Branched chain aminos make up approximately 35% of the amino acids contained in the protein of our bodies. Without them, we’d wither away and die — while suffering considerably in the process! From a performance standpoint, there isn’t really a single supplement more essential to energy and recovery (muscle repair) than the 3 essential amino acids that make up a BCAA supplement.
What Are Branched Chain Aminos?
Branched chain aminos are comprised of three essential amino acids: Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine. Essential amino acids are those that the body cannot make itself, and therefore our metabolism won’t function properly if we don’t consume them through diet. Taken individually, each is classified simply as an “amino acid” whereas when taken as a matrix they’re a performance-enhancing BCAA. The optimal ratio of each is 2:1:1 (2 parts Leucine, 1 part Isoleucine, 1 part Valine).
High-functioning athletes, people with poor diets, those with health problems, and vegetarians can all benefit from taking BCAAs and other essential aminos. Each amino in BCAAs have their own use inside the body, but several studies and tons of use in sports throughout the years have proved they work VERY well when taken together, in the right ratio:
• Leucine: Leucine has the most research completed on it. It’s the main muscle growth activator in branched chain aminos and also helps the body use blood glucose by improving insulin sensitivity in the cells. Leucine activates muscle growth by increasing protein synthesis by activating the body’s muscle growth protein binder kinase called mTOR.
• Isoleucine: Isoleucine has also been studied extensively, and found to help the cells in our body to use glucose more efficiently during exercise. It accomplishes this by promoting insulin sensitivity, which is essential for muscle growth and prolonging energy levels.
• Valine: Valine somewhat resembles Leucine, which is why it may have been originally included in the BCAA formulation. In rat studies, it’s been shown to help preserve energy levels post-workout by maintaining liver glycogen and blood glucose levels. Both of which are typically compromised for a time after exercise. Another interesting benefit is that Valine inhibits tryptophan, which turns into serotonin after crossing the blood-brain barrier. Serotonin, despite being the happy hormone, signals muscles that they’re tired.
All mammals use essential amino acids in many of the same ways. There’s a multitude of science behind the biology and pharmacology behind their use in exercises and recovery. To spare you confusion, here’s the basic premise:
1. Leucine increases the body’s ability to use the protein we consume to both build and preserve muscle, while also promoting glucose uptake in the cells.
2. Isoleucine helps cells use energy more efficiently and takes up where Leucine levels off after exercise to keep protein metabolism going strong.
3. Valine improves the body’s ability to “re-energize” by preventing liver and blood glucose levels from dipping too low after exercise. It also inhibits serotonin production, which makes us feel less tired during exercise.
Can’t We Just Eat Plenty of Protein?
Taken together, branched chain amino acids create even more benefits to users. It’s often stated that eating quality protein and supplementing with specialized products like whey give people all they need.
However, BCAAs are free-form, meaning they aren’t bound to other amino acids and thus don’t need to be digested in order to be used. BCAAs are immediately bioavailable and blood plasma levels spike soon after ingestion.
Benefits of Using BCAAs:
1. Pre-workout Power and Energy
Power and energy are both needed in order to fuel muscles during a workout. There’s a constant push-pull that takes place in the body while exercising. BCAAs are most prevalent in skeletal muscle; strong skeletal muscles are essential for overall strength, as they’re the center-point of our core. The muscles use readily available glucose to fuel muscle cells. BCCAs are proven to help the cells use glucose more efficiently. However, blood sugar is burned really quickly during intense exercise.
The body burns a lot of sugar during intense lifting sessions such as bodybuilding, CrossFit, and powerlifting. BCAAs can be used as an immediate energy source when blood sugar levels drop, to prevent fatigue. Fatigue is also inhibited by inhibiting serotonin which causes fatigue (Eg., serotonin release is the reason why we feel comfortably tired after a night out on the town and/or sexual activity).
During endurance exercise, the body will start to burn fat and/or catabolize muscle (depending on available body fat stores). While burning fat might be the goal for you, there’s a pronounced dip in energy for most people after around 20 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise. BCAAs help ease the transition from burning glucose to burning body fat by providing instant energy.
