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BCAA Supplements and Muscle Growth

Examining the ingredients of a BCAA supplment.
Are BCAA supplements
something you should take?

One of the ways supplement companies sell their products is to avoid revealing too much information. They hide behind obscure names and give just enough in vague promises to get people interested. It sells product, but doesn't really help people who are trying to make an informed decision.

A popular supplement being marketed like that is called BCAA (Branched Chain Amino Acids). In the 1980s sports nutritionists were excited about BCAA's because they thought that taking them might enhance sports performance. Several studies were conducted, but things didn't work out the way they thought. BCAA's did NOT enhance performance. When subjects were given BCAA's they couldn't run further, move faster or lift more weight.

But that doesn't mean they didn't help. When people were given BCAA's immediately after a workout, they DID speed up the rate that muscle repaired itself. Here's how it works.

The Mechanics of BCAA's

Traditional protein powders are typically made up of 22 different amino acids. They're broken down into three categories, essential, non-essential and conditionally essential. Those amino acids are the building blocks of muscle tissue and they help provide energy.

Researchers found that just three of those essential amino acids, leucine, isoleucine and valine accounted for about 35% of the essential amino acids in muscle proteins. Those three essential amino acids are called BCAA's.

Unlike other amino acids, BCAA's are synthesized directly into muscle tissue and they don't need to be processed by the liver first. After a workout muscles need protein fast, so the idea is that BCAA's can go right where they're needed, bypassing the liver and speeding up recovery.

Several small clinical trials over the years have shown that BCAA's do indeed reduce muscle soreness and fatigue sensation. If taken immediately after exercise, they can also accelerate recovery by reducing muscle damage and inflammation. But here's where there's a problem.

Traditional protein powders contain all 22 "standard" amino acids (which include the three BCAA's.) If someone takes a supplement with JUST the three BCAA's, they aren't getting the remaining 65% of amino acids used in muscle repair!

There are also no tests showing that taking a supplement of BCAA's and traditional protein powder together, can help make muscle repair happen any quicker than taking the protein powder alone. Before you decide to take a BCAA supplement, you should wait until a couple of research studies are done.

The Ideal Study #1

The first research study should consist of four groups. They would all do the same exercises, three times a week for 8 weeks.

  • Group one would take no protein supplement after exercise.
  • Group two would take a protein supplement only after exercise.
  • Group three would take a BCAA supplement only after exercise.
  • Group four would take both a BCAA supplement and a protein supplement after exercise.

The goal of the research would be to figure out which group did better.

Here's the problem. As of 8/21/2012 (the date this article was finished,) not a single company has done a comparison study like that. They spend thousands of dollars a month promoting their products, and they've been selling them for more than a decade. Why won't they spend a few thousand to make sure it actually works?

The Ideal Study #2

The second research study would be to test the products on people who are critically ill. After all, restoring and preserving muscle is crucial for extremely sick people, why wouldn't they want their products to be used by doctors and hospitals?

The Bottom Line

It's the lack of clinical evidence that worries me the most. History is full of supplements that showed great promise in early tests, only to fall apart after being investigated more thoroughly. Until the manufacturers conduct tests to prove they work AND what dosage amount is appropriate, your best bet would be to avoid them.

Casein and whey protein supplements taken after a workout have been proven to help in hundreds of trials over several decades. Stick with them until research shows that adding a BCAA supplement to the mix would work better.

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