BCAAs | Are They Overhyped Or Worth It?

BCAAs have been an emerging supplement over the past few years. BCAAs are now one of the best-selling sports nutrition products across the globe. But why? Several people argue the effectiveness of supplementing with BCAAs. The argument is that if someone is consuming enough quality protein throughout the day, then you are already receiving enough BCAAs from your diet.

This is a true statement if we were to only recognize that we need a certain amount of BCAAs for a whole day, but timing of when you consume BCAAs is a factor that gets overlooked. BCAAs taken at certain times may be beneficial to your body composition, recovery and your progress in the gym.

What Are BCAAs And What Do They Do?

BCAAs stand for branched chain amino acids. They get the name from their molecular structure. BCAAs are 3 of the 9 essential amino acids. Essential means that they are amino acids that we have to consume from our diet and that our body cannot produce them on its own. The 3 amino acids that make up BCAAs are leucine, iso-leucine, and valine. The dominant amino acid of the 3 is leucine. Leucine has been shown to be the most important amino acid in muscle building because of its role in signaling protein synthesis (1). Leucine interacts with the mTOR pathway. The mTOR pathway is a growth regulator that senses and integrates diverse nutritional and environmental cues, including growth factors, energy levels, cellular stress, and the presence of amino acids.

This means that when you consume an adequate amount of leucine, your body is given a signal via the mTOR pathway to initiate protein synthesis and the process of rebuilding muscle tissue. The proper amount of leucine to cue protein synthesis is found between 2-3 grams. The more you weigh, the higher end of that range you’ll need to aim for in order to get a response of protein synthesis. You can get BCAAs from all kinds of protein sources, but you have to consume far more calories in order to get the same protein synthesis response.

This means that BCAAs are extremely calorie efficient. You can consume 20-30 calories worth of BCAAs versus consuming 120-150 calories worth of animal protein and stimulate the same amount of protein synthesis! BCAAs therefore could be very beneficial in a caloric deficit when you’re trying to maintain muscle while losing fat. Because leucine plays such an important role in stimulating protein synthesis, many start to believe that the consumption of the other 2 amino acids, isoleucine and valine, are not as important.

This is true to a point, however the other 2 amino acids are needed to properly substrate. A high consumption of leucine without the other 2 amino acids can actually lead to a decline of those other 2 amino acids in your system. Isoleucine’s role is to regulate glucose uptake in the cells. Valine’s role is yet to be clearly defined, but it is apparent that consumption of all 3 BCAAs is needed to reap the benefits of BCAAs while also getting the proper protein synthesis response.

Since muscle tissue is comprised of BCAAs in a 2:1:1 ratio of leucine:isoleucine:valine, it makes sense to consume BCAA supplements consisting of this ratio. A 2:1:1 ratio is also what all the researchers have used in their studies. In addition to the muscle building benefits of BCAAs, BCAAs have been shown to possibly increase fat oxidation when taken at the proper time (2). So not only could BCAAs help you build muscle, but they could also help you to lose fat.

How Do I Take Them?

The most popular way of supplementing with BCAAs is intraworkout. It’s believed that BCAAs have the ability to prevent your body from entering into a catabolic state (the process of breaking down muscle tissue) when consumed intraworkout. Adequate data is still needed to support this theory, but supplementing with BCAAs intraworkout will give your body a fuel source to keep pushing weight.

Data has shown that taking BCAAs before and after your workout leads to better recovery and muscle gain (3). This could be due to BCAAs ability to stimulate protein synthesis. BCAAs are also present in a fast digesting form in whey protein, if you were to consume whey protein post workout. Another beneficial way to supplement with BCAAs is in between meals. Since BCAAs have the ability to stimulate protein synthesis on their own, taking BCAAs in between meals will allow you to spike protein synthesis throughout the day.

A study done at the University of Illinois observed the effects of supplementing with BCAAs in between meals (4). The researchers found that the individuals supplementing with BCAAs in between meals were able to stimulate a far greater amount of protein synthesis! A greater amount of protein synthesis will, in time, lead to greater muscle building.

Take-Home Message

BCAAs are a useful supplement to aid in the repairing process of muscle. Taking BCAAs between your meals and around your workout will allow you to stimulate more protein synthesis and keep your body from entering into a catabolic state.

Our articles should be used for informational and educational purposes only and are not intended to be taken as medical advice. If you’re concerned, consult a health professional before taking dietary supplements or introducing any major changes to your diet.

  • Christopher J. Lynch. Role of Leucine in the Regulation of mTOR by Amino Acids: Revelations. J. Nutr. 131: 861S–865S, 2001.
  • from Structure–Activity Studies
  • Gualano A. B., Bozza T., Lopes De Campos P., Roschel H., Dos Santos Costa A., Luiz Marquezi M., Benatti F., Herbert Lancha Junior A. Branched-chain amino acids supplementation enhances exercise capacity and lipid oxidation during endurance exercise after muscle glycogen depletion. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2011 Mar;51(1):82-8.
  • Glyn Howatson, Michael Hoad, Stuart Goodall, Jamie Tallent, Phillip G Bell and Duncan N French. Exercise-induced muscle damage is reduced in resistance-trained males by branched chain amino acids: a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled study. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 20129:20 doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-9-20
  • Wilson GJ, Layman DK, Moulton CJ, Norton LE, Anthony TG, Proud CG, Rupassara SI, Garlick PJ. Leucine or carbohydrate supplementation reduces AMPK and eEF2 phosphorylation and extends postprandial muscle protein synthesis in rats. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2011;301:E1236–E1242. doi: 10.1152/ajpendo.00242.2011



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