Branched-chain amino acids: The often-written-about elixir of the fitness junkie.
Exactly how BCAAs benefit muscle development is the hot topic of discussion of fitness magazines and websites the world over. But none has really gone into much detail about the benefits of taking amino acids… until now.
You probably think you have your fitness routine down to a tee. You eat well (which for most of you will mean high protein; low carbs) you supplement your diet with ULTRA WHEY, you work out regularly (or as much as you can) and you have the sense that finally whatever target you had set is about to be hit.
Someone passes comment about a piece of kit you’re not familiar with called a BCAA. It’s the way forward, they say. Taking amino acids is for those serious about getting fit. And without it you’re going to miss your target.
Who knows? Just take the supplements and you’ll see results.
And they’d be fairly right to say so. Because branched-chain amino acids should be, without a shadow of doubt, a vital part of your fitness program.
It’s true that a high protein diet and protein supplements are a number 1 on most serious gym goers tick lists. But if you knew of an equally important supplement that would not only aid protein synthesis but target muscle growth more quickly and directly, wouldn’t you want to have it to hand?
Well, now’s your chance. That’s because:
Protein is a chain of amino acids. So, what if you could add to that chain?
The liver breaks down most aminos and puts them to use repairing or rebuilding the cells of your skin, heart, blood, stomach and brain. Branched-chain amino acids in supplement form are sent to your muscles virtually straight away…
…And they are what fuels and rebuilds muscle - before, during and after exercise.
Knowing where to find good BCAAs, what are the best supplements and how they work will help you to determine your needs. Knowledge is power. And being disciplined and properly specific about your intake will pay dividends.
1. What are amino acids?
One fifth of a healthy human body comprises protein. Besides water it is our most abundant biological nutrient. Protein plays a crucial part in keeping us alive and well (and it isn’t used just for muscle growth).
The protein molecules are made up of chains of amino acids, bonded together with a sort of chemical glue called peptides.
There are around 20 standard amino acids in our body but only 8 of them are thought to be really essential. In other words, not having enough of the Big Eight will make you sick, tired, susceptible to illness and generally miserable.
We get these eight from food such as meat, milk, yoghurt, cheese, eggs, soy, and fish. Those food stuffs are considered sources of complete protein and as such they deliver high volumes of amino acids.
But, here’s the rub:
Strength-training athletes will want to up their protein intake to between 1.4 to 1.8 grams per kilogramme of body weight each day just to take on board enough amino acids to aid muscle protein synthesis.
But even that is not enough, especially if you exercise 3 or more times per week, in which case we actually recommend an intake of 2g of protein per kg of body weight.
Those levels are hard to hit by just food alone. So, the key here is taking amino acids in sufficient quantities to meet the demands of a body growing and repairing itself at an athletic rate.
Hence the advantage of a BCAA supplement:
BCAAs fill in the gaps that even a protein supplement struggles to fill. Taking a BCAA supplement ensures that your muscles have everything they need, and fast.
What’s not to love?
2. Why aren’t we getting enough from food?
There are a few other reasons why we may not be hitting our amino acid sweet spot. But most of these are out of our control.
With the way food is served these days much of what should contain protein and nutrients doesn’t. Meats especially are more often than not processed to destruction, especially with pre-prepared dishes.
We are also eating the flesh of animals that have been fed all sorts of weird chemicals to make them grow bigger and fatter, and from the other side of the plate we munch legumes treated with insecticides and fertilizers.
What this amounts to is a diminishing choice of pure, high-protein and nutrient-rich foods.
What’s more, your body doesn’t store any excess amino acids, so even if you find a lean piece of beef to eat most of the muscle-swelling goodness contained within the meat will be quickly drawn from you in the form of waste water…
When faced with those sorts of hurdles, why wouldn’t you supplement with BCAAs?
By providing the body with its optimal amino acid requirements (taking an amino acid supplement) you can bypass the nutrient void and the excess wastage and maintain your regimen.
3. What amino acids are needed for muscle growth?
Taking amino acids is an essential part of the fitness routine. That’s in addition to protein. Some of the best hybrid supplements have added BCAAs, such as SCI-MX’s BCAA INTRA HARDCORE™, which combines 84g of protein (per 100g) with 60g of leucine, valine and isoleucine.
