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It seems like Branched Chain Amino Acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine) have been part of the serious athlete’s supplement arsenal for just about forever. Anybody remember heading down to the health food store in the 80s to buy a big brown bottle of BCAAs for $30? No? Maybe we’re dating ourselves here. At any rate, the science of BCAA formulation has advanced by leaps and bounds in recent years. The power, potency, and purity of today’s elite BCAA products far eclipses that of those pioneering supplements of years past.
BCAA supplements may have evolved, but what was true then is still true today. A wealth of existing science tells us that BCAAs are essential to recovery and post-workout muscle growth by virtue of their role in decreasing muscle catabolism. Leucine, in particular, is invaluable for supporting protein synthesis, mediated at the molecular level along the mTOR pathway, thereby triggering anabolism. In short, if you’re not stocking up on BCAAs, you’re leaving a lot of potential muscle mass increase on the gym floor. And you do need to assimilate them though your diet, since these essential aminos are not manufactured by your body (unlike glutamine, arginine and other conditionally essential aminos).
NEW SCIENCE, NEW BENEFITS
Interestingly, even as the recovery benefits of BCAAs have become common knowledge, other advantages to BCAA supplementation have emerged. Recent clinical evidence suggests, for instance, that taking your BCAAs may boost force output over the course of your workout and reduce soreness afterwards.
In a 2012 study published in the Journal of International Sports Nutrition, young healthy athletes were given a standard BCAA blend of leucine, isoleucine, and valine (2:1:1 ratio) and asked to consume 10 grams in both the morning and evening. After 7 days of pre-loading (Day 8), they were directed to take the same 10 grams of BCAAs one hour pre-workout, and another 10 grams immediately post-workout. They all performed a single workout specifically designed to increase delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Researchers subjectively measured DOMS pain after the workout, and found that the BCAA-supplemented group reported reduced pain scores. More significantly, they found that the BCAA supplemented group was able to exhibit greater force output (maximum voluntary contraction) for up to four days post-DOMS-induced workout, indicating not only greater recovery, but also potentially greater strength.
Was this finding of reduced muscle damage and soreness a fluke? Evidently not. In a subsequent study, conducted in 2013 and also reported in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 36 untrained men ingested a supplement containing 3.2 grams of BCAAs and 2 grams of taurine 3 times per day for two weeks prior and 3 days after an eccentric bout of exercise. The supplement group experienced significantly lower levels of various markers of muscle damage as well as lower subjective levels of muscle soreness. Researchers concluded that consumption of BCAAs pre- and post-workout may help limit muscle damage and help facilitate recovery.
BCAAs: WHEN AND HOW TO TAKE THEM
It should not be surprising that consumption of protein before weight training leads to increased amino acid uptake from blood and enhanced net protein balance. Supplementing with BCAAs pre-workout will get more of these amino acids into your muscles just as damage begins to accrue. Muscle protein degradation is dampened when BCAAs, especially leucine, are present in the blood stream.
BCAAs may also play a role in glucose metabolism. Indeed, they are used to generate energy during gluconeogenesis. As your workout progresses, your body taps into glycogen stores for energy. Consuming BCAAs pre-workout may help your body use stored carbohydrates more efficiently, while also providing an energy source when glycogen stores are depleted. (This may be where force output increases manifest themselves.) At the very least, your body won’t be chewing up existing muscle tissue for fuel.
To maximize the benefits of BCAA supplementation, try supplementing ten grams of BCAAs with thirty grams of carbohydrates thirty to sixty minutes before training. Make sure the BCAA supplement you use provides essential aminos in the commonly preferred 2:1:1 leucine-to-isoleucine-to-valine ratio and comes from a reputable manufacturer. Once your workout is over, drink a premium-quality mass-building formula that combines BCAA-packed whey isolate and hydrolyzed whey, along with fast acting carbohydrates.
Howatson G, H. M. (2012, May 8). Exercise-induced muscle damage is reduced in resistance-trained males by branched chain amino acids: a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled study. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. , 20.
Ra, S. G., Miyazaki, T., Ishikura, K., Nagayama, H., Komine, S., Nakata, Y., … & Ohmori, H. (2013). Combined effect of branched-chain amino acids and taurine supplementation on delayed onset muscle soreness and muscle damage in high-intensity eccentric exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10(1), 51.