If you want to be a powerlifter, there are a handful of things to sort out. What program will you run? Will you decide to compete, or just deadlift and squat for your own satisfaction? How about diet, will you clean bulk or dirty bulk? How closely will you track your macros? Everyone knows that protein and carbs are a must for any lifter looking to hit a PR. Still, if you’ve been in the community for more than a week, you’ve almost certainly heard people talking supplements with just as much intensity as they discuss diet and programming.
Visit any nutrition store, and the number of supplements on the shelf can be a little overwhelming. You don’t want to spend your whole paycheck on supplements, so what’s worth the money? With the array of new products on the shelf getting increasingly complex by the day, you are right to be concerned. Whether you’re new to the powerlifting game or a competitor of ten years, it can be tough to figure out which products are worthwhile and which ones are worth skipping.
Besides the ever-popular creatine, one supplement that almost everyone seems to agree on is Branched Chain Amino Acids (or BCAAs). No need to feel daunted by the complicated name. If you have questions about BCAAs, you have come to the right place. We’ve done all the work for you to help you understand the details about BCAA use.
In this article, we provide the answers to all your questions, from what are BCAA supplements and what do BCAAs do for you, do BCAA really work? Keep reading to explore the ins and outs of what BCAA is, BCAA benefits and side effects, and much, much more.
What is BCAA?
Let’s start with the basics: what are branched-chain amino acids? Branched-chain amino acids are a blend of three “essential” amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine), which are critical building blocks of protein and comprise 35% of all human muscle.
These “essential” amino acids are so-called because the human body does not actually produce them on its own. They are called “branched-chain” due to their chemical structure. If you look at a drawing of the chemical structure of BCAAs, you will note that each one seems to have a branch coming off of the molecules that comprise them.
Despite the fact that the human body does not naturally produce these essential BCAAs, most ordinary people can derive the amount of BCAAs they need from a regular, balanced diet without any trouble whatsoever. Foods that contain protein, such as beef, chicken, eggs, and cheese are all sources of these essential amino acids.
The typical person walking around your standard big box gym is probably not intentionally building muscle or adhering to an intensive training schedule. This means the typical person does not have as significant a need for protein as a powerlifter does, which makes it easy for them to receive essential amino acids from their diet.
On the other hand, the typical powerlifter often finds that their protein needs are as much as double those of an average person. With these increased needs for protein, it can be more difficult for a powerlifter to get enough essential amino acids from their diets. That’s where the idea of intentionally adding a supplement like BCAAs comes into play: they are a way to increase the number of essential amino acids that the body needs, to synthesize more proteins.
What do BCAA Supplements do?
Next, let’s look at the question, what does BCAA do? Simply put, what BCAA do is provide additional protein building blocks to your body. Whether you are getting BCAAs from your typical diet or your diet plus supplementation, these essential amino acids are providing your body with extra fuel. When you work out hard and provide your body with extra protein, this helps to fuel both muscle growth and endurance during a serious training session.
Powerlifters who use BCAA supplements often use them right before or after a workout. Some people like to complete their lifting sessions in the morning while in a fasted state, with just a little BCAAs before they get after it, to deliver a shot of pure fuel directly to their muscles without anything else to get in the way. Others like to take BCAAs after their workouts to help their muscles recover and reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness (also known as DOMS).
So what is BCAA for? Basically, lifters who choose to supplement with BCAAs are using it to help them push harder and synthesize protein more effectively, resulting in a better muscle stimulus through their workouts. That’s exactly what a dedicated lifter needs. What’s not to love about getting stronger?
Do BCAAs Work?
Now we know what is BCAA supplement, but there are so many supplements that are little more than snake oil, so it is important to know which ones are worth it. If you want to know, “Does BCAA work?” the answer is a definite yes. In fact, BCAA is among the most-researched supplements available on the market. There’s a reason that your gym buddies swear by the stuff.
Studies have been done on the benefits and side effects of many nutritional supplements, but few of their claims stack up against the research as well as BCAAs do. If you are the type of person who wants to know they are using the best supplements, take it from the results of numerous randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies from the likes of the National Institutes of Health: BCAAs are effective at improving muscle recovery and regrowth. Because of that, it is important to know one’s best BCAA supplement.
What is BCAA Good for and What is BCAA Used for?
If you are asking, “What are BCAA’s used for, specifically?” the list goes on and on. There are at least five different things that BCAAs can be used for, so let’s dive a little deeper into the question of, “What are BCAAs good for, anyway?” Remember, research shows that there are numerous ways that BCAAs can make an impact on a power lifter.
