Any athlete spending more time on getting their dietary macros right will inevitably have to address their protein intake.
Supplements are going to play a significant role, but I often hear a lot of confusion at the gym about essential amino acids (EAA) and branched-chain amino acids (BCAA).
Do you actually know enough about this topic to make the right decisions on how to support your fitness goals, including muscle growth and muscle repair?
I’ve certainly struggled with this before, so I got my dietitian to help me with this guide.
What Are EAAs?
Essential amino acids (EAA for short) are a set of 9 amino acids that humans have to take in through their diet. They simply cannot be created by your body, so they are essential from a dietary perspective.
From a sports and fitness perspective, some of the more important ones are phenylalanine threonine and tryptophan.
These essential amino acid supplements provide the building blocks for muscle protein synthesis as well as muscle recovery, which is why they are so important to athletes.
What Are BCAAs?
Branched chain amino acids are a subset of the 9 essential amino acids just mentioned.
There are 3 of them in total known as leucine isoleucine and valine, and these ones are of particular interest for bodybuilders and performance athletes.
The main reason that BCAAs are favored in supplements is that they have been shown to play a key role in repairing damaged muscles, reduce fatigue, and lessen the post-workout soreness .
For athletes that train on almost a daily basis, this could make quite a significant difference in how well they may be able to execute their training plans.
I also often get asked about the difference between protein powder and BCAA, which I discussed on a separate page. In short, BCAAs are made of 3 amino acids, while whey contains all 20 aminos.
Supplementing BCAAs prevents a serum decline in BCAAs, which occurs during exercise. A serum decline would normally cause a tryptophan influx into the brain, followed by serotonin production, which causes fatigue.
- Kamal Patel
, Nutrition Researcher & Founder of Examine.com
What's The Difference?
This is where I think most discussions about EAAs vs BCAAs are kind of pointless.
In essence, BCAAs are made up of 3 amino acids that are part of the 9 EAAs.
You need all of them, so you should never be arguing for one type of amino acid supplement over another.
The key factor is that these different sets of proteins may be needed at very different times of the day or different types of training as well.
When Should You Use EAAs?
All 9 EAA proteins are needed for your body to function normally. But they become a lot more relevant after you have done some intense physical activity.
At this time, protein synthesis needs to kick in for your muscles to recover as well as build up new fibers .
It contains all 9 EAA proteins and some of the relevant BCAA ones.
One of the most common products is your standard post-workout whey supplement.
When Should You Use BCAA?
Most of my professional and bodybuilding clients tend to rely on BCAA supplements to support their actual training.
Because it could have quite a positive impact on reducing fatigue, it may help with getting more out of each training session.
In some cases, I have seen people take BCAA halfway through a training session in order to get a boost of BCAA by the time their cooldown happens.
This may help to get just the right amount of BCAAs to kick start protein synthesis.
So, What Should You Actually Focus On?
At this stage, you should understand that you need to focus on both, especially if you’re a performance athlete.
But, your standard whey protein is pretty good at providing all the essential amino acids for your protein needs.
If you really need that extra boost for some high-intensity training, then try out some of the BCAAs and pre-workouts that we recommend to our clients.