Bodybuilder’s Guide to BCAAs

Whey protein, arginine and creatine weren’t always the most popular supplements back in the day. Their roles were taken up by branched-chain amino acids, which were, and still are, a bodybuilder favorite simply because they have an awesome effect on your strength, energy, muscle growth and fat loss – there is no reason to not be using them. Let’s look into what they are and how they affect your body.

1. What Are Branched-Chain Amino Acids?

Branched-chain amino acids are composed of the three essential ones – valine, leucine and isoleucine. The body uses about 20 amino acids to get its muscles to grow, but in volume, a third of those are BCAAs in your muscles. Their name comes from their chemical structure, which sort of looks like a branch. However, their name is not important – what is, is that your body processes these three amino acids differently than it handles other amino acids. The other ones are sent to the liver to be broken down and used for fuel just in case your body needs energy instead of muscle building right now.

2. What Do Branched-Chain Amino Acids Do?

The liver makes all the difference here – it doesn’t break them down – it just sends the BCAAs onwards to the muscles to be used as fuel or for building new muscle tissue. Your muscles are also able to use these amino acids directly for fuel whenever necessary, which means that BCAAs are extremely versatile. If you take them during exercise, your body will use them for energy. If you take them when you’re resting your body will use them to create new muscle tissue. It’s easy to do, you just have to watch your timing before or after working out.

Branched-chain amino acids are used by your muscles for energy when you exercise, which means that when you train harder and longer, you will have fewer BCAAs in your muscles afterwards. You can stop this from happening if you take BCAAs before you start training, simply because the amino acids you’re supplementing with, are being used up incredibly quickly for energy. This means that your energy levels will be better with the BCAAs than without them.

3. Providing Fuel for Your Muscles

Aside from improving your energy levels by giving your body a practically unlimited source of fuel, BCAAs give you even more energy through a mechanism involving the brain. Some years ago, French scientist found out that one amino acid metabolite, 5-hydroxytryptamine, 5-HT for short, sends a signal to your brain to tell it that your body is tired, making it reduce your muscle strength and stamina. 5-HT is created by tryptophan, an amino acid which competes to get in the brain with valine, which means that when you take BCAAs before working out, less tryptophan gets in your brain and reduces the 5-HT effects on your muscles. So, if you take some BCAAs before exercising, you will feel less tired, which will let you train longer and harder, which will in turn, boost your muscle growth. BCAAs also reduce your brain function by reducing the brain’s fatigue, which also boosts your mood, having them have a more significant effect on you.

4. Having More Energy

Of course, having more energy to work out will make you last longer, but bodybuilders mainly take branched-chain amino acids because of their ability to make your muscles grow. BCAAs directly stimulate the creation of muscle protein one amino acid at a time, which adds up really quickly. There was even a discovery by scientists from the medical branch at the University of Texas in Galveston who found out that leucine was the most important amino acid of all BCAAs when concerning protein synthesis. If your muscles are the lock, leucine is the key that unlocks it and begins the process of synthesis.

Also, leucine raises your insulin levels, which is good because insulin is an anabolic hormone which makes your body make even more muscle protein through an entirely different mechanism, meaning your body is being made to build muscle from multiple sources because of leucine. Just because this amino acid is so beneficial to your body (the most beneficial actually) it doesn’t mean that you should take it alone – combine it with other BCAAs because they provide incredible muscle growing benefits as well.

5. Hormone Control

BCAAs make your muscles grow faster and bigger by controlling your human growth hormone (HGH). There was a research study in 2001 by some Italian scientists that determined that the athletes that had taken branched-chain amino acids for a month had more HGH and HGH-binding protein after working out. This protein is really important because it carries the growth hormone through the blood and to the muscles that need it to begin growing. It’s kind of like a catalyst. Also, BCAAs affect cortisol, which is a catabolic hormone. In 2006, the International Society of Sports Nutrition determined that athletes who took BCAAs had far less cortisol in their system during and after working out, when compared to another study group that only took placebos. This effect blunts the effect of cortisol, meaning your muscle membranes are free to continue growing and developing further.

6. Increased Strength

If having more energy and growing muscles faster isn’t enough for you, there is more. Branched-chain amino acids even make you stronger! There was a 2003 study performed by scientists in Rome that determined that men who took BCAAs for only two days had a stronger grip than those that took a placebo. Another research group at CSU in Fullerton reported an increase in leg muscle power as well. After about two months of taking leucine and whey protein which has a lot of BCAAs itself, and doing a leg weight training routine, testosterone levels were increased and muscle breakdown was reduced. There are a number of studies that have demonstrated that if you take BCAAs, your muscles break down far less after working out, and your recovery is quickened and made easier. Also, this resulted in a reduction in DOMS (Delayed-onset muscle soreness), which was proven in a Japanese research study.

7. Increased Muscle Glycogen

Also, BCAAs help your body by making your muscles have a high muscle glycogen, according to research from the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil. Carbohydrates are stored in your muscles in the form of muscle glycogen, and it usually burns out when you exercise because it powers your muscles when they get stressed. This may make your muscles smaller because glycogen will pull in water from the outside which will keep them large and plump, but if you take BCAAs, your muscle glycogen levels will be even higher after training. Since you will be sparing your muscle glycogen, the ingested BCAAs will instead maintain the size of your muscles by keeping them full and nice-looking. When your muscles are fuller, you will have the opportunity to grow them more and get stronger too! There was another study from Australian scientists in 2006, published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, which determined that taking leucine for 6 weeks was beneficial for outrigger canoeists by making them stronger and boosting their endurance.

8. Fat Loss

In 1997, there was a scientific study that analyzed competitive wrestlers that were taking branched-chain amino acids on a low-calorie diet. The study conclusively showed that those wrestlers that took BCAAs lost far more weight than those who didn’t, but they also experienced a larger body fat reduction in the abdominal area than those who only took a placebo. Leucine provides the most fat loss effect, and according to a 2006 study by Brazilian researchers, this is because it boosts your energy expenditure by increasing your protein synthesis, which would be burning more body fat. The study took six weeks and had conclusive results.

Leucine works towards fat loss in another way too – it makes you less hungry! It directly tells the brain it is not as hungry, as it was reported by scientists at the University of Cincinnati in an issue of “Science” in 2006. The scientists injected leucine directly into the brains of rats and determined that they ate less and got less fat than those with just a normal placebo. Researchers said that they think the leucine levels in the brain can indicate amino acid levels in the bloodstream, meaning that when you take leucine throughout the day, you’re telling your brain to think you have tons of energy and don’t really need that much food. This can help you reduce your hunger when you go on a diet.

Finally, with all of these benefits, it shouldn’t be a difficult decision to add BCAAs to your diet, but remember – it’s all in the dosage. I would recommend 5-10 grams of BCAAs per dose, for a minimum of four doses per day. They should be the first and last thing in your day, as well as half an hour before and after your workout for the day.

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