EAA Supplement Guide for Bodybuilding

Amino acids get a lot of talk in the fitness world, and it’s for a good reason. Amino acids are crucial building blocks for many of the body’s most essential processes. All athletes need to ensure they’re consuming an adequate amount of amino acids each day.

BCAAs and EAAs are both types of amino acids that can be found as oral supplements. Will taking them improve your bodybuilding journey?

What are EAAs?

You’ll see two types of amino acids referenced often in wellness circles: BCAAs and EAAs. BCAAs are branch-chain amino acids, and EAAs are essential amino acids. The most important difference for athletes to remember is that EAAs cannot be made quickly enough by the body to replenish stores, so they must come from the diet.

EAAs can be found in almost all dietary protein sources, with some foods having higher concentrations than others. Because it is so important that these amino acids come from foods, it means a high-protein diet must be prioritized every day to ensure optimum levels.

All Nine Essential Amino Acids and Their Benefits

There are nine different amino acids that are considered essential, and each performs a highly specialized function within the body. Some of them, like leucine or tryptophan, may already be in your vocabulary, but even the silent heroes among them are important for a healthy and well-functioning body.

Histidine

Not only a building block for histamine (which is important to your immune system), histidine also helps to form new red blood cells and helps to repair damaged tissues. Since the goal of strenuous weight lifting is to cause micro-tears in muscle tissue, histidine plays a crucial role in helping to rebuild muscles to make them larger and stronger than before.

A deficiency in histidine can have a few detrimental effects on an athlete’s body. The most notable might be the inability of skin lesions to heal quickly enough (because it plays such an important role in tissue repair) or anemia. 

Isoleucine

Isoleucine plays a crucial role in several key bodily functions like protein metabolism, glucose transportation, fatty acid metabolism, and helps the immune system to function.

Isoleucine also helps to increase muscle mass by promoting myogenesis and intramyocellular fat deposition (the fat stored within muscle cells that provide energy).

You can find isoleucine in high concentrations in eggs, fish, poultry, soybeans or soy protein, and lean cuts of beef. 

A deficiency in isoleucine is most commonly found in populations over 65 that do not eat a high-protein diet. Symptoms can include anything from muscle atrophy to body tremors.

Leucine

Leucine is commonly discussed in weightlifting circles because it helps skeletal muscles (the ones you use during your big lifts) have more energy and explosive power. It also helps with the production and use of ATP. 

While it does help with energy production, you’re unlikely to notice a significant boost like you would with caffeine. In actuality, adequate leucine intake will just help with elevated and more even energy levels throughout the day.

Lysine

While some EAAs are made by the human body in small quantities, lysine is not made by the body at all. This means all of the lysine needed for healthy functioning must come directly from an athlete’s diet. You can find it in abundance in both lean and fatty fish, eggs, and poultry.

Lysine is essential for tissue repair of all types, from muscles to skin and nails. A deficiency in lysine can result in weak nails, hair loss, fatigue or general brain fog, and even mood changes.

Because lysine plays such a crucial role in tissue repair, it is important for athletes to speed up recovery time and get the most from their workouts.

Methionine

While it is one of the lesser-discussed amino acids, methionine is crucial to tissue growth and building – making it very important for bodybuilders and strength athletes. It is also one of just two amino acids that contain sulfur and is helpful with speeding up recovery.

Methionine is available in animal and dairy-based proteins like the other EAAs, but is also prevalent in many plant-based fatty protein sources like nuts and seeds, so it is very easy for vegan or vegetarian athletes to meet their daily intake requirements.

Phenylalanine

Phenylalanine is most commonly found in dairy like milk and eggs and is closely linked to proper brain function. Having adequate phenylalanine in the body is linked to strong production of dopamine. It also helps with memory, focus, and learning ability.

While muscles get most of the spotlight in the world of bodybuilding, a sharp mind can’t be under-emphasized. Increased mind-muscle connection during workouts is linked to more efficient muscle building, reduced risk of injury, and quicker progress toward weightlifting goals.

Threonine

Threonine, like its better-known counterpart listed below, tryptophan, plays an important role in our sleep quality. Diet and workout procedures dominate the discussion when it comes to bodybuilding methodology, but adequate rest is considered equally as important as its other two counterparts according to experts. 

Threonine is prevalent in dairy and animal-based protein sources of all kinds, so a deficiency in it is quite rare for those that consume animal products. Vegan or vegetarian athletes will be the most likely to be deficient in threonine. This can easily be remedied by adding a hemp or soy-based protein shake to one’s diet.

Tryptophan

Getting sleepy and needing a nap after a big turkey dinner on Thanksgiving is a common event here in the States. Did you know elevated levels of tryptophan is often thought to be the culprit? Turkey is one of the best sources of tryptophan, and elevated tryptophan helps to produce melatonin, which has a calming effect and can induce drowsiness.

