What are BCAAs?
Years ago when I first started to dive into the realm of fitness and nutrition, someone asked me what I knew about supplementation. “Not a thing,” was my response, and I’m still struggling to wrap my head around most of what I have learned in the meantime. There are over 30,000 different nutritional supplements and natural food products competing in the market today. I’ve tried products made to boost metabolism and curve appetites; I’ve ordered one of-a-kind greens powders imported from Canada; and I’ve taken powders, pills, and liquids all designed for various body-improving purposes. Did I figure anything out? Yes. It’s no wonder that every fitness enthusiast is confused, bewildered, and downright skeptical of all the “you can’t live without” energizing, metabolic driving, decreasing, increasing, volume massing, replenishing, repairing… “stuff” out there. I know I still am.
While I’ll be the first to admit that there’s an incredible amount of information yet to learn, one supplement that I have learned much about over the years is Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs). Originally when I sat down to write this article, I really just wanted to write about my favorite blue raspberry drink mix that helps me reach my daily water intake, where to find it, and how much of it you should take yourself. After thinking about it a bit longer, I decided that wasn’t quite enough. When it comes to supplementation, the more you know the better.
Branched Chain Amino Acids are the building blocks of protein and muscle tissue. There are 20 different types of amino acids, half of which our bodies naturally produce. The other half must be supplied by food sources such as meats, fish, vegetables, dairy, and legumes. The difference between these amino acids and BCAAs is that BCAAs are simply comprised of three essential amino acids: Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine. Leucine is the most heavily researched and though many of the potential effects of BCAAs aren’t yet understood, many scientists and researchers believe these—Leucine especially—play the biggest role in our body composition. And if we miss out on even one of these essential aminos, our bodies go looking for it. The human body will literally start to take back its own proteins (think muscles!) to get back what hasn’t been replenished. And unfortunately we can’t store aminos either; we have to ingest them each day. 
Why are these proteins so important? Simply, they not only catalyze most—if not all—of the reactions in our living cells, but they also control almost the entire cellular process. Now I’m no biology major or anything, but I know enough to realize that this is huge. And for those of us who are less concerned with biology and more concerned with overall wellness, amino acids are important for basic general health and many physical goals. What captures my attention is that amino acids assist with muscle building, losing fat, and may actually improve exercise performance. 1 After supplementing with BCAAs for over three years, I find this to be true.
So how does this work, exactly? Let me start by saying that there’s still a lot of testing being done on amino acids—more specifically supplementation of BCAAs. But many scientists and researchers believe that supplementation offers huge physiological benefits: maintaining muscle mass while losing fat, and retaining energy while working out. And let’s admit, for those of us who spend hours every week in the gym, this is great news!
First of all, maintaining muscle mass is extremely important to anyone, but it’s especially important to an athlete and/or a person on a low calorie diet. The leaner a body gets, the more likely it is to lose muscle mass. Our bodies are genetically designed to hold onto and store fat—especially when we need a lot of energy. The less fat we have the more muscle we’re likely to burn. I’ve realized that sometimes my body fat percentage is higher when I weigh less. I’m convinced it’s because my body has been taking back its muscle while I’ve been trying to cut fat. Supplementing with BCAAs means that the body doesn’t have to break down muscle tissue to use for energy during exercise. BCAAs not only stimulate protein synthesis, but they will reduce the rate of protein breakdown, thus helping you burn the fat off your body, not your hard-worked-for muscle. This is particularly great for athletes like bodybuilders, figure competitors, and MMA fighters who need to get their bodies extremely lean.
Second, many researchers believe that supplementing with BCAAs will enhance performance during a workout. Though there’s actually less research to support this theory, I believe it whole-heartedly. During a prolonged endurance exercise or a challenging strength training session, glycogen in the muscles becomes depleted and the muscles may rely on BCAAs for fuel. During exercise, serotonin levels rise and increase our perceptions of fatigue—lessening the intensity of a workout. We all know what it feels like to get tired towards the end of a workout and supplementing with BCAAs may actually help to improve the intensity and duration of a workout. The theory is that the BCAAs reduce the Tryptophan that enters the brain, reducing serotonin, allowing us to work harder, longer.4 Ever since I started supplementing with BCAAs, I’ve found that I can push my workouts to levels in which others have a hard time keeping up. During heavy lifting I don’t need as much recovery time between lifts, during cardio I don’t tire out easily, and during plyometric/callisthenic—aka “crazy” workouts that test strength and endurance for long periods of time—I can finish my workout with the same intensity (sometimes more intensity) than I started. A great example of this success is the recent CrossFit 7-minute burpee challenge. (Keep in mind that I completed this after a rigorous 45-minute kettlebell routine.) I should have been exhausted, yet I was easily able to keep a strong pace of 15 burpees per minute accomplishing 105 burpees by the end of the seven minutes. Most of my competitors started fizzling after the first few minutes. I know it sounds a little cocky, but while others are feeling tired, sluggish, or weak towards the finish, I feel great. And trust me—my competitive edge loves that feeling. Wouldn’t anyone want the same?
