When you’re new to weight training or are just starting to take it more seriously, you have tons of questions about the best training splits, exercises, and equipment to help you pack on muscle as fast as possible.
You also have a lot of questions about nutrition, particular supplements like protein shakes and amino acid pills. And one of the most popular bodybuilding supplements that have stood the test of time is branched-chain amino acids (BCAA).
But what’s the difference between regular amino acids and BCAAs? Can you get all the aminos you need just by eating regular food, or do you need to start taking some kind of supplement at this point in your training?
And if you do try an amino supplement, is one of them better than the others?
When I first heard about branched-chain aminos, I had all of these same questions too. I didn’t want to waste money on supplements that didn’t work, and I heard people online saying both good and bad things about BCAAs.
Many gym gurus talk about them like they’re pure magic, while some others act like they’re practically worthless.
So I was exactly where you’re at today. I just wanted to know the truth about aminos without a bunch of hype from marketers and sellouts.
In the next few minutes, I’ll give you the best answers I’ve found, and I’ll link out to some sources so that you can do further research on your own. Then we’ll sum it up with some key action steps to put this info to good use.
So let’s start at the beginning.
What Are Amino Acids?
Amino acids are generally referred to as the building blocks of proteins. The 20 different amino acids are involved in tons of different biochemical processes within the human body and are involved in regulating your energy levels, building muscle tissue, sustaining your vital organs and even burning off fat tissue.
From a bodybuilding perspective, aminos are often equated with the muscle itself — since muscles are made primarily of protein, and protein is made primarily from amino acids.
There’s technically more to it than that, but for bodybuilding purposes that simplistic explanation is good enough.
Essential And Non-Essential Amino Acids
There are two basic types of amino acids: essential amino acids and non-essential amino acids.
The non-essential amino acids are those that can be produced within your own body. They are still “essential” in the sense that they are needed for the proper formulation of proteins. So they definitely have value and are needed for proper bodily functions.
But the “non-essential” aspect of their nature refers to the fact that you don’t need to ingest them in the foods that you eat. Your body can make them all by itself by breaking down other compounds.
List of Non-Essential Amino Acids
- Aspartic Acid
- Glutamic Acid
Essential amino acids (EAAs), on the other hand, are those that you need to get in the foods that you eat. Your body cannot create these aminos itself — except by catabolizing muscle tissue.
So failure to ingest protein-rich foods in your diet can lead to a shortage of these amino acids and can have negative consequences for your health and for your physique.
List Of Essential Amino Acids
What Are BCAAs?
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a small subgroup of essential amino acids that are known to be heavily involved in muscle protein synthesis (muscle growth) and muscle protein breakdown.
Having a steady supply of these aminos — along with the other EAAs listed above — can help you hold onto your hard-earned muscle tissue while dieting down for a competition, and they can help you build more muscle tissue in the off-season between shows.
List of Branched-Chain Amino Acids
Muscle Growth Vs Muscle Breakdown
When your body is low on a particular amino acid, it has to scrounge up that compound by breaking down other tissues in the body.
This can interfere with your bodybuilding goals, so it’s something that you want to avoid as much as possible.
Now technically, your body is always breaking down old muscle tissue and building new muscle tissue. It’s like a constant recycling of muscle proteins. What you want, though, is to tip the scales in favor of protein synthesis to achieve a net anabolic state.
In other words, you want your body to build new muscle tissue faster than it breaks down old muscle tissue.
So as a bodybuilder, athlete or fitness enthusiast, it’s really important that you are supplying your body with a steady stream of amino acids throughout the day so that your body doesn’t have to break down as much existing muscle tissue to support other biological processes.
This is where consistent protein consumption and supplementation comes in.
Mixed Results In The Lab
In a 2017 article in the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition (JISSN) titled, “Branched-Chain Amino Acids and Muscle Protein Synthesis in Humans: Myth or Reality?”, Dr. Robert R. Wolfe, Ph.D. contrasted the results of some studies involving BCAA injection in rats with those involving human subjects.
While researchers studying rats concluded that muscle protein synthesis increased when BCAAs were administered, others found the opposite to be true when BCAAs were given to humans.
In both of the human studies Wolfe referenced in his paper, muscle protein synthesis actually decreased. But muscle protein breakdown also decreased right along with it.
The two kind of balanced each other out, but the net effect was that the subjects were still left in a catabolic state. So muscle breakdown was decreased, but muscle growth also decreased even more.
This is not what bodybuilders — or BCAA supplement marketers — want to hear.
So what caused these mixed results in human studies?
Wolfe argues that slowing down the breakdown of muscle tissue resulted in fewer available EAAs in the amino acid pool to combine with the BCAAs, which then inhibited the ability of the body to generate new muscle growth.
