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You’ve heard about BCAAs. Maybe even purchased your first supply. And inevitably someone will comment, “Oh, those are just a waste of money!”
BCAAs are loved by many and hated on by others - so what’s the truth? Are they a great supplement to your fitness and diet regimen or just “hyped up gatorade”?
In this article we’ll approach the answer from two points of view: scientific and anecdotal - while tying both into the analogy of building a bridge.
Why a bridge? Because when you workout you tear muscles tissue and your nutrition (and rest) is what helps you rebuild the connectivity of said torn tissue, like building a bridge.
Before we get into the details, here’s the bottomline: BCAAs can be a great supplement to your workout and diet regimen depending on what your body needs. As the saying goes: “the devil is in the details.”
The truth is your answer is based on context. BCAAs can be great if you have a certain set of goals (ie maintaining muscle mass), while they could be considered “hyped up gatorade” if you had a different set of physique goals (ie adding 10 pounds of lean muscle in the next 10 weeks).
Maybe your goal is slightly different than the two examples just mentioned, so lets quickly break down how BCAAs work so you can decided whether or not they are beneficial to you.
BCAAs, short for branched chain amino acids, are essential building blocks for rebuilding muscles. They’re referred to as “essential” because your body cannot produce them independently, but rather must resource them from your diet. More specifically, BCAAs are composed of 3 amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine.
There are a total of 20 amino acids, of which 9 are essential (your body must consume them), and BCAA’s provide 3 of those 9.
That may not sound like a lot, considering your muscles need 6 more external amino acids to rebuild healthily. But those 3 come with a unique set of benefit of their own. Namely, they can be consumed easily as a supplement with low to no calories, quickly hydrate your muscles (which is vital for repair and proper functioning), and are relatively light on your stomach.
To get the all 9 essential amino acids, people need to consume food categorized as a “complete protein.” Complete proteins, such as meat, fish and eggs, have all the amino acids you body needs to rebuild muscle and develop the remaining amino acids as well. However, they also demand a lot more from your body.
Not only do complete proteins come with an increase in caloric intake, they also do not hydrate your body, nor keep your stomach feeling light. In fact, the result is the opposite. Food requires body liquids to break down, resulting in dehydration and a longer time to digest.
We’re coming to an important crossroads here. It’s possible to consume foods with all 9 essential amino acids (complete proteins), while your body does not need all of the amino acids available. In effect, you consume too many nonessential calories which will either be stored by your body (ie fat) or you will need to be burned off via exercise and activity.
Herein lies where BCAA’s are beneficial many people’s goals. What if you could get all the requirements your muscles need to repair and grow without consuming excess calories?
Do you think you’d have an easier time achieving your physical goals?
If you’re goal is a lean, healthy body, then yes!
In effect, you could be working smarter rather than harder. Many people, maybe even most, in the fitness community pride on working harder. In a sense there is a lot of pride from pushing yourself. Grit is a vital characteristic of achieving challenging goals.
But grit alone, or work ethic alone, does not guarantee success. We must use our most valuable asset - exercise our ability to think - and as the saying goes: “abs are made in the kitchen.”
Not everyone wants six-pack abs, but the point is that your body composition has a lot less to do with how hard individuals push themselves physically and a lot more to do with their strategic (or lack thereof) diet.
So, how should we think about achieving our physique goals?
For starters, our body has certain requirements and a subset of those requirements are particularly essential to achieving a specific goal.
Protein for rebuilding muscle is non-negotiable. But how you get that protein - the quality of it, the quantity of it, etc - will make or break achieving your goals.
If the goal is to “be more fit,” - to lean down by losing body fat and toning muscles - then eating or drinking too many calories will be the death of that goal.
Calories, on the other hand, are a negotiable. You can consume less calories and still provide your body with all it’s essential needs. (This is where vitamins and supplements come into play.) Consuming the right amount of calories is crucial or fat-loss and toning will not happen.
However, each of us cannot simply just “consume less calories”. This will lead to a term many people call “skinny fat.” While it’s somewhat of a crude term, it does depict a body composition that is common among people who think only portion control is needed to be fit.
If you’ve never heard the term “skinny fat,” the quick explanation of it is someone who does not appear to be fat, as they do appear to be slender. However, their slender appearance is due to a lack of muscle composition. Body fat resides on top of muscles, so with the absence of muscles, body fat is not protruding outwards away from their body. The result is not the healthy, lean body your after.
Portion control is half the requirement for getting more fit. The other half is giving your muscles the nutrition it needs.
Vitamins are a great way to fulfill you body’s need for additional B6, B12, D3 or what have you without consuming more calories. In the same way BCAAs are a great way to fulfill your muscle’s need for additional essential amnion acids.
You can get much of the necessary muscle building blocks from food while supplementing the remaining requirements from BCAA’s.
Again, here is a good point to remind you that if your goal is different, say, to gain 10 pounds of muscle (your football season is coming up or you hibernate for the winter) then BCAA’s would not be efficient. With these goals, consuming more calories will help you, so your better course of action is to consume calorie-dense foods.
[Working Title: Multi-Fold Benefits]
This program of potion-controlling meals while including essential supplements, has a 2nd order and 3rd order effect too.
When you have more muscles mass (since your muscles have been able to repair properly), then your muscles will burn more calories when you’re using them. Your bigger, healthier muscles will have
With our bridge analogy: the more cars and trucks driving over our bridge each day, the more reinforcement our bridge will need.
With an increased need for additional energy, your body will be likely need to break down body fat for this energy. That is, if your you have not oversupplied calories.
So while BCAAs may not lead you to gaining a lot muscle mass, it will help with some increase muscle mass or even maintaining muscle mass - they will aid in leaning up. That is, decreasing your body’s fat to muscle ratio.
[ Working title: Anti-Allergy ]
One of the downfalls of protein powder is not only the additional calories consumed to ingest it, but also usually it is derived from milk. Many people, some without even knowing, have a micro-allergy to milk.
On a very low reaction level, people can experience inflammation in their cheeks, giving them a bloated look. There could be inflammation in individual’s joints, increasing proneness to injury and decreasing overall health.
Less subtly than inflammation, people with lactose intolerance can experience a scratchy throat and need water to wash down the milk-derived food.
Higher levels of lactose intolerance can results in digestion and intestinal discomfort or irregularity.
It’s said that many BCAA brands derive their product keratin, which has no lactose, and is therefore ‘cleaner’ in a sense.