Branch Chain Amino Acid supplementation (BCAAs) has been used for many years in the bodybuilding industry to promote muscle protein synthesis – the building of muscle size and strength after progressive resistance training. However, this supplement, available as tablets or as a powder, has rarely been promoted for the masses. Instead, it's older brother, the whey protein shake, has had the most attention. But perhaps this should not be the case; for me, I definitely think it shouldn't be the case. For me, BCAAs are better than protein shakes for anyone with physique-orientated goals.
anabolism and catabolism – the basics
The increase in size, strength and general recovery of skeletal muscle is called anabolism and is facilitated by the macronutrient protein. Thus, protein synthesis is an anabolic process that is facilitated when adequate protein is available for the body to use through optimum ingestion in frequency and mass. The opposite of anabolism is catabolism which, in layman's terms, means the breakdown, degradation or reduction in size of skeletal muscle tissue. On a molecular level, muscle breakdown occurs because the body increases catabolism in order to liberate muscle amino acids for fuel. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins – think of amino acids as the family that run a household that make the house hospitable and functional, and think of protein as the house itself.
Catabolism occurs when the body's energy requirements exceed the calories inputted into the body; again, in layman's terms, this is called dieting. When the body's calorie balance is in a deficit, it looks to obtain the necessary energy from other sources. A great amount of energy is stored in body fat; thus, it looks to use this as an energy source. However, breaking down body fat for energy through lipolysis and fat oxidation requires ample oxygen to be present, and so this methods of energy production is used during low intensity aerobic activity such as walking or slow jogging when you're in a calorie deficit. In this state, the higher the intensity, and the longer the activity's duration, the more the body will look to other stores of energy for fuel, such as muscle tissue, rather than body fat.
This is the difficulty of bodybuilding. You can work incredibly hard to build muscle, but when you start to diet to become lean as well as big and strong, you run the risk of actually losing all the hard earned muscle through catabolism.
How Do Bcaas Work?
This is where Branch Chain Amino Acids come into their own. Firstly, there are three amino acids that form these essential BCAAs: Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine which are best combined in a 2:1:1 ratio to optimise their potential.
As well as stimulating protein synthesis, BCAAs protect muscle protein from degradation. Again going back to the earlier metaphor, the family (BCAAs) protect the house (muscle protein) from intrusion and disrepair by locking the doors, setting the alarm, sealing the roof tiles and drawing the curtains. Without the family, the house is left open to being broken into. In the case of muscles: BCAAs reduce the rate of protein breakdown by decreasing the activity of the components of the protein breakdown pathway, and also by decreasing the expression of several complexes involved in protein breakdown. This protection allows the body to use other energy sources for fuel over muscle protein. You can see how important this protection can be when in a calorie deficit where an easy fuel source is a scarce commodity.
What's more, valine and isoleucine can also be converted to glucose and serve as an important energy source during exercise to help fight off fatigue and again protein the muscles from being used as an energy source during exercise.
Protein Shakes vs Bcaas
Protein shakes are widely available to the public as more people are being educated that adequate protein ingestion allows for efficient muscle repair and growth. However, as with the previous metaphor, you can't have a functional and hospitable house (muscle protein) without the family running the show inside (BCAAs). Thus, without BCAAs present, protein synthesis can't efficiently occur.
But, of course, cavemen built strong and defined muscles without being able to reach for their BCAA tablets. The is because these essential amino acids for protein synthesis tend to be found in foods that contain a good complete source of protein such as chicken, eggs and beef. When you eat these complete protein sources, you can generally get an adequate amount of BCAAs for protein synthesis to occur.
So why do we need bcaas supplementation when we could just eat normal food?
There are a few reasons:
- These BCAA-containing foods also provide calories for the body, and sometimes we don't want to eat these calories to get the abilities of BCAAs. When you are on a diet and working out with weights, circuits or cardio, you don't want to consume food too close to your workout as this will provide your body with an easy source of energy for the workout – great when you're looking to have the best workout possible to gain muscle, but not good when you're trying to get the body to source its energy from other sources, namely body fat. With BCAAs present, you get the muscle protection and ability for protein synthesis whilst being more likely to remain in a calorie deficit for body fat reduction. BCAAs before fasted cardio protect the muscle from breakdown and mean that body fat is used earlier in the workout, and in greater quantities, to provide energy
- Bodybuilding in the modern world is about efficiency. We could just eat protein through free-range chicken, beef and eggs; but we are in a time short and money saving society with the want for fast results. Furthermore, these food sources naturally contain fats as well as proteins which slow the digestion and use of the protein when combined in the same meal. This is where the whey protein shake comes into play – it has a low fat and optimal protein content to enable quick digestion and shuttling of protein into the muscles for the most efficient recovery – this is the same for BCAAs. Yes, some foods will naturally have a good BCAA profile; but each chicken, egg or cow will be different based on its rearing and treatment, and it's actual BCAA profile is not known or labeled on the packaging. Furthermore, even when you have a free-range organic grass-fed lean cut of beef which may have a fantastic BCAA profile, you still do not know the ratio of leucine to isoleucine to valine. By consuming a BCAA supplements, you are ensuring that before you even ingest any sort of quality protein source, you have the most efficient BCAA profile available to your body for use in protein synthesis and muscle-mass protection.
- Not only does a BCAA supplementation provide the most efficient method of harnessing its abilities, it also enhances the ability of the protein you subsequently ingest. Without the adequate BCAA profile, nutritional protein can't be harnessed efficiently. This means that some of the protein ingested will go to waste and will not be used for muscle recovery, purely because the BCAAs weren't present in the first place to allow the protein to do its job. By ensuring your BCAA profile is as efficient as it could be, you get more bang for your buck when consuming your protein sources too.
When to use Bcaa
Before and/or during workouts to protect muscle protein from catabolism and allow for protein synthesis.
Essential before fasted cardio which is one of the most obvious times for catabolism to occur.
Between meals if you are going for 4+ hours without eating. This again will protect your muscles from being broken down when you haven't eaten for a while.
Quantity of bcaa per serving
5-8g total BCAA dosage but in at least a 2:1:1 ratio of the three essential aminos. BCAAs are generally harmless and consuming the supplements at a higher frequency than suggested tends to be a waste of money rather than a strain on your health; however, it is recommended that 2-4 serving of the above per day for a trained athlete is the right dosage.
Do i really believe bcaas are better than protein shakes?
Yes I do actually. I regularly eat meat and eggs throughout the day, and thus I know that I am easily getting enough protein for my size and goals through these sources as well as the post-workout and early morning whey protein shake supplementation I have. However, I do not know anything about my BCAA dosage through food. I couldn't even guess; and I'm sure we won't find BCAA nutritional information on the side of packaged foods anytime soon. Thus, supplementing ensures I know I am optimising my goals instead of hoping for the best.
Furthermore, in general we find that people either want to put on muscle or lose body fat when working out – or both. And, notably, when people lose body fat, they don't want to lose muscle tone; more often than not they want to maintain or increase muscle condition whilst burning body fat. BCAAs are beneficial for all these goals and provide a stronger more efficient base to achieve them than consuming a protein that hasn't got a strong BCAA profile.
If you do not have BCAAs in your bodybuilding regime, whatever your goals, and you're serious about achieving them, I cannot suggest their consumption enough.