What are branched chain amino acids and do they help muscle growth and recovery?
I remember earlier you saw all the bodybuilders in the gym sipping purple water from those clear shaker bottles. They drank BCAA-added water or branched chain amino acids. The idea was that the BCAAs would provide your body with a steady drop of amino acids to maximize muscle hypertrophy and stay anabolic all day. Hell, even I sipped the purple water trying to gain mass. In recent years, BCAAs have fallen out of favor, or at least become less of a “vital” supplement for people interested in building muscle.
However, branched chain amino acids are still among the most important amino acids for human health, metabolism, immunity and hypertrophy. Without a sufficient intake of the BCAAs leucine, isoleucine and valine, we cannot activate all of the metabolic pathways that we need to generate energy and use macronutrients. Our gut health suffers. Our immune system becomes sluggish. And most importantly, without BCAAs, we cannot trigger the mTOR signaling pathway, which is necessary for muscle building and repair.
That’s what everyone cares about when they talk about BCAA supplementation: muscle growth and recovery. That is why the purple water was so common. So what’s the deal? Do BCAAs Work For Muscle Growth And Recovery?
Well, we need BCAAs. We can’t make them – they are essential amino acids, which means we have to get them from outside sources instead of making them in-house. We have to eat them.
But do we have to drink the purple water? Do we need to add BCAAs?
Let’s find out.
What are BCAAs made of?
When most people talk about BCAAs, they are talking about leucine. If you had to choose one amino acid for building muscle, it would be leucine. Leucine activates mTOR, or the mammalian target of rapamycin, the physiological pathway required for muscle protein synthesis. The simple ingestion of leucine has been shown to upregulate mTOR and muscle protein synthesis in humans. When you combine leucine with weight training, the effect is even greater.
Leucine is the amino acid Vegans and (often) vegetarians are usually absent because plant foods contain very little. You can get there using specially formulated vegetable protein powder mixes (or ingesting vital wheat gluten directly), but if you’re only using whole plant-based foods, you’ll have a hard time getting enough leucine – it will take over 800 calories of peanuts or 3,600 calories of wheat bread to get just 2.5 grams of leucine.
On the other hand, animal foods are the richest sources. 23 grams of whey protein isolate (92 calories), 142 grams of Top Round (391 calories), or 142 grams of chicken breast (147 calories) are animal methods to get 2.5 grams of leucine. Dairy products, eggs, and other animal foods are also good sources. Getting enough BCAAs from your diet is much easier when you eat meat, and most productive meat eaters will get many BCAAs simply from their diet.
If you are reading this and if you regularly eat meat, eggs, dairy products, and other animal foods, as most of the readers and visitors to this website, you are likely getting enough BCAAs to meet your needs. You probably don’t need to add any additional BCAAs.
However, there are some people who should definitely be taking BCAAs.
When does it make sense to take BCAAs?
There are several situations in which supplementing BCAAs can help you meet your goals and recover faster:
- You are vegan
- You are fasting.
- You are on a reduced calorie diet.
- You are recovering from an injury, illness, or bed rest.
- You want to get back into competition or training faster.
You are vegan
Sure, you could make a living on soy protein powder. Sure, you could sprinkle pea protein powder in everything you eat and drink. However, if you’re looking to consume more whole foods vegan or vegetarian foods, adding a serving or two of BCAAs directly gives you more leeway. I still wouldn’t recommend this, but if you’re determined, add some BCAAs to it.
You are fasting.
If you are doing fast weight training, it is advisable to take 10-15 grams of BCAAs before training. On the one hand, they are gentle on the muscles, especially during intensive strength training. The last thing you want during a fasting workout is for your body to start breaking down muscle to make glucose. Taking it before fasting is more effective than after fasting. However, if you plan to continue the quick workout after your workout, more doses per hour should prevent muscle breakdown until you are able to eat real food.
Second, BCAAs taken during and after strength training increase the normal mTOR surge in muscle tissue that results from exercise alone.