But here’s the rub: Dr. Wolfe himself is a marketer of EAA supplements, so he has a lot to gain financially by debunking BCAAs and promoting a more balanced blend of EAAs in their place.
Follow The Money
And that’s the problem with trying to prove anything scientifically, especially when it comes to proving or disproving the effectiveness of nutritional products and bodybuilding supplements.
If you’re a sports nutrition researcher, and you want companies to keep sponsoring your work so that you can continue to do your job, then that’s going to put a lot of pressure on you to produce the kinds of results that your sponsors want to see.
Science is expensive, so you always need to follow the money.
Behind every scientific study there is an organization or two that is paying for the study and has a vested interest in the results.
And sometimes, even the researchers themselves own patents on competing products too — as is the case with Dr. Wolfe. It doesn’t automatically skew the results, but you have to acknowledge the conflict of interest.
It just makes you want to punch all these guys in the nuts, doesn’t it?
So I can’t say without a doubt whether BCAAs are proven to help with muscle growth and maintenance or not. Researchers on both sides of the debate can point to scientific studies arguing for and against their effectiveness.
But most sports nutrition experts over the past few decades seem to believe that BCAAs can help to support muscle protein synthesis and decrease muscle protein breakdown. It’s not a consensus, but it is definitely a strong majority.
Here’s What We Know
So what can we know for sure about supplementing with amino acids for muscle growth and preservation?
- Most sports nutrition experts agree that you need sufficient protein to preserve muscle tissue while dieting and to support muscle growth
- Most experts agree that maximum muscle growth requires a full spread of amino acids all day long
- Most experts agree that deficiency in a single amino acid at any given time can limit muscle growth
- Most experts agree that you should get most of your protein from whole foods like meat, eggs, dairy products, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes
- Most experts agree that a high-quality protein shake with a full spectrum of amino acids is the most important supplement for bodybuilders
- Most experts agree that bodybuilders and strength athletes need to consume two to three grams of protein per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight to maximize muscle growth.
So based on all of this, my advice shouldn’t surprise anyone.
1. Eat quality, whole foods like sweet potatoes, brown rice, whole-grain pasta, whole-grain bread and fresh fruit for sustained energy.
2. Eat plenty of lean meats like sirloin steak, flank steak, pork tenderloin, chicken breast and turkey breast along with eggs and whole milk for protein.
3. Take a high-quality protein shake between meals for a balanced stream of amino acids to your muscles all year long, regardless of whether you’re trying to gain muscle or lose fat.
4. Take an EAA supplement as directed whenever you are limiting your calorie intake to minimize muscle loss.
5. Vegans and vegetarians: eat lots of legumes, tofu, tempeh, nuts, seeds and plant-based milk instead of meat and use protein supplements to get a good balance of amino acids both pre-contest and off-season.
Are BCAAs a waste of money? They’re probably not, but you should be able to get the same effect with EAAs at a fraction of the cost. But supplementing with either of them isn’t nearly as important as getting lots of protein from real food and protein shakes.
Pursue Your Bodybuilding Goals Intelligently
This is a lifestyle, and if you want to stand on stage or on the field next to the best in your state, the best in your country or the best in the world — then you need to level up in every way possible and take advantage of every edge you can get.
Protein shakes, BCAAs, EAAs and other bodybuilding supplements can and should play a part in helping you achieve your bodybuilding and strength goals, but they are not the foundation.
If you’re a hard-training, high-level professional athlete, then these supplements can make a small difference in your performance and your results.
But if you are new to bodybuilding and athletic training, then it’s much more important that you nail down the basics before getting caught up with minor details like these.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that 90 percent or more of your success will be based on your training and diet, especially in the first few years of your training program. Supplementation takes a back seat to those factors.
Don’t be lazy with your nutrition. Bodybuilding supplements are not a substitute for quality, whole foods. You can’t be lazy in the kitchen — or in the gym — and expect to make up for it with powders and pills.
If you want to max out your results and achieve the best physique possible for you, then you need to exert self-discipline in every aspect of your bodybuilding journey.
If you’re spending half your paycheck on amino acid supplements while eating crap from the drive thru and vending machine every day, something is a little messed up in your head.
That’s like decorating an unfinished new house with imported designer furniture and gold-plated door knobs while your foundation is uneven and the roof isn’t even in place yet.
Hard, dedicated training with moderately heavy weights and consistent nutrition derived from whole foods are the foundation upon which your physique and athletic performance are built. Those are your priorities. Spend your time and money there first.
Once those are in place, then you can add in protein supplements, vitamins and even amino acid tablets as needed to fill in the gaps or to give a little boost to the results you are already stimulating with hard training and solid nutrition.