Guide to BCAAs for Bodybuilding – Read Before Buying BCAAs

If you’ve spent time browsing the supplement aisle, you’ve likely seen BCAA supplements on the shelf next to the protein powder and pre-workout supplements. BCAAs, Branch Chain Amino Acids, are crucial to many parts of basic human function. 

BCAAs are integral in the bloodstream and muscle tissue, but does that mean they have also earned a place in your cabinet? This article will tell you what you should know about BCAAs for bodybuilding and if they’re really worth adding to your supplement stack. 

What are BCAAs?

BCAA, or branch chain amino acid, is a generic term for the amino acids the human body metabolizes to use as a source of energy within the muscle tissue. They are essential nutrients that the body relies on to “burn” for energy within the muscles.

BCAAs are found naturally in protein-rich foods like animal products or legumes. Their direct impact on muscle growth keeps them in the spotlight for all athletes, particularly bodybuilders and powerlifters. 

Because BCAAs are naturally occurring in food sources, they are considered to be a very safe supplement without the risk of major side effects (unlike other supplements like pre-workouts that contain caffeine and niacin) for most athletes.

What Do BCAAs Do for You?

BCAAs play an integral role in muscle building, particularly the star amino acid: Leucine. When consumed in sufficient quantities, Leucine opens pathways that signal your body to grow more muscle tissue. 

Amino acids like leucine are also linked to insulin production. Increasing insulin production from the pancreas can increase the body’s glycogen stores and reduce muscle protein breakdown. This combination means you will recover from strenuous workouts more quickly.

BCAAs don’t work alone, however. They open these pathways and processes within the body to make muscle growth easier. However, you’ll still need other essential building blocks for muscle growth: adequate calories, sufficient protein, strenuous exercise, and other supportive care like good quality rest.

Benefits of BCAAs

A diet sufficient in BCAAs will be a diet that is suited to support a bodybuilder’s goal of building and keeping lean muscle mass. Because BCAAs increase the body’s ability to recover quickly and hold onto muscle tissue, strength and power-focused athletes will want to ensure they are ingesting adequate amounts each day to reach their goals.

Interestingly, one study found a link between Leucine and fat loss (without impact on muscle mass) in animals. These results are quite promising but have yet to be replicated in human trials. [1]

How Many BCAAs Should You Be Getting on a Daily Basis?

The three amino acids considered BCAAs are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Supplementing with up to 35 grams per day has been proven to be completely safe. For athletes that add them to their supplement stack, most dosing protocols vary between 7 and 15 grams taken daily

If you are looking to calculate if you’re getting enough BCAAs naturally in your diet, research each of your protein sources, including both whole foods and powdered supplements, throughout the day – that will be where you find BCAAs occurring in your diet. Meat, dairy, and plant-based proteins like tofu and seeds will all have BCAAs in them in varying quantities.

Should You Take a BCAA Supplement?

The vast majority of strength athletes, like bodybuilders, will not need a standalone BCAA supplement because they will be consuming a high-protein diet that is rich in BCAAs. However, there are a few possible niche exceptions to this rule:

  • Those that are on a strictly plant-based diet and may be low on protein
  • Athletes that also compete in low-intensity endurance sports like long-distance running
  • Bodybuilders that are undergoing an extreme cut or short-term caloric deficit and are eating below their usual protein allotment 

Even in these extreme circumstances, data is still thin and actual benefits can’t be proven concretely. Some studies show that supplementing BCAAs can help with muscle soreness, but the research pools are still quite small and thus not definitive yet. [2]

What Should You Take Instead of BCAA Supplements?

If you’re worried you aren’t getting enough BCAAs in your diet, you will want to first ensure you are ingesting adequate protein. The average bodybuilder will be shooting for one gram of protein per pound of body weight. 

If you aren’t getting adequate protein from real foods, add a protein powdered supplement to your daily routine. This will cover your amino acid needs and help you hit your daily macronutrient goals.

A whey protein (or other types of protein powders) will likely give you enough BCAAs, along with the BCAAs that you are getting from the rest of your meals. 

