BCAA benefits are praised in the fitness realm but few knows exactly what those amino acids exactly do. BCAAs stand for Branched Chain Amino Acids. They partake in protecting your muscles against the catabolic effects of dieting! But more importantly, they are the main amino acids that compose muscle proteins which are – notably – actin and myosin.
What are BCAAs?
They simply are amino acids which play a role of building blocks for your muscles. There are essential amino acids and non-essential amino acids in the body. You get them from eating protein, and they are what your body uses to build muscle protein. Below an amino acid chart for you to have a quick glance at what the building blocks of our muscles scientifically look like.
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a class of essential amino acids that the body can use for energy and muscle synthesis. The branched-chain amino acids include leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Leucine, specifically, has been shown to have the greatest impact on muscle protein synthesis, the process that makes your muscles bigger and stronger.
On the picture below, you can distinguish two sections:
- In the top section the truck is relative to a BCAA supplement you would take in.
- In the bottom section you’ll see two trucks. One providing BCAAs, and one providing all the amino acids from a protein source. This last one is relative to the food you would eat. For instance let’s say that this truck could bring building blocks – aka amino acids – from meat, fish or eggs.
How do BCAAs work?
On the molecular level, muscle loss occurs because the body increases protein breakdown – catabolism – to liberate muscle amino acids to fuel the body or just because certain amino acids are damaged and need to be replaced.
The basic equation for muscle mass is: Muscle mass = rate of protein synthesis – rate of protein breakdown.
When the rate of synthesis equals the rate of breakdown, you don’t gain or lose muscle. If the rate of synthesis is higher than the rate of breakdown, you get muscle growth. When the rate of breakdown is higher than the rate of synthesis, you lose muscle. If you’re dieting, you may be burning the candle at both ends: raising muscle breakdown and lowering protein synthesis.
The main BCAA benefits are that they stimulate muscle protein synthesis, potentially more than a normal protein on its own. Increased BCAA levels also work in your favor by reducing the rate of protein breakdown. They do this by decreasing the activity of the protein breakdown pathway, and also by decreasing the expression of several complexes involved in protein breakdown.
When is it necessary to consume BCAAs?
BCAA supplementation should also be a regular part of your pre-workout routine. Since these amino acids bypass the liver and gut and go directly into your blood plasma, they can be used as an immediate energy source during high-intensity workouts. Valine and isoleucine are glucogenic amino acids, meaning they can be converted to glucose to give you energy. That can help you fight fatigue and prevent muscle breakdown, notably while you are in a cutting phase.
You’ll find many ratios of BCAAs on the market. Personally, when bulking, I use the standard ratio which is 2:1:1 respectively for leucine, isoleucine and valine. Indeed, leucine is more important since it’s stimulation potency is higher.
When I’m cutting, I go for a 4:1:1 ratio because leucine acts as an energy substitute.
In a nutshell
BCAA benefits: Replenish amino acids to build and maintain muscles, avoid fatigue.
Timing: Pre-workout, intra-workout, post-workout, throughout the day.
How Much to Take: 5-7 grams per intake and 91 mg per pound (200 mg per kg) of body weight per day.
Borgenvik, M., Apró, W., & Blomstrand, E. (2011). Intake of branched-chain amino acids influences the levels of MAFbx mRNA and MuRF-1 total protein in resting and exercising human muscle. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, 302(5), E510-E521.
Ispoglou, T., King, R. F., Polman, R. C., & Zanker, C. (2011). Daily L-leucine supplementation in novice trainees during a 12-week weight training program. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 6(1), 38-50.
Shimomura, Y., Inaguma, A., Watanabe, S., Yamamoto, Y., Muramatsu, Y., Bajotto, G., … & Mawatari, K. (2010). Branched-chain amino acid supplementation before squat exercise and delayed-onset muscle soreness. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 20(3), 236-244.