As we mentioned earlier, scientists have worked out that there are eight essential amino acids (although the other 12 are needed). These are aminos that the body has to have on a daily basis and, as we’ve already said, the only source of these is from food.
It is worth saying that the first four on this list are the aminos focussed on muscle growth and function. Although the others play a part the most popular forms of supplement contain isoleucine, leucine, lysine and valine:
4. What do they do to boost muscle development?
The answer is: more than you might have imagined.
Take for instance the last item on that list: Tryptophan. Tryptophan works on brain cells and its supplementing can reduce the amount of serotonin in your brain, leaving you feeling more upbeat and more enthused to work out. It’s an indirect benefit, but it’s still a benefit.
Now let’s have a look at those first four in more detail…
Similar to leucine, isoleucine aids quick muscle recovery following exercise. It also helps to maintain healthy blood-sugar levels, healthy blood and stimulates the body’s release of growth hormone.
Leucine’s main benefit in terms of muscle growth comes from its ability to spike growth hormone. It aids blood health too and repairs muscle.
Lysine facilitates the absorption of calcium and is therefore vital for bone strength and regeneration. It is also a hormone powerhouse with proven benefits for fitness of increased testosterone, insulin and growth hormone.
Valine is essential to the repair and growth of muscle tissue (something all of the amino acids have in common). But it also plays a part in maintaining a healthy level of nitrogen in the blood which prevents too fast an onslaught of fatigue, especially during a workout.
5. What BCAA supplements are there?
There are many amino acid supplements on the market but it is important to choose the right sort for the level of training you perform.
If you’re weight training, when shopping for a BCAA you’ll be looking for something that will promote muscle growth and endurance but that will also prevent muscle shrinkage caused by over training.
Because: by training your muscles you are breaking them down to be rebuilt.
And although we have made the point that BCAAs hit muscle synthesis harder and faster than foods and proteins there is NO SUBSITUTE for a healthy, balanced and protein rich diet. Taking amino acids is all well and good but without all of the other minerals you need you’re not going to be able to sustain a long and fruitful life.
Take a look at SCI-MX’s other BCAA supplements, some of which are combined with protein isolates for added impetus:
- WHEY PLUS HARDCORE™ Protein = 73g; BCAAs = 13g (Per 100g)
- PRO V-GAIN™ Protein Protein = 75g; BCAAs = 12.75g (Per 100g)
- BCAA NANOSTACK™ Leucine = 3g; Valine = 1.5g; Isoleucine = 1.5g (Per serving)
When to take them
Amino acids can be taken as regularly as protein as part of a balanced diet. It is important to pay attention to the serving guidelines but in terms of when BCAAs can be taken there is no hard and fast rule.
In short, if you have BCAA's in your blood stream before a workout you are going to enjoy heightened endurance and less fatigue. Concurrently, having them in your blood stream after a workout will aid your muscles’ recovery and growth. BCAA’s can also be taken during a workout to help repair muscle breakdown during a session.
These effects explain why instructions on BCAA products usually advocate you taking amino acids before, during, and after a workout.
They are however used quickly, which is why supplementing on a regular basis is essential. But unlike proteins in shake-form or foods they will head quickly to the muscles rather than spending time in the liver to be chopped up for use elsewhere.
That’s why BCAAs are so effective in sports management… They are about as target-hungry as you can get.
A final word on taking amino acids
For decades, BCAAs have been known to help athletes in their development and to aid when building muscle mass. And while a balanced high-protein diet and protein supplements will push you forward, the effects of BCAAs cannot be ignored…
…They reach the heart of the engine. Fast.
How about a summary of the benefits arising from BCAA supplementing?
- Low fatigue rate
- Good endurance (BCAAs are a great fuel source)
- Better all-round circulatory health
- Quicker and more targeted protein synthesis
- Hormonal boost
When the benefits are outlined like that, it’s no wonder people who take their exercise seriously swear by them. But BCAAs aren’t just for those looking to cover all the hypertrophic windows. Branched-chains promote general good health, and for those who are more focussed on general conditioning they are the preferred supplement.
For those looking to bulk and to define muscle: Consider BCAAs from a purely arithmetical point of view. Taking a supplement that increases the synthesis of the muscle while at the same time decreasing its breakdown will spike gains. Simple!
In short, taking amino acids in combination with a balanced diet and sensible workout routine will unveil a stamina and functional strength that you never thought you had.