What are BCAA for?
What are They?
BCAA, fully known as Branched Chain Amino Acids. In my other article about protein, I have mentioned that Amino Acids are the small building blocks of any protein molecule. In order to synthesize any protein, amino acids MUST be available. That means BCAAs should be your number one supplement to go for, right? Well, not exactly.
Humans are unable to synthesize only 9 out of 20 amino acids. These 9 we need to get from our diet. They are:
The last 3 – Valine, Isoleucine and Leucine are especially important for muscle repair, growth and metabolism.
Why are they called Branched Chain?
It is due to the fact that their molecule structure is slightly different to the others – they literally have a chain branching off to the side of its molecule. They also have one thing in common. They are involved in everything regarding muscles, whether it is growth, repair or function in general.
Especially the amino acid Leucine has been proven to stimulate muscle hypertrophy (growth).
How much difference can BCAA drink make?
Unfortunately, not as much as we would expect. Most people who are into fitness already consume protein supplements which include all the 9 essential amino acids, including a small amount of branched chain amino acids, especially Leucine.
They do, however, have one benefit. They can prevent the body from using muscles as fuel when we have not fueled it properly. For example, Fasted workouts in the morning. Loads of people go the gym before work, quite often without proper breakfast. Some skip breakfast altogether. This is the worst thing we can do if we desire our muscles to grow. We need fuel if we go to the gym and after 8h sleep and no breakfast, our body is too weak to perform. It doesn’t have the carbohydrates to use for energy so it uses the energy stored in muscles. But this energy has to be replenished.
Amino Acids metabolism contributes to 10% – 15% of total energy production. This means that if they are available in the system and glycogen (prime source of energy) is not – due to skipping breakfast in the morning (or any meal for that matter), muscles have enough energy to synthesize protein and maintain hypertrophy. In other words, there shouldn’t be any muscle mass lost even though we have not eaten and went through and exercise session.
BCAAs are also used as fuel in aerobic metabolism – I have briefly mentioned energy systems in my article about Creatine Monohydrate but just as a little reminder, aerobic system starts to fuel the body as soon as we move into a high intensity exercise and continue this for at least 15 mins. So all the popular Bootcamp and HIIT classes would fall into this category.
BCAAs and High Intensity Exercise
I used to do high intensity classes quite often because I was trying to lose weight, which they are absolutely excellent for. I used to attend this hardcore Bootcamp class that was at least 1h long and it resembled a military training rather than your local gym class. It was extremely popular, we figured that it burned at least 500 calories. I always used to bring water but soon found out that I am absolutely knackered within 30 mins. This was at the beginning of my training and I have never tried BCAAs before, my gym buddy at the time was using them but I tried to avoid them because of the sugar added to them in order to add attractive flavours.
Not so much the case nowadays, they usually contain sucralose and other zero calorie sweeteners. I would keep an eye on the label just in case someone tries to sneak aspartame in (not the most trusted ingredient and quite controversial in some countries but you have to make your own opinion on that one).
In the end I decided that, considering the fact that I burn 500+ calories that morning, I can get a drink that contains some sugar 🙂 I have to say, I stayed alive for a lot longer. The sugar in those that contain it helps your body fuel you with simple energy. They, however, contain so little that I didn’t believe it was the sugar that kept me going for longer.
There is also a little trick for your brain in this. It is scientifically proven that even if you put something containing sugar in your mouth, your brain gets ready to receive more energy and muscles start working better. Long distance runners use sugary mouth wash to trick their brain to thinking that energy is coming. This made me think that the sweet flavour of BCAAs could be doing that too. They often come in flavours like Berry Burst, Tropical Paradise, Strawberry, Blueberry, you name it.
I guess for me It was probably the combination of the sweet, refreshing flavour and the fact that BCAAs are capable of fueling your muscles if energy is low. That’s why I managed to last a lot longer and feel less fatigued.
BCAAs are definitely an important component for muscle protein synthesis and muscle growth but I don’t think the supplement has to be consumed with every single workout performed.
Buy or Not?
I’d say it is good to have a packet at home just in case you are having a busy day or week and you are aware of the fact that you haven’t been fueling yourself the way you desire. If you ever decide to go to the gym hungry, take a BCAA drink with you to stop your body from using muscles as a fuel. We go there to build muscle not to get rid of them.
Also I think they are quite tasty and refreshing drink during High Intensity Training and Bootcamps. Or any High Intensity Exercise class. I think I might take them to my spinning class next time 🙂
If you are just a regular gym goer, I don’t think they are of any benefit to you. I have survived without them for years and I don’t think my muscle mass suffered. I always have a packet at home here and there that I ordered as samples and that is enough for me, even though I am quite serious about gym.
There have been claims that they reduce DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) which is probably true since they play a vital role in muscle metabolism but since most people take protein supplements (which already contain BCAAs) I don’t think it is necessary to add another one and spending your money on another bag of powder. Don’t forget you can get these amino acids from food too!!!!
Best sources are:
- Hemp seeds, Chia seeds
So unless your diet is extremely bad, you probably have no need to get BCAA supplement.
Let me know your opinion in the comments 🙂