Tryptophan also helps with protein synthesis and muscle recovery. There is no need for a daily Thanksgiving feast to have restful and restorative sleep, however, you can get just as much tryptophan and recovery benefits from having a casein protein shake before you head to bed.

Valine

Valine is one of the three EAAs, alongside leucine and isoleucine, that enhance energy, increase endurance, and aid in muscle tissue recovery/repair. This enhanced recovery helps after a regular workout and can also boost recovery time from injury to muscle, connective, or skeletal tissues as well.

A lack of valine in the system can be linked to drowsiness, general fatigue, and muscle atrophy over time. Similar to most other EAAs, it is easily found in both animal and plant-based protein sources alike. It can also be found in trace amounts in many vegetables.

How Many EAAs Should You Be Getting in a Day?

According to physicians at the Mayo Clinic, the daily requirements for EAAs are calculated as milligrams per 2.2 pounds of body weight. The recommended allowances are:

  • Histidine: 14 milligrams
  • Isoleucine: 19 milligrams
  • Leucine: 42 milligrams
  • Lysine: 38 milligrams
  • Methionine: 19 milligrams
  • Phenylalanine: 33 milligrams
  • Threonine: 20 milligrams
  • Tryptophan: 5 milligrams
  • Valine: 24 milligrams

For example, a 180lb athlete would be looking for 3436 milligrams (or 3.46 grams) of leucine each day. An average-sized egg contains between .6 and .7 grams of Leucine, making this a very easy target for a bodybuilder to hit when focused on protein macros.

Should You Take an EAA Supplement for Bodybuilding?

It is hard to spend any amount of time in bodybuilding-centered spaces without hearing about the importance of a high-protein diet. A high-protein diet is recommended for beginner and advanced lifters of all sizes and ages. 

Most athletes typically aim for around one gram of protein per pound of body weight each day. If these nutrients are coming from high-quality sources (like an emphasis on whole foods supplemented with a great protein powder to fill in gaps), it is highly unlikely that a bodybuilder will need to supplement with a standalone EAA supplement, as their diet will have all of their needs covered.

Exceptions to this rule may be athletes that are on very restrictive diets, such as due to allergies or other sensitivities. Those that are on a plant-based diet may also find they are choosing protein sources that may not have enough amino acids. If this is of concern, consider tracking a few days’ worth of meals in a tool like MyFitnessPal to see if you have any nutritional gaps.

Another possible exception may be bodybuilders who also compete in low-impact but high-endurance sports, like ultra-running. When preparing for races, these athletes often opt to emphasize carbohydrates in their diet over other nutrients. Consider adding an extra protein shake (even just an extra half of a serving) to ensure amino acid needs are met.

What Should You Take Instead of EAA Supplements?

Instead of picking up an EAA supplement, which is likely to be redundant for the vast majority of athletes, focus on making sure your macronutrient needs are dialed in each day. For many athletes, it is very easy to meet daily carbohydrate and dietary fat needs, but protein can fall short. Consider adding a high-quality protein powder to your daily routine – this will help you meet your macro goals and keep you replenished in EAAs.

If you have dialed in your dieting and are easily hitting your daily goals but are still seeking a supplement that can help you have stronger workouts and build muscle more quickly, consider adding a creatine supplement to your regimen. Creatine can give you more power during your workouts and can improve your recovery time.

Real Foods That are High in EAAs

Luckily, many foods that bodybuilders are already prioritizing happen to be great sources of EAAs.

  • Beef
  • Bison
  • Pork
  • Turkey
  • Chicken
  • Salmon
  • Tuna
  • Mackerel
  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Yogurt
  • Shellfish

For those that are plant-based, you may need to put some more thought into your protein sources to prioritize the intake of EAAs, but there are still many sources at your disposal: quinoa, buckwheat, hemp seeds, and spirulina all contain high amounts of EAAs. For lacto-ovo vegetarians, dairy and eggs are great sources of amino acids. Eggs (whole eggs, meaning yolk and egg white combined) actually contain all twenty amino acids.

Conclusion

Essential amino acids certainly live up to their name and are crucial to an athlete’s diet. However, their abundance in high-quality proteins means that the vast majority of bodybuilders don’t actually need to fret over whether or not they are ingesting enough EAAs. 

To ensure these micronutrient needs are met, ensure you’re eating a high-protein diet (use tracking tools if needed to gauge progress) focused on whole foods and supplement with a high-quality protein powder anytime the food on your plate might be falling short.

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Pierce Reiten
Pierce Reiten

Pierce Reiten is an NASM certified personal trainer with over a decade of experience in the gym. He's passionate about providing information to help you improve your fitness and life.

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