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Aminos Are Essential: Lift Longer And Grow Stronger With BCAAs

In addition to being one of the most effective supplements for muscle growth, BCAAs delay fatigue, support strength and mental focus, and even boost fat-loss. Get the details!

The branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs, are the three essential amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine. From a chemical structure standpoint, each of these amino acids has a forked outcropping that looks a lot like a branch. That's where they get their name. If they were named for what they do in the body, they would have been called AAAs—for amazing amino acids!

You may have heard that BCAAs help support muscle growth. That's no BS. In fact, a study that I presented at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that trained lifters taking a BCAA supplement around workouts for 8 weeks gained about twice as much muscle and strength as those taking a whey protein shake without additional BCAAs.

But the benefits of these three simple acids go far beyond mere muscle growth. Let's get deep into the science of an important performance supplement!

Branch Out to Work Out Longer ///

Part of what makes the BCAAs so special is how the body handles them. Typically, when you ingest amino acids—either individually or as a whole protein—they first travel to the liver. Here, the liver either breaks them down to use as fuel or directs them toward building and repairing muscle and other tissues. BCAAs, on the other hand, tend to be spared by the liver and get sent directly to the muscles, so that the muscle can use the BCAAs directly for fuel or to build and repair itself.

This gives BCAAs a two-pronged relevance to athletic training. During workouts, they can act as a fuel source, and when the workout is over, they can help build muscle. These effects explain why instructions on BCAA products usually advocate you take them before, during, and after a workout.

The more intense and the longer your workout, the more BCAAs will be used for fuel. So you can see how taking a dose of BCAAs before workouts can help you sustain your energy during a workout and train with more intensity from start to finish. You may not feel them in the same way as a pre-workout supplement, but first-time users often report that they BCAAs make their workout feel more pleasant and manageable.

Branch Out to Get Bigger and Stronger ///

The BCAAs built their popularity with bodybuilders on the reputation of being able to increase muscle size. But how does this work, exactly?

As you likely know, muscle tissue is made of protein. And protein is made up of amino acids, which are strung together like a pearl necklace. The way that muscle grows is by stringing together amino acids to make more protein. This is known as muscle protein synthesis. Although the three BCAAs are critical components in the "strings" of proteins that make muscle, their role in muscle-building is more than serving as building blocks.

Research has shown that the BCAAs, particularly leucine, increase muscle growth by directly stimulating muscle protein synthesis. Leucine acts like a key that turns on the process that strings the amino acids together to build muscle protein. Additionally, leucine boosts insulin levels. Insulin is an anabolic hormone that further stimulates protein synthesis.

Another way that BCAAs work to enhance muscle growth and strength is by boosting levels of growth hormone (GH). Italian researchers found that athletes taking BCAAs for one month had higher levels of growth hormone after workouts. The higher your GH levels after workouts, the greater the increases in muscle size and strength you can expect.

Yet another hormone that BCAAs influence to promote muscle growth and strength gains is cortisol. Research has shown that athletes taking BCAAs have lower levels of cortisol during exercise. This blunting of cortisol levels is thought to increase muscle growth because cortisol encourages muscle breakdown and interferes with the anabolic hormone testosterone. Numerous studies have confirmed that athletes taking BCAAs have significantly less muscle breakdown after exercise and recover more quickly.

Branch Out to Delay Fatigue ///

Acting as a direct energy source for muscles is not the only way that BCAAs boost your workout intensity. They also work via the brain to delay fatigue.

During exercise, the neurotransmitter serotonin (5-HT) signals to the brain that the body is fatigued. This leads to a reduction in muscle strength and endurance. The amino acid tryptophan is responsible for producing 5-HT in the brain, whereas the BCAAs, namely valine, compete with tryptophan for entry into the brain. Research has shown that taking BCAAs before workouts lowers the amount of tryptophan that gets into the brain and therefore delays fatigue.

This ability of BCAAs to delay fatigue via this brain mechanism also means that BCAA supplements aren't just beneficial for the body, but the brain as well. By reducing levels of exercise-induced 5-HT in the brain, you reduce mental fatigue, which keeps you sharper mentally. This is one reason that endurance athletes and other high-intensity competitors supplement with BCAAs: to keep sharp when they're approaching physical exhaustion. Many people sip on BCAAs throughout the work day for the same reason.

