If you’ve spent any time inside a gym or stepped into your local nutrition shop, you have likely been bombarded with supplement suggestions. Many of them make claims to improve your performance and help you reach your goals faster. This can include muscle growth, increased focus and sleep, or even burning extra fat throughout the day.
But which of these supplements actually works, and what do you really need? Assuming that you aren’t working toward a very intense goal (such as a bodybuilding competition), your needs are fairly basic. If you have goals to lose fat, build lean muscle mass, or support your immune system, though, there are supplements that would be beneficial to have on your shelf.
So, where do you start? Well, let’s begin with the foundation.
Amino acids are the building blocks of our bodies. They link together to form the proteins necessary to build cells, muscles, and other tissues. Amino acids also play a large role in biosynthesis and even neurotransmission. Your body would cease to function without the intake and creation of amino acids.
There are 20 naturally-occurring amino acids total, but nine of these are referred to as essential amino acids. These nine are a bit unique because your body cannot actually create them on its own within the body – they must be ingested through a varied diet. Of these nine, three are produced synthetically in a supplement called BCAAs.
One of the more popular supplements among athletes, BCAAs can be found on every nutrition shop shelf. The acronym stands for Branched Chain Amino Acids, and contains three of the nine essential amino acids that the body cannot synthesize on its own: leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
Why do you need to supplement these amino acids if we get them from food? Well, there’s a number of reasons.
- If you are training regularly, you are utilizing your amino acids stores at a higher rate than the average person. In order to support cell production, muscle formation and repair, and even basic metabolic functions, your body will be using its amino acid supply more readily than if you were just sitting on the couch all day. Supplementing these amino acids will help your body maintain its cellular function and repair muscle tissues quickly and easily. And without running low on resources.
- Many athletes, especially those in “cutting” (lean down) phases, have more limited diets than average. Sure, they are likely taking in high amounts of protein. But they may not be taking in the types of foods needed to meet demands for essential amino acids. The three amino acids that comprise BCAAs are most readily found in egg and dairy products – many athletes cut out dairy products due to fat content or because they can cause bloating in those who are even slightly lactose-sensitive. Therefore, you may not even be getting enough of these amino acids to begin with.
- Training regularly, working out hard, and pushing your body to new limits can be exhausting. It takes serious effort for your body to run the metabolic processes required for proper recovery. These include repairing torn muscle fibers, building new muscle tissue, burning fat, allocating energy sources, and replenishing lost tissue hydration. Your body works hard, and all of these tasks involve, you guessed it, amino acids. Think of BCAAs as lending your body a helping hand, rather than forcing it to struggle to keep up.
So, How Do You Choose a BCAA Brand?
There are hundreds of brands of BCAAs out there, all promising to do the same thing. While the actual amino acids themselves are essentially the same from a chemical compound standpoint, that doesn’t mean that each bottle of BCAAs will do the same for your body.
How Much Amino Acid Is Inside?
Of the three amino acids contained, leucine is the most important for stimulating muscle protein synthesis. As such, you should pick a BCAA that has a higher quantity of leucine than isoleucine or valine.
But be careful! Some companies will run with this and advertise unnecessarily high ratios of leucine compared to the other two, some as ridiculous as 10:1:1. This actually can have a negative effect, as the three work synergistically. Sure, adequate quantities of each need to be present in order for it to have the desired effect. But if one is present in too high of quantities, it can actually end up depleting the other two. Of course, this is the opposite of what you want.
The golden standard is thought to be a ratio of 2:1:1. This is actually the same ratio for these three components that is found in your muscle tissues naturally.
What Else Is In There?
Companies know that if it tastes and smells delicious, it will probably earn repeat customers. This is probably true from a marketing standpoint. But you shouldn’t always go with the one that is the yummiest or looks the coolest in your shaker bottle.
Many of the BCAA brands out there contain a number of unnecessary additives. These can include large (unnecessary) doses of dyes, toxic chemical sweeteners, preservatives, and other supplement “boosters” that are more for marketing purposes than true effect. Many of these additives can cause gastrointestinal issues (even if they’re as mild as bloating, it’s still unnecessary), skin issues, or can even affect blood sugar levels, leading to increased fatigue or hunger.
Plus, you’re paying for those additives! Pure amino acid compounds can be pricey, so these fillers save the company money. Meanwhile, you get less of what you actually need.
While it may be impossible to escape all additives, try to find a brand that is as clean as possible. I’ve used Warrior Fuel’s BCAAs for a long time now, as they don’t add any preservatives or artificial colors/dyes. They also add extra hydrating ingredients such as coconut water powder and recovery boosters such as taurine. (Which I’ve had to buy separately in the past.)
Plus the flavors are incredible — get the tiger’s blood. You’ll thank me later. *Use code Steph15 to save*
How Much Should I Be Taking?
The jury is still out on this one, but that’s also because it can vary greatly depending on your dietary intake, training intensity, and metabolic function. Standard advice though, is that you should take anywhere from 5-10 grams of BCAAs surrounding your workout.
Many athletes choose to mix up their supplements mid-workout, sipping them as they continue and finishing the dose as they end their training. This allows your body to begin utilizing the amino acids to repair muscle fiber micro-tears that occurred at the beginning of your workout, transport oxygen to your body while it’s still being trained, and support the metabolic functions that have begun as your workout continues. Finishing the dose near the end of the workout allows your body to begin the repair and recovery process.
Amino acids are a vital building block to every single one of your body’s processes. Some of them can be synthesized by your body, but others – the essential nine — need to be introduced through diet and supplementation.
BCAAs aren’t a miracle supplement, and they won’t do the work for you. However, combined with adequate training, sufficient water ingestion, a varied diet, and rest, they will give you a boost toward meeting your goals. Whether you want to burn fat, build lean muscle, or even just support your immune system during intense training regimens, BCAAs are a great place to start.