BCAAs turn off fasting-induced autophagy. However, if you are trying to build muscle, you inevitably need to stop autophagy. Plus, it’s the end of the fast, so you wanted to turn it off anyway.
You are on a reduced calorie diet.
The worst part about dieting is the lean mass that you can lose. It’s not “weight” we want to lose, it’s fat. We’d prefer to maintain or even gain lean mass, and BCAAs can help.
Young adults on a reduced calorie diet were divided into one of two groups: a BCAA group or a carbohydrate group. Both groups lifted weights throughout the study. The group that took BCAAs lost fat mass and maintained lean mass. The group that took carbohydrates lost weight but not fat mass – just lean mass. Therefore, BCAAs did not promote “weight loss” but promote fat loss. Carbohydrates promoted weight loss, but not fat loss.
You are recovering from an injury, illness, or bed rest.
Recovering from injury, surgery, bed rest, or illness requires many amino acids, especially the BCAAs, which help with the repairs needed. You haven’t trained. You didn’t eat right. Your tissues (not just your muscles) are stunted. A lot has gone wrong and you need to rebuild. That requires additional amino acids, and this is where supplementing with BCAAs has been shown to help.
For stroke patients, adding BCAAs to their breakfast makes lifting weights later in the day more anabolic, resulting in improved body composition.
Another study in stroke patients had similar results. In this case, both groups ate the same hospital-provided food, were calorie-adjusted and had a similar baseline status. Only the interventional group received a BCAA supplement. It is noteworthy that the BCAA dosage was relatively low – only 1.2 grams of “extra” leucine per day. And it was still enough to increase muscle strength and muscle mass.
How about patients with sarcopenia – muscle wasting? Giving a BCAA supplement (plus vitamin D and exercise) to sarcopenic elderly adults in hospital improved their strength gains. Those who did not receive BCAAs (but were still exercising) had impaired gains.
After surgery, which is a controlled injury, protein intake is likely the most important aspect of the patient’s diet and subsequent recovery. Many doctors recommend surgical patients take whey protein isolate – the richest dietary source of BCAAs – for a few days after a procedure.
You want to get back into competition or training faster.
If delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is preventing you from exercising, BCAAs can be very helpful. A recent meta-analysis concluded that there was a “sharp decrease in DOMS” after post-exercise BCAA supplementation compared to placebo supplementation.
Should healthy people supplement each other with BCAAs?
What about healthy people who eat three meals a day, lift weights while fed, and just want their muscle growth to increase? Can BCAA Supplements Help You?
You can’t hurt. BCAAs are useful. Your body will use them if you provide them. They’re pretty helpful in reducing DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness) and they increase mTOR, which is helpful for muscle protein synthesis. They just don’t seem essential in the context of an adequate animal protein.
For example, in a recent study, BCAAs moderately reduced post-exercise muscle soreness after eccentric exercise (weight loss), but the effects on strength production and performance were negligible as long as subjects ate enough protein – 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight, to be precise to be.
Plus, you could just take whey isolate. Whey protein isolate achieves almost the same thing as BCAAs because it is a rich source of BCAAs and other essential amino acids. Remember, with 25 grams of whey protein isolate, you are getting the 2.5 grams of leucine that have been shown to be so helpful for muscle growth. I’ve talked at length about the formidable past benefits of whey protein for both muscle growth and overall health.
In conclusion, certain conditions and situations call for additional BCAAs through direct supplementation (or whey isolate), while most healthy people don’t need to take them as long as they are eating enough dietary protein.
Now let’s hear from you. Are you taking BCAAs? What advantages do you see?
About the author
Mark Sisson is the founder of Marks Daily Apple, godfather of the Primal Food and Lifestyle movement, and the New York Times best-selling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, which describes how he combines the keto diet with a pristine lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is also the author of numerous other books, including The Primal Blueprint, which is credited with the growth of the Primal / Paleo movement in 2009. After three decades of researching and educating people about why food is the key component in achieving optimal wellbeing, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real food company, the Primal / Paleo, Keto and Whole30 friendly kitchen staples manufactures.
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