To get high-quality seal of approval, a protein must contain all eight essential amino acids. Animal proteins, dairy products, eggs and whey all stand tall in this category. But research now indicates that the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) isoleucine, leucine and valine are the real drivers behind muscle gain in this family, and that regularly supplementing with them will keep you primed for growth in ways previously unknown.
“The BCAAs are not only necessary as building blocks of protein for muscle growth and repair,” says Carwyn Sharp, PhD, CSCS, professor of exercise physiology at the College of Charleston (South Carolina). “They have multiple properties that enhance these growth processes well above and beyond normal amino acids.”
In fact, research now suggests that BCAAs not only stimulate muscle growth but also create an anabolic hormonal environment in the body, provide energy to muscles, help the body burn fat and build muscle simultaneously, as well as improve recovery and reduce muscle soreness. This stimulus package is so powerful that these aminos could be called nutraceuticals a heady title awarded to nutrients with pharmaceutical-like properties.
If you doubted whether BCAAs could help you reach your goals, here are five reasons you should place an order today.
#1 Get Hormonal
Of all the ways we give you each month to get big, boosting the levels of hormones in your body that lead to muscle growth while minimizing those that chew it up might seem overly complicated. After all, it’s hard to measure such things on your own. Fortunately, Sharp and Ball State University (Muncie, Indiana) researchers did the beaker work for you in a recent study. “We found that when combined with resistance training, BCAA supplementation increased testosterone and reduced Cortisol to create a favorable anabolic environment,” he says.
“We also know from previous studies that leucine stimulates insulin release, which further increases the capacity for growth.”
#2 Muscle Energy
Getting ripped involves a tightrope act between losing fat and maintaining muscle. Complicating matters is the calorie-restricted diet that a shredded physique requires. This forced starvation means you’re often in an energy deficit, which can induce an alarming amount of muscle shrinkage because catabolic enzymes will break down muscle protein just to get to the BCAAs. This self-destructive effect is like tearing down an entire building to get to a few specific bricks.
By supplying a healthy dose of BCAAs to your muscles when you cut calories, however, you have a better chance of stopping the wrecking ball before it gets warmed up. “If there’s an energy shortage, supplemental BCAAs rapidly fill the void and help you avoid the impact of reduced muscle growth,” Sharp says.
#3 Burn Fat, Grow Muscle
The benefits to your get-ripped phase don’t stop at preserving muscle. Branched-chain aminos have also been associated with the simultaneous reduction of fat and growth of muscle in a phenomenon known as nutrient partitioning, which may be the most promising of all the recent findings on BCAAs. In this scenario, BCAAs are a nutritional Robin Hood stealing energy from rich fat cells and giving it to undernourished muscle tissue.
In rodent research from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, researchers attributed nutrient partitioning to the leucine content of the diet.
#4 Pain Killers
You’ve no doubt experienced soreness after training that grew worse as the days progressed. Known as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), this pain is the result of inflammation. Although you can’t avoid it completely, it can be reduced. “Along with the changes in hormones, we found that BCAAs decreased the muscle damage induced by high-intensity training,” Sharp says. “This could help explain the decrease in soreness observed in some studies, which is critical for keeping people in the gym.”
If stimulating growth is the sword, then preventing its breakdown or catabolism is the shield of BCAA supplementation. Even though DOMS can’t be completely abolished, decreasing its impact is just one more reason to keep these supps in your gym bag.
Let’s point out the obvious: The faster you recover from a workout, the more quickly you can get back in the gym. Sharp says he recommends BCAAs to his athletes before and after training because they enhance the repair and growth of muscle. “This applies to everyone, regardless of whether your goal is size, power or endurance,” he says.
Think of it this way: “With optimal recovery, you can train with more volume and intensity, which equates to greater adaptations,” he adds. In short, that means more muscle growth.
Photography Credit: Alex Ardenti
Good To Know
Whey protein has the highest level of BCAAs compared to all other available types of protein powder.
How To Use Them
Fortunately, BCAAs are one of the less-expensive supplements on the market. Take 5-10 grams with breakfast; immediately before, during and immediately after training; and before bed.
The Leucine Conundrum
All superstars have a supporting cast, even when all the heavy lifting seems to come from one source. Case in point: Research increasingly points to leucine as the key driver behind the muscle-building effect of BCAAs. But don’t be tempted to discard isoleucine and valine; it’s not that simple. Although they may not be as potent, isoleucine and valine do play a vital role as building blocks. In fact, the hypertrophy induced by leucine drops to zero as soon as its two brothers are in short supply.
In other words, no matter how much leucine you throw at your muscles, growth won’t occur if the other two BCAAs fall below a certain level.