After almost a decade in the fitness and nutrition industry, I've found one thing that both fitness enthusiasts and trained athletes swear by — branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs).
BCAAs can help you build muscle and reduce exercise fatigue.
Today I'm going into depth on BCAA supplements — from what are BCAAs, what are their benefits, to most importantly, when should you take BCAAs.
BCAAs - an Overview
Using BCAA supplements can help improve your recovery after exercise and increase your energy levels.
When you work out, your body degrades the muscle contacting tissues for energy, and this breakdown of contractile tissue increases after exercising.
Therefore, taking BCAA supplements before and after working out will help produce a “muscle-sparing” effect. Leucine has the most important role in muscle synthesis stimulation as it has a signaling effect on key enzymes responsible for this process .
When To Take BCAAs - The Studies
You’re not sure when’s the best time to take BCAA supplements to achieve optimal results? Here’s what scientific studies have to say.
Study #1: BCAA Intake Is More Advantageous Pre Exercise
15 young men were given a placebo or BCAAs before and after exercise in three groups:
- The control group — Were given a placebo
- The pre-group — Were given BCAAs before and placebo after exercise
- The post-group — Were given a placebo before and BCAAs after exercise
The study aimed to compare BCAA supplements before and after exercise delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and exercise-induced muscle damage (EIMD).
The study found that taking BCAA supplementation before exercise had a better effect on the men and more benefits than supplementation taken post-exercise .
Study #2 And #3: Pre Workout & Post Workout BCAA Intake Has Similar Results
The second research focused on men who do endurance training and resistance training. Twenty-one men were assigned to two groups. The first group took 5 g protein and 1 g carbohydrate before workouts, and the second group took the same post workouts.
The protein had 5.5 grams of BCAAs per serving.
"What makes BCAA potentially beneficial for increasing skeletal muscle mass is the BCAA, in particular leucine, 'turns on' muscle protein synthesis."
- Pamela Hinton, Ph.D., associate professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri
The researchers found similar results in strength, muscle building, and energy levels in both groups, which indicates that the post-exercise anabolic window is several hours long and depends on when the meal was taken .
The only other research available for comparison included young athletes, who were given 25 grams of whey protein (5.5 grams of BCAAs) immediately before or after weight lifting and resistance training for ten weeks.
The research found that both groups had the same results.
Based on these two studies, it’s unknown if it makes a difference if you take BCAAs before or after a workout.
Take Them at Different Stages of Workout
If you’ve decided your exercise routine is missing some amino acid supplements, here’s when to take them for optimal exercise performance:
1. Pre Workout
Taking BCAAs pre-workout has benefits no matter what kind of training you do. For best results, take 5 to 10 grams of BCAAs depending on your weight half an hour before the workout.
This will help you with endurance, energy, and post-exercise muscle recovery.
2. During Workout
Take BCAAs during workouts if you’re doing resistance training. Also, having a dose of BCAAs during workouts can help you see it through to the end if you have longer workouts.
If you’re doing endurance training, such as getting ready for a marathon, this is the optimal time to take BCAAs. Studies on people marathon training showed that BCAA intake during the exercise improved runners' mental and physical performance .
3. Post Workout
Same as with pre-workout training, taking BCAA post exercising has benefits, no matter what kind of exercise you do.
Amino acids proteins will lessen muscle damage and contribute to muscle maintenance.
Take BCAAs at Different Times of Day
1. In The Morning
Another option for BCAA intake is in the morning. My clients who practice intermittent fasting to reach their weight loss goals have found that taking BCAAs in the morning is a great appetite suppressor and will boost energy and stop them from feeling fatigue.
In case you’re a bodybuilder or do faster cardio workouts, I’ve found that taking BCAAs prevents extended muscle catabolism, which can happen when existing muscle tissue repairs newly torn tissue.
In this case, it’s best to have BCAAs in the morning before workouts.
2. In The Evening
Experts also recommend taking BCAAs before you go to bed, as it aids the recovery process.
Because sleep is the time when our bodies recover, by taking BCAAs before going to bed, I’ve discovered that I feel much better the morning after.
Note: If you combine BCAAs with other supplements, such as caffeine, avoid taking BCAAs before bed. While caffeine is an excellent supplement for pre-workouts, it should be avoided before bed, as rest is crucial to help your muscles repair.
How They Work
Branched-chain amino acids make up protein synthesis. There are 20 of them, 11 of which the body manufactures. But, because the body can’t make the other 9, they have to be taken through diet or supplements.
This is where BCAAs are essential.
Branched-chain acids consist of three essential amino acids — leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
We call them branched because of their side chains which branch off, and essential because the body can’t make them.
Leucine is the most important part of the BCAAs, and it’s the muscle repair star player, as it can kick start the muscle protein synthesis.
If you’re a regular gym-goer, your muscles will benefit from leucine intake because it can help repair and grow muscles and bone tissue.
Isoleucine has similar characteristics to leucine, hence its name. But, the way they function is different.
The metabolic pathway — how amino acid is turned into a nutrient — of leucine is fat, but it can be through carbohydrates or fat for isoleucine.
People who do higher volume exercise will benefit from isoleucine, as it gives fuel to muscles.
The main benefit of valine is that it gives more energy to the exercise.
It can help with improving the immune system and brain functions.
If you have trouble sleeping, take BCAAs before going to bed, as valine can help you sleep better.
While everyone should take BCAAs, they are very important for weight lifters, as they can help with muscle growth and maintenance.
You can indeed get everything your body composition needs through food sources, but taking a protein supplement as BCAAs is one of the easiest ways to meet body requirements.
Also, BCAAs can help you lose body fat. Because of their unique chemical structure, they’re absorbed directly in the muscles as they bypass the gut and liver and go straight to the bloodstream.
How much BCAA should I take per day?
You should take 5 to 10 grams of BCAAs.
What foods are high in BCAA?
BCAA food sources are eggs, soy, meat, cheese, fish, milk, poultry, cashews.
Food is also a great source of protein intake and will contribute to your body mass.
Should I take BCAA powder or tablets?
You can take either BCAA powder or tablets. Both products are a great supplement option.
The powder can be plain or flavored, and you can mix it into a liquid, but some protein powder products can have a bitter taste.
Tablets are easier to carry, and you can use them before and after training.
Should You Take BCAA Before Or After Workout?
No matter what time you take a BCAA supplement, it’ll be effective in helping you build muscle. Try out different timings and see what works best for you.
Don't forget — regularity is key to success. Use BCAAs even on non-exercise days, and always take an adequate supplement dose of protein-based on your body weight.
Try it out for a couple of weeks, and let us know your research results in the comments below.