What are BCAA supplements?

BCAAs are a quick energy source

Image source: Maridav
BCAAs are a quick energy source

If you’re new to weightlifting, you might have heard the term ‘BCAA supplements’ thrown around.

But what are they and do you need them?

Let’s find out…

What are BCAAs?

Your body uses around 20 different amino acids to grow muscle. Some can be produced by your body, others cannot. Ones that can’t are known as essential amino acids, ‘essential’ because they must be put into your system via diet.

Three of these essential amino acids are the branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), ‘branched’ because of their molecular structure, which resembles a tree branch. These three essential amino acids account for a third of skeletal muscle.

Once ingested, BCAAs bypass the liver and go straight to the muscle tissue, quickly transforming into an available energy source – exactly what you need when working out.

Types of BCAAs

The three BCAAs are leucine, isoleucine and valine. They work together to prevent fatigue and to maintain muscle mass and strength during times of physical stress, including intense workouts.

Leucine: has anti-catabolic properties and is possibly the most important of the three BCAAs because of its capacity to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.
Isoleucine: is both glucogenic and ketogenic. It helps prevent muscle wastage and promotes tissue repair – important for anyone on a training programme. It’s also important as it helps maintain blood glucose levels.
Valine: promotes nitrogen equilibrium, repairs tissue, and can stimulate the central nervous system – essential for optimal cognitive functioning.
BCAA supplements come in various forms. You can buy powder in packs of 500 g or 1 kg, or there are tablets, capsules and pills. The optimal ratio of leucine, isoleucine and valine is 2:1:1. Most BCAA supplements adhere to this.

Reasons to take a BCAA supplement

Efficient: If you work out at the gym, run, cycle or swim on a regular basis you could potentially use more BCAAs than you get from your food. That’s where a supplement can be useful. Having a sufficient supply of BCAAs is essential for bodybuilders, weightlifters and endurance athletes.

Growth & development: Without adequate BCAAs, molecular growth and development can’t take place. If you aim to build muscle you should ensure you ingest enough of these three very important amino acids.

Quick energy source: Because they are metabolised in the muscles, BCAAs are quickly absorbed and provide a rapid, available source of energy just when you need it most.

The benefits of BCAAs

When combined, these three powerful amino acids can:

  • Support the action of insulin
  • Trigger protein synthesis
  • Regulate blood sugar levels
  • Allow you to train harder for longer
  • Enhance mental functioning during periods of stress
  • Act as a readily available energy source
  • Aid rapid recovery
  • Increase testosterone levels post-workout
  • Assist with fat loss

How to use BCAA supplements

Because