2. Faster Post-Workout Recovery
You’ve already learned how BCAAs help to promote protein synthesis, glucose uptake, and helps the body restore liver and muscle glycogen after a workout. All of these benefits lead to faster post-workout recovery. I’d like you to consider the factoid in the title about how the 3 aminos in BCAAs make up approximately 35% of our muscle tissue.
Knowing that the body uses BCAAs to energize, recover and simply maintain muscle mass, it should be no surprise that when levels drop a sacrifice has to be made. That sacrifice is either a dip in energy levels, strength, muscle mass — or all the above. When you feed the body with the appropriate amount of branched chain aminos, no sacrifice needs to be made and thus recovery won’t be thwarted. Taking them before and during exercise also helps to prevent muscle from breaking down at all.
3. Saves Muscle While Dieting
Catabolism is a process designed by nature to protect us from starvation and the death that can result from prolonged periods where food is scarce. Since we need amino acids to recover from exercise and heal all areas of the body including organs, when the body lacks those aminos (aka “The Building Blocks of Life”) it’s forced to break down existing muscle tissue to get what it needs.
It’s worth noting again that the 3 aminos that make up BCAAs make up approximately 30% of our muscle and other tissues. They’re also the most important for use in muscle building, cell energy and recovery. When a person diets; reduces calorie intake below maintenance levels, the body will eventually be forced to recoup amino deficiencies by breaking down its own muscle fibers.
Since we know that BCAAs make up a huge portion of our overall muscle architecture, particularly in our skeletal muscles, it’s a given that taking BCAAs during a diet will help spare valuable muscle density. By this same token, when amino acid levels are optimal and protein synthesis is maximized via Leucine, the body tends to burn more fat stores rather than catabolizing muscle. In fact, in Western and Asian cultures where obesity is most prevelant, a correlation between higher BCAA levels and lower overall body fat levels has been noted in several studies.
4. Improved Insulin Sensitivity (Caution)
This benefit of BCAA intake is very controversial. Not because branched chain amino acids don’t promote better insulin sensitivity, or that they actually improve metabolism — in the short term. BCAAs, primarily due to Isoleucine, definitely improve the cell’s ability to take in and use glucose for energy. Lack of insulin sensitivity is known as type II diabetes mellitus.
In fact, one of the side effects (mentioned later) of taking BCAAs is the potential for blood sugar levels to dip to low in people who suffer from the disease. It’s rarely a problem unless the sufferer needs to take insulin to control sugar levels. Lower sugar levels are almost always a good thing in modern society, outside intense athletic competition where blood sugar is burned indiscriminately.
So, the insulin sensitivity benefits of BCAAs are definitely a great one. However, there have been studies completed where it’s found long-term use of BCAAs may lead to a lack of insulin sensitivity down the road. These studies are only rat-based to date, but it’s known that prolonged elevation of mTOR, the protein binder kinase, can lead to insulin resistance. This makes BCAAs insulin sensitivity boosting benefit rather contradictory, yet science admits this is only speculative right now.
5. Decreases Age-Related Muscle Atrophy
A process called “sarcopenia” happens to everyone as we age into later life. This leads to muscle weakness, trouble exercising as we once did, and a pronounced increased in the risk for injury. The process starts in our early 40s and can be staved off for a period with regular resistance exercise and a good diet. However, lower hormone levels in both sexes causes the body to stop synthesizing protein as it did when the body was younger.
This process isn’t well understood currently. It’s believed to be a problem with mRNA initiation. mRNA molecules are the messengers that send information from our DNA to the cells in our body and tell them what to do. An example in this case would be to repair damaged muscle tissue. Studies have linked the cause to a problem utilizing the essential amino Leucine.
Science has discovered that supplementation with BCAAs can help slow (not prevent entirely) muscle from breaking down. A higher intake of bio-available Leucine has been linked to helping boost mRNA initiation in aging adults, and improving the impairment between DNA and the ribosomes responsible for biological protein synthesis. Since the Leucine in BCAAs is immediately bio-available, aging adults can benefit significantly from ingesting them.
