What’s the use of taking BCAAs during workout?
I’m sure you have heard a lot about BCAAs or branched chain amino acids, and you might know what benefits you can expect from taking them. Taking BCAAs is basically beneficial at any time, but there are occasions when you can get the most out of it. Their anti-catabolic and performance enhancing properties are particularly important during workout, especially if you take them with a modern formula which contains the amino acids in the right proportions. What are exactly the benefits you can expect from usage during workout, and which formulas are the most suitable for this purpose?
BCAA—a crash course, if you are hungry for knowledge
The term BCAAs or branched chain amino acids encompasses 3 amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine. These amino acids make up about 35% of the amino acids that can be found in the human muscle tissues. Together with other essential and non-essential amino acids, BCAAs are the building blocks of muscle tissues. But most of all, BCAAs have extraordinary anti-catabolic, and (depending on the proportions of the three amino acids), potent anabolic (muscle building) properties. Still have any questions on the importance of BCAAs in muscle building? These important amino acids can be found in whey proteins of higher biological value in the highest quantities. In case of quality products you can expect a BCAA content of about 25%. That’s why we keep telling you that when choosing a protein, quality matters more than quantity (whey protein vs. mixed proteins).
Now, getting back to the importance of these essential amino acids: their levels start to decrease quickly at times of intense physical activity like weight training. And this deficiency triggers a strongly catabolic process. To put it simply: during activity, your body starts to break down your muscle tissues in order to use up the amino acids of the muscle tissues as quick energy sources. Out of the three BCAAs, the level of leucine will decrease the fastest. And this is a problem because leucine is the most potent anabolic amino acid not only among BCAAs but out of all essential or non-essential amino acids. Leucine activates a protein called mTOR and helps trigger the protein synthesis of the muscles through various processes on cell level. In other words, it “ignites the anabolic engine”: it has a direct impact on protein synthesis. Leucine, isoleucine and valine are essential amino acids: this means, your body cannot synthesize them by itself; you need to provide them from external sources. That’s why it is extremely important that your diet should be based on quality protein sources. In addition, supplements ensure targeted supply of these crucial amino acids.
BCAA stands for branched-chain amino acids
Speaking of supplements, BCAA products basically contain leucine, isoleucine and valine in a classic 2:1:1 ratio. As I have mentioned, the role of leucine is particularly important because of its potent anabolic properties. That’s why a leucine-dominant proportion is more beneficial.
Benefits of taking BCAAs
As I have mentioned, the level of BCAAs including leucine starts to decrease drastically in the muscles during physical activity, which is an inherent part of the catabolic process. Following from this, you can turn back this process if you supply these amino acids directly. So, on one hand, there is an anti-catabolic effect (which hinders muscle breakdown). And, as I have mentioned before, BCAAs can also trigger anabolic processes. Interesting fact: in 2009, a study* was published at the annual conference of International Society of Sports Nutrition, on the following experiment: there were two groups of athletes who performed weight training regularly. The first group got an extra shot of BCAAs in their post-workout shakes and they improved twice as much in strength levels and muscle mass than the other group (who drank shakes without BCAAs) during the 8 weeks of the experiment. Interesting as it may sound, it is questionable whether we can talk about muscle gains over an 8-week period; this takes a “little bit” longer. Nevertheless, this study sounds quite interesting.
To make it more complicated...
The body utilizes BCAAs directly, whether it comes from the amino chains of a protein product or as pure BCAAs: first, they will be stored in the liver. Then, they proceed straight to the muscle tissues. This way, BCAAs can repair the micro-traumas that arise during workout extremely quickly. In other words, they trigger anti-catabolic and anabolic processes quickly. Should that not be enough: the body can utilize these amino acids as direct energy sources, which will support your performance during workout in multiple ways: first, they will delay fatigue of the muscles and the nervous system as well, as valine (one of the BCAAs) reduces the effect of tryptophan in the brain, which will contribute to better mental focus.* Second: according to some hypotheses, in a calorie-restricted diet, isoleucine (another member of the BCAA-trio) can activate the so-called PPA (peroxisome proliferator-activated) receptors, which enhance the fat-burning capacity of the body and play an important role in preventing the formation of fat deposits. This was reported in 1997 by Japanese scientists. I recommend that you take it with a pinch of salt. After all, better performance, better recovery and enhanced anabolic processes are fairly enough, aren’t they? :)
The best time for taking BCAAs
BCAAs act directly, and you can make the most use of these benefits during workout, because you get into the most intense catabolic state during workout. You can enjoy these benefits (better performance, delayed physical and mental fatigue and a strong anti-catabolic effect) fully by consuming BCAAs during or shortly before workout. The proportion of the three BCAA amino acids matters quite a lot, too: for supplying BCAAs during workout, the best products are leucine-dominant formulas which contain leucine, isoleucine and valine in an 8:1:1 proportion. The higher the leucine content of a formula, the stronger the anti-catabolic effect that can be achieved. Plus, if there is still some extra leucine circulating in your blood stream at the end of your workout, that will trigger anabolic processes during the post-workout recovery stage.
8:1:1: this rocks!
Of course, taking BCAAs is useful at any time: it can be a good idea to take a few grams on rest days between meals, with meals or before bed as well. Doing so, you can rev up the recovery process between workouts, and create a better anabolic environment in your system (let me highlight it again: your muscles are not growing during workout but during rest time). If you do aerobic or cardio workout on an empty stomach, a good BCAA formula is a great companion to prevent muscle breakdown. Or, if you want to mix yourself a super-anabolic post-workout shake, you might add some BCAAs to your regular post-workout shake, preferably a product with higher leucine content. And in general, it is useful at times of any intense physical activity that works the muscles intensely and poses a risk of catabolism.
Take a minimum of 5 grams, but preferably 10 grams during workout. During a diet, you might even take 20 grams at a time, based on your individual needs. A liquid formula (flavored drink) may be the most suitable for this purpose: you can sip it during workout or chug it all at once, as you wish. We recommend this protocol during or before workout. At other times or rest days, you can opt for 5-gram portions 3 or 4 times a day or take 10 grams after waking up and/or 10 grams before bed.
All in all, you can make use of a BCAA formula (especially a modern one with an 8:1:1 ratio) at several occasions, if you aim for keeping your muscle mass, enhancing your performance or supporting muscle building. However, as long as the basic dietary requirements for either bulking or fat loss are not fulfilled, it is totally useless to even think of taking BCAAs or other amino acids. A basic daily multivitamin should still be on the first place on your priority list of supplements, followed by a protein product, preferably whey protein. Now you might boost your diet with a BCAA formula. You can only make use of it if these basics are granted.
*Coburn, J. W., et al. Effects of leucine and whey protein supplementation during eight weeks of unilateral resistance training. J Strength Cond Res 2006 May;20(2):284-91.
*Gomez-Merino, D., et al. Evidence that the branched-chain amino acid L-valine prevents exercise-induced release of 5-HT in rat hippocampus. Int J Sports Med. 2001 Jul;22(5):317-22.
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