If you’re an athlete, an avid gym-goer or just someone with a high-intensity job, you could be looking to take your training or recovery to the next level. A common place to start researching is looking into which simple nutritional changes or the introduction of supplements could improve muscle gain or recovery. However, supplements have a reputation within the fitness community as being quite controversial.
The sheer volume of mixed information about different supplements is alarming for the average person to read. So, let’s break it down and explain why protein powder and BCAA (branch chain amino acids) supplements each have a valid place when it comes to muscle recovery.
Depending on the type of training, your overall diet, and your fitness goals, you could be better suited to one rather than both – but if we explore the science and how they interact with muscle protein synthesis, you can figure out which is the right choice for you.
What is Protein?
So, most of us have heard of protein powder – but do you know what it is? Protein is one of three macronutrients: along with fats and carbohydrates. These macronutrients help enhance muscle growth, repair, and stimulate muscle protein synthesis (the muscle-building process). Taking protein can decrease the rate of protein degradation or catabolism (1) (muscle-mass loss).
Protein comprises of amino acids; more specifically, 11 non-essential and nine essential amino acids (2). On a chemical level, amino acids are the fundamental building blocks of protein. The nine essential amino acids (EAAs) must be obtained through protein intake as the body cannot synthesise them. When a protein powder contains all EAAs, they are referred to as a complete protein. It is an incomplete protein if it doesn’t contain all nine (3).
What are BCAA Supplements?
For those who perhaps don’t frequent the protein aisle, BCAAs might be a bit of an obscure product. BCAAs are molecularly the same as a protein powder but a bit more specific. As we’ve outlined above, protein is made up of 20 amino acids that have countless applications in the body, but only a few of those amino acids are used to help build muscle. These three essential amino acids are leucine, valine and isoleucine.
- Leucine: considered to be the most important of the three; leucine helps to regulate and maintain energy levels through the stabilisation of glucose in the bloodstream. It is important for building muscle as it assists in the biochemical production of muscle tissue. It also aids recovery by boosting the body’s natural ability to heal muscles (4).
- Valine: like the other two, valine helps build muscle through the increased amount of glucose in the muscles when stressed and worked. However, on its own valine doesn’t build muscle – but taken with leucine and isoleucine, it helps facilitate muscle development (5).
- Isoleucine: our bodies cannot produce this amino acid, so we must ingest it through an outside source (6). Nutritional sources are the primary way we obtain this, but they can be supplemented with BCAAs. Isoleucine works similarly to leucine but performs its metabolic work through fats and carbohydrates.
Supplemental BCAAs can promote muscle growth and recovery without wasting calories as they contain zero. BCAAs are favoured by those in a calorie-restricted diet, especially if muscle retention is high on the priority list. However, BCAAs are not nearly as diverse as protein powder in their uses – as they can only be consumed through mixing with water and drinking.
Protein vs BCAAs Differences
The critical difference between protein and BCAAs is that a complete protein contains all 20 amino acids, whereas BCAAs only contain three. BCAAs are beneficial supplements for building muscle but little else. Protein will help you build muscle and has several additional physiological benefits.
When to take Protein vs BCAAs
For the average gym-goer, it would need to be assessed on an individual needs basis – you might be able to hit your protein target through diet alone, especially if you aren’t in a calorie deficit or doing fasted training.
Those who struggle to hit their daily protein numbers, whether they’re in a calorie surplus or deficit, should consider adding protein powder to hit the right volume to promote muscle recovery. Those training in a calorie deficit that includes fasted cardio might benefit more from BCAAs as they will prevent muscle loss.
The decision between BCAAs and protein powder will always come down to your primary goals. Both will help you to build muscle. Both will help to reduce soreness and fatigue – the critical differential is that BCAAs will go straight to the metabolic process, which repairs and builds muscle tissues. Protein powder must first be metabolised into the component amino acids before it can take the same action.
The amino acid, Leucine is a firm favourite for Professor David Cameron-Smith, an international authority on scientific substantiation on how foods function to improve health and wellbeing. With a specific focus on proteins, Professor Cameron-Smith's studies have yielded major breakthroughs in our current understanding of how proteins can aid in rebuilding and repairing skeletal muscle loss.
According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), “acute protein doses should strive to contain 700-3000 mg of leucine and/or a higher relative leucine content, in addition to a balanced array of the essential amino acids (EAAs.)” (7).
Protein powder seems to be an unconscious choice for those who are interested in nutrition and preventing muscle loss. Whereas athletes and fitness fanatics might prefer a BCAA supplement as they are likely to get nutrition from dietary sources. Choosing either option will give you tangible results in your training and will help take you to the next level.
1) Callis, J., 1995. Regulation of protein degradation. The plant cell, 7(7), p.845.
2) Kimura, M. and Akanuma, S., 2020. Reconstruction and characterization of thermally stable and catalytically active proteins comprising an alphabet of~ 13 amino acids. Journal of Molecular Evolution, 88(4), pp.372-381.
3) Munoz, J., BCAA vs Protein.
4) Pedroso, J.A., Zampieri, T.T. and Donato Jr, J., 2015. Reviewing the effects of L-leucine supplementation in the regulation of food intake, energy balance, and glucose homeostasis. Nutrients, 7(5), pp.
5) Brian Rigby, C.I.S.S.N., LaValle, J. and Boehm, J., How To Build Muscle.
6) Kendall, K., Are You Getting The Most Out Of Your BCAA Supplement?.
7) Jäger, R., Kerksick, C.M., Campbell, B.I. et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 14, 20 (2017).