BCAA: an acronym heard on gym floors and supplement shops all over the world. But what are BCAAs, how do they work and should you be taking them? Grenade® nutritionist Alex Beaumont gives us the lowdown on this popular supplement.

What are BCAAs?

Amino Acids are the building blocks of protein. There are 20 amino acids that make up the proteins found in our bodies and in the food we eat. Our body can only make 11 of these amino acids which are grouped as non-essential because we don’t need to do anything to get them. This means that somehow, we need to get the other nine essential amino acids through our diet. Of these nine, there are three that make up BCAAs.

Branched Chained Amino Acids, AKA BCAAs, are three essential amino acids that are particularly important for our muscles. The three, leucine, isoleucine and valine, are common in foods such as red meat and milk. They can also be supplemented through powder, such as whey protein, or capsules. The other six are also important and these can be sourced by having a varied diet with a focus on high protein sources.

What are the benefits?

The main benefit of BCAAs are their positive effects on your muscles. It has been suggested that BCAAs, especially leucine, can increase muscle protein synthesis (the process your body goes through when it builds muscle mass) when paired with resistance training. This means that supplementing with BCAAs will help to turn on the muscle building engine and increase your gains after a tough session at the gym.

BCAAs have also been shown to reduce your perceived muscle soreness after resistance training. This means walking will be easier after that dreaded leg day. This will also benefit you further, as if you are less sore in the days after an intense workout, you are more likely to make it to your next session, take the stairs instead of the lift or go for a jog when otherwise you might have skipped it due to the pain.

When you go several hours without eating, especially without protein rich foods, your muscles start to break down in a process called muscle protein breakdown (this can also occur during prolonged exercise). It sounds scarier than it is but if you are looking to increase or maintain your muscle mass, you want to avoid this as much as possible. A meal high in protein after exercise will alleviate this. In addition, BCAAs can also be used to defend against the muscle breakdown.

When should I take them?

BCAAs, when supplemented, are easily digested and are quickly taken into your bloodstream and muscles. This makes it perfect to have either before or during your workout. They act fast and don’t cause any gut discomfort that you may get with certain foods or protein shakes. They are convenient and picking a BCAA product that can be made into a drink, like the Grenade® Defend BCAAs, mean that they are also perfect for hydrating during a tough workout too. If it makes life easier, BCAAs are perfectly safe to combine with most sports supplements such as creatine, glutamine and caffeine. Always ensure you read the label to make sure there are no specific warnings before combining any supplements.

What should I consider before buying a BCAA?

The most important thing to look for when deciding which BCAA to buy is the ingredients list on the back. Lots of BCAA products are made from sources that include duck feathers and even human hair! I don’t know about you but none of the benefits above are worth drinking that! Look out for vegetarian symbols on packaging as these rule out those two particular ingredients. Another important factor is the ratio between each of the three BCAAs. Leucine grabs the headlines when it comes to muscle building. Picking a BCAA product that has higher leucine levels is a good sign of a superior product.

Key points to take away

  1. BCAAs are the three most important building blocks of protein
  2. The main benefit of BCAAs are their positive effects on the muscles, including muscle growth, reduced muscle breakdown and soreness
  3. You can take them at anytime but around or during workouts are beneficial
  4. Leucine has been shown to be the most important of the three so always opt for a product with a high leucine content
  5. Cheap BCAAs are likely to be made with duck feathers, human hair and other unappealing ingredients so opt for a vegetarian certified product if possible

You can find out more about which supplements to take over on our blog.