I remember when I first started lifting at the tender old age of 18.
Walked into the gym as a tiny, skinny-fat girl with no muscle at all and totally terrified of all the huge dudes in the university gym effortlessly throwing around weight and nearly snarling at me after each thunderous rep.
How do they do it? I asked. How did they get from where I am as a weakling to where they are now?
Could it possibly be the fluorescent-pink liquid in their shaker bottle that they’re so diligently carrying from rack to rack?
What is this elixir of gains, I asked myself?
That elixir, friends, was branched chain amino acids or BCAAs.
And...spoiler alert! As much as these guys believed it was worth their $60 a tub, it was not responsible for any of their muscle gain.
That doesn’t stop many hardcore bodybuilders, coaches and trainers from swearing that aminos can make or break your fitness routine. They’ll tell you they are pretty much non-negotiable to take if you want to get big.
So...how much bullshit is this really?
The answer is, quite a lot.
What are BCAAs?
BCAAs (also known as branched chain amino acids or just “aminos”) are a sports supplement that typically come in a powder form. They may also be added to a pre-workout or whey protein, but usually they are some sort of fruity flavor meant to be taken alone.
They are made of the essential amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine.
Why are these so important?
Well, science has extensively shown that leucine is the MVP for muscle growth. Whenever I give lectures to my athletes about protein, the word “leucine” leaves my mouth no less than at least 20 times. That’s how important it is to muscle growth and strength.
So, what about the other two amino acids?
Isoleucine doesn’t directly stimulate muscle growth, but plays a role in glucose metabolism by helping shuttle glucose to the muscle for recovery, thus preventing muscle loss. To be fair, a prevention of muscle loss is an indirect way to help muscle growth. So you got me there, supplement companies!
However, even though valine was previously thought to assist both leucine and isoleucine in their roles, science shows it may not have much of an added benefit.
Soooooo basically it’s pretty much worthless and only included in the supplement because a) it’s in the same chemical family as the other two and b) more fancy words on the label means GNC can charge more, amirite?
In food (which is really the main source from which you should be getting these amino acids), you can find BCAAs aplenty in animal products including meat and dairy. They are especially concentrated in whey protein powder, particularly leucine. This is why whey is so prevalent in the athletic and sporting community.
These sources are also a lot cheaper.
What "They" Tell You About Them
Supplement companies, and your new trainer at the gym, will try to sell you on BCAAs by telling you that they play a critical role in recovery (allowing you to workout more often) and muscle growth.
I’ve recently seen influencers even claiming that they’ll give you enough energy to workout or even get through your day.
Despite the fact that they...don’t even...have...calories….
The logic behind BCAAs is that, by loading yourself up with a high concentration of these amino acids before, during and after your workout (some say also before bed), you’ll notice massive gains in no time.
And, yeah, if someone points you in the direction of the right studies, at first glance they seem to prove that they have this effect.
But, let’s look closer at this supposed science.
What Does the Science Say?
One very frequently cited study in support of BCAAs was done on elite wrestlers that claimed the supplement resulted in improved performance and muscle growth.
However, if you look closely at this study, each of these athletes weighed an average of 150 pounds each and were only getting about 80 grams of protein from their food.
The problem is, if you are a weightlifter or athlete engaging in intense resistance training, you need to be eating at least 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for muscle growth and performance: these guys were only eating 70% of what they really needed.
So basically, this study tells us that if you aren’t getting enough BCAAs from your food, supplementing can help fill in the gaps.
It does not, however, prove that BCAAs alone are responsible for muscle growth and performance.
So...Are They Completely Worthless?
Before all of the bodybuilders reading this come after me to destroy my life, I do have good news to offer.
BCAA supplements do have their place is some special cases. As stated above, if you are not eating enough protein to support your resistance training (vegans are a great example), BCAAs can still help you meet your goals.
Keep in mind though, this doesn’t mean you can slack on your diet. My recommendation is for you to get your protein from food sources whenever possible as that is a higher quality source of protein more readily used by the body. BCAAs should only be a last resort in this case.
Taking BCAAs before fasted training may also protect your muscles from breakdown. Being in “a fasted state” means you don’t enough glucose in your system to fuel your exercise. When this happens, your body starts to break down your muscles for energy, which is pretty counterproductive for muscle growth, right?
Finally, they are also widely used amongst bikini and bodybuilding competitors on an extreme calorie deficit who can't fit the 1.7 g per kilogram of body weight into their eating plan, but are still training intensely and don't want to lose their muscle.
When the muscle fibers are broken down during resistance exercise, leucine is lost and, if not replaced, will result in muscle loss. This is where BCAAs can come to the rescue.
Leucine has the power to prevent muscle breakdown for added protection.
So, if it’s been at least 4 hours since the last time you've eaten, but you can’t get to any food before your workout, take some BCAAs and your body will burn through those instead of using the amino acids in your muscles for fuel.
Be warned, however, most BCAA supplements are composed of 2 to 3 parts leucine and 1 part isoleucine and valine, so you would need to take about 10 grams of BCAAs to get the 3-5 grams of leucine needed to prevent muscle loss.
The bottom line?
If your goal is to gain lean mass, don’t waste your money on aminos, provided you’re likely already getting enough branched-chain amino acids from your diet or postworkout protein shake (if it’s whey, trust me, it has the most leucine you’re going to get compared to another source).
Leucine is found in high (and adequate) amounts in meat, especially beef. And eating food not only gives you those amino acids, but other nutrients such as iron, Vitamin D and Vitamin B-12 which are all important to enhance performance.
However, this supplement does have its place in select situations. I don’t think they are necessary at all, but if you feel like you need them, only resort to them as an option, not a necessity.