sources including whey, milk, beef, fish, chicken, soy, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds. However, just as with many essential vitamins and minerals, it can be hard to get enough BCAAs through food alone.
Many people, especially athletes and bodybuilders, have turned to BCAA supplementation to ensure they get the most benefit by supplying their bodies with the right dosage at the right time.
What are the benefits of BCAA?
Many studies have been done on the positive effects that BCAAs have on the body. They are all conclusive to say that BCAAs deserves a place in your supplement regimen, and here’s why:
Increased protein synthesis
This is a fancy way of saying you’ll have bigger muscles. Leucine is the real hero in this aspect. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, while protein is the building blocks of your muscles. Leucine in a sense urges these amino acids to string themselves along in orderly fashion to build protein blocks that build muscle.
Another way leucine helps to promote protein synthesis is by increasing the levels of insulin in the body. Insulin, in turn, comes to leucine’s aid in building up muscle tissue. Its kind of like leucine is recruiting helpers to do its job.
Lastly, leucine boosts growth hormone in the body. More growth hormone, more muscle growth. It doesn’t take a genius to understand this benefit.
Stops the muscle breakdown process
BCAAs will help ensure that our precious muscle mass will not be broken down during our exercise. They protect the muscle tissue by inhibiting cortisol production. Cortisol is responsible for muscle breakdown and combats the muscle building hormone testosterone.
There have been numerous studies that confirm that taking BCAAs while exercising inhibits muscle breakdown. One study showed that long-distance runners had less muscle loss while supplementing with BCAAs.
Helps combat workout fatigue
Tryptophan is responsible for making the chemical serotonin which gives us a feeling of calm relaxation and we want to curl up with a good blanket and take a nap. When we are working out, we want to be beasts ready to attack the exercise head on.
BCAAs help us to become this beast through the third mentioned amino acid – valine. Valine, the bully that it is, trips tryptophan before entering into the brain and kicks it while it’s down. This reduction in tryptophan delays fatigue from setting in.
Since BCAAs don’t need to travel through the liver before being used as fuel, they can deliver immediate energy to the muscles. Having a good supply of BCAAs in your blood will ensure a powerful workout for longer.
This study showed the positive effect BCAA supplementation had on weightlifters.
Decreases DOMS in strength and endurance
Many people, especially beginners, can suffer from DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness), or delayed onset muscle soreness, after a hard workout.
Exercise puts stress on the muscles, actually ripping the fibers. This is a good thing because the repair of these rips is what increases the strength and size of the muscles. It doesn’t come without a cost, however.
BCAA supplementation has been proven to help minimize this pain.
During exercise, the body searches for sources of energy. Its favorite source is the protein in the muscles. It’s not our favorite source. We want the body to burn fat, not muscle. Alas, if we don’t provide our bodies with nutrition that derails that natural pattern, we will be wimpy fat people.
This is where BCAAs come in and take energy directly to the muscle bypassing the body’s natural response and redirecting the train of damage to take the tracks that lead to the fat instead of the muscles.
How to take BCAA?
BCAAs are easy to take. They come in powder or capsule form. The powder form is the most popular choice but some people don’t want to hassle with mixing their supplements with water so they swallow a pill. If you do choose the powder form, most brands have great tasting choices. All you do is mix the recommended dosage with water in your favorite drinking bottle and chug it.
It is also important to remember that BCAAs can’t do their work if there is no protein in the body to begin with, so make sure you are eating lots of lean meats and vegetable protein sources and/or drink protein shakes daily.
When to take BCAA?
Much of the benefits we talked about work in two different ways. They help make sure you have a great workout and help make sure you get what you need from your workout. For this reason, it is recommended that you take BCAAs before and after your workouts.
For those who are trying to gain massive muscle mass, it can be a good idea to take BCAAs when you wake up for quick supply to the muscles after sleeping for hours and before bed to help repair the muscles from a hard day’s work.
It is important to take BCAAs consistently so that your body can have a steady stream of fuel for your muscles. If you take it sporadically you won’t see near the same results.
How much BCAA to take?
When it comes to BCAAs, dosage revolves around the amount of leucine that the body can use at any given time. After 4 grams of leucine, their positive effects are maxed out. Taking any more would be a waste of money. There are about 4 grams of leucine in 8 grams of BCAA supplements. This seems to be the magic number.
You can take up to 8 grams of BCAAs before, during, and after your workouts.
There are other factors that can be taken into consideration. For example, if you already consume a diet rich in natural BCAAs you wouldn’t need such high doses.
BCAA side effects and risks
In healthy average adults, BCAAs are perfectly safe. Some people, though, shouldn’t take BCAA supplements. These include:
Those suffering from ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease: Studies have shown that BCAAs can cause lung failure and a higher chance of death in this group of people.
Those suffering from branched-chain ketoaciduria: Higher levels of BCAAs have been shown to be responsible for seizures, brain damage, and retardation in people of this group. Don’t use BCAAs if you have this condition.
Those suffering from chronic alcoholism: Alcoholics that have increased their BCAA intake have suffered from hepatic encephalopathy, which is a liver disease that leads to brain damage.
Low blood sugar in infants: Intake of one of the branched-chain amino acids, leucine, has been reported to lower blood sugar in infants with a condition called idiopathic hypoglycemia. This term means they have low blood sugar, but the cause is unknown. Some research suggests leucine causes the pancreas to release insulin, and this lowers blood sugar.
Those who will have surgery: Blood sugar control throughout the surgery process is important. BCAAs can alter blood sugar levels. It is important to not use BCAAs 2 weeks before any scheduled surgeries.
BCAAs can cause idiopathic hypoglycemia in infants. I don’t know why anyone would be giving infants BCAAs but this should never happen.
What to look for when buying BCAA?
