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This is a multi-part series on BCAA supplementation for athletes. Please check out Part I and Part II if you haven't already. Over the last 2 installments I've given a general outline of how BCAAs function in the body and the impact various things like diet and exercise can have on BCAA levels. Now it's time for the good stuff! What can targeted BCAA supplementation do for you? Science has shown us that BCAA supplementation can have rather far-reaching positive effects in the body. Among These effects include:
Boosting Immune Function - Remember if you're sick it's hard to train, much less grow. It's even harder to come back after an illness without losing a ton of strength and size. When you train at high intensity or high volume you risk immune suppression and infections. By supplementing with BCAAs you'll help reverse glutamine loss, which is essential for immune function. In addition to this, the BCAAs help prevent a catabolic state in the body, which in turn can help improve recovery and lessen the damaging effects your exercise sessions may have on the body.
Stimulate Protein Synthesis - BCAAs by themselves have been shown to independently stimulate muscle protein synthesis. In other words, they have shown the ability to induce muscle gains, even in the absence of weight training! Studies have shown that BCAA supplementation increases the hormones: testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin.
All of these are highly anabolic hormones. Research also shows that under conditions of extreme stress, such as hiking for 21 days at high altitude, BCAA supplementation (10 grams per day) was shown to increase muscle mass while subjects ingesting a placebo had no such change. The important thing here is these people gained muscle under extreme conditions without any anabolic stimulus such as weight training.
Stimulate Fat Loss - Supplementation of BCAAs has been shown to trigger significant and preferential losses of visceral body fat. Located in the deeper layers of the body under the subcutaneous fat, this visceral fat tends to be resistant to dieting and is hard to lose. In one study, 25 competitive wrestlers were divided into 1 of 3 diet groups: a diet high in BCAAs, a diet low in BCAAs, and a control diet. The wrestlers stayed on the diets for 19 days. The results showed that the high BCAA group lost the most body fat, 17.3% on average. Much of the fat lost was in the abdominal region. This may give credence to BCAAs effectiveness at "spot reducing" the abs. In another study 2 groups of climbers were divided into a BCAA supplemented group and a control group. Both groups lost weight but the BCAA group actually gained muscle mass while losing fat and the other group lost muscle mass.
One theory as to how BCAAs exert their substantial fat burning and muscle building effects is this: When present in high amounts during exercise, the body senses high levels of BCAA in the bloodstream which is typically a sign of excessive muscle breakdown. So the body stops muscle breakdown and uses more fat for fuel. At the same time the extra BCAAs in the blood stimulate insulin so the BCAAs are driven directly to the muscle. So the result is people lose body fat and gain muscle at the same time. If my hunch is correct, in order to benefit the most from the fat loss aspect of BCAAs you should make sure you limit carbohydrate consumption during the 2 hour window before your workout.
Increased Recovery - Perhaps the greatest benefit to hard training athletes is the increase in metabolic recovery that follows supplementation. Most athletes feel a substantial decrease in the amount of post exercise muscle soreness soon after beginning BCAA supplementation. Even without any of the other benefits of BCAA usage this means faster recovery from exercise induced protein damage (remember your muscles grow when you damage them), which in turn means faster size and strength gains. With increased recovery the harder and more frequently you can hit the iron and thus the sooner you can meet your goals.
Anti-Catabolic Effects - BCAAs probably exert most of their anabolic effects through anti-catabolic activity. In short, they suppress the use of muscle proteins for fuel, thereby sparing the breakdown of muscular protein. In part this is because they can sacrifice themselves as fuel. With less muscular protein being broken down by the body during training, the net result is increased protein synthesis and more muscle for you! In a study done on obese people put on a starvation type diet, BCAA supplementation was found to induce anabolism and nitrogen sparing so the subjects burned body fat instead of lean muscle mass, thus sparing muscle protein.
Endurance - The BCAAs can serve as a donor of nitrogen in the formation of l-alanine, which provides the body with glucose after glycogen stores have been depleted. When you think of sparing glycogen you probably think of high carbohydrate diets but BCAAs have proven their worth here as well. In a 4 week study Japanese researchers administered BCAAs or a placebo to rats and then exercised the animals to exhaustion. The BCAA group exhibited spared glycogen storage in the liver and skeletal muscle during exercise. This means that they may enable you to train at higher intensities for longer periods of time. Supplementing with BCAAs may enable you to maintain your training intensity and endurance as energy normally provided by your diet decreases. Anyone who has ever been on a very low carb or low calorie diet for extended periods can definitely appreciate this!
I think it's probably fairly obvious by now how everyone can in some way benefit from BCAA supplementation. By now you're probably saying to yourself, "OK, but how much do I need to take and when do I need to take it!?" In the next installment I'll answer this question and tell you how to use Protein Creations BCAA product, ICE, and what the research and real-world results show as far as dosages and timing for best results. I'll also touch on the highly potent synergistic combination between BCAAs and glutamine and how this combination used in the proper dosages can enhance the effectiveness of the above benefits even more!