What Are BCAA’s and Do We Really Need Them?

BCAA stands for branch chain amino acids, which are part of the 8 essential amino acids in which your body requires but is unable to produce, therefore, they have to be taken in through the diet. The three branch chain amino acids are scientifically known as Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine due to their molecular structure. They are called BCAA’s because they structurally branch off another chain of atoms instead of forming a line. Modern BCAA provides a ratio of 8:1:1 of Leucine : Isoleucine : Valine making it more beneficial for increased protein synthesis.

What do BCAAs do for the body?

Stimulate Protein Synthesis – When taken in through the diet, the three branch chain amino acids help to increase protein synthesis, which is the process in which your body can rebuild muscle tissue and increase muscle mass, therefore, by increasing this process the body can work a lot faster and recover a lot quicker. BCAAs by themselves have been shown to independently stimulate muscle protein synthesis, which is inducing muscle gains even without doing any weight training. Studies have also shown that BCAA supplementation increases the hormones testosterone, growth hormone and insulin.

Nitrogen Balance – Regular ingestion of BCAA’s help to keep the body in a state of positive nitrogen balance, and within this state your body is more prone to build muscle and burn fat. Also, your muscle cells will use the amino acids for energy, whether it’s during a workout or simply going about your everyday life, these amino acids will contribute to boosting energy levels within the muscles. During a prolonged exercise, BCAA’s are released from skeletal muscles and their carbon backbones are used as fuel, while their nitrogen portion is used to form another amino acid, Alanine. Alanine is then converted to Glucose by the liver. This form of energy production plays a major role in maintain the body’s blood sugar balance and is called the Alanine-Glucose cycle. BCAA also produce 70% of the body’s Nitrogen requirement.

Stimulate Fat Loss – Visceral body fat is located in the deeper layer of the body under the subcutaneous fat, and this fat tends to be resistant to any type of dieting and hard to lose. However, supplementation of BCAAs has been shown to trigger significant and preferential losses of visceral body fat. As BCAA can be taken through the diet, when there is a high level (which is normally during exercise) this is typically a sign of muscle breakdown. Therefore, the body’s reaction is to then stop the breakdown of muscle and use more fat for fuel. Consequently, the extra BCAAs in the blood stream will stimulate insulin release which will then drive the BCAAs directly into the muscle. Therefore, the result of this being that people will burn more body fat, especially visceral fat, whilst gaining muscle at the same time. What more can you ask for?

BCAAs effect on Performance

Studies have shown that athletes taking extra BCAA’s have shown a loss of more body fat than those not taking BCAA’s. The essential branched chain amino acids are of special importance for athletes because they are metabolised in the muscle. After digestion, once protein is broken down into individual amino acids, these can either be used to build new proteins or they can be burned as fuel to produce energy for the body.

Studies have shown that BCAAs can serve as a donor of nitrogen in the form of l-alanine as mentioned earlier. Once glycogen stores have been depleted, l-alanine provides the body with glucose. Therefore, this will help enable to not only work at higher intensities during training but also to last a little bit longer and get the full amount out of your workout.

What foods contain BCAA?

Although they are present in all protein-containing foods, the greatest amounts of BCAAs are found in dairy products and red meat. When referring to supplements, whey and egg protein are other sources of BCAA but there are also supplements specific to BCAA and can be used pre, during or post workout.

Recommendation

Depending on what type of training you are doing depends on the amount of BCAA supplements that have been recommended to take, which range between 2.5 to 12g. However, muscle protein synthesis is maxed out with 3-4 grams of Leucine which would equate to 6-8 grams of BCAAs, so some recommendations can contradict others.

Personally, I would recommend using a BCAA supplement during training. Recently, I have started to use it myself adding two scoops (12g) into a bottle of water and drinking it throughout the session. After researching into it and finding out that it not only stimulates fat loss but also generates gains in the muscles, which is a win-win situation in my eyes. Furthermore, once I started using the supplement during my workout, I felt the extra boost it was providing me, to train that little bit harder and last that little bit longer, which may not sound like a lot, but over time them small gains add up and you will feel the difference.

By Ethan Smith
Personal Trainer at Liverpool Personal Training Studios.

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