What Are BCAAs? What Do BCAAs do? When Should You Take Them?

BCAA’s or Branched Chain Amino Acids are one of the most popular supplements on the market today. You might have seen guys (or girls!) at your local gym with huge jugs of brightly coloured liquid. Chances are they’re mixtures of BCAAs.

Considered by many to the be ideal supplement, BCAAs are used by athletes to build muscle mass, stave off the onset of fatigue and decrease body fat while retaining muscle.

What are BCAAs?

Chemical Make-up of Leucine, one of the 3 BCAAs

Of the 20 Amino Acids that form protein, Branched Chain Amino Acids are 3 of the 9 essential amino acids that make up muscle proteins: Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine. These three BCAAs do the heavy lifting when it comes to forming muscle and make up around 35% of our muscle mass. The ‘Essential’ part means that we’re unable to synthesise them ourselves within the body. Instead, we need to source them nutritionally - From food, Whey or pure-form BCAAs.

Of the three BCAAs, Leucine is the big deal. Leucine directly stimulates protein synthesis which can result in increased lean muscle mass, increased insulin levels and increased muscle mass retention.

Isoleucine, plays an important role in energy uptake and prevents your body breaking down your muscles for energy.

And Valine is kind of just there. Doing Valine things. It works in a similar way to the other two BCAAs, but not a significant way.

The Benefits of BCAAs

As we’ve touched upon briefly BCAAs have a wide range of potential benefits, such as:

Increased Protein Synthesis - Protein synthesis is the technical term for what happens during muscle recovery as our muscles rebuild. While all amino acids play a role in this, BCAAs ability to stimulate protein biosynthesis via the mTor signalling pathways makes them particularly important.

Preserves Muscle Proteins - When you’re cutting back the calories the last thing you want to happen is to lose muscle mass, but that’s exactly what happens if you don’t provide your body with the fuel it needs to function. BCAA’s provide the important nutritional building blocks for maintaining muscle without the extra calories that most BCAA rich food or even protein powder contains.

Reduces Post-Workout Muscle Soreness - One of the most pronounced effects, even for experienced athletes is in decreasing DOMS (Delayed onset Muscle Soreness). We’ve all been there after leg day, when even the thought of clambering up that single flight of stairs is our very own Everest. BCAA’s resist the very worst of muscle damage during hard exercise

Delays Fatigue - BCAAs have been shown to delay the onset of fatigue for endurance athletes. Firstly they do this by acting as a fuel source, usefully for when you have depleted your muscles glycogen stores. Secondly, BCAAs can delay the onset of Central Fatigue (when your brain becomes tired, rather than your muscles). They do this by preventing the amino acid tryptophan from getting to the brain as it is produced during exercise. In turn Tryptophan is converted into serotonin, causing you to feel sleepy and relaxed.

BCAAs for Fasting

Fasting, calorie cutting - whatever you call it. Receiving enough nutrients to function while reaching your goals is tricky balance. The last thing you want is to lose muscle mass you’ve worked hard to gain. BCAAs increase protein synthesis which has been shown to help retain muscle, especially when cutting back, and this especially important on a calorie deficient diet!

The tricky thing here is that there is some debate to how many calories free-form BCAAs contain - One study suggests that one gram of BCAA’s contains 4 calories, others 10cals. Other theories suggest they should be counted as around 2 cals. Importantly however, BCAA’s are supremely effective at ensuring you keep your muscles and unlike protein shakes don’t contain a host of other macros (fat, carbs, etc) that result in an increase of calories.

Are BCAAs right for me?

BCAA’s have the potential to benefit a wide a range of athletes. It’s worth pointing out that if you have a good diet the average person will probably consume enough BCAAs from the protein in their diet. If you push yourself beyond the normal limits then you’re in position to really benefit.

The most pronounced benefit will be seen by athletes on calorie deficient diets who risk not consuming enough BCAA’s through food or supplementation (including whey powder) and can end up losing muscle mass because of this. BCAA’s are the most calorie

Our favourites

We've listed some of our big hitters here at Echo. We've chosen them based on a few categories - the main one is what WE think of them. Do they come from a reputable brand using quality ingredients? The second is their popularity here at Echo!

Boditronics IntraCell XTRA BCAA

Boditronics have nailed it with Intracell BCAA. Each serving contains a massive 14g of BCAAs per serving ensuring you get exactly what you need, when you need it. Furthermore, they've combined it with Citrulline Malate, L-Glutamine, Taurine and Electrolytes to maximise performance during exercise. It's one of our best sellers, and all of the flavours are pretty agreeable too, which is nice.

PhD Intra BCAA+

PhD's Intra BCAA+ contains 7g of BCAAs per serving, which most athletes will find more than enough! It followed up by a healthy dose of L-Glutamine to refluel your muscles ATP stores and backed up by aN array of Amino Acids designed to reduce tiredness and fatigue. We really like PhD's amino acid choice here. They can go a really long way towards effective and comfortable recovery!