By Dr Joe
Do BCAAs work? This is one question that bothers prospective fat loss enthusiasts. So, what’s the answer to the question? Well, the answer to the question of whether BCAAs work or not is: Yes and No.
I know what you are thinking. You think I am hedging my bets with that answer but I am not. Hear me out.
The issue of bcaa’s effectiveness is actually dependent on what you want from your bcaa use. These supplements are effective for certain functionality and not proven to be effective for other aspects of body sculpturing.
I will therefore approach the question of bcaas working with what we know bcaas work for, followed by what we don’t have concrete bcaa proof for. The information on this page may represent some of the pros of bcaa and why you should take bcaas.
So, do bcaas work?
Let’s talk about what we know bcaas work for first. What I will be talking about here is backed by bcaa research. We will use the results from the bcaa studies to support the view that bcaas actually work for muscle recovery whilst having other uses at the same time.
What we know bcaas work for:
BCAAs make post-workout muscle soreness tolerable.
Muscle soreness is a real ‘pain in the backside’ (no pun intended) for exercise enthusiasts. Of course, the more often you exercise, the less the intensity of the soreness you feel afterwards. This is mainly due to muscle adaptation from frequent workouts. You still feel sore but not as much as your physically inactive neighbour.
And you know that muscle soreness following workout is usually delayed by a day or two, right?
And we have just established that individuals who don’t do much in the way of exercise tend to feel the brunt of the muscle soreness more, right?
You will notice that if you take a long break from regular exercise, the intensity of the delayed muscle soreness will be more compared to when you undertake regular exercise.
If we agree that’s the case, what better bunch of people to use for muscle soreness intensity study than folks who are non-athletic.
Take 12 folks who don’t exercise at all and subject them to squat exercises. Cruel, I know. Give one half of the group bcaa supplements and give the other group dummy supplements and see whose muscles will be sorer on Day 2 and Day 3 after the squat exercises.
In that study, the degree of delayed muscle soreness was much less in the bcaa supplemented group. That’s some proof that bcaa will make you tolerate your exercises days later.
If you have doubts, try it out and see for yourself if you experience less delayed muscle pain days after your workout session when you take bcaa supplements. Compare that to what happens when you don’t take any.
You can easily establish this proof of concept all by yourself. It’s not technical at all.
The way you take your bcaa supplements is also important as seen in this bcaa study.
Spreading out your bcaa supplementation and the timing when done right can have significant effect on the level of muscle soreness post-exercise.
Will you exercise more consistently if muscle soreness wasn’t a big issue for you? Of course, you will.
Hence, by extension you could argue that bcaa do work for weight loss, assuming (and this a big assumption) you are doing all the right things from the dietary point of view as well.
The BCAA itself will not make you lose weight on their own. It’s what you do with the BCAA that counts.
BCAAs limit muscle damage during exercise
Modern biochemistry gives us the benefit of measuring indicators of muscle damage in the blood. When muscle is damaged during exercise (which it does), you can confirm that by measuring certain enzymes and markers in the blood.
The higher the level of these biological compounds in the blood, the more tissue that was damaged at the time of exercise. Enzymes such as creatine kinase and lactate dehydrogenase are some of the measurable tissue damage compounds.
Myoglobin and aldolase are other biological markers that are usually raised following muscle damage and they are both measurable too.
If you put 16 men to the test by splitting them up.
Give one group bcaa supplementation for 14 days and the other group no supplementation. Subject them to 2-hour cycling exercise on day 7 of the experiment. What will you find?
The bcaa researchers found that the supplemented group had lower levels of creatine kinase and lactate dehydrogenase after the exercise routine indicating lesser muscle damage.
In the same BCAA study we talked about earlier, the researchers did the same thing by measuring muscle damage parameters – plasma creatine kinase, aldolase, myoglobin. They also found lower levels in the bcaa supplemented group.
Same thing happened in this ealier talked bcaa research.
The researchers here also found the serum myoglobin concentration was increased by exercise in the placebo but not in the BCAA trial.
All of the findings from these bcaa studies point to the conclusion that bcaa supplements do limit the amount of muscle damage that occurs during exercise routines.
BCAAs provide essential amino acids on demand
It is nice to have something available for you when you want it. Your body cells are no different. You don’t want to starve of your body cells of essential nutrients when they need it.
After all, we now live in a world of instant gratification, don’t we?
Your muscle cells are in particular very needy when it comes to protein needs during exercise especially when you are doing resistance training.
In most of the bcaa research studies that I have mentioned above, the level of the essential amino acids in bcaa supplemented group when measured was always higher than in the placebo group.
This is important because when muscle gets damaged during workouts, you want the essential amino acids to be readily available for replenishment as soon as possible, otherwise there would be a lag phase.
You will lose muscle when there is a lag phase between damage and repair. So, supplementation means the amino acids will be in circulation ready to be soaked up by the muscle cells. Nice!