If you are interested in BCAAs because of their muscle-building and recovery benefits, consider also adding creatine to your routine. Creatine is a safe and well-researched supplement directly linked to greater muscle building, muscle recovery, and higher energy during workouts.

Best Whey Protein Powders for BCAAs

A few good options with a high-quality amino acid profile would be:

Transparent Labs Whey
Transparent Labs Whey Isolate Powder

They only source their whey from grass-fed cows in the US and don’t add any artificial dyes, flavors, or preservatives. It is a top favorite amongst bodybuilders, particularly those near show time, where every micronutrient or additive can affect body composition on the stage.

Dymatize Iso 100
Dymatize Iso 100 Hydrolyzed Whey

With 5.5 grams of BCAAs per serving, Dymatize is a great choice for those who may fear they don’t get enough protein (and thus BCAAs) from whole foods in their diets.

MyProtein Whey Isolate
MyProtein Whey Isolate

This protein comes in eight great flavors and is available in bulk sizes (200 servings!), making it an efficient and budget-friendly choice. MyProtein rigorously tests all of its products through third parties to ensure high quality.

Alternative Protein Powders That are Good for BCAAs

While whey protein is the most popular supplement on market shelves, plenty of athletes still prefer to avoid adding it to their diet. If you are avoiding whey protein due to food allergies, lactose intolerance, or dietary preferences, you have a plethora of options:

  • Casein protein is another milk-based protein full of BCAAs, but it is naturally lactose-free.
  • Soy protein is one of the most common plant-based protein sources and is a favorite for those who prefer cooking with their protein (like in pancakes or oats) rather than drinking it in a shake.
  • Pea protein will have the highest BCAA content per serving among its plant-based counterparts, so it is a great choice for those that do not ingest animal products.
  • Beef protein is nearly as quickly digesting as whey, so it is well suited for a post-workout shake.
  • Hemp protein is the plant-based protein with the lowest ecological footprint because hemp plants grow quickly and are gentle on topsoil, making it preferred among those that are conscious of their environmental impact.
  • Brown rice protein is another plant-based complete protein source rich in BCAAs and EAAs.
  • Egg white protein is not just packed with amino acids; it’s also remarkably lean and low in carbohydrates and fats, so it is perfect when eating at a caloric deficit.

Are EAA Supplements Better than BCAAs?

With the conflicting research on BCAAs, some claim that EAA supplements are a better option. Getting all nine essential amino acids does provide a more well-rounded base. However, a high-quality protein powder should contain all nine EAAs, along with the many real foods that contain essential amino acids and are likely already on a bodybuilder’s plate at each meal. 

A combination of EAAs and BCAAs is crucial in a well-rounded diet. The only way to know if one or the other supplement is necessary to pursue is through a period of diligent meal tracking. 

Using a nutrition calculator like MyFitnessPal to plot an average day or week’s worth of eating can give you a great idea about whether or not you are hitting your daily amino acid goals. If not, consider tweaking the foods on your plates or look into a supplement if necessary.

Real Foods That are High in BCAAs and EAAs

You will find BCAA and EAA-packed whole foods in the same places you find high-quality protein-rich foods:

  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Eggs
  • Beef
  • Bison 
  • Lamb
  • Goat
  • Tuna
  • Salmon
  • Whey protein
  • Greek yogurt
  • Tofu
  • Quinoa
  • Red lentils

Because BCAAs and EAAs are present in all protein-containing foods, there is no need to plan your meals around amino acid consumption. By prioritizing a high-protein diet, which is always recommended for all bodybuilders and other high-intensity athletes, you will naturally consume adequate amounts of amino acids.

Physical stress or injury can increase your body’s need for amino acids, but that doesn’t mean you need to start supplementing them if that is the case. Focus on maintaining your well-rounded diet and getting adequate rest.

Conclusion

While the importance of amino acids can’t be understated, a person who is taking conscious measures to eat a high-quality and protein-rich diet most likely has them covered already. When choosing which supplements to add to your stack, your money is probably better spent on a high-quality whey or beef protein powder.

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