Whether you’re an elite level powerlifter, an amateur bodybuilder, or a weekend warrior who just wants to look a little better on the beach, there are a few constants for all of these individuals.
First, is a good routine that has enough frequency and volume to stimulate hypertrophy/strength gains. Next, is a decent diet that contains a high amount of good quality protein, carbs, fat, and micronutrients to fuel their goals no matter what they are. Finally, supplements are the last constant that most lifters of all calibers use to help them get that extra 20 grams of protein they need to hit their macros for the day or a good pre-workout energy boost.
The important thing to remember about dietary supplements though is that they are not meant to replace a proper diet and exercise routine (hence the name, they are meant to only supplement the other two).
With that being said, the topic of our article today is focused around a supplement called BCAAs, which have been around for decades but are still debated over whether they are actually necessary. We will be going over what BCAAs are, who will benefit from them the most, and how to find the right kind for you if you decide to use the supplement.
What are BCAAs?
You may have seen this supplement on the Myprotein site in a few places, in your local supplement store, or in the form of a gallon jug full of some blue or green liquid being drunk by the big guy at your gym.
BCAAs (or Branch Chain Amino Acids) are actually found in almost every form of protein we eat and are essential to get through our diet, as we cannot synthesize these amino acids ourselves.
Known as branch chain because of their molecular shape, BCAAs are made up of three different amino acids: Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine. While all three work synergistically, Leucine is the main amino acid that is responsible for activating mTOR, which directly influences muscle protein synthesis.
Put simply, without Leucine, we wouldn’t be able to grow our muscles to any kind of noticeable degree compared to when we consume enough of it on a daily basis. This is why most BCAAs you can buy usually have a ratio of 2:1:1 or 4:1:1 of Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine, respectively.
So are BCAAs right for you?
The main draw to using BCAAs besides the delicious flavors, is the theory of sipping them before/during a workout to help prevent muscle breakdown and stimulate new growth.
The lack of calories is also a benefit for those who are in a calorie deficit and need to preserve their muscle mass during a fat loss phase. Those in a deficit will actually be the main demographic that will actually see any benefit from this supplement. In a calorie surplus we are getting more than enough amino acids through our diet and usually eat enough carbs before a workout to prevent any type of muscle loss.
A diet is different though, as we usually need to consume just as much protein, but way less carbs and fat on a daily basis. As a result, our energy levels and strength will more than likely suffer. BCAAs won’t give you any energy, pump, or boost like most pre-workouts will, but they can possibly help those who train fasted or don’t want to give up their intensity when they start losing weight.
Whether you choose to use it during your lifting or cardio, BCAAs can definitely help you retain muscle mass and strength during an intense diet that lasts months
Which BCAAs are right for you?
With all the flavors and ratios out there, it can be hard to choose the right BCAA supplement for you. It will mostly come down to your personal preference and price range.
The basic 2:1:1 BCAA is usually the cheapest, and comes in a range of flavors. If you want more Leucine for your money though, the 4:1:1 might be better for you. It will be a bit more expensive but has twice as much Leucine per serving.
Even better, we could break the mold and find a pure Leucine supplement (which are actually cheaper than most BCAAs). The only downside is it can be hard to find artificially sweetened Leucine, and the unflavored powder is very difficult to drink. This can be easily solved with a water enhancer or some sweetener packets though.
Finally, there is one more supplement that takes the science behind BCAA’s main use to the next level. A metabolite of leucine, known as HMB, is a newer supplement that can also be found in pill or powder form and has a very specific use. While it isn’t any better than Leucine at stimulating muscle growth, it is extremely good at preventing muscle breakdown (between 10-20 times better that Leucine). Which means taking one gram of HMB is effectively as good as taking 10-20 grams of Leucine, which is more than enough to stop muscle loss during your workouts.
Take home message
Whatever you chose to use depending on your preference or price range, remember to check for a highly rated brand! Never forget though, supplements like BCAAs are useless if your diet and workout routine aren’t set in stone and halfway decent.
With that being said, there’s no reason why you can’t start with one amino acid supplement, and try another the next time you run out to see which works better until you find the right one just for your needs. Remember: supplement smarter, not harder!