If you have ever stepped foot into a supplement store you will have certainly seen protein bars, massive bags and barrels of protein powder, pre-workout, and BCAA's. Protein in it's various forms is pretty self-explanatory. Pre-workout has it's function in the name, but what are BCAA's? In this weeks blog I am going to try and breakdown what this aisle of the supplement store is all about, and why you should - or shouldn't - include this in your gym bag must-haves.
BCAA is an acronym for branched-chain amino acids. Amino acids, as some of us may remember from science class, are the building blocks of protein. Proteins in the body serve all kinds of purposes, but the one we are most concerned with here is it's role in muscle tissue repair and recovery.
The 3 branched-chain amino acids are leucine, isoleucine and valine. So if you ever pick up a tub of BCAA's that does not include all 3 of those, then you put that imposter back on the shelf!
A quick google search of BCAA benefits will bring you to a number of health magazine websites, supplement store blogs, and (at least for me) a wikipedia page on BCAA's. Your fitness goals are definitely supported through the supplementation of BCAA's, and I will go deeper into that in a second, but there are also other benefits to using BCAA's that I would like to point out to show you that this isn't just some supplement/fitness-industry science experiment.
BCAA's and DOMS
DOMS is not the name of the super jacked guy at the gym who always seems to have a shaker of some glowing liquid. DOMS is another acronym we use in the fitness world to shorten delayed onset muscle soreness. As you would be able to assume from the title this is what most of us have experienced 24-48 hours after heavy exercise that makes it tough to reach for that cup in the cupboard after chest day, and impossible to climb the stairs after leg day. In a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 36 untrained males between the ages of 18 and 26 were split into 4 groups. 1 received the placebo, 1 received BCAA's and the taurine placebo, 1 received the BCAA placebo and taurine, and the final group received both the BCAA's and taurine (an amino acid found largely in the brain, heart, retina, and platelets). The gentlemen in the study received their various placebo, BCAA and taurine supplements before, during and after their exercise regime and then blood markers, as well as subjective tests were used to conclude the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of the supplement.
What they discovered was that all of the blood markers for inflammation and muscle soreness were significantly lower in the group that took both taurine and BCAA's. This means that if you find that the post-workout soreness is a hinderance to your daily life, you now have a way to mitigate that without having to sacrifice intensity in your workouts! You can shop this link to find a BCAA supplement that includes taurine and start living a less-sore-life.
BCAA's and Weight Loss
It wouldn't be a fitness post without me mentioning something about weight loss. Many of my clients are nervous about taking supplements like protein powder because they have heard it may make them gain weight. There are certainly supplements out there that are designed to help individuals gain mass, but BCAA's are more about maintenance of muscle tissue, while losing fat mass. So basically it will give you that "toned" look that everyone longs for. Not in a magical potion kind of way, of course, but in a good-supplement kind of way.
In another study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, a small group of young, resistance trained males were either given BCAA's or carbohydrates to help them maintain muscle mass on a calorie-restrictive diet. The results showed that both groups lost weight through the diet and exercise regime, but that the BCAA group was able to maintain more muscle mass than the carbohydrate group. Both groups were also able to increase their 1-rep-max squat over the 8 weeks, but the BCAA group was able to improve theirs by more (likely due to the fact that they had more muscle mass to work with).
So if you are at a stage in your training where you are trying to cut weight, but maintain muscle mass so you can keep yourself strong, BCAA's are an excellent way to achieve this. Personally, this is why I use BCAA's right now. I am trying to get my weight down, but I don't want to sacrifice muscle size and strength in order to see the number on the scale drop. If my weight is going to go down, I want it to be from fat, not from muscle.
Not just another fitness fad
I wanted to include this final bit of information in this week's blog post because I have come across so many people who are hesitant to use supplements due to the idea that sports and fitness supplements are all just tricks of some other capitalist scam to make you spend money on things you really don't need. BCAA's are found in nature, of course, and are most easily found in animal products, but the supplement form makes these specific amino-acids readily available to be used optimally by the body. ie. There are fewer hoops that the body has to jump through in order to access and use BCAA's when they are taken in supplement form.
So I just wanted to quickly throw in here that BCAA's are actually a big part of cirrhosis and liver carcinoma (liver cancer) research. In a number of studies (1, 2, 3 and many more), orally ingested BCAA's have been found to reduce oxidative stress and fibrosis, and even suppress tumor growth in patients (both rodent and human) who have cancer in their liver. This power-trio of amino acids is not only your partner in DOMS defense, and a weight lost weapon, but is also improving the lives of individuals who are wrestling with liver disease and cancer. The mechanisms by which BCAA's accomplish are far beyond the scope of this blog, but feel free to explore the number links above to read more about this.
To wrap this up, I just want to mention that BCAA's, like all other supplements, are meant to support your fitness goals. They are not a magic potion that will make you look like that super jacked guy, Dom, at the gym. When used correctly, alongside good nutrition, restful sleep, and a great exercise program, BCAA's can help you reach your fitness goals and help you do something good for your body today and everyday!
Riri's Discoveries blog documents Riri's most recent research, her travel adventures, and her personal fitness journey.