The Benefits of BCAAs: 10 Quick Tips and Detailed Research
I started using branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) in high amounts in 1994 after meeting with one of brightest minds in exercise physiology and medicine, Dr. Mauro DiPasquale, who wrote Amino Acids and Proteins for the Athlete: The Anabolic Edge. His contention was that if money was an issue, taking supplements during workouts was most important. I still believe that this holds true after playing with them for 17 years.
There is an abundance of new research over the past year that validates the use BCAAs. The BCAAs include leucine, isoleucine, and valine, and they support everything from anabolic muscle building to high-intensity endurance training to improving mental function and mood. Let’s take a look at what the new research tells us…or if you don’t have the time, just read MY TAKEAWAYS from each study.
1) BCAAs Support Muscle Protein Synthesis
A 2011 study found that BCAA supplementation can contribute to an anabolic environment in the body. Leucine was shown to have the ability to independently stimulate muscle growth by up-regulating enzymes that trigger protein synthesis. This anabolic shift occurred without changes in gene expression of amino acid transporters, indicating the critical importance of the BCAAs in developing muscle. Research from 2010 supports taking leucine for peak activation of protein synthesis and found lower body fat levels in the study’s population of rats.
2) BCAA Levels Correlate with an Optimal Body Composition
Research shows that individuals with a higher BCAA intake in their diets have lower rates of obesity, lower body weight, and better body composition. Researchers suggest that leucine increases energy expenditure and improves glucose tolerance. A Brazilian study supports these findings: BCAA supplementation allows individuals to train harder at exhaustive endurance exercise because the amino acids enhance fat oxidation in glycogen-depleted subjects. Participants who took 3 grams of BCAAs a day for three days (a very small amount) had 17.2 percent greater resistance to fatigue and were able to work for a longer period of time.
3) BCAAs Result in a Better Testosterone to Cortisol Ratio and Muscle Building
Two studies highlight BCAAs role in decreasing muscle protein degradation. A 2010 study found that taking BCAAs while resistance training results in significantly higher testosterone levels with a lower creatine kinase and cortisol response. This is significant because both strength gains and a decrease in protein degradation are more correlated with a better testosterone to cortisol ratio than total testosterone levels. Additional research compared taking 10 grams of protein that was 18 percent leucine with a similar drink that was 35 percent leucine. The higher leucine concentration resulted in greater anabolic protein signaling, which means less muscle breakdown from the degrading effects of cortisol.
4) Evidence of Strength Gains from Taking Leucine with Training
A British study showed that taking the leucine actually translates into greater strength in addition to the protein synthesis effects I’ve already mentioned. Previously untrained participants ingested 4 grams of leucine a day in conjunction with a 12-week resistance training program and increased strength by 41 percent. A placebo training group had strength increases of 31 percent after completing the same training program.
5) BCAAs Result in Lower RPE and Greater Endurance Performance
Researchers from Sacred Heart University compared taking a BCAA supplement with consuming a carbohydrate beverage prior to a 90-minute endurance cycling trial at 55 percent of maximal oxygen uptake. The BCAA supplement significantly lowered participants’ rating of perceived exertion during the exercise trial in comparison to a placebo group and the carb-supplement group. Additionally, BCAA supplementation significantly raised blood amino acid levels during exercise, a factor that likely has the effect of reducing muscle damage. Researchers suggest that BCAAs can be added to a carb supplement to help lower RPE and allow for more intense training at the same relative level of exertion.
A second study of experienced cyclists found that supplementing with leucine and a high carb food following intense training on consecutive days enhances subsequent high-intensity endurance performance and may decrease muscle membrane disruption.
6) BCAAs Can Decrease Muscle Soreness, Particularly DOMS
A University of Birmingham study found that taking BCAAs at strategic points throughout the day will significantly reduce delayed onset muscle soreness from high-intensity eccentric training. Researchers found a significant decrease in muscle soreness 48 hours and 72 hours following exercise when supplementing with BCAAs ½ hour before exercise, 1 ½ hours after exercise, between lunch and dinner, and again before bed. The exercise consisted of 12 sets of 10 eccentric repetitions at 120% of 1RM.
A second Japanese study confirmed that BCAAs decrease DOMS where the exercise consisted of squats for 7 sets of 20 reps with 3 minute rest intervals-my kind of researchers. The subjects were either given a placebo or 100mg/kg of BCAAs (about 9 grams for a 200lb person), with significantly less soreness at 48 and 72 hours after training.
7) Take BCAAs to Improve Mental Function and Reaction Time
Reaction time, which is virtually untrainable-you’re either born with it or you aren’t, has been shown to improve if you have higher BCAA blood levels. A new study found that a high protein diet improves mental function and reaction time. Participants who ate a high protein diet of 3 grams per kg of bodyweight performed significantly better on verbal fluency tests and had faster reaction time than participants who only ate 1.5 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight. At the end of the study period, the high protein group had elevated levels of BCAAs, which researchers suggest are the source of the improvements because BCAAs have been shown to reduce fatigue and heighten brain function after heavy training, highlighting their value in post-workout nutrition.
8) Improve Mood and Decrease Depression with BCAAs
Supplementing with 10 grams of essential amino acids, which include BCAAs, has been shown to improve depressive symptoms and overall physical performance in an elderly population. BCAAs likely increased brain serotonin synthesis, improving mood and decreasing depression. BCAAs were thought to have improved participants’ nutritional status by inducing protein building and increasing insulin sensitivity. Researchers point to the importance of leucine (the supplement used contained 2.5 grams), because it is the most important BCAA for protein building.
9) Live Longer and Improve Your Health with BCAAs
Recent evidence shows that BCAAs have an anti-aging effect and increase the formation of new mitochondria, which can increase energy production. Giving a BCAA supplement to mice resulted in extended life spans and supported cardiac health. Indirectly, there are other ways that BCAA supplementation can prolong life. Individuals with chronic liver disease may improve insulin resistance with BCAA supplementation, and taking leucine with fish oil and a high protein diet can reduce muscle loss associated with cancer.
10) How and When to Take BCAAs
The critical nature of an organized nutrition protocol is indicated with research evidence that protein synthesis is enhanced by BCAA supplementation for up to 24 hours after weight lifting to the point of muscle failure. Training to failure with both 30 percent and 90 percent of the 1RM load will sensitize the muscle to protein feeding for 24 hours after the workout. The key is maximal fiber recruitment versus submaximal-achieving failure primes the body for protein feeding, which should be consumed with BCAAs throughout the day.