BCAAs have also recently been found to aid in a different type of endurance: life span. Researchers from Milan, Italy discovered that mice supplemented with BCAAs in their drinking water had higher amounts of mitochondria in their muscles, higher activity of the longevity gene, SIRT1, and lived 12 percent longer than those not getting BCAA-enriched water. So supplementing with BCAAs daily can keep you in the race longer in addition to making you stronger.

Branch Out for Fat-Loss ///

The BCAAs are clearly great mass-building supplements, but they also can aid in fat-loss. Researchers have yet to determine precisely how this happens, but they've offered up several theories to explain the startling results they've seen.

One of the first studies to discover this benefit was a 1997 study of competitive wrestlers, which found that those who were supplementing with BCAAs while following a low-calorie diet experienced a greater drop in body fat, particularly in the waist, as compared to those taking a placebo. My study from 2009 also found that the lifters taking BCAAs lost about twice as much body fat as those taking whey protein without added BCAAs.

A study out of Brazil found that leucine supplementation for six weeks caused a large drop in body fat. The researchers proposed that the increase in protein synthesis stimulated by leucine increased energy expenditure so much that it helped to burn off body fat. Leucine has also been found to reduce hunger, causing you to eat less while you burn more, which ultimately leads to fat-loss.

In the most recent study on BCAAs fat-loss effects, Japanese researchers discovered that mice given isoleucine while eating a high-fat diet gained significantly less fat than mice not getting supplemental isoleucine. This was due to isoleucine's ability to activate special receptors, known as PPAR, that increase fat-burning and inhibit fat storage.

BCAA Dosing ///

Each time you take BCAAs you should go with about 5-10 grams. The most critical time to take them is around workouts, so add 5-10 grams to your pre- and post-workout shakes.

If your goal is to build mass, also consider taking a dose of BCAAs first thing upon waking to help stop the muscle breakdown that is turned on during your night of fasting while you sleep. You can also take a 5-10 gram dose of BCAAs at any other time of day to get a mental energy boost, reduce hunger, and aid muscle growth.

Jim Stoppani

References:

  1. Bassit, R.A., Sawada, L.A., Bacurau, R.F., et al. The effect of BCAA supplementation upon the immune response of triathletes. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 32(7):1,214-1,219, 2000.
  2. Blomstrand E.A role for branched-chain amino acids in reducing central fatigue. J Nutr. 2006 Feb;136(2):544S-547S.
  3. Blomstrand, E., Saltin, B. BCAA intake affects protein metabolism in muscle after but not during exercise in humans. Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology and Metabolism 281(2):E365-374, 2001.
  4. Borsheim, E., et al. Essential amino acids and muscle protein recovery from resistance exercise. American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology and Metabolism 283(4):E648-E657, 2002.
  5. Coburn, J. W., et al. Effects of leucine and whey protein supplementation during eight weeks of unilateral resistance training. J Strength Cond Res 2006 May;20(2):284-91.
  6. Cota, D., et al. Hypothalamic mTOR signaling regulates food intake. Science. 2006 May 12;312(5775):927-30.
  7. Crowe, M. J., et al. Effects of dietary leucine supplementation on exercise performance.
  8. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2006 Aug;97(6):664-72.
  9. D'Antona, G., et al. Branched-chain amino acid supplementation promotes survival and supports cardiac and skeletal muscle mitochondrial biogenesis in middle-aged mice. Cell Metab. 12(4):362-72, 2010.
  10. de Araujo JA, et al. Effect of chronic supplementation with branched-chain amino acids on the performance and hepatic and muscle glycogen content in trained rats. Life Sci. 2006 Aug 29;79(14):1343-8.
  11. De Lorenzo, A., et al. Effect of acute and chronic branched-chain amino acids on energy metabolism and muscle performance.Diabetes Nutr Metab. 2003 Oct-Dec;16(5-6):291-7.
  12. De Palo, E.F., et al. Plasma lactate, GH and GH-Binding protein levels in exercise following BCAA supplementation in athletes. Amino Acids 20:1-11, 2001.
  13. Donato, J., et al. Effects of leucine supplementation on the body composition and protein status of rats submitted to food restriction. Nutrition 22(5):520-527, 2006.
  14. Gomez-Merino, D., et al. Evidence that the branched-chain amino acid L-valine prevents exercise-induced release of 5-HT in rat hippocampus. Int J Sports Med. 2001 Jul;22(5):317-22.
  15. Greer, BK, et al. Branched-chain amino acid supplementation and indicators of muscle damage after endurance exercise.Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2007 Dec;17(6):595-607.
  16. Hassmen, P., et al. Branched-chain amino acid supplementation during 30-km competitive run: mood and cognitive performance. Nutrition 10(5):405-410, 1994.
  17. Karlsson, H. K., et al. Branched-chain amino acids increase p70S6k phosphorylation in human skeletal muscle after resistance exercise. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab, 2007; 287(1):E1-7
  18. Koba, T., et al. Branched-chain amino acids supplementation attenuates the accumulation of blood lactate dehydrogenase during distance running. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2007 Sep;47(3):316-22.
  19. Matsumoto, K., et al. Branched-chain amino acids and arginine supplementation attenuates skeletal muscle proteolysis induced by moderate exercise in young individuals. Int J Sports Med. 2007 Jun;28(6):531-8.
  20. Mourier, A., et al. Combined effects of caloric restriction and branched-chain amino acid supplementation on body composition and exercise performance in elite wrestlers.
  21. Int J Sports Med 1997 Jan;18(1):47-55.
  22. Nishimura, J., et al. "Isoleucine Prevents the Accumulation of Tissue Triglycerides and Upregulates the Expression of PPAR{alpha} and Uncoupling Protein in Diet-Induced Obese Mice." J. Nutr., March 2010, in press.
  23. Ohtani, M., et al. Amino Acid Mixture Improves Training Efficiency in Athletes. J. Nutr. 136: 538S-543S, 2006.
  24. Shimomura, Y., et al. Nutraceutical effects of branched-chain amino acids on skeletal muscle. J Nutr. 2006 Feb;136(2):529S-532S.
  25. Stoppani, J., et al., Consuming branched-chain amino acid supplement during a resistance training program increases lean mass, muscle strength and fat loss. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2009, 6(Suppl 1):P1, 2009.
  26. Talbott, S., et al. Effect of Branched Chain Amino Acids on Salivary Cortisol Levels During Endurance Exercise. Annual Meeting of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, Las Vegas, 2006.
  27. Tipton, K.D., et al. Acute response of net muscle protein balance reflects 24-h balance after exercise and amino acid ingestion. American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology and Metabolism 284(1):E76-E89, 2003.

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About The Author

Jim holds a doctorate in exercise physiology and has been the personal nutrition and health consultant for numerous celebrity clients...

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ACE0809

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ACE0809

I do use BCAA's when I train fasted.... What I don't like is that all research is thoery and assumptions. I would never add BCAA's to a protein shake why because it is protein with BCAA's already in it. I think BCAA's only serve benefit when training fasted.. Also I never pay attention to a study done on mice and rats that is just nonsense.

Feb 20, 2013 6:55pm | report
 
Zoso1116

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Zoso1116

Agreed. Also I spoke to my biochemistry professor about this and he said that it is best to get your amino acids from food which gives you a balanced amount of several AA's. Supplementing a few AA's and having a much lower amount of others isn't ideal for humans (he gave me specific examples why but I forgot since it was quiet some time ago).

Feb 20, 2013 7:02pm | report
Casali

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Casali

I have been doing IF and training fasted. I take BCAAs before I train. Is that the only time I should take them? I eat a huge meal after every workout (Only one meal on training days). Then I go to sleep.

Feb 20, 2013 9:50pm | report
NewBuild1

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NewBuild1

My understanding is that the appeal of BCAAs is down to the speed of delivery, and that fact that post-workout, whilst a whey or casein shake will take time to digest, a BCAA dose will hit muscles much more quickly. In fairness I have taken them over the past, and noticed a significant improvement in recovery time. Sure, getting all your nutrients from food would be nice, however it isn't a realistic option for some people, and I think BCAA tablets/powders can be added to a diet to assist in this, the same way protein shakes are used.

Feb 20, 2013 11:37pm | report
xrizzox

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xrizzox

if you're taking BCAA's while training fasted you're defeating the purpose of training fasted

Apr 29, 2013 6:14pm | report
xtmfit

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xtmfit

Thanx good info

Feb 21, 2013 6:00am | report
 
kbmulvaney

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kbmulvaney

Great article. I'm going to start taking BCAA's now haha

Feb 21, 2013 8:38am | report
 
dajunglebrotha

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dajunglebrotha

that dude curln that bar is huge!!!

