Get better results from your workout and recover faster by taking BCAAs during your workouts. Taking the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) during exercise is one of the simplest and most effective strategies for gaining muscle and improving body composition. BCAAs don’t cancel out the hard work you do in the gym by adding extra calories, but they do let you train harder, while decreasing muscle damage and post-workout soreness. Naturally, there are other nutrients that can be helpful during training, but if you want to keep it simple, BCAAs are a must.
Tip #1: Use BCAAs to Give the Body the Building Blocks to Restore Tissue
The BCAAs are made up of the amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine, and they provide the most basic building blocks to restore tissue in the body. The BCAAs are among the nine essential amino acids that the body is unable to make, meaning they must be ingested through food or supplements. They are naturally found in high-protein foods, such as whey protein and most meats.
Tip #2: Take BCAAs to Activate Pathways that Build Muscle
Along with providing the actual building blocks used to restore tissue and muscle, BCAAs activate various cellular pathways that have to be “turned on” in order for protein synthesis to occur. For this reason, elevating your levels of BCAAs has a number of effects on the body that aren’t strictly related to muscle building and work capacity.
BCAAs are not just for athletes or guys who want to get big. Rather, scientists are actively researching how BCAAs can improve the health of the general population and treat an array of diseases and improve the health of the general population. Perhaps the most interesting emerging evidence is that BCAAs can support liver health, promoting liver regeneration after removal of part of the liver. They can also protect the liver from cancer in patients with cirrhosis, and BCAAs combined with protein are being tested as a treatment for diabetes. Plus, high dietary intake of BCAAs at every meal is associated with less chance of being overweight or obese.
Tip #3: Take BCAAs to Prevent Soreness
Taking BCAAs during training will prevent muscle soreness after your workout, which will allow you to recover faster. A well-known Japanese study confirmed that BCAAs decrease delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) where the exercise consisted of a very large volume of squats (7 sets of 20 reps) that would normally produce significant muscle damage. A BCAA supplement with 100mg/kg of BCAAs (about 9g for a 200 lb person) resulted in much less soreness at 48 and 72 hours after training than a placebo.
A second study reinforces the importance of a large “bolus” dose of BCAAs during training. A group of trained athletes were given 40 grams of BCAAs over the duration of a workout that included 100 drop jumps from a height of 0.6 meters with a maximal effort rebound jump.
Results showed that compared to a placebo group, the BCAA group reported much less muscle soreness and had lower biomarkers of inflammation, as measured by creatine kinase. Creatine kinase is commonly used to test muscle damage after hard training and elevated levels indicate damage to the sarcolemma of the muscle fiber, which cause enzymes to “leak” from the cell into the blood. Less creatine kinase indicates that the BCAAs helped maintain the integrity of cell membranes during training, leading to less damage and subsequent muscle soreness.
Tip #4: Take BCAAs to Recover Faster
BCAAs help you recover faster so that you recoup maximal strength levels more rapidly because of how they decrease muscle damage and activate muscle synthesis pathways. Fewer muscle fibers are damaged during intense training, but they are also more quickly restored if a large pool of BCAAs is present in the blood.
For example, in the drop jump study mentioned in #3, the group that took BCAAs recovered maximal strength faster than the placebo group. At 24 hours after the exercise trial, the BCAA group had a 18 percent drop in maximal leg strength compared to a 27 percent decrease in the placebo group. The BCAA group had restored maximal strength at 72 hours post-workout, whereas the placebo group still had not restored maximal strength at 96 hours when the study ended.
Naturally, accelerated recovery has implications for a variety of populations:
• Athletes can train more intensely and ensure adequate recovery for competitions.
• The general population will have less soreness and will recover strength faster after training, making them more likely to adhere to an intense training program.
• Mass builders or physique competitors will have better results from training and be able to train that much harder.
• Endurance athletes can strength train without inducing significant muscle soreness that would impair their cycling, running, rowing, or swimming performance.
