Breaking It Down: Branched Chain Amino Acids
While you need every amino acid for a healthy functioning body, it’s the Branched-Chain Amino Acids (the BCAAs) that contribute most to your muscle development. BCAAs are the building blocks that help you last longer in the gym, build muscle faster, and burn more fat.
Let’s break down what you need to know about BCAAs, how they work in your body, and why it’s vital to include them as a part of your fitness regime. Look, you’re going to build muscle, so why not learn how to build muscle better?
Branched-chain amino acids are the key to help you do just that.
What are Amino Acids
Before we get into the nitty gritty of BCAAs, what are amino acids and where do they come from?
The Role of Amino Acids
Using an enzyme called protease, your body breaks down protein into the amino acid blocks that are used all throughout the body, from heart function to blood production, bone growth and muscle growth.
There are 20 different amino acids to build all the structures in your body. Of those 20, 11 of them can be synthesised “in house”, meaning your body can create it. Those are the non-essential amino acids.
The other 9 essential amino acids can’t produce by your body. You need to ingest them. You still need those amino acids for muscle tissue, blood, and organ function, but you need a healthy, balanced diet to get all the amino acids you need.
Although a deficiency in any one of the amino acids would cause your body to perform poorly, we want to focus on branched-chain amino acids. These are the vital amino acids that your body uses for muscle tissue.
What do BCAAs do?
Over ⅓ of your muscle tissue is made up of three essential amino acids: leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine. They each are responsible for particular body functions, and together they promote faster muscle growth and reduce muscle mass catabolism.
Leucine is the most common amino acid found in the BCAA chain. It directly stimulates muscle growth. It also promotes a reduction of muscle catabolism. A fantastic side effect of leucine is the increased fat oxidation. With enough leucine, your body doesn’t break down muscle tissue for energy, but instead targets fat cells. This is also why it’s known as a ketogenic amino acid, providing ketones for energy rather than glucose.
Ideally, your body needs 42 mg/kg of your bodyweight.
Isoleucine is indirectly involved in muscle growth by increasing your energy levels. If you can boost your body’s ability to use energy, you can do those extra sets of deadlifts that normally would drain you. Gym newbies report feeling the most powerful effects from isoleucine. They are most prone to rapidly depleted energy stores in an intense training session.
It also helps you recover quickly from strenuous workouts. It’s popular with athletes and heavy trainers that need to perform on a constant basis and can’t be waylaid by sore muscles or fatigue.
For a healthy amount, you need 19 mg/kg.
Valine is the third amino acid found in BCAAs. It’s widely accepted as the amino acid that stops muscle catabolism. It does this by providing the muscle tissue with increased glucose uptake. When your muscles can access energy faster, it doesn’t breakdown the muscle tissue as quickly. This is also one of the few amino acids that’s metabolised by the muscle tissue directly, and not through the liver.
How much do you need? 4 mg/kg is more than enough.
Sources of BCAAs
How do you get these branched-chain amino acids into your body?
As mentioned before, these are all essential amino acids that your body cannot synthesise in its own. You need to find ways to take in these amino acids through the food you eat or through supplements.
BCAAs in Food
A healthy, balanced diet will give you the maintenance amount of BCAAs through your food. Eating complete proteins like lean red meat, poultry, and fish provide enough of the three amino acids that directly impact your muscle growth. You’ll find the branched-chain amino acids present in the following foods:
- Chicken breast
- Lean beef
- Flank steak
- Canned tuna
- Salmon (wild is a better source over farmed)
- Whitefish (Coley, Pollack, Pouting, seabass)
- Turkey breast
- Eggs (3 for complete amount)
- Greek Yoghurt
If you’re eating a vegan diet or anything that precludes you from having animal protein, you can still find food sources like these rich in BCAAs:
- Brown rice
- Lima beans
- Brazil nuts
If you’re eating the recommended .75g of protein/kg of bodyweight recommended by dietary experts, you’re probably already getting the daily amount the BCAAs in your diet. But if you’re training hard, lifting heavy weights, doing high intensity interval training (HIIT), or not eating animal-based protein, you could find your diet lacking.
Taking branched-chain amino acid supplements is like eating protein without the calories. You get the benefit of the amino acids that your body needs and they get rapidly absorbed and metabolised by your body.
It solves the issue of trying to eat excessive amount of protein to get the right quantities of amino acids that your muscles need.
Most supplements use the same ratio that your body needs. Look for BCAA supplements that have a Leucine:Isoleucine:Valine ratio of 3:1:1 or 2:1:1.
When to Take BCAAs
Branched-chain amino acids boost your muscle growth, and they also increase your muscle’s capacity to do so. Some believe in taking BCAAs before bed because they reduce muscle catabolism while your sleep. Because of the heavy emphasis on muscle development, BCAAs should be taken around workout times for maximum effect.
Before Your Workout
10g of BCAAs before a workout will prime your muscles to receive glucose as energy and reduce any catabolic effect your workout has. If you’re taking it in liquid form, it will absorb and metabolize faster than if your body has to break down food to access the amino acids. Also, it’s easier to do intense workouts without a full stomach of food when you’re taking a supplement pill or shake.
Taking it right before a workout causes the amino acid valine to directly compete with tryptophan, a fatigue-inducing amino acid, from being absorbed into the brain and muscles. Your body will also target fat cells for oxidation during your workout rather than the muscle catabolism which might occur.
During and After Your Workout
Although we can’t find any proof that BCAAs add to muscle mass, they do prevent your body from feeling the fatigue of a strenuous workout. Take a sip of a BCAA-infused drink to enhance your body’s ability to use fat as energy and reduce your fatigue symptoms.
10g of BCAAs right after a workout will shrink the recovery times and get you back to fighting form for the next training session quicker. It’s much easier to take a supplement form of BCAAs to get quick access to those amino acids rather than trying to consume a balanced protein intake right after heavy training.
It’s worth noting that branched-chain amino acids have the most benefit for people doing resistance training or weight lifting. Cardio performance isn’t affected all that much with any BCAA supplement.
Your Key Takeaway
If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. That’s our thought behind your training in the gym. If you want better muscle growth, faster fat loss, and increased performance on the weights, you need branched-chain amino acids to promote healthy muscles.