Feb 21, 2013 9:23am | report
 
wpetrie

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wpetrie

He snorts his BCAA's

Feb 21, 2013 10:48am | report
liorelr

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liorelr

I stick to universal's uni-liver. Most bcaa powders are filled with artificial flavors and sweetners

Feb 21, 2013 1:56pm | report
 
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HBDYWI

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HBDYWI

unless you're eating organic fruits, vegetables and meats free of pesticides as well as a protein powder, any type of beverage or food free of artificial sweeteners, and coloring the amount in any flavored BCAA powder wont hurt you at all.

i don't know you but i'm pretty sure you don't eat THAT healthy and i'm not a doctor but i don't think that'll kill you. so if a flavored BCAA is the worst thing you'll have all day, you'll live.

Feb 22, 2013 11:43am | report
messymatt

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messymatt

Excellent article. BCAAs will slowly develop a similar reputation to that of creatine. Essential.

Feb 21, 2013 2:29pm | report
 
HBDYWI

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HBDYWI

bro that picture has to go. thats mad sketchy.

Feb 22, 2013 11:45am | report
messymatt

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messymatt

I'll listen when you are brave enough to upload one.

Feb 23, 2013 8:53am | report
michelle314

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michelle314

hahah

Feb 23, 2013 3:34pm | report
crookedletter

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crookedletter

I've recently begun using BCAA's as an addition to my protein in the morning, and post-workout. Thus far I haven't noticed any additional size, but I have however, noticed that I am able to lift with more intensity for longer periods and not suffer from the soreness that would have affected me in the past.

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Feb 21, 2013 3:51pm | report
 
fashionfella

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fashionfella

@ACE0809 what do you want research to be if not assumptions and theory? How can you really ever know if something is true? I know BCAAs have helped my training not saying everyone has to go out and buy a whole big stack of them but they do help. Also I will trust a guy more with a PHD and who is jacked than someone with just one of the two.

Feb 21, 2013 9:30pm | report
 
jtortorich

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jtortorich

First off nice read. Secondly I feel a lot like some of you here. I take BCAA tabs before every solid meal as well as whey protein with BCAA. I feel like when im dieting the BCAA's save me from losing a lot of Muscle mass because they are used for fuel as well as repairing your muscles. Otherwise there really is no need to take them when bulking, you will waste your money.

Feb 22, 2013 1:51pm | report
 
cssrss

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cssrss

Good article. I have had great results with BCAA's, however I have been doing some research and have yet to find any evidence showing the effects of BCAA's taken outside the workout time frame. Would these AA's be ultimately stored as glycogen and/or adipose via gluconeogenesis? If so, then wouldn't taking them at other times of the day be counter intuitive to keeping a lower body fat? Or is the over all caloric value of these BCAA's negligible?

Feb 22, 2013 4:21pm | report
 
masterlucero

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masterlucero

I thought BCAA's were already in a Whey Protein supplement and that was why Whey was the best protein to take among other reasons... So this article is saying to take additional BCAA'S as well as Whey?

What are the best brands of BCAAA to take?

Apr 3, 2013 9:58am | report
 
peeps135

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peeps135

Every time I read one of these articles I want to buy more supplements. Looks like MP Assault already has BCAAs and so does my post workout shake. Purchase avoided = )

Apr 10, 2013 2:31pm | report
 
dynamiterec01

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dynamiterec01

been looking for a good, simple explanation of exactly what bcaas do. search is over.

Jun 26, 2013 12:27pm | report
 
attractive19

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attractive19

I really like this article because I can relate to the benefits of taking BCAAs. I've been taking. BCAAs for over a month now and I can say confidently that it really does help you with recovery. I sip on them intra-workout and with my post workout shake, and I'm barely sore the next morning. Personally, I would recommend any one to try it out and see how it works for them before judging it.

Jul 7, 2013 9:00am | report
 
Kupcis

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Kupcis

I love bcaa ...

Aug 2, 2013 7:32pm | report
 
Lazyinphuket

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Lazyinphuket

Muscle breakdown during sleep? Only if you have not eaten for 48 hrs otherwise thats just a supplement industry Myth!

Sep 29, 2013 10:09am | report
 
Showing 1 - 25 of 33 Comments

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