BCAA stands for Branched Chain Amino Acid. BCAAs are commonly referred to as the building blocks of proteins.
BCAAs are what protect your muscle from being broken down by your body to be used as energy, help promote muscle growth, repair and reduce muscle soreness. Whether you are in a regular routine of working out or not, your body still needs to protect the muscle your body has, and amino acids are what will do that.
There are 20 different kinds of amino acids, 11 of which are non-essential and 9 of which are essential. Non-essential means your body can make them itself, therefore they are not essential to the human diet. Essential means your body cannot make them, therefore we must find them in food.
The 11 Non-essential Amino Acids
The 9 Essential Amino Acids
The three highlighted essential amino acids; isoleucine, leucine and valine, are what you will see mentioned most often in the context of BCAAs and fitness. While all BCAAs play a role in protecting muscle, these three in particular are what aid in the healing and recovery of broken down muscle. If you ever find yourself feeling sore for days at a time on a consistent basis, that’s a sign you could be lacking in proper nutrition, specifically BCAAs.
So where do you find BCAAs?
The good news is, you don’t have to look far! Actually, if you’re following a balanced, whole foods diet like my FBG Meal Plan, you’re likely getting all the BCAAs you need. BCAAs are found in red meat, chicken, fish, dairy and eggs. They can also be found in plant-based food sources like beans, lentils, brown rice, whole wheat, corn and nuts. Additionally, as long as you’re eating the right amount of protein for your activity level as is discussed in the FBG Meal Plan, and from a variety of sources (you don’t want to be eating only grilled chicken all day every day!) then your diet should be giving you all the BCAAs nutrition you need.
So what’s the point of BCAAs supplementation?
I’ve always maintained that no supplement is the magic key to getting results. Results are largely determined by a solid, balanced, whole foods diet within your personal macro needs and a killer workout routine that is consistently challenging you. Additional BCAAs won’t make or break your results, but they can help inch you towards a small increase in overall workout efficiency and recovery. Sometimes that small increase in efficiency is what makes the difference. Since it’s not exactly realistic to track the amount of BCAAs (isoleucine, leucine and valine in particular) we are getting throughout the day, many will take BCAAs to “supplement” their diet. The word supplement literally means just that – it supplements, or enhances your diet. It doesn’t replace your diet, or cannot stand on its own as a solid source of nutrition, so it’s important to know that no BCAA supplements or any other supplement for that matter, will make a difference unless your diet and workout routine themselves are on point.
If you feel like your workouts and eating are at least an 8/10 on a regular basis, should you take BCAA? Honestly, that decision is entirely up to you. For some, the additional cost for peace of mind that you’re getting all the BCAA you need for proper recovery would be worth it. For others, it isn’t.
The fact of that matter is that you can get all your BCAA needs from food and your body will get what it needs to heal and protect your muscle. But when adding exercise and strength training to your routine, this is where your BCAA needs go up, just as your protein needs go up.
Taking it a step further, when you are going after a goal that involves leaning out and reducing your body fat percentage, remember that your body is designed to protect itself from losing body fat past a certain point. The lower you get in body fat percentage, the harder your body is going to work at holding onto that last bit of fat, for survival purposes. This is where muscle catabolism comes into play, where your body begins to turn to muscle for energy so it can store fat for survival. Muscle catabolism can happen even when you’re not at a super low body fat percentage if you’re over-exercising and under-eating for your age, height, weight and activity level, as discussed in my FBG Meal Plan Guide.
For the reasons mentioned above, when you are putting all your effort into leaning out and losing body fat, this is where supplements designed to protect your muscle and direct your body to burning only body fat, may be more appropriate.
When to take BCAAs?
During strength training, you are actually creating micro tears in your muscle fibers. These fibers will repair and regrow to be stronger, and protein and BCAAs are what facilitates that process. Since that tearing of muscle fibers occurs during strength training, it would be a good idea to take BCAAs during your strength-based workouts. On the other hand, you don’t require the use of your muscles during cardio like you do in strength training, so BCAAs during cardio aren’t as necessary. The only exception is if you’re doing Sprints since you do recruit the use of your muscles during Sprints.
Personally, I have only taken “intra-workout” BCAAs. This means I take BCAAs during my workout and that’s it. Others can take them in pill form if they don’t like the taste of the BCAAs flavor (there are many different flavor options). As I mentioned in the pre-workout blog, I do think there is also some sort of placebo effect with taking BCAAs. I noticed for myself at least, I have continued to take it out of habit. I never thought BCAAs would make or break my results, but being that I am on a consistent caloric deficit and do FBG strength training circuits, I want to be sure to protect the muscle I have.
At the end of the day, BCAAs’ primary function is to protect muscle and aid in recovery, if you’ve ever felt fatigued and sore for days after your workout, you might want to give BCAAs a try. But not before you take a good look at your diet, first.