We test and review fitness products based on an independent, multi-point methodology. If you use our links to purchase something, we may earn a commission. Read our disclosures.
Amino acids are the building blocks of muscle—which is something you’ve probably heard to exhaustion from high school health class. To put it in other terms, the body can’t build muscle from nothing, so you have to give it the blocks.
You can get amino acids from BCAA supplements, other protein supplements, or protein sources derived from food. For example, whey protein typically contains a good amount of branched-chain amino acids. Animal products like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy also contain a solid amount.
RELATED: Best BCAA Supplements
However, if you can’t be sure of how many BCAAs you’re getting from other protein sources or do not consume animal products, a BCAA supplement can help you optimize your fitness goals.
Medical disclaimer: This article is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. For health advice, contact a licensed healthcare provider.
What Are BCAAs?
BCAAs, or branched-chain amino acids, are so named simply because of the shape of their chemical structure. They are also three of the nine essential amino acids which means that your body cannot make these amino acids on its own and must get them from food sources.
RELATED: High-Protein Foods
There is no doubt that consuming enough essential amino acids is vital to anyone’s health, but it is also crucial to anyone looking to gain muscle, improve strength, and maintain muscle mass, especially when on a calorie deficit for weight loss.
The branched-chain amino acids, though, have been isolated as the key players in muscle protein synthesis and other factors that influence athletic performance. These amino acids are called leucine, isoleucine and valine. Let’s take a look at them individually.
This is what I like to call the big daddy of amino acids, at least when it comes to fitness. This amino acid is the one that “turns on” the metabolic pathway in the body responsible for helping you to build muscle, according to studies1.
It should be noted that leucine works the most effectively to stimulate muscle tissue growth when consumed with a carbohydrate source like maltodextrin or glucose1. To put it simply, consuming some leucine along with some carbs post-workout seems to result in better muscle hypertrophy and strength.
Research indicates2 that isoleucine doesn’t directly stimulate muscle protein synthesis like leucine does. However, it does alter your blood sugar in order to increase muscle glucose intake. Not only does this help prevent muscle loss, but it can help you to lift heavier or longer with the extra fuel. Both of these functions, therefore, can indirectly help with net muscle gain.
I’m sorry to report that, compared to its two siblings, valine doesn’t seem to do much for muscle tissue—at least not on its own. However, it does seem to slightly enhance the functions of leucine and isoleucine when the amount of BCAAs is consumed in an appropriate ratio.
Benefits of BCAAs
Support Muscle Growth
If your goal is muscle growth, adding a dietary supplement like BCAAs can do nothing but help. According to research3, branched-chain amino acids from both BCAA supplements and food sources play a key role in muscle protein synthesis.
This is due to these amino acids, and leucine in particular, having the ability to turn on something called the mTOR pathway. The mTOR pathway4 is a metabolic pathway that is responsible for controlling both muscle protein synthesis and muscle protein breakdown.
Basically, without branched-chain amino acids, this pathway cannot operate optimally to support the gain of muscle mass. So, if you aren’t sure you’re getting enough of these little guys from food sources, having a BCAA supplement is a great idea.
RELATED: Best BCAA for Women
Support Athletic Performance
It has been shown through studies5 in exercise science and sports nutrition that an intake of BCAAs can lower the concentration of serotonin in the body. This is important because an abundance of serotonin can cause muscle fatigue during endurance training.
It is unclear if the benefits are the same in endurance exercises lasting less than an hour. However, if this format of training applies to you, it’s important to recognize that delayed fatigue means you can perform at your peak for longer periods. BCAAs have not been demonstrated to be able to improve strength training performance at this point in time.
Support Fat Loss
A 2016 study6 on 17 male athletes aged 21 to 28 showed that the ones taking BCAA supplements who engage in resistance training were able to maintain lean mass and preserve muscle mass while losing fat mass.
They had two groups of men: one group on branched-chain amino acid supplementation and another who were just having carbohydrates pre-workout. After eight weeks of bodybuilding-style workouts and eating in a calorie deficit, they found that the carbohydrate group lost body fat, but lost muscle mass, as well. The BCAA group, on the other hand, only lost fat.
It’s important to know that no workout supplement can cause weight loss unless you are in a calorie deficit. However, it appears that, if you are in a calorie deficit, BCAA supplements can help you lose some body fat, without losing your skeletal muscle as well.
RELATED: Best BCAA for Men
Reduce Muscle Soreness
Researchers with The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness7 found that athletes who took BCAA powder after intensive training experienced 12% less muscle soreness and fatigue than those taking a placebo.
It was hypothesized that the branched-chain amino acids reduced muscle damage associated with intense training. Meaning that your pesky case of delayed onset muscle soreness, also known as DOMS, could fade away sooner when consuming enough BCAAs. That could mean getting in the gym sooner and training longer.
The current evidence indicates that, if you take BCAAs following an intense exercise session, it is much better for muscle recovery than if you do not. A 2017 study8 suggested that it is due to the ability of BCAAs to reduce the muscle damage and loss of strength associated with power loss after exercise.
Supplement Protein Intake for Vegans
The average vegan athlete consumes fewer calories than their omnivorous counterparts, especially if they do not receive nutrition guidance from dietitians to ensure they receive adequate nutrients.
RELATED: Best Vegan Protein Powder
There are many nutrient deficiencies in plant protein, including a lack of essential amino acids and a lower BCAA content than in protein derived from animals, especially if the goal is to promote anabolism9 in your skeletal muscle.
That is where a good vegan BCAA supplement can come in handy for vegan bodybuilders to ensure that they are consuming the right amount of quality amino acids without compromising their ethical standards.
What Dosage of BCAAs Should I Take?
Listen up bodybuilders! When compared to isoleucine and valine, the other branched-chain amino acid, leucine, is by far the most important when it comes to muscle growth. Studies have even suggested10 that the total amount of protein consumed does not matter as long as a protein shake or meal contains at least 5 grams of leucine.
Therefore, if your goal is muscle protein synthesis, there doesn’t appear to be an official guideline on the dosage. However, consuming at least 5 grams of leucine after exercise and during muscle recovery appears to be a safe standard to follow11.
So, that’s leucine. But what about the other two branched-chain amino acids? As per the research12, it seems that it is ideal to consume branched chain amino acids in a 2:1:1 ratio to optimally obtain the benefits of BCAAs.
So, if you’re examining a BCAA supplements you’re interested in that supplies 5,000 milligrams of leucine, you want it to also contain 2,500 milligrams of isoleucine and 2,500 milligrams of valine to get the most of your branched-chain amino acid supplementation.
Side Effects and Interactions
When used as directed, supplements containing branched chain amino acids and essential amino acids do not seem to cause significant side effects. Given that these powders and pills do contain predigested, chemical compounds, however, we do recommend paying close attention to the dosing instructions and following them carefully.
It is very important that before adding amino acids to your diet you check with your doctor and/or a registered dietitian if you have any difficulties digesting or processing protein properly, such as in the case of liver disease or certain kidney disorders.
If you are on any prescription medications for diabetes or neurological disorders, ask your physician before adding BCAA supplements into your regimen as they can have dangerous interactions.
RELATED: Best Pre-Workout with BCAAs
It is also recommended that people with diabetes avoid taking BCAAs in general, since the specific effects of BCAAs can alter blood sugar levels in unpredictable ways.
Additionally, this is relevant to people who are less than two weeks out from surgery, because BCAA supplements can affect blood sugar levels during and after the procedure, which can pose a significant danger.
BCAA Benefits: Final Thoughts
Dietitians will always emphasize the importance of knowing that branched-chain amino acids can be derived from a mindful and balanced diet. However, if you want to make sure all of your bases are covered, a workout supplement like BCAAs or even protein powder can help give you some peace of mind that you’re doing all you can to support your body.
If you’re leaning toward supplementing, check out our recommendations on our favorite BCAA supplements. You should be in a calorie deficit and paying attention to your overall protein intake from all sources, respectively, if you are seeking to lose fat or build muscle.
Finally, most of the studies cited around the benefits of BCAAs were done on people who regularly engaged in resistance training. Therefore, if you do not train consistently, it’s likely that BCAAs will not offer you the same benefits. So, what did we learn? Stay up on your training, dial in your nutrition, and use supplements to pick up the slack, when needed.
BCAA Benefits: Q&A
Is it OK to take BCAAs every day?
In healthy, active individuals who consume BCAAs in the recommended amounts, there have not been any reports or studies indicating that there are serious side effects associated with ingesting BCAAs daily.
When should you drink BCAAs?
You can drink BCAAs at any time of day. However, it may be beneficial to take them post-workout for muscle gain and pre-workout if you are using them for energy, hydration, or to prevent muscle protein breakdown.
Do BCAAs help lose belly fat?
BCAAs can help with the loss of body fat, but only if used in conjunction with a sensible exercise program and a calorie deficit.
Do BCAAs actually work?
BCAAs do have the ability to offer several benefits to performance when taken in the proper amounts.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any diseases.
- Stark M, Lukaszuk J, Prawitz A, Salacinski A. Protein timing and its effects on muscular hypertrophy and strength in individuals engaged in weight-training. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012;9(1):54. Published 2012 Dec 14. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-9-54
- Zhang S, Zeng X, Ren M, Mao X, Qiao S. Novel metabolic and physiological functions of branched chain amino acids: a review. J Anim Sci Biotechnol. 2017;8:10. Published 2017 Jan 23. doi:10.1186/s40104-016-0139-z
- Fujita S, Dreyer HC, Drummond MJ, et al. Nutrient signalling in the regulation of human muscle protein synthesis. J Physiol. 2007;582(Pt 2):813-823. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2007.134593
- Yoon MS. mTOR as a Key Regulator in Maintaining Skeletal Muscle Mass. Front Physiol. 2017;8:788. Published 2017 Oct 17. doi:10.3389/fphys.2017.00788
- Kim DH, Kim SH, Jeong WS, Lee HY. Effect of BCAA intake during endurance exercises on fatigue substances, muscle damage substances, and energy metabolism substances. J Exerc Nutrition Biochem. 2013;17(4):169-180. doi:10.5717/jenb.2013.17.4.169
- Dudgeon WD, Kelley EP, Scheett TP. In a single-blind, matched group design: branched-chain amino acid supplementation and resistance training maintains lean body mass during a caloric restricted diet. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2016;13:1. Published 2016 Jan 5. doi:10.1186/s12970-015-0112-9
- Matsumoto K, Koba T, Hamada K, Sakurai M, Higuchi T, Miyata H. Branched-chain amino acid supplementation attenuates muscle soreness, muscle damage and inflammation during an intensive training program. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2009;49(4):424-431.
- Rahimi MH, Shab-Bidar S, Mollahosseini M, Djafarian K. Branched-chain amino acid supplementation and exercise-induced muscle damage in exercise recovery: A meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials [published correction appears in Nutrition. 2017 Dec 22;:]. Nutrition. 2017;42:30-36. doi:10.1016/j.nut.2017.05.005
- La Bounty P, Campbell B, Oetken A, Willoughby D. The effects of oral BCAAs and leucine supplementation combined with an acute lower-body resistance exercise on mTOR and 4E-BP1 activation in humans: preliminary findings. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2008;5(Suppl 1):P21. Published 2008 Sep 17. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-5-S1-P21
- Phillips SM. The impact of protein quality on the promotion of resistance exercise-induced changes in muscle mass. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2016;13:64. Published 2016 Sep 29. doi:10.1186/s12986-016-0124-8
- Churchward-Venne TA, Breen L, Di Donato DM, et al. Leucine supplementation of a low-protein mixed macronutrient beverage enhances myofibrillar protein synthesis in young men: a double-blind, randomized trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014;99(2):276-286. doi:10.3945/ajcn.113.068775
In our in-depth Hydrow Wave review, find out how the new Hydrow rower compares to the original. Read more
Amino acids are the building blocks of muscle—which is something you’ve probably heard to exhaustion from high school health class. To put it in other terms, the body can’t build muscle from nothing, so you have to give it the blocks.You can get amino acids from BCAA supplements, other protein supplements, or protein sources derived from food. For example, whey protein typically contains a good amount of branched-chain amino acids. Animal products like meat, » Read more about: BCAA Benefits: What They Are and How They Can Help You » Read more
If you’re looking for cardio equipment for your home gym, you may be considering a folding vs non-folding treadmill. We’re here to help you decide. Read more