Dosage: How to Optimize BCAA Intake for Max Benefits
Take 5 — 7 grams of branched chain amino acids at a time, up to 4 doses daily for best intra-workout and post-workout recovery benefits
1. Upon waking.
4. Prior to bed.
Don’t exceed this dosing regimen unless otherwise stated on the label of the product you use (see Side Effects and Warnings below). Stacking 3 – 5 grams of quality creatine to your pre-workout BCAAs and whey protein shake will also help supercharge any workout.
BCAAs, as stated already, help greatly with protein synthesis and can help you get the most recovery benefit from the protein you consume. The benefits of creatine are well-known regarding optimizing strength and energy during a workout. There are a number of products out there that will offer all the above in a combination product, but be mindful of higher prices and the overall value they offer.
If you’re aging and want to reap the muscle-sparing benefits of branched chain aminos, consult your doctor for recommended dosing information.
Side Effects and Warnings
Everyone will react to various supplements differently than their workout partner. For the most part, one should start out by taking a single 3 — 5 gram dose, once daily (Ie., during a time noted in the last section). If no side effects are noted, move up to 2 doses the next day and so on, until you’re taking a dose at the time windows suggested in the dosing information.
Side effects are generally limited to the gastrointestinal variety:
• Upset stomach
• Intestinal cramps
Additionally, taking too many BCAAs will make your liver and kidneys work harder. For this reason, taking them without the instruction of a doctor is not recommended if you have liver, kidney, or heart disease. Also, those who drink alcohol in excess should also avoid taking them. Last, long term BCAA use has been linked to insulin resistance, a contradiction to the commonly held short term benefit of increased insulin sensitivity.
How to Choose the Best BCAA Formulation
First and foremost, the reputation of the manufacturer is key to ensure you’re not flushing your money down the toilet each time you urinate. Stick with the brands recommended on this page and/or make sure to verify the manufacturer’s rep on Bodybuilding.com and Amazon reviews.
The most important aspect of buying BCAAs is to look for the recommended ratio:
• 2 parts Leucine.
• 1 part Isoleucine.
• 1 part Valine.
Look for “2:1:1 Ratio” on the label to confirm. This amounts to a 5 — 10 gram serving size that equals (based on a 5 gram serving size): 3 grams of Leucine; 1 gram of Isoleucine; 1 gram of Valine.
There are many products with a higher ratio of Leucine, as it’s known to be the main muscle building component. However, most experts like “The Supp Guru” Jim Stoppani Ph.D., recommend 2:1:1 as being the most optimal for overall workout performance and recovery.
I would add that older people seeking an answer to muscle loss might be better suited to a supplement with more Leucine. However, you must ask your doctor first to assess whether BCAAs are healthy for you to consume.
Top Recommended Branched Chain Aminos
Optimum Nutrition Instantized BCAA Branched Chain Essential Amino Acids Powder
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Optimum Nutrition is the industry standard when it comes to bodybuilding supplements. This 2:1:1 ratio BCAA supplement is at the top of the heap, one of the best products you can buy today. One of the coolest things about ON is that they don’t focus on overwhelming customers with flavor options, instead focusing on making their most popular offerings as perfect as they can be. You can even opt for flavorless if you prefer to add your own, or mix your BCAAs with a preworkout supplement or protein powder. The company used to be among the most expensive supplement suppliers, but today they’ve brought their prices down to fit into the smaller person’s budget.
BSN Amino X
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You’ll need to be prepared to pay more when buying a container of any BSN product, but don’t let the price deceive you into thinking you’re getting less. This formulation offers 10 grams of “Interfusion” BCAAs that are specifically designed to feed the body post-workout. However, you can take it any time. I actually recommend splitting the recommended dose on the label by half, as most people won’t be able to absorb the full 10 grams of BCAAs. BSN also gives you over 100% RDA of vitamin D per serving and their proprietary “Efforsorb” formulation to boost absorption.
