Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) - The Muscle PhD

Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)

If you’ve been reading our articles, or watching our videos, you’ve probably noticed that we mention branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) a lot in our topics. That’s because it’s actually a topic that’s extremely interesting misunderstood. It’s high time we took a look at BCAAs, and how they can make a great muscle-building supplement! 

What Are Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)?

We know that amino acids are the building blocks of muscles in our body. In our body there are actually 20 amino acids, 9 of which are essential, meaning you need outside sources in order to get them inside your body.

These outside sources can include steak, chicken, or whey protein, as they include the 20 amino acids that your body needs. Three of these essential amino acids are called branched chains, they are:

  1. Leucine
  2. Isoleucine
  3. Valine

Every amino acid has an amino group and a variable group. This variable group is the part that changes–the 20 variations of this side group create the 20 types of amino acids used by your body. On 3 of the amino acids, that side group branches, which is why we call them branched-chain amino acids. These amino acids are extremely unique.

BCAAs and Protein Synthesis

Peter Garlick, a legend in protein metabolism research, did a study looking at protein synthesis with all 20 amino acids compared to fasting or carbohydrates alone. He started by looking at the essential amino acids that you cannot make on your own.

He found that the 9 essential amino acids can stimulate as much protein synthesis as all 20 amino acids. However, he then asked himself, which of these 9 essential amino acids have the most impact on driving muscle growth?

BCAA supplement for growth

When he took a look at the 3 BCAAs, he found that just those branched chain amino acids can stimulate as much protein synthesis as all 9 essential amino acids, and in turn as much as all the 20 essential amino acids (EAAs) in our body.

So that tells us that the protein quality of a meal, which is how well the meal can stimulate protein synthesis and the building of the muscle, is actually dictated by the meal’s BCAA content. 

Why BCAA Triggers Muscle Growth

We’ve previously mentioned that the quality of a meal is measured by the BCAA percentage in it. However, what happens to all the other Essential Amino Acids when they enter our body?

Intriguingly, up to 90% of the amino acids we consume are broken down and assimilated by the gut and the liver, and because muscle growth is on the lower end of your body’s priority list, your protein is shuttled into other areas in your body. 

The unique aspect of BCAAs is that these enzymes that break down BCAAs are low, or don’t exist at all in the liver, so they are able to bypass the liver filtering and go straight into the blood, where they get shuttled into your muscles and help you grow.

Supplementing with BCAAs

BCAA powder for bodybuilding supplement

Studies have shown that when supplementing with just 10g of BCAAs, you’ll be able to see a number of benefits within and after your workouts, including:

  1. A decrease in muscle soreness post-workout
  2. A faster rate of recovery post-workout
  3. Faster carb store recovery post-workout

All this is not to mention that you’ll have less fatigue when doing high-volume training if you’re taking BCAAs. That’s because BCAAs are actively driving protein synthesis, which is going to boost recovery and help you recover faster during your workouts.

Recommendations for BCAA Supplementation

We recommend taking servings of BCAAs of around 10g. However, there’s a catch in the timing of your BCAAs. Because BCAAs aren’t complete proteins, you need to make sure that you’re also having normal meals throughout the day for them to optimally work.

Usually, 2 hours after a meal, your amino acid levels are still elevated in your blood. However, the muscle building process has stopped due to the window of protein synthesis having closed, so you end up making less gains.

Studies show that you can use BCAAs to reignite that muscle growth process, which is why we recommend taking your BCAAs between your meals. If you eat around 3-4 meals a day, you can take 2-3 10g servings of BCAAs between those meals and that will keep your muscle growth spiked throughout the day.

The great thing about protein synthesis is that it stimulates mitochondrial gains, which in turn makes you leaner, and since BCAAs stimulate protein synthesis, you’ll be actually getting leaner as a bonus!

Addressing BCAA Counterarguments

There are a few counterarguments to using BCAAs as a supplement. One of them is that you need all the amino acids to grow, not just the BCAAs, so if you only have the 3 BCAAs in your day, you’re never going to grow.

Remember earlier how we mentioned that you need to have normal meals with your BCAAs? That’s why. If you’re using BCAAs to stimulate muscle growth, you’re already considered an athlete, and you’re eating meals quite frequently.

Drinking BCAAs after training for muscle growth

As a result, you already always have amino acids in your blood and taking BCAAs will work to reignite the muscle-building process, which is why this argument doesn’t have any firm ground to stand on.

Another article has stated that if you take BCAAs, it’ll stimulate protein synthesis, but in order to derive amino acids to grow, it will cause the muscle to break down. So, this article stated that you can actually lose muscles with BCAAs because it causes protein breakdown.

However, we took a deeper look at the article and we found out that it’s a paper based on another paper written in the 70s that had individuals starving themselves for 5 days! A golden rule to always have in the back of your mind is that no matter what you’re doing, starving yourself for 5 days will never make you grow. So, using that study to state that BCAAs don’t work is false, and doesn’t count.

A lot of people tend to say that EAAs are better than BCAAs, yet they forget that BCAAs are essential amino acids in nature! However, they do bring up a valid question: when should you prefer EAAs over BCAAs?

Have you ever had those times where you woke up fasted and you had such a busy schedule that you didn’t even have time for a proper meal? In this case, you can just take all of your EAAs before training and still have a successful workout.

The final argument against BCAAs comes in the form of individuals who are suffering from insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes having elevated BCAAs in the blood, which leads to the assumption that BCAAs are bad because it causes type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance.

That is actually a case of assuming correlating data as a causation. Studies found that mitochondria increase with BCAAs, and we’ve established that mitochondria improve your insulin sensitivity. The reason BCAAs are higher in these people’s blood is that insulin is important for protein metabolism, and if you’re insulin resistant, you can’t actually assimilate and utilize BCAAs very well.

We hope this article helped you understand all about branched-chain amino acids! We’ll see you next time you have any questions.

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