Here are just a few of the many ways that BCAAs are used:
1. BCAAs can help build muscle
Lifting is the process of intentionally causing tears in the muscle and allowing them to repair, which builds stronger muscle over time. Leucine, the most effective of the branched-chain amino acids, is very effective at helping to increase muscle growth. Studies have shown that people who consumed BCAAs after their workouts had a 22% increase in muscle protein synthesis when compared to others who simply consumed a placebo.
2. BCAAs can help improve energy levels
The muscles in the human body contain about 35% BCAAs, and the process of working out consumes BCAAs as fuel. When these BCAAs are used as fuel, it causes fatigue. Therefore, increasing the amount of BCAAs in the body can make a big difference in terms of the fatigue that lifters experience during and after a workout. One study showed that supplementing with a BCAA powder before a workout was able to reduce the amount of fatigue that participants experienced.
3. BCAAs can decrease muscle soreness after workouts
Sometimes, the process of tearing down and building up muscle can be a very painful one. Every serious lifter knows the pain that follows, particularly intense leg days. However, BCAAs can help to rebuild muscle more quickly, reducing the post-workout pain that you experience. One study showed that supplementing with BCAAs after squatting sped up recovery time compared to those who squatted without BCAAs afterward.
4. BCAAs can reduce muscle wasting
Muscle wasting occurs when the process of breaking the muscle down occurs more quickly than the process of building the muscle back up. There are a number of causes of muscle degeneration (also known as muscle wasting). The most common cause is aging. As the body ages, the muscle degenerates over time. Other causes of muscle wasting can include illness (such as cancer) and periods of fasting or caloric reduction.
One way to reduce muscle degeneration is to supplement with BCAAs to help replace those being lost as the muscle breaks down. If you are cutting to make weight for a powerlifting competition, it might be particularly helpful to supplement with BCAAs to maintain as much muscle as possible, even in the face of a caloric deficit (read more of this article to know more about BCAAs for weight loss).
Are BCAAs Safe to Use?
Yes, they are! Remember, BCAAs are present in foods from chicken to and beef to eggs and cheese. They are absolutely safe in food, and as supplements, pure BCAAs are safe to use as well. Do be aware that there are many brands of BCAAs that feature the three amino acids in varying ratios. In a high-quality BCAA supplement powder, the leucine will be present in a higher amount than isoleucine and valine.
Is BCAA safe? Yes, but be careful to look at packaging to understand any other ingredients that may be included in a BCAA supplement. Some supplements have been found to contain harmful additives and filler, which can result in negative long-term effects on their users. Asking the question, “Are BCAAs bad for you?” shows that you are doing your due diligence and taking ownership of what goes into your body. Buy from a reputable company that you trust, and you should not have any reason to worry.
Do BCAAs Have Calories?
Yes, a few. You may have noticed that most labels on BCAA supplements (or what is BCAA powder) list zero calories. This is primarily due to certain FDA regulations that govern the way amino acids are listed on various products. However, BCAAs do have calories, albeit just a few.
In studies performed with a standard bomb calorimeter, Dr. Doug Kalman of the International Society of Sports Nutrition discovered that BCAAs do, in fact, contain a few calories. In his research, Dr. Kalman found that there are 5.35 calories per gram of BCAAs, meaning the BCAA calories consumed will vary by each person depending on the amount of the supplement ingested.Â
For a person taking a typical serving of BCAAs, this would translate to approximately 5 grams of the supplement, or about 27 calories of what is essentially protein. It is not much, and it will not make a big difference to your diet, but it’s worth knowing that BCAA supplements do contain more than the zero calories listed on most labels.
So there you have it, the answers to all your pressing questions about branched-chain amino acids. You have learned everything you need to know about BCAAs, from what it is and what BCAA supplements are, to what BCAAs do, and whether they have calories.
As you now can see, there are a lot of reasons that BCAAs are a popular choice among lifters. Not only do BCAAs have almost zero documented side effects, but they also contribute many positive benefits. BCAAs can help increase muscle-building while preventing muscle breakdown. They can help to reduce soreness after workouts and reduce exercise fatigue during the workout itself. Using BCAAs is common among powerlifters and bodybuilders alike because of the many benefits this supplement delivers.
Most people do get enough BCAAs in their standard diet, so these supplements are not for everyone, but if you are a powerlifter, they might be for you. Armed with your newfound knowledge of BCAAs, you are ready to determine whether you want to include these supplements as a regular part of your powerlifting routine.