Evlution Nutrition BCAA Energy
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Evlution is a huge favorite among high-performance athletes of all shapes and sizes. Each serving boasts 5 grams of quality BCAAs with a 2:1:1 ratio to ensure maximum benefit. This product also offers a 500% RDA serving of vitamin B12 for mental clarity and post-workout recovery, along with a half-gram dose of beta-alanine to give you a skin-busting pump during your workout. I’d highly recommend buying the 70 dose package, as the 30 dose container only saves you $5.
Scivation Xtend BCAA Powder
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Scivation Xtend is perhaps the ultimate recovery BCAA product available. Aside from having the optimal 2:1:1 ratio of BCAAs, it also comes with 2.5 grams of L-glutamine and citrulline mallate — a combination proven to boost workout performance and recovery and boost BCAA metabolism. When you buy the large 90 gram containers, it’s also the best bang for buck in terms of price. With that said, several other products such as whey protein, already offer a large dose of glutamine, so some of you might not be interested in diluting your BCAA supplement with more of these ingredients.
BPI Sports Best BCAA Powder
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BPI used a special peptide bonding technology to apparently make their this 2:1:1 BCAA powder more easily absorbed. I’m personally not a believer, as branched chain aminos are formulated based on the fact that peptides are the main issue in reducing the bioavailability of the various essential amino acids that make up protein in natural foods and protein supplements like whey. With that said, tens of thousands of reviews can’t lie when it’s real people critiquing a product. The consensus is that BPI delivers on its promise to help you work out more intensely and recover faster.
Natura BCAA Capsules – Natural Branched Chain Amino Acid
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Natura is among the top-ranked BCAA products out there. You’re not paying for any fillers or extra ingredients like creatine or glutamine in this formulation. Natura is all about purity. Each capsule is made in an FDA approved facility, using raw ingredients from non-GMO products. If you have any doubts about taking this product, fear not as they offer a one-year, no questions asked, money back guaranteed if you’re not completely happy with your purchase.
Nutricost BCAA Powder
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If budget is truly a concern, I can’t recommend this bare-bones BCAA formulation from Nutricost. You really don’t need to look further if you’re looking for an inexpensive 2:1:1 BCAA that will deliver all the benefits these essential aminos have to offer. This container is over a pound, comes in 3 popular flavors, and has zero calories. This one is regularly touted as being as good as the bigger brands, but do keep in mind that taste will be the big sacrifice here. While larger flavored brands offer a balanced taste profile, this one definitely taste artificial.
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This BCAA formulation actually has some other great ingredients to boost performance and sizzle fat off your midsection. In truth, AminoLean is a preworkout more than a standalone BCAA supp. It’s a favorite of mine, so I couldn’t resist adding it to the list. First, it has the perfect 2:1:1 ratio of readily available BCAAs. Each batch is third-party tested and comes with 125mg of caffeine derived from green tea. RSP also adds CLA, L-carnitine, green tea extract, and green coffee extract for the ultimate focus, energy, and fat-burning ability.
Bulk Supplements BCAA Branched Chain Essential Amino Acids Powder
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This bulk deal offers the optimum 2:1:1 instantized ratio of L-Leucine, L-Isoleucine, and L-Valine. For those of you who like to cut past the fluff of commercial products, and who don’t care about taste, FDA approvals or third-party testing, Bulk Supplements is just what you’re looking for. I often avoid recommending supplements made in the Far East due to purity issues and contamination concerns, but this company consistently gets rave reviews for their quality.
BCAAs are a supplement that frequently goes up and down in popularity. They were all the rage during the 90s and early 2000s, then that popularity waned for a while in favor of more gimmicky supplements that hit the market during that time. Now, science and users around the world are finding that few supplements offer the muscle building/sparing, along with pre and post workout energy levels that this simple and inexpensive nutrients have to offer.
If you’re looking for more muscle and strength, and energy that lasts you beyond a single workout, BCAAs are a supplement that definitely belongs in your gym bag.