The Beginner’s Guide to BCAAs
Amino acids are the basic units of terrestrial life. They join together to form proteins and are necessary to manage chemical processes happening in our cells. The Branched-Chain Amino Acids consist of valine, leucine and isoleucine. These are included in the nine Essential Amino Acids required by humans. Essential means we cannot synthesise them in our bodies, we have to obtain them through our diet.
There are several common questions around supplementing with BCAA – what is it, how often to take BCAA, how much BCAA to take per day, and the pros and cons of taking the supplement on a regular basis. Here we’ll take a look at various aspects of the supplement and hopefully help you discover if it has a place in your diet.
What Do Branched-Chain Amino Acids Do?
BCAAs are important in the process of protein metabolism. Leucine, in particular, has a role in encouraging protein build-up and slowing its break down. BCAAs make up 35% of essential amino acids found in muscle protein which in turn is about 40% of the total body mass in a typical human. This is a significant proportion but most of the BCAAs are bound up and unavailable as free amino acids to facilitate cell reactions.*
As well as being building blocks for protein BCCAs also act as fuel. During heavy exercise, the body metabolises BCAAs as an extra source of energy. If this is not freely available then the body starts to cannibalise the muscle tissue and continued exercise, especially combined with dieting through caloric restriction, can result in muscle loss.
BCAAs are different from other amino acids in that they are predominately metabolised in the muscles rather than the liver. In addition, each one has its own metabolic pathway.
Leucine is linked to fat, valine to carbohydrate and isoleucine to both. It is not yet fully understood but BCAAs appear to help with weight loss as part of a reduced-calorie programme. This is thought through their effects on glycogen and insulin levels, and the benefits of BCAA for weight loss means it can be worth including in your diet if you’re looking to drop some fat. Their muscle-building properties also help to prevent wastage during dieting, which is a huge benefit for those working on a bulk/cut cycle.
How to Take BCAA Supplements
The amount of BCAAs required depends on your body mass. Below 150lbs/68kg it is recommended that three daily doses of 10g are taken, this is increased to 15g if you are heavier than 150lbs/68kg.
Although leucine has the greatest effect on the growth of muscle tissue it has been found that a supplement with a ratio of 2:1:1 leucine, valine, isoleucine produces the best results in building protein. Taking leucine on its own can be counterproductive as it lowers the levels of the other two.
When it comes to how often to take BCAA, the most common approach is to take it daily as part of your normal diet and supplementation routine. Many people choose to take it at the same time as their whey protein shakes, as it’s often the most convenient time.
When Should I Take BCAAs?
As well as the three daily doses of 10/15g taken at regular intervals, morning, noon and night there is an additional benefit from sipping on a BCAA drink during your workout. 3/5g taken before, during and after training is recommended to replenish what was used during your workout.
BCAA Tablets v Powder
Choosing between BCAA tablets or powder is really a matter of individual preference, and both have their own pros and cons. The tablets are useful as they are a little easier to transport, come as a pre-measured dose and are generally a bit more straightforward for most people to use.
Powdered BCAAs are useful for those looking to include them as part of their peri-workout nutrition, or who are using them as part of a slightly more precise supplementation programme. The upside to powder over pills is the flexibility, the downsides are that the taste sometimes isn’t great and it’s slightly less convenient.
For the most part, there’s very little difference between the two, it’s just whatever fits in best to your diet and routine.
Do BCAA’s Cause Weight Gain?
Some people do experience a slight increase in weight during the first week or two of BCAA supplementation, but in almost all cases this is just water retention. The supplement does have a caloric value which should be included in any dietary tracking so bear that in mind when including it in your routine, but for the most part, any initial weight gain will simply be fluid retention.
*Branched-Chain Amino Acid Catabolism in Exercise