BCAAs 101: Benefits of Branched-Chain Amino Acids

By Chris Lockwood

By: Chris Lockwood, PhD, CSCS

Are you new to the gym, a competitive athlete, bodybuilder, CrossFitter, endurance enthusiast or weekend warrior? If you fall into any of those categories, there’s a good chance you’ve supplemented with, or have considered using a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) to improve your performance or promote faster recovery.

More For Less

When a high quality, high protein supplement or meal isn’t on the menu, a BCAA supplement can help amplify the benefits of those aminos to your muscles.

In other words, you can occasionally consume less protein and likely still reap the muscle-supporting benefits of an otherwise high-quality, high protein load.

At the very least, you minimize the catabolic (muscle breakdown) effects of too little protein.

The all-star when it comes to amino acids is the essential amino, Leucine.

'Essential' meaning the body cannot produce the amino naturally. While you can take a single amino acid supplement to get the benefits, by taking a  2:1:1 (leucine-to-isoleucine-to-valine) formula you get more bang for your buck.

Additionally, researchers in one study found that 4.2 grams of the BCAA leucine, when added to a low-quality and low-protein (10 g) drink, significantly amplified the anabolic effects of weight training in both younger and older adults. [Atherton PJ et al. Clin Nutr 2016;S0261-5614(16)30071-1]

A Natural Fatigue Fighter (An Ode to the Holidays) 

If you’ve gorged on Thanksgiving turkey, you know the feeling of fatigue that sets in and makes you want to crawl into bed. In addition to the extra protein, that all-American bird feast provides the cathartic benefits of a high-dose of the essential amino acid, tryptophan; the amino acid responsible for increasing the sleep-inducing hormone, serotonin. 

However, that same tryptophan that makes family holidays bearable by putting you into Sleepy Town, also increases within your brain as you exercise. By blocking or delaying the uptake of tryptophan into the brain you can delay exercise fatigue and increase your total training volume.

Increasing training volume is the necessary variable for achieving your goals! Since this is an article about the benefits of BCAAs, it probably won’t surprise you that BCAAs directly compete with tryptophan for uptake into the brain.

In fact, in a recent systematic review, researchers concluded that supplementation with BCAAs prior to or during endurance exercise reduces fatigue, perceived effort, muscle damage, and pain sensation, increases the anabolic response to exercise, and improves recovery and the immune system response to exercise. [Salinas-Garcia ME et al. Nutr Hosp 2015;31:577-89.]

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About Chris Lockwood

Dr. Lockwood is president of LOCKWOOD, LLC, an innovation, research, and consulting firm within the dietary supplement, nutrition and fitness industries. Beginning in Fall 2017, will also begin serving as an Adjunct Professor at Auburn University, School of Kinesiology. He has raised over $1.04MM in cash donations toward protein and dietary supplement research, is the lead inventor on five patents and pending applications, co-authored 58 peer-reviewed manuscripts and presentations, has authored 100s of consumer and trade articles, and is widely regarded as one of the foremost experts in sports nutrition and dietary supplements. He has previously served as Editor-in-Chief of Muscle & Fitness and M&F Hers magazines, Senior Category Director of the Diet, Energy, Food and Beverage category of GNC, Senior Brand Manager of ABB, and as Chief Scientific Officer of 4Life Research. 

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