Should You Take BCAA Before or After a Workout?
If you're looking to get the most out of your grueling workouts, branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs, are the answer. Studies suggest that BCAAs help build muscle, help you recover more quickly from workouts, as well as reduce soreness after any exercise. But one thing that's not clear is when to take BCAA supplements.
Some suggest taking BCAAs pre-workout while others suggest taking it post-workout. But whether you take BCAAs before or after a workout, you could be playing with their effectiveness, and we all want to get more out of our workouts and the supplements we take.
What are BCAA supplements?
If you're unfamiliar with BCAA supplements, they're either capsules or powder additives that you mix into water or other drinks. They include three essential amino acids: leucine, valine and isoleucine, and each has a branched chemical structure, hence the name: branched-chain amino acids (BCAA).
The ratios of each amino acid in BCAAs isn't quite 1:1, but it's close. Most BCAA supplements have twice as much leucine as valine and isoleucine, which makes up the popular 2:1:1 ratio found in most BCAA supplements. But it's for good reason -- leucine has been shown to stimulate protein synthesis and suppress the breakdown of muscle protein.
In fact, and regardless of whether you take BCAAs before or after a workout, all three BCAAs hit your muscles before they're metabolized by the liver, which reflects their fast-acting effect around workout time. That could make BCAAs better than whole protein powders and whole food protein sources that include BCAAs in their formulas, and the best part is that capsules are a whole lot easier to take and take with you to your workout than a huge jug of powder.
Improving workouts with BCAA supplements
While scientists are still learning about the beneficial aspects of BCAA supplements, the research suggests that BCAAs are helpful when it comes to workouts.
First and foremost, they help reduce fatigue during exercise by limiting the entry of tryptophan to the brain, which is used by the body to make serotonin and contributes to exercise fatigue. BCAAs also help reduce muscle damage and soreness by fighting inflammation, and they promote muscle building by stimulating protein synthesis in the muscles.
During grueling, prolonged workouts, BCAAs even provide a source of energy when glucose drops. The reduced immunity that happens during strenuous exercise is also addressed by BCAAs, which converts into glutamine and helps boost this valuable amino acid within the muscles.
When to take BCAA supplements
Unfortunately, there's not much conclusive data on the timing of taking BCAAs before or after a workout, and whether one is better than the other.
One specific study tested taking 10 grams of BCAAs before a non-dominant arm strengthening exercise, which led to less muscle soreness and lower blood markers after the exercise was completed, compared to those that took BCAAs after the workout.
Another study looked at taking 5.5 grams of whey protein isolate both immediately before and after weight-lifting workouts over 10 weeks. The result was indistinguishable -- both groups had the same improvements in strength and body composition by the end of the study.
That said, there does seem to be something to when, exactly, you take BCAAs, whether it's before or after a workout. Testing has revealed that BCAA levels in the blood peak just 30 minutes after taking a BCAA supplement, which sort of agrees with the long-standing belief that post-workout, you have about an hour to benefit from the consumption of protein. However, newer research has shown that this window of time may be as long as five hours after exercise, giving you ample time to get your supplements in, though it remains a good idea to consume protein prior to any strenuous exercise.
But the beauty of BCAA supplements is that whether you take them before or after a workout, they're highly portable, making it easy to take before, during or after a given workout.
As for studies that have tested BCAA consumption during exercise, one study looked at almost 200 men engaged in running a marathon with inconclusive results. While those given 16 grams of BCAAs didn't run any faster than the placebo group, the study didn't look at recovery or mental fatigue, which are some of the primary reasons to take BCAAs.
So if you're wondering whether you should take BCAAs before or after a workout, the answer is that it probably doesn't matter. In fact, you might not even need to time your BCAA supplements so tightly around or during your workout, giving you more flexibility when it comes to taking your supplements -- just don't wait more than a few hours.
How to enhance your BCAA usage
Because BCAAs aren't likely the only thing you're taking, never mind your important nutrition considerations, there are actually a few things that can help enhance the effectiveness of BCAA supplements.
The first of which has to do with optimizing your BCAA intake vis-a-vis your body weight. That means 91 mg per pound of body weight, or 200 mg per kg of body weight, which comes out to a 15 gram dose of BCAAs for someone that weighs 165 lbs.
The next important factor is to consume BCAAs over an extended period of time of at least 10 days. That's when you'll start to see the benefits of taking BCAAs, but it also means that even if you don't exercise every day, you'll still need to take BCAA supplements each day to get the full benefit.
Frequency is another important factor, and science suggests that splitting your BCAA dose in two -- say, once before and after your workout -- can be more beneficial than taking just one dose a day.
But it's not all about BCAAs when it comes to your workout regimen. In addition to the helpful amino acids in BCAAs, there are actually six other amino acids that your body needs to help build muscle, which is why a good protein source is an essential part of any long-term fitness goal.
Wrapping up - When to take BCAAs
BCAA supplements are a great way to feed your muscles what they need during any workout. But whether you take BCAAs before or after a workout doesn't seem to affect things much one way or the other. Instead, you should focus on taking BCAA supplements every day, sticking with it for more than 10 days and possibly taking a half-dose both before and after your workout to maximize benefits. While the timing of each dose may not be that important, it could be worthwhile to take BCAAs throughout the day -- and don't forget the value of proper nutrition, without which you won't be building muscle mass and meeting your fitness goals.