During a workout, your body expends a lot of energy trying to keep up. Between all those reps and miles you're putting in on the bike or treadmill, your body burns fuel from food, fat stores and supplements -- but what's best to get the most out of your workouts? Instead of eating a huge, weighty meal right before a workout and burning the calories you've just consumed, many prefer to work out on an empty stomach so you're burning fat instead of calories.
For most, all you'll need is water to get through your next workout. As soon as you start sweating, you'll need to replenish all that water you're using up. But what about taking supplements like branch chain amino acids during a workout? Will it help you get more out of your workout or assist in recovery? While the answer is nuanced, odds are branch chain amino acids (also known as BCAAs) can help you maximize your workouts, which is great for those that workout often or those that may only have a limited time window to work out.
The Science Behind BCAAs
As the building blocks that make up proteins, amino acids are an essential component of building muscle and getting through your workouts. By linking together in various sequences to form different proteins, amino acids are largely responsible for enzyme activity and molecule synthesis in the body.
Specifically, branch chain amino acids are actually made up of three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine. They're part of a larger set of nine essential amino acids that include histidine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, thereonine and tryptophan. While the names might look funny, the reason they're "essential" amino acids is because the body can't make them naturally -- they must be consumed via foods or supplements.
The good news is that these amino acids are found easily in protein-rich foods, but not everyone may have the chance to get the amino acids they need through their diet, particularly before, during or after a workout. But BCAA amino acids are easy to take at any time, whether you consume them in drink or capsule form. Another benefit of BCAA supplements is that they enter the bloodstream directly, bypassing the gut and liver.
For those that are looking to build or maintain muscle, branch chain amino acids during a workout can help regulate your protein metabolism through protein synthesis, as well as suppressing protein breakdown.
What Foods Include BCAAs?
While BCAA supplements may be the best way to get BCAAs in your diet, many foods actually contain BCAAs if you'd rather make a change to your diet.
For leucine, whey protein, casein, eggs, soy, milk and cheese all contain valuable amounts of this BCAA.
Isoleucine can be found in meat, poultry, fish, whey protein, casein, eggs, soy, cottage cheese, milk and cashews.
Valine is found in whey protein, casein, egg whites, soy, cheese, milk and cottage cheese.
Why Take BCAA Supplements?
Though you can get BCAAs and other amino acids through food, unless you have the time and inclination to watch everything you eat and account for the amino acids that you're getting, it's just easier to take branch chain amino acids during a workout -- or before or after. Here are the benefits you're likely to see.
Benefit #1: Muscle Gains
For most, BCAA nutrition is about building muscle. You're putting the time and effort into each and every one of your workouts, so why not get the most out of it with BCAAs that can help promote protein synthesis and the building of muscle. Not only does it mean helping your muscles get through the workout, but BCAAs can also help you build muscle during and after the workout.
Most amino acids are actually absorbed by the intestines and sent straight to the liver where the liver determines what to do with them before sending them throughout the body. During this time, if the body needs extra energy, the consumed amino acids will be broken down as fuel rather than for a muscle building purpose.
BCAA supplements actually skip the liver and directly enter the bloodstream where they can be used to build muscle tissue or provide other beneficial effects. That's great for those that take branch chain amino acids during a workout, since otherwise they might be expended as fuel like any common food.
When it comes to protein synthesis, leucine is actually the most valuable of the BCAA amino acids for the growth of muscle. Leucine is responsible for initiating the protein synthesis process, which is governed by the mTOR process. That ramps up protein synthesis, which leads to muscle tissue growth.
Benefit #2: Quicker Recovery Times
In addition to building muscle, taking branch chain amino acids during a workout can help you recover from strenuous workouts and speed up recovery after exercise. Because they're anti-catabolic, BCAAs help reduce muscle breakdown during and after workouts, especially when muscle breakdown exceeds muscle growth.
After a hard workout, both muscle growth and muscle breakdown occur, which is why you may feel muscle soreness or pain after your hardest workouts. Unfortunately, soreness can last for days after a tough workout, but BCAAs can speed up recovery after a workout because leucine -- one of the three BCAA amino acids -- can help promote muscle growth instead of muscle loss due to workout-induced damage.
When taking BCAAs, it's important to pay attention to dosage and timing. In fact, consuming five to 10 grams of BCAAs before, during or after a workout can reduce soreness and enable you to get back in there sooner rather than later.
Benefit #3: Increased Energy
Among the muscle-building and restorative benefits of taking BCAA supplements, BCAAs can also help improve your mood and increase your energy. When taken before or during a workout, BCAAs are often broken down as an energy source, which reduces BCAA levels in the body. The brain takes note and increases serotonin production, which is widely regarded as a mood stabilizer and uplifter.
An increase in serotonin levels is partly why you feel tired during exercise, but the valine found in BCAAs can help you during those longer, more strenuous workouts. While you're exercising, tryptophan from your diet is gobbled by the brain to produce serotonin. But valine blocks the brain's ability to convert tryptophan to serotonin, which means that you can exercise for longer without becoming fatigued.
For intense and longer workouts, one of the side effects of BCAAs is that they can be converted into fuel if the body needs it. This means that you can train harder and for longer periods of time than you would be able to do otherwise, and that's great if you have outsized goals for your body.
Those that workout in a fasted state stand to gain even more since taking branch chain amino acids during a workout can help you retain muscle while your caloric intake is low, though it's important to note that BCAAs can be considered food when consumed while training so you're not exactly fasting.
Benefit #4: Lose Weight and Fat
Whether it's due to the fat-busting properties of leucine or the synergistic effects of BCAAs, it's true that BCAA weight loss is a thing, particularly when you combine it with dieting. In addition to helping regulate body weight, BCAAs can help manage your hunger, as well as satiety, glucose and adiposity.
In 1997, a study done on competitive wrestlers showed that taking branch chain amino acids while engaged in a low-calorie diet led to a greater drop in body fat compared to a placebo group. Another study in Brazil showed that a month and a half of leucine supplementation -- one of the three main ingredients in BCAA supplements -- caused a drop in body fat in rats. This was due to the increase in protein synthesis from the leucine, which enabled the rats to burn more fat compared to the control group.
Recent studies have also bolstered BCAAs' weight loss benefits in mice that were given isoleucine in addition to a high-fat diet. Those that were given isoleucine gained much less fat than the control group, which indicates that isoleucine may also play a role in fat storage.
That said, the exact BCAA weight loss benefits are unknown, so while BCAAs can be part of a diet and exercise regimen, it's not like taking BCAAs will help you shed the pounds if you're eating poorly and sticking with a sedentary lifestyle.
When Should You Take BCAAs?
For all the discussion about the benefits of BCAAs, one thing we haven't covered is when you should take BCAAs. When it comes to your workouts, you have three options: take BCAAs before you workout, during your workout or after your workout. The truth is that when you take them may be more of a preference than anything else, but if you're looking for certain benefits over others, you may want to try different approaches and see what works for you.
Taking branch chain amino acids during a workout may prevent a deficit of essential amino acids if you're not getting enough in your diet or you're engaged in a rigorous workout. That can help to delay the onset of fatigue and help you get through your workouts. In addition to the physical benefits of BCAAs, taking BCAAs during a workout can help mental performance during games and other exhibitions, which may give you a boost over other competitors.
BCAAs may also help reduce tiredness and fatigue during exercise in a glycogen-depleted state, as well as increase fat utilization during exercise. That's great for those that have low-carb diets or that may be running a calorie deficit for weight loss purposes. Those who train while fasting should also benefit from BCAA supplementation.
Those who suffer from fatigue will get the most out of BCAA supplements if they're taken with sugary sports drinks, whereby the sugar gives you the energy to complete the workout and the BCAAs look out for your muscles. For fasted training, try BCAA capsules or mixing BCAAs with water.
Taken before your workout, BCAA supplements can help to top off your levels of these essential amino acids, which is of particular importance if your diet isn't up to par or if you need more fuel to get through those tough days. You can also take BCAAs after your workout to help support recovery if muscle soreness and the recovery time between workouts is a problem.
Taking BCAAs With Other Supplements
By combining BCAAs with other supplements you're already taking, you can supercharge your workout regimen without missing a beat. Enabling you to workout harder, over longer periods of time and with less rest in between workouts, taking BCAAs with other supplements can give you more benefits than taking each product separately.
The reason it can give you synergistic effects is because protein synthesis is governed by mTOR, which is activated based on ATP and amino acid levels in the body, particularly leucine. By activating mTOR when ATP levels are high, BCAAs enable you to trigger protein synthesis. But when combined with supplements that raise ATP levels, you can get even more muscle fuel with higher ATP and an abundance of BCAA levels. Together, you can kick mTOR and protein synthesis into high gear, priming the body for growth before, during and after your workouts.
What About Creatine or Citrulline Malate?
Since creatine is used to regenerate ATP, which is the body's main source of energy, it can be a good idea to take creatine with BCAAs for the biggest benefit. Muscle in the body only has so much creatine storage available, and you'll need to add your own external source if you want to keep ATP levels high with the energy you need to start and complete your workout.
Citrulline malate is another way to increase ATP production, and that can also help when taken with BCAAs to maximize gains and reduce the risk of fatigue and muscle soreness. According to at least one study, six grams of citrulline malate helped reduce fatigue and led to an increase of ATP by 30 percent.
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