What are BCAAs
To begin with, BCAA stands for branded-chain amino acids. The term ‘branched-chain’ simply refers to the molecular structure. Regarding ‘amino acids’, over 500 have currently been identified, with 23 of these being involved in the process of protein building. Of these 23, nine are considered essential, meaning you need these in your diet to keep you alive. They are the building blocks of protein and have various functions related to energy production during and after exercise. Of these nine, three account for up to 33% of muscle tissue – leucine, isoleucine and valine. When we talk about BCAAs we refer specifically to these three.
You might occasionally hear talk of a complete or an incomplete protein source. A complete protein source is a food or supplement which contains all nine of the essential amino acids. An incomplete protein source is therefore a food or supplement which contains some, but not all, of the essential amino acids.
Who should take BCAAs
It is recommended that people who are training extremely hard, such as high level performance athletes or people training in a ‘fasted’ state supplement with BCAAs. It is not uncommon, however, to find that many beginner or intermediate level exercisers also supplement with BCAAs. This is due to the belief that they help to improve exercise performance and reduce muscle breakdown. Whilst a reduction in muscle breakdown is widely accepted by most medical experts, the increase in exercise performance is debatable.
BCAAs are the only amino acids which are not metabolised by the liver, and are instead metabolised primarily in skeletal muscles meaning they can be rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream and muscle tissue. This means that the muscle can quickly utilise the amino acids as fuel by oxidizing them to create energy, therefore the argument here is that by supplementing with BCAAs close to a workout you will experience increased energy levels. Evidence also suggests that they lower lactate levels and increase the release of growth hormone during exercise, meaning muscle recovery is faster.
Do you NEED BCAAs supplements
The simple answer is no, as is the case with most supplements. If you are correctly balancing your training, nutrition and rest, you will be absolutely fine. Your first priority should be to ensure you body is receiving your required dietary micronutrients through whole food sources. As long as you ensure you have enough protein, fat and carbohydrates – lean body mass, or muscle will be spared. This of course links back to the earlier statement regarding those people training in a fasted state, because these people are purposely limiting their daily calorie intake, generally in an effort to lose weight, supplementing with BCAAs may help retain lean muscle mass.
Ultimately, by supplementing with BCAAs, you might experience a slight improvement in your exercise performance and muscle retention, but the level of improvement will be inconsequential if your overall diet plan is poor to begin with.
Always do your own research before taking any supplement. Also, be wary of reviews coming from the supplement companies themselves, this includes endorsed or sponsored athletes and/or spokespeople – it is in their best interest to sell you their product after all.
*The views and/or opinions expressed in the blogs are not necessarily those of Training Nation, but of the author