BCAAs facilitate protein manufacture
The muscle cell is called the myocyte. Inside the myocyte, there is always intense activity. Don’t forget we use our muscles practically every hour of the day. Okay, I admit, we use much less muscle when we are asleep. Even then, you still need your muscles to breathe when you are asleep.
Because of this high metabolic activity going on inside the muscle, there is a high protein turnover. You need amino acids to make protein. Your muscle cells need lots of branched chain amino acids to repair damage, replenish used protein and synthesize new protein.
If no branched chain amino acids (bcaa)are available, then all of those processes culminating in protein manufacture will suffer.
Exercise is one of the greatest inducers of protein breakdown. Oh, yes, when you exercise you oxidise lots of amino acids in your muscle cells. These have to be replaced, buddy.
This BCAA research study confirms the fact that our body’s BCAA requirements are pumped up (pardon the pun) during exercise.
The researchers also concluded that “BCAA supplementation before and after exercise has beneficial effects for decreasing exercise-induced muscle damage and promoting muscle-protein synthesis”.
It is therefore a known fact that bcaas promote protein synthesis in the muscle via the mTOR pathway. This particular feature means bcaas aid muscle recovery whilst carrying very few calories.
BCAAs facilitating muscle recovery also means you can exercise much more consistently. This leads to another suggestion that BCAAs are good for weight loss or more specifically fat loss. I also talk about this on the page I discussed bcaa and keto.
Now let’s talk about what we are not sure of about BCAAs.
Do BCAAs work – What we are uncertain about.
A lot of people who use BCAAs fall into the calorie-restriction group and those undertaking intermittent fasting. Of course, there are several other groups of people who could benefit from using BCAAs, but I will focus my opinion on the larger two groups.
Why, because those in calorie deficit and those people undertaking intermittent fasting have a peculiar problem – muscle loss.
What the BCAA research is not absolutely clear about, at least on a consistent level is that, BCAAs are protective of muscle loss. What we know as I mentioned earlier on is that BCAAs will promote protein manufacture using the mTOR pathway.
The upshot of bcaas facilitating protein synthesis is that bcaa should preserve lean muscle mass and promote fat loss at the same time assuming the individual is combining calorie restriction or intermittent fasting like the 16/8 intermittent fasting, with consistent physical exercise workouts.
Not only are we expecting lean muscle mass protection from the bcaa supplement but we are also expecting easier muscle recovery too.
We want to be greedy. How? We want to lose weight whilst accelerating or at the very least maintain our fitness (means having plenty of muscle to you and I) at the same time.
And why not…
So, what happens when you put the fat loss and lean mass protection to the test?
Well, these BCAA researchers did exactly that.
In that bcaa study, the researchers took 17 resistance-trained dudes who are still in their prime (21 – 28 years of age), split them up into 2 groups. Gave one group bcaa supplements and the other a carbohydrate-based supplement, sport drink basically.
Both groups were calorie-restricted from the diet point of view and the study was allowed to run for 8 weeks.
The result: The bcaa supplemented group lost fat mass and maintained lean mass as well in comparison to the carbohydrate supplemented group that lost lean mass.
Also, the bcaa group could do more squats and more bench press indicating an increase in strength compared to the carbohydrate supplemented group. Tendency to fatigue was greater in the carb supplemented group.
What does this study tell us?
It tells us that if you can preserve lean muscle mass, then you have the potential to preserve skeletal muscle performance too.
Does this translate to bcaas promoting muscle growth?
If you look at the research into that aspect of muscle growth, it gets muddy. There are so many variables such as the bcaa supplement dosage, how long the trials run for, timing of supplement administration, pre-trial fitness level, trial intensity, and dietary protocol. These variables make direct comparisons of bcaa studies difficult.
The bcaa studies do not consistently show that bcaa supplementation will result in increases in muscle strength and muscle growth. That’s the scientific truth.
But can you still achieve these outcomes of muscle strength and muscle growth by using bcaas, if you harness the catabolic benefits of bcaas?
Here is the thing:
BCAAs get broken down when taken pre-workout.
Following the metabolism of the bcaa supplement, energy is released. You can harness that energy during your workout. And oh, as a side note there is some bcaa research like this one that suggests leucine, one of the branched-chain amino acid, actually upregulates the oxidation of fats for energy use. That’s the first thing.
Also, the amino acids in bcaa compete with the chemical units that make up 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) in the brain. High levels of brain 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) lead to an earlier feeling of fatigue during exercise routines.
So, what you want is low levels of 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) during workouts. Having bcaa amino acids available in your circulation will facilitate lower levels of 5-HT.
What does this mean?
Well, if you have been following this article, you will notice I started with the things we know about BCAAs that have been proven, right?
How about you harness those advantages of bcaa and couple those advantages with the energy provision and low 5-hydroxytryptamine benefit. The net result is, you can power your way to muscle growth with your bcaa.
Because you have the potential to push for consistent workout intensity and workout volume in your hands.
It will be your call…
…the potential is there. A direct association between bcaa use and muscle growth may not be positively identifiable but an indirect one is certainly within your grasp.
Suggested further reading:
The 1 Simple Diet Change That Saved a Life