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When combined with a clean diet and a rigorous training program, a well-rounded supplement regimen can truly take your gains to the next level. This you know. What you may not know, however, is that some supps are effective, and others are basically worthless. Take branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs): leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Even if you’ve been pressing and squatting for just a few months, you’ve probably heard of them. That’s because the building blocks of protein are pretty high on the supplement totem pole, along with protein powder. The idea is that ingesting those three amino acids helps optimize recovery, so your muscles grow more effectively. That’s why you’re told to take them before you train, while you train, after you train, before you go to bed, and even before you and your girl get it on. (OK, we made that last one up.)
But there’s a new set of molecules on the protein-building block, called essential amino acids (EAAs), and everyone interested in strength and muscle should know about them. In other words: EAAs are the badass younger brother of BCAAs. Below, FLEX takes a deep dive into BCAAs and EAAs, so you’ll be armed with all the knowledge you need when it comes to supplementing right.
AMINO ACIDS 101
Before we discuss how EAAs can make your muscle game stronger, let’s take a look at the nitty-gritty. That is, why and how amino acids are so crucial to supporting muscle growth, health, and strength.
Though there are more than 300 organic compounds called amino acids, only 20 of these occur in proteins in the body. These are called dietary amino acids. They provide the building blocks for protein and also play several important cellular and molecular signaling roles throughout the body, many of which also support muscle building. Aminos are also needed to assist many other essential processes. They help create the antibodies that make up our immune system and the enzymes that perform thousands of chemical reactions. They also provide the necessary ingredients for constructing hormones and the structures that build cell walls. In short: They’re really, really important. And they can be broken down into three types:
Essential Amino Acids:
There are nine EAAs, and the body can’t make these, so we must constantly eat them to replenish our bodies’ supply.
Nonessential Amino Acids:
We call these nonessential because, while we still need them to function—along with all 20 dietary amino acids—our bodies synthesize them, so we don’t need to consume protein and other foods to get our ll.
Semiessential Amino Acids:
Think of these guys as the A-Team of amino acids. They come into play only when your body is stressed or sick and you can’t produce sufficient qualities in this state.
ONLY THE ESSENTIALS
Anytime you hit the gym and curl your ass o , you’re breaking down muscle tissue by making micro tears in muscle fibers. This is Part 1 of hypertrophy. The second, and more important, part is the recovery phase. And this is where essential amino acids figure in. According to Marie Spano, R.D., C.S.C.S., co-editor of the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Guide to Sport and Exercise Nutrition, “Essential amino acids are necessary for laying down new tissue in muscle.” One thing to keep in mind: Your body isn’t dumb. Take too much of an amino and it will dilute the natural amount of said ingredient that you already have in your body. More important, taking in uneven amounts of aminos can make them skew their effects and not give you the intended result.
The key is to take them all at once and in the correct amounts. When you do that, you’ll get a complete lineup that will work efficiently to assemble muscle proteins in the proper order and at the right time. It’s the opposite of the until-now scattershot plan of supplementing with a few separate aminos that can’t complete the genetic process of making more proteins. That’s where Robert R. Wolfe, Ph.D., chair of the nutritional longevity department at the University of Arkansas, comes in.
“The number and quality of muscle fibers are key to muscle health, and consumption of EAAs is the most effective way to positively influence muscle fiber number and quality,” Wolfe says. But muscle isn’t there to just help us physically navigate the world around us. It also plays an important role in our general health, since it serves as a reservoir of amino acids that are released into the blood when food is not being absorbed. “This discharge is needed to satisfy the continuous requirements of the rest of the body for a constant availability of amino acids in the blood,” Wolfe says. And this loss of aminos is why muscle will waste away if not challenged with resistance or properly fueled. To maintain and create muscle— and to be your healthy best—you must feed your muscles all the essential amino acids in sufficient and measured quantities.
Wolfe has spent most of his life grappling with how to create the perfect amino acid profile to build muscle, whether to help severely burned kids keep muscle while on bed rest or to provide the best and most efficient way for astronauts to build and maintain muscle while in space for long periods. After 17 years of research, $20 million in grants, and 23 human clinical trials, he has patented an essential amino acid formula that works, providing up to three times more anabolic response and a net gain of muscle protein compared with the same amount of whey protein. Some of his studies on young and old people confined to bed rest for 30 days even showed that his EAA blend actually reversed muscle loss and boosted strength by 28%. That sounds good to us.
AMINO ACID INNOVATION
Wolfe’s EAA blend, which he and the University of Arkansas have patented, may be the first real innovation in the sports nutrition market in years. It’s a breakthrough for muscle health because Wolfe painstakingly matched the mix of essential amino acids to the profile of skeletal muscle protein, so what you are putting in your body is going right to where it’s needed, at just the right amount and with just the right ingredients for maximal muscle response. Think of BCAAs as a shotgun—you aim and hope to hit your target. Meanwhile, EAAs are like a sniper rifle—you nail the target every time.
The building blocks for constructing stronger and more effective muscles have been lying around for years without anyone being able, or taking the research time, to arrange them in the correct way. Amino acids work in complex ways in the body, and Wolfe has cracked the EAA code. Now, by taking a simple supplement, everyone can enjoy a more fulfilling, longer, and stronger life. For more information, visit aminoauthority.com.
ASK THE AMINO DOCTOR
FLEX: How did you get started on the road to studying muscles and amino acids?
Robert R. Wolfe, Ph.D.: Early in my career at Shriners Hospitals for Children at Harvard Medical School, I observed that muscle loss in severely burned children was severe and debilitating for recovery. These children were unresponsive to normal nutritional therapy, so this led me to investigate how muscle protein metabolism is controlled in order to develop a new therapeutic approach.
I determined that amino acids—EAAs in particular—were the key to stimulating the production of new muscle protein. So I spent most of my career determining how optimal amino acid nutrition could bene t muscle health.
What specifically are EAAs doing to spur muscle growth?
The principal role of EAAs is to provide the necessary precursors for the production of muscle protein. Certain EAAs—for example, leucine—can help initiate protein synthesis.
Do EAAs help with recovery?
A strenuous workout accelerates protein breakdown and may also cause mild inflammation in the tissue. Muscle recovery requires the resynthesis of new muscle protein to clear the products of muscle breakdown, and consuming EAAs is the most effective way to stimulate the resynthesis of muscle protein after exercise.
What differentiates your EAA blend?
For starters, it contains all the EAAs. Incomplete formulations—such as just BCAAs—are ineffective at producing complete proteins. Second, the EAAs must be available inside the muscle cells in proportion to the profile of muscle protein. This is accomplished by taking account of the characteristics of the transport of each EAA into muscle cells from the blood. Third, the profile of EAAs capitalizes on the properties of certain amino acids to activate the molecular factors involved in protein synthesis.