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BCAAs, or branched-chain amino acids, have recently stolen nutrition supplement headlines everywhere as the “secret to fast muscle gain.” It is time to dig a little deeper. As a certified athletic trainer and strength and conditioning specialist, I receive an influx of questions with any new fitness or nutrition trend. I always teach my clients to be skeptical and do their research, and I consider it part of my job to be up-to-date on the corresponding research for new fads. Here is my best research-based approach to BCAAs and their worth.
Before we get into the benefits of BCAAs though, let’s talk about what they are. Protein, one of the big three macronutrients included in a typical diet, consists of twenty building blocks called amino acids. Amino acids can be further divided into three groups: essential, conditionally-essential, and non-essential. Non-essential amino acids can be produced by your body, conditionally-essential can sometimes be produced by your body, and essential cannot be produced by your body.
So where do BCAAs come in? BCAAs are a group of three of the essential amino acids and consist of isoleucine, leucine, and valine. Of the three, most research surrounding increased muscle growth has highlighted leucine.
Here’s where the research doesn’t quite support BCAAs as a method for quick muscle growth.
- Although leucine has proven to play a role in muscle hypertrophy, or growth, muscles themselves cannot grow without all twenty amino acids. Overloading BCAAs doesn’t help if you’re missing the other seventeen.
- There is a maximum capacity to leucine’s effectiveness. Anywhere from 0.5-3 grams of leucine has shown to be effective. Simply put, by continuing to increase your consumption of leucine beyond 3 grams, you will not see increased muscles grow. In order for your body to benefit from leucine, it must first go from your mouth, to your intestines, and into your bloodstream; only then can it go into your muscle cells.
- In order for leucine to get into your bloodstream and into your muscle cells, it must first go through transporters, which are like doorways. If you consume too much leucine in one sitting, you create a blockade at these doorways, and the remnants get swept into your sewage system.
When it comes down to it, actual food may be a more beneficial and cheaper source of BCAAs. Try consuming protein-heavy foods that contain ALL twenty amino acids needed to grow muscle. 1.6-2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight spread out into quarters throughout the day is all you need! Beans and rice, yogurt, and turkey are all great food options that will help promote muscle growth. One of your servings can even be a post-workout meal or snack within your anabolic window. Remember that your anabolic window is two to four hours long not just twenty minutes.
If diet is not an option (due to allergies, restrictions or age), I recommend consulting with a nutritionist. There are other options such as whey protein, which contains a high content of leucine per serving, and EAAs (essential amino acids).
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- EBSCO CAM Review Board. (2019). Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). Salem Press Encyclopedia of Health.
- Phillips, S.M. The impact of protein quality on the promotion of resistance exercise-induced changes in muscle mass. Nutr Metab (Lond) 13, 64 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12986-016-0124-8
- Moore DR. Maximizing Post-exercise Anabolism: The Case for Relative Protein Intakes. Front Nutr. 2019 Sep 10;6:147. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2019.00147. PMID: 31552263; PMCID: PMC6746967.