So now that you know what BCAAs can do for you, where or how do you get them? The easiest place to find them is in your diet. High protein foods such as lean meat and non-fat dairy offer the greatest amounts. Serious athletes and individuals with less time to prepare meals can find BCAAs in protein powders commonly used in shakes or consumed peri-workout. I love both these options and I try to make most of my diet revolve around these. The only negative about these sources is that both food and whey supplements must be digested before entering the blood stream—nothing wrong with this normally. However, BCAA supplements require no digestion and enter the bloodstream rapidly. This is great for an especially hard workout or even for muscle recovery when you’re not working out.[4-5] I believe this is the reason I can “go hard” in the gym so often. The BCAAs reach my bloodstream exactly when I need it to.
BCAA supplements come in the form of powders, pills, and capsules, and I’ve experimented with all three. My favorite is a powder called Xtend, made by SciVation. These BCAAs come in six different flavors (including the ever popular Green Apple, Watermelon, and my favorite, Raspberry Blue), and they come in a 30- or 90-serving size container. Just one scoop into 16-24 oz of water provides 3500 mg of L-Leucine, 2500 mg of L-Glutamine, 1750 mg of L-Isoleucine, 1750 mg of L-Valine, and 1000 mg of Citrulline Malate (reduces muscle fatigue). Xtend even provides 32% of the daily requirement of vitamin B6. It also contains zero carbs, calories, fat, and sugar. And somehow it still tastes amazing. I order it from bodybuilding.com, but it can also be found at Amazon.com, and other supplement websites. I also order plain, unflavored leucine powder. Since leucine seems to be the more important amino for muscle building, I also add about 5 grams to my post-workout shake.
Speaking of 5-grams, one of the trickiest questions to answer once you’ve figured out what BCAAs can do for you, is how much do you take and how often? And the answer pretty much depends on you—your goals, how much you workout, etc. Most doctors, researchers, and athletes would probably suggest consuming BCAAs before, during, and after training in order to prevent fatigue, to provide energy, to stop muscle protein breakdown, and to speed up muscle recovery.5 I also take BCAAs throughout the day to help with muscle recovery and to aid fat loss instead of muscle loss while watching my diet. Xtend actually recommends five scoops per day so I typically aim for three peri-workout. Many lifters I know will take a gallon jug, throw in five plus scoops of their favorite flavor and drink it throughout the entire day. This method works really well if you’re a serious athlete and if you don’t mind carrying a gallon jug everywhere you go. As I said above, I also add plain leucine powder to my recovery shakes.
Thus, there’s still a lot of research to be done on all the effects of supplementing with BCAAs. Nevertheless, these amino acids may help individuals increase/retain muscle, decrease fat, and improve performance in strength and endurance activities. From my experience with them, I would have to agree—BCAAs have done more for my workouts and my body than any other supplement to date.
For further product information: www.bodybuilding.com/store and www.amazon.com
For further information on branched chain amino acids:
 “BCAA and Athletic Performance” by Dr. John Berardi and Justin Brooks www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/sports_body_training_performance_bodybuilding_supplements/bcaa_and_athletic_performance
 “The Chemistry of Amino Acids” www.biology.arizona.edu/biochemistry/problem_sets/aa/aa.html
 “BCAAs: The Many Benefits of Branched Chain Amino Acid Supplements” by Layne Nortonhttp: www.bodybuilding.com/store/amino.html
 “Amino Acids and Bodybuilding” by Barry Finnin, PhD, and Samuel Peters. From Muscle and Fitness Magazine, 1996. www.getbig.com/articles/protein.html