We already discussed how there are a few different forms of BCAA supplements and how powders are the most popular. They used to taste horrible but over the years great tasting BCAA powders have been created so you won’t have to worry about having to force down a nasty drink.
Tablets are easier to take but they take longer to release the amino acids. Also, you need to take so many pills to get 8 grams that you would be bloated with water when you are done. For these reasons, I recommend powders. They can easily be added to your pre and post workout drinks.
Another thing to look for in BCAA supplements is the ratio of leucine, isoleucine, and valine. The accepted perfected ratio is 2:1:1. This has been proven to show the greatest protein synthesis.
As you look over the research and benefits you will notice that leucine is the most powerful amino acid of the three so by doubling the leucine content you will get more positive effects. It is important to know that if you took away the isoleucine and valine, leucine becomes useless so you can’t leave them out entirely.
It is important to check out the products ability to be absorbed by the body. Without a fast enough absorption rate, it would escape the body through waste before your body is able to use it.
Another factor to consider is if you want added enhancers in your product. Some BCAAs are also energy boosters or a weight loss aid. Check to see if these are included and base your decisions from there. I personally like to have a little energy booster mixed in because I work out in the morning and it replaces my cup of coffee. You will also want to check the sugar content and make sure that is low to none.
10 best BCAA supplements in 2021
Below we put together a list of top 10 BCAA supplements for men and women based on a collaborative effort between ourselves and reviews from fitness experts and enthusiasts.
Branch chain amino acid supplements are not magic powders and pills capable of gifting jaw-dropping bodies to every person who takes them. However, if you are trying to build muscle, burn fat, improve performance, or speed up recovery – they may give you the necessary boost you need.
This product has all the leucine, isoleucine, and valine that it should. In fact, it delivers 7 whole grams of BCAAs which each serving. But, it also delivers 2.5 grams of glutamine, an essential amino acid for extra muscle building. It also comes with an electrolyte blend of sodium, potassium, and others for hydration. It’s very popular among the fitness crowd and proves to have good BCAA power.
If you like to have a little boost for focus and energy, this BCAA supplement is for you. It fits the guidelines with the 2:1:1 ratio of leucine, isoleucine, and valine. It also contains caffeine from green tea and green tea, the best kind since it has antioxidants. There are also B vitamins and C in this supplement. Beta Alanine, L-Alanine, and Taurine are also added to boost energy and endurance. This brand offers lots of delicious sounding flavors. I’m especially interested in trying the new peach lemonade flavor.
This product contains all three BCAAs in the 2:1:1 ratio but it also has added betaine. I also like how they use some natural sources for hydrating electrolytes like watermelon juice and coconut water. Unlike most other BCAA supplements this one isn’t calorie free. Each scoop has 25 calories and for most people, a serving would be 2 scoops. Granted, this complex was designed for those looking for greater muscle gains and not those counting calories so it shouldn’t turn them away from this product.
This has a new ratio of 3 leucine, 1 isoleucine, and 2 valine as opposed to the traditional 2:1:1 but it still has all three BCAAs and more leucine. It is simple, which could be good but it could also be bad. BCAA is all it contains. Most other products add a little extra bonus to boost the effectiveness of their product. The lack of these extras though is what makes it very affordable. After all, sticking to the basics is what works most of the time.
This complex was designed to be used primarily post workout. It still has the 2:1:1 ratio of BCAAs but also contains creatine, beta-alanine, taurine, and betaine. It also contains glutamine and carnitine for added recovery. Absorption of all these great nutrients into your muscles is guaranteed by their BioPerine, extract of black pepper. This mix of aminos and BCAAs along with a better absorption means that your muscles will be supremely cared for after a long hard workout.
This formula was designed to be the best of the best intra-workout supplement. It contains the necessary 2:1:1 ratio that you are probably tired of hearing about that is created through vegetable fermentation and microencapsulated for best absorption rates and solubility. This product also contains citrulline which is supposed to deliver nitric oxide, aiding at every level mid-workout. It also contains beta-alanine, taurine, and tyrosine. An interesting thing added to this formula is coconut water powder for electrolytes and hydrating the muscle tissues. Its energy blend is made from green caffeine called Purcaf made with a solvent-free process, keeping things organic and chemical free.
This is a no-nonsense perfectly balanced BCAA supplement. They deliver the 2:1:1 ratio of leucine, isoleucine, and valine that has been proven as the best ratio for supreme results. They also have a new peptide formula for the best absorption by the body so that no BCAA goes to waste. An added bonus is the CLA matrix that they deliver with healthy fats like avocado oil, safflower oil, and coconut oil.
This BCAA has the perfect ratio of 2:1:1 which is a must. Each serving delivers 6 grams of BCAAs. There is also 1 gram of Taurine and 500 mg of Agmatine, a pump-inducer and supposed assimilator of protein. It does contain some artificial flavorings and sucralose but no real sugar. Many people rave about the flavor which is always good to have something that tastes great if you have to drink it three times a day. This company is into no B.S. products backed by science.
9. RC AminoTone
This is on the list because even though it has only 4 grams of BCAAs (with the right ratio of 2:1:1), it has an interesting absorption complex called Astragin that is supposed to increase the absorption of proteins into the body by 67% and even aid in the absorption of vitamins and increase ATP production. It also includes a metabolic enhancer that is said to reduce cravings and help you lose fat and hydrating electrolytes. These BCAAs are instantized meaning that it mixes well in the water so you don’t get that grit at the bottom when you are finished.
This is an old school purely BCAA formula with no extras and they are proud of the fact. They stick to the old school 2:1:1 ratio which I agree with. The best thing about this product is the price. It is very affordable. If you already have a workout formula that you love but want to add BCAAs to the mix, this is a great choice.