Bodybuilding and supplements go together like squatting in lycra and Instagram fame, they have an almost symbiotic relationship.
Without supplements, there would be no money in professional or amateur bodybuilding, and without bodybuilders and fitness models, the supplement industry would crumble to dust.
This relationship has led to incredible improvements in the industry, but it has also led to a lot of ineffective supplements being sold to trusting consumers.
For a while, the supplement industry had a terrible reputation for misleading people about the effectiveness of their products. To some extent this still goes on today, with industry funded studies being manipulated to make certain supplements look better than they actually are.
But on the whole, the industry is improving. More companies are being open about what ingredients are used in their supplements, and to what levels.
Less “filler” ingredients are used, and ridiculous claims are replaced with more realistic claims.
Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) are one of the most controversial supplements out there. Okay, maybe controversial isn’t the right word, but they are heavily debated.
Many bodybuilders swear by them, but many fitness experts claim that BCAAs are essentially useless.
The purpose of this article is to discuss whether BCAAs are a good supplement idea or not.
What are BCAAs?
Branched Chain Amino Acids are amino acids that have a carbon atom surrounded by three more carbon atoms.
There are actually four BCAAs: Leucine, Isoleucine, Valine, and Proline, but only the first three are used in BCAA supplements (Proline is technically an imino acid rather than an amino acid).
BCAAs can help synthesise protein and lead to muscle growth. Because of this they are often supplemented by athletes and bodybuilders.
You can find BCAAs in many foods, particularly meat and dairy. Red meat in particular is an excellent source of BCAAs.
Fish and eggs are also great sources, as are beans, nuts, lentils, and soy protein (helpful for vegetarian and vegan lifters).
Whey protein supplements are a fantastic source of BCAAs, particularly Leucine.
Benefits of BCAAs
One of the main benefits of BCAA supplementation is a reduction in fatigue during a workout.
A 2011 study in Applied Physiology, Nutrition & Metabolism found that 7g of BCAAs taken an hour before running on a treadmill led to improved maintenance of cognition .
The researches hypothesized that this was down to reduced fatigue thanks to the BCAAs.
Another study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology (2008) found that BCAA supplements helped improve short term memory in offshore sailing racers by reducing fatigue .
It definitely appears that taking a BCAA supplement can improve your concentration levels and reduce fatigue while exercising.
A study by Gualano et al in The Journal of Sports Medicine & Physical Fitness (2011) found that supplementing with BCAAs led to increased resistance to fatigue, but also an increase in fat oxidation (fat burning) .
Other studies have failed to find any significant impact on fat oxidation though, so it’s hard to say for sure whether that is a true benefit or not.
BCAAs are mostly effective for muscle growth and recovery after exercise, but appear to also reduce fatigue, improve cognition during a workout, and they may even improve fat loss from exercise.
Are BCAAs Worth Taking?
With all these benefits, you’d think that the answer to whether BCAAs are worth taking would be a simple one. But actually, it’s not.
The problem is that most people’s diets contain more than enough BCAAs through high protein meals. Whey protein supplements are superior sources of Leucine than BCAA supplements and has more benefits anyway.
It is for this reason that many fitness experts claim that BCAAs are a waste of money.
You could achieve the same goals with whey protein, or by following a high protein diet.
But there are many benefits that are exclusive to BCAAs which tend to get overlooked.
Firstly, a BCAA supplement does contain enough Leucine for muscle growth which means that it is perfectly viable for promoting protein synthesis.
BCAAs are also very low in calories, so could suit people who are on a calorie deficit diet.
If you are fasting then a 0-15 calorie BCAA supplement is going to prevent muscle loss, while still keeping you in your fasted state (more or less).
BCAAs are also a good choice for taking peri-workout (during). They are light, low in calories, and can be easily carried around in a water bottle.
They will help reduce fatigue and the rate of perceived exertion during a session. A whey protein shake, or any other source of protein would not be as easily digested mid workout.
BCAA supplements have their place in bodybuilding and are not a waste of money. But they are also no better than a regular high protein diet when it comes to muscle building.
If you are on a tight budget then it would make more sense for you to concentrate on your overall nutrition rather than spending money on BCAA supplements.
However, if you have the budget to afford BCAAs then there are good reasons to take them. They are great for during a workout and will help keep you energised throughout your workout.
The ability of BCAAs to reduce fatigue and help you concentrate during intense exercise makes them a great supplement for bodybuilders, but also makes them a great option for sportsmen and women.
Perhaps a BCAA supplement taken at half time might be a good idea?
Branched Chain Amino Acid supplements are seen as a bit of a joke by many, but they definitely work.
They have unique benefits and will improve any workout particularly if you are exercising during a fast.
But if you are low on funds then there are other supplements that you could spend your money on instead: whey/casein protein, creatine, or caffeine (pre-workout) are all cheaper, more scientifically backed supplements, with more benefits.