In the health and fitness world, there is no shortage of acronyms. From the types of workouts you can do to the supplements you can take, acronyms make it easy to remember - and say - those otherwise lengthy names.
The problem comes in when you’re not familiar with the term yourself. Would you know that someone talking about an “amrap” is referencing a workout style where you do as many reps as possible? Or, if they ask you whether you do BCAAs as part of your workout, would you know that they are talking about a supplement instead of an exercise?
Fortunately, the next time you’re discussing BCAAs with your fitness buddies, you’ll know exactly what it is, and you’ll likely be able to add a thing or two because today, we’re breaking down BCAAs…
The building blocks of protein
Breaking down BCAAs… get it?
That’s funny because amino acids, which is ultimately what BCAAs are, are the building blocks of protein. They’re the branched chain amino acids, which comprise of three of the 20 amino acids, valine, leucine and isoleucine.
They’re special because they have a particular role in the body when it comes to muscle metabolism and strength. They’re broken down during exercise, which has been said to increase the need of BCAAs during a workout1. If you look at the container or ingredients making up your protein shake, you’ll see the letters BCAAs written somewhere, as this amino acid profile has become somewhat of a feature in the marketing of fitness supplements; and you’ll see why in a minute.
Studies that have explored the role of BCAAs in sport have found that they contribute to performance and overall, evidence suggests they have a positive role in endurance, where they reduce exercise fatigue as well as promoting muscle building and strength. For example:
- In 2015, cyclists supplementing on high dose BCAAs for 10 weeks showed improvement in their sprint performance when compared to those athletes who took a placebo for the same duration. In addition, cyclists using BCAAs had decreased immune responses to their prolonged training sessions when compared to the placebo group2.
- In 2016, researchers proposed that BCAAs may alleviate the post-exercise cognitive decline in athletes having taken part in a fatiguing exercise session. Taekwondo athletes, having taken BCAAs, scored better on post-match cognitive tests than those who had taken placebos as part of their supplement routine3.
- In 2017, scientists who were interested in the breakdown of BCAAs during exercise, and the supplementation thereof to prevent depletion, found that resistance-trained athletes who supplemented with a BCAA-containing drink, had higher muscle synthesis markers than those who drank a drink containing a placebo4.
- In 2018, in those athletes recovering from eccentric exercise, they observed decreased muscle soreness following a BCAA supplement when compared with those athletes taking the placebo5.
As with any nutritional intervention, the physiology of an individual person may or may not have the desired effect of supplementation; particularly when used in loading amounts, outside of what the body may need or be able to use at any given time. It has also been postulated that there is a need to increase overall amino acid profiles along with BCAAs when training, to provide the body with all of the ingredients it needs to build muscle and strength in the long run.
Are there any consequences of taking high dose BCAAs?
Without the training component, supplementing with BCAAs may have the opposite effect
It is well worth noting that there is research to suggest that BCAAs are not a miracle nutrient in muscle building and fat metabolism. In those with metabolic imbalances, like diabetes and insulin resistance, and who don’t follow a regular workout routine, BCAAs can actually cause more harm and push the imbalances further.
BCAAs and their benefits have in the most part been studied in well-trained athletes, so those of you who want to exercise to lose weight may need to use caution when supplementing with these amino acids. Instead, research shows that a regular exercise routine and calorie reduction in a controlled manner with a balanced, nutrient-dense diet, is the best way to lose weight6.
So, what do we need to take away about BCAAs?
- Always use a high level of caution when supplementing. The more natural the nutrition you put in the body, the better the ability of the body to recognize and use it. BCAAs, because they are amino acids, are also found protein-containing foods. If you feel you need that extra supplement, look for the cleanest variety that has no chemicals, fillers or other potentially harmful materials added.
- Break up your supplement cycle. Don’t rely on BCAAs to give you the edge at every opportunity. Of course, when you need that little bit extra to get through an extended and particularly gruelling workout, think about adding BCAAs. Rest, recovery and mixing up your workout routine, however, can have the same effect.
- Commit to your body. Nothing that you put into your body in the form of a supplement is going to do the work of a great training routine, coupled with a healthy diet. While supplements like BCAAs have their place, remember that they are supplements. Do the work and put in the effort and you will get results.
- Shimomura, Y., et al. Exercise Promotes BCAA Catabolism: Effects of BCAA Supplementation on Skeletal Muscle during Exercise. The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 134, Issue 6, June 2004, Pages 1583S–1587S.
- Kephart, W., et al. Ten weeks of branched-chain amino acid supplementation improves select performance and immunological variables in trained cyclists. Amino Acids. 2016. 48(3):779–789.
- Chen, I., et al. Branched-chain amino acids, arginine, citrulline alleviate central fatigue after 3 simulated matches in taekwondo athletes: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2016. 13:28.
- Jackman, S., et al. Branched-Chain Amino Acid Ingestion Stimulates Muscle Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis following Resistance Exercise in Humans. Front. Physiol. 2017. 8:390.
- VanDusseldorp, T., et al. Effect of Branched-Chain Amino Acid Supplementation on Recovery Following Acute Eccentric Exercise. Nutrients. 2018, 10(10), 1389.
- Fontana, L., et al. Decreased Consumption of Branched-Chain Amino Acids Improves Metabolic Health. Cell Reports. 2016. 16(2)”529-530.