Tip #5: Take BCAAs for a Better Anabolic Response to Training
Taking BCAAs will improve your hormone response to training, making you more anabolic. For example, a study in the Chinese Journal of Physiology found that giving participants a BCAA drink that contained the amino acid arginine during an exhaustive exercise trial produced a much higher testosterone response than a placebo. The testosterone to cortisol (T:C) ratio was much more favorable as well, and testosterone was highest at the 120-minute recovery point, highlighting the muscle and tissue remodeling effect of intense exercise and optimal nutrition.
Remember, for any new readers, cortisol is the stress response to intense training that leads to muscle loss and a catabolic environment. Chronically high cortisol leads to fat gain and wrecks havoc on the body’s ability to produce androgen hormones. A favorable T:C ratio means you are offsetting the stress hormone with more testosterone, resulting in a faster recovery and more muscle building.
Tip #6:Take BCAAs for Better Mood and Mental Function
The most novel finding of the Chinese study described in #5 is that after the exercise trial, participants were given a mood states profile test to measure psychological condition after the extremely intense workout. Mood scores were higher immediately following the trial after taking the BCAA drink than the placebo. However, fatigue ratings were equal, but the BCAA group recovered much more quickly than after the placebo trial and their mental function was higher. This indicates that taking BCAAs during training will allow you to perform well in the rest of your life post-workout.
Related benefits of BCAAs include improved reaction time, less depression (BCAAs increase serotonin production, which makes you feel good), and better overall health. Yes, one study found that giving a BCAA supplement to mice resulted in extended life span because they improved cardiac health.
Tip #7: Take BCAAs for Greater Work Capacity and Less Fatigue
A recent Brazilian study showed that taking a large BCAA dose of 300 mg/kg of body weight a day for three days can produce much greater work capacity in an exhaustive exercise trial when participants are somewhat energy depleted. This was a three-day study in which trained subjects performed a glycogen-depleting exercise trial and the next day did an exhaustive exercise test. Taking the BCAAs resulted in a 17 percent greater resistance to fatigue and greater work capacity than a placebo.
Tip #8: BCAA Supplementation Leads to Greater Fat Being Used for Fuel
The best news coming from the Brazilian study mentioned in #7 is that taking BCAAs resulted in more fat being used for fuel during the exercise trial. The BCAA group had a reduced respiratory exchange rate (RER), which is an indicator of the body’s use of fat for fuel—as the RER rises, the body uses more carbohydrates for its energy needs. As RER declines, the body burns more fat.
This finding means that if you want to lose fat, take BCAAs during training because you can shift the body into a fat burning mode, but it also means you will have a greater work capacity when training at an intense level that uses up all your energy stores. Taking BCAAs is a no-brainer for endurance athletes who want to go harder and longer.
Tip #9: Use Leucine-Enriched BCAAs for Greater Muscle Building, Especially if You’re Over 35
One of the BCAAs, leucine, may be the most powerful amino acid for body composition because it can independently up-regulate or “turn on” the enzymes that trigger protein synthesis. Leucine is also the magic bullet for increasing energy expenditure and blood sugar management in the body. A review in the journal Aging said leucine has “unique obesity-reducing effects” because it decreases food intake and body weight by increasing the gene pathways mentioned in #2.
Research shows a leucine-enriched BCAA drink causes greater anabolic protein signaling, and that it is particularly effective for older individuals over age 35. For example, a study in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that BCAAs with extra leucine activates a specific protein-synthesis pathway in the body that is naturally impaired as we age. In older individuals, this pathway is not activated to the same extent as in younger individuals after exercise unless leucine-enriched EAAs are ingested!
Tip #10: Get BCAAs in Your Diet in Addition to Taking Them During Training
For best results, you need to eat foods with high BCAA content because these will naturally be high-protein foods as well. Red meat, cashews, almonds, eggs, fish, chicken, chickpeas, lentils, and liver all have a decent amount of BCAAs, and if you are shy about supplementing with BCAAs, this is a great place to start.
During workouts, a BCAA supplement without added sugar or chemicals will provide you with the building blocks of muscle and lean tissue, while not giving you the other macronutrients that come with food such as carbs and fat. Plus, taking the BCAAs in isolation allows you to digest them more easily.
If you missed it, be sure to read the article Eleven Nutrition Tips for a Better Workout.