Having worked in the fitness industry for about 10 years now, it still surprises me how often I hear these debates about which types of supplements are more beneficial.
While whey and casein protein powder are by far the most popular post workout shakes, BCAAs have definitely got a role to play. But what exactly is the difference between BCAA and other protein products?
Well, they are actually both types of amino acids, and your body needs them for building muscle mass. The devil is in the detail though, and to help you better understand it, I sat down with my dietician friend Susan to make sure I get this right.
Let’s start with Whey and find out the properties that can help you get to your weight and fitness goals.
What Is Whey Protein?
Whey protein powder is a milk isolate that is used by athletes to speed up muscle recovery and build muscle tissue faster. (1)
It’s not a magic diet pill that will shed body weight, but rather helps provide you with the nutrition to increase the post workout muscle building process.
Basically, you still have to put in the work, but these supplements will speed up the recovery process.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the benefits.
There are several health and fitness benefits that you gain from taking a whey supplement.
From an athlete’s perspective, the main reasons are due to the fact that this type of protein provides the right amino acids to help repair and create new muscle tissue. Unless you plan a big meal of chicken fillets after training, it can be quite a struggle to get a big dose of protein.
With a top quality whey supplement, you can ensure that you get a large dose in a very short time period to maximize the effects.
Here are the main benefits for athletes:
When Should You Take Whey?
The best time to take Whey is immediately after an intense workout or training session. As your muscles start to relax, they will immediately start looking for nutrients that will be needed to repair and rebuild.
That’s why you’ll see bodybuilders at the gym mixing it up before they even hit the shower or sauna.
With the top quality supplements we recommend in our review section, you will help your body get very fast access to the amino acids needed.
How Much Whey Should You Take?
You should aim to take a minimum of 25 g of Whey protein after your workout session.
This is a guide for an average size adult, and you will need to increase this if you’re bodybuilding and in a serious bulking phase.
The good thing with the majority of post-workout products is that they have very limited to no side effects. So, as long as you’re training hard and want to build up some serious lean muscle, then taking several scoops of powder after each workout will definitely help.
If you take more than your body needs, then the amino acids will simply be flushed out of your system.
What Are The Side Effects Of Whey Protein?
The side effects of whey protein are very limited and in most cases are related to people who have lactose intolerance. This can cause stomach upset and nausea and in rare situations diarrhea as well.
If you’re a serious bodybuilder and you take multiple doses every day, then it can sometimes happen that you get headaches, but overall the health impacts are very limited and fully reversible.
See here for our full buyer's guide on whey protein.
What Are BCAAs?
BCAAs (Branched Chain Amino Acids) are made up of 3 essential amino acids broken down into leucine, isoleucine, and valine. (3)
What this means is that your body cannot produce them and you have to take them in as part of your diet.
Without going into too much detail about how the magic in your muscles actually works, it’s important to know that these amino acids are vital for muscle protein synthesis. (4)
Essentially, if you don’t have enough of these readily available after you exercise, then your muscles will struggle to recover and build new fibers.
You may also like our buyer's guide on the best BCAAs for women here.
BCAAs play a very important role in your body, and even a relatively small amount (more on this shortly) will be enough to provide some significant benefit.
While post-workout recovery is the main area, a lot of athletes also take these amino acids before hitting the gym for an extra energy boost.
Here are the main advantages:
When Should You Take BCAAs?
The best time to take BCAAs is immediately after a workout session. This will help with protein synthesis at exactly the right time when your body needs these extra amino acids most.
However, you will find a lot of top-performance athletes that will take one scoop before exercise sessions and one after.
The reason for this is that these supplements will also help increase energy levels and burn some extra fat.
Basically, you can achieve a triple boost of more strength while exercising, reduced BMI, and faster muscle recovery.
Leucine is one of the main amino acids that triggers muscle protein synthesis in your body, but so is the essential amino acid glutamine. Consuming a protein powder that has both glutamine and leucine may promote greater muscle protein synthesis than consuming a supplement lacking one of them.
How Much BCAA Should You Take?
The general guideline is to take about 5 to 7 grams of BCAAs after training.
Your body doesn’t need that much of it, especially compared to the larger quantities of whey protein that you will be taking.
Because they are natural and necessary amino acids, it’s very difficult to take too much. It will probably hurt your pocket more than your health.
What Are The Side Effects Of BCAA?
The side effects of BCAAs on your health are rare and generally limited to headaches and nausea.
These are most often encountered with very high consumption, and if you stick to the recommended intake as per the label, then you should feel just fine.
If you're hitting the gym hard and possibly even more than once a day, then just gradually increase your intake. If you notice any negative effects, then reduce your dose again.
Before we move on, I want to address one question I often get asked: does whey protein have BCAA in it? In the majority of products that is not the case, or at least not in large enough quantities.
So, the question then shifts to...
Can I Mix BCAA With Whey Protein?
Yes, you can mix BCAA with whey protein, and you can even find advanced formulas for performance athletes that contain both.
If you really want to take both, then this type of whey protein isolate with BCAA can actually save you a bit of money. The two sets of amino acids will compliment each other and help to make your muscles work harder and recover faster from your time at the gym.
A lot of professional bodybuilders I have worked with will have their exact BCAA and whey intake calculated by dieticians. They then buy them as individual products in order to get the optimum combination.
For the average person looking just to improve their muscle definition and appearance, this is overkill, and the added calories from multiple supplements might actually hinder some of your progress.
You can also watch this video by Matt Mosman where he explains everything you need to know about mixing BCAAs in your protein powder.
Is The BCAA In Protein Powder Enough?
No, in most protein powders, the amount of BCAA is not enough to give you the necessary boost. You’ll often see that products advertise that they contain BCAA, but if you read the label, they rarely contain more than 1 or 2 grams.
With supplements, you really get what you pay for and if you want to take a combination, then make sure you choose a product that contains at least 5 grams of BCAA.
Do I Need BCAAs If I Take Whey?
No, you don’t really need BCAAs if you take whey unless you are a high-performance athlete. For the majority of people I work with, sticking with whey protein is going to work just fine.
While essential amino acids have to be taken in through food or supplements, you can ensure that your diet covers your daily needs.
Taking multiple supplements can quickly add up to quite an expense. If you have the budget, then I generally advise people to add Creatine into the mix as it will help increase performance during your workout.
If You Could Only Take One Which Would It Be?
For me, in the whole BCAA vs whey protein debate, whey usually comes out on top.
The average person will get so much more out of a workout from making sure that the recovery time is decreased and muscles have all they need for growth.
Combined with a healthy diet and a carefully calculated amount of calories you will be bulking up a lot faster.
At the same time, fat deposits will decrease, helping you to show off your hard work.
If you have a different approach to the debate, then why not jump onto our Facebook page and leave a comment?
1. Jooyoung Kim, Chulhyun Lee, and Joohyung Lee, Effect of timing of whey protein supplement on muscle damage markers after eccentric exercise, retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5667622/
2. Natalie Olsen, RD, LD, ACSM EP-C, What are the benefits and risks of whey protein?, retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/263371.php
3. Alina Petre, MS, RD (CA), BCAA Benefits: A Review of Branched-Chain Amino Acids, retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/bcaa
4. Robert R. Wolfe, Branched-chain amino acids and muscle protein synthesis in humans: myth or reality?, retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5568273/