What are BCAA'S?

BCAA'S, as they are commonly known, stand for Branched Chain Amino Acids. They are the essential amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine. The combination of these three amino acids makes up approximately one third of total muscle tissue in the human body. As many of you know, amino acids are the “building blocks” of protein. There are 20 of them ( I have seen some sources indicate as many as 22 and as few as 17 but most will say 20). Amino acids are broken down and used by the body to form chains or sequences, these various chains are then used to perform literally thousands of different functions in the body. Now, of these 20 amino acids, 9 ( called essential, the remaining 13 are considered non-essential because the body can make them) cannot be made in the body and must be supplied by the diet. You will hear me say this a lot but it bears repeating: if they are not supplied by your diet, the body will draw them from muscle tissue – that's right, your hard earned muscle tissue! This is why it's so crucial to eat enough protein and to time it correctly. BCAA's fall into the category of essential amino acids and therefore must be diet supplied.

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Benefits of BCAA's

  • A substantial increase in muscle protein synthesis. This is absolutely critical! Protein synthesis is the process of muscle growth, if you increase that, you are increasing your ability to build new muscle! This reason alone is enough to add them to your program!
  • Amino acid supplementation after exercise can reverse net muscle protein balance from a negative state to a positive state. This is critical because it will cut down recovery time as it increases the rate of muscle gains.
  • BCAAs can also be used as fuel by your muscles – this happens the longer your activity continues, be it a long, intense workout or run. So we can see that BCAA's can potentially benefit your training by keeping muscle tissue from being burned when primary fuel stores run low.
  • May be involved in increasing the body's natural production of anabolic hormones. This one is not as substantiated as the other primary benefits but you will see it if you dig deep enough, warranting it's inclusion here.

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Evidence Behind BCAA's

So by now you may be asking what we have as far as research? There seems to be quite a bit of research on BCAA's with some concentrating on leucine, called the most important amino acid – not just the most important of the three branched chains but of all 20! Below are some examples of the studies:

Ohtani M, Sugita M, Maruyama K. Amino acid mixture improves training efficiency in athletes. J Nutr. 2006 Feb; 136(2): 538S-543S.

In this study by Ohtani et al the results showed that the subjects who received BCAA's had a significant increase in exercise efficiency due to the heightened levels of aerobic and anaerobic capacity as compared to the placebo group.

Ohtani M, Maruyama K, Suzuki S, Sugita M, Kobayashi K. Changes in hematological parameters of athletes after receiving daily dose of a mixture of 12 amino acids for one month during the middle- and long-distance running training. Biosci Biotechnol Biochem. 2001 Feb; 65(2): 348-55.

In another study performed by Ohtani et al, a thorough before and after analysis concluded that markers for physical conditioning, fitness, and endurance greatly improved. In fact, only 2.2 g of the amino acid mixture three times a day significantly improved other physiological markers such as: red blood cell count, hemoglobin, hematocrit, serum albumin, fasting glucose, and a decrease in creatine phophokinase (p<0.05), suggesting increased hematopoiesis and glycogenesis, and rapid alleviation of muscle inflammation by the amino acid mixture. All of these beneficial factors may be of huge significance in high performance athletes especially in terms of overall conditioning.

Kraemer WJ, Ratamess NA, Volek JS, Hakkinen K, Rubin MR, French DN, Gomez AL, McGuigan MR, Scheett TP, Newton RU, Spiering BA, Izquierdo M, Dioguardi FS. The effects of amino acid supplementation on hormonal responses to resistance training overreaching. Metabolism. 2006 Mar; 55(3): 282-91.

One of the most important studies to date was done by Kraemer et al in which 17 trained men randomly assigned to either an amino acid group or a placebo group underwent a four week training routine of total body resistance training. The first two weeks of training was an overreaching stage in which the total volume of training was relatively high which was then followed by a two week period of tapering total volume. Before any of the training took place there were base line measurements taken to determine strength such as 1RM in the bench press and squat as well as a ballistic bench press and jump squat to determine power output. The results in this study were quite interesting. First of all it appears that both groups had significant increases in strength, power, and resistance to fatigue after the entire four week period which can be attributed to the training program. This would support the fact that overreaching can be very beneficial to athletes trying to improve performance. However the interesting results show that the placebo group experienced significant decreases in strength in the first two weeks of the training program where the subjects were in a stage of overreaching. However, the amino acid group did not have any change in performance during this period.

Coombes JS, McNaughton LR. Effects of branched-chain amino acid supplementation on serum creatine kinase and lactate dehydrogenase after prolonged exercise. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2000 Sep; 40(03): 240-6.

Coombes et al examined the effects of branched-chain amino acid supplementation on serum indicators of muscle damage after long periods of exercise. There were 16 healthy males randomly assigned to either an experimental group in which they supplemented with 12 grams of BCAA's a day or a control/placebo group. Both groups participated in a two hour cycling activity at an intensity of 70% VO2. The results of this study clearly show that BCAA supplementation played a significant role in reducing levels of plasma markers associated with muscle tissue damage after intense endurance exercise.

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BCAA Supplements, Timing and Dosage

Branched-chain aminos, as with most everything, come in a variety of forms: capsules, tablets and powder. In formula versions, it will also come in capsules, tablets, powder, chewables and little stick packs. The types of formula products vary from pre workout to intra workout to post workout products. I'm a believer in using all three in my training, in so doing you set yourself up to go into your workout in an anabolic state which you can then maintain by drinking a carb/ bcaa mixture and then you finish it off with the typical post workout shake. How much time are you saving in the recovery process by attempting to stay anabolic through the catabolic activity of training? Not to mention the fact that you can also cause insulin spikes during the training process at a time when you really want increased insulin by using simple carbs before, during and after. So, you have the option of buying different formulas or buying BCAA in a powder form and mixing up your own training drink. Beyond the time-frame surrounding your workout, branched chains are typically taken at staggered intervals throughout the day, such as three tabs or caps every 4-5 hours. Refer to the product label for specific dosage instructions. Dosage levels range from 5 to 20 grams, again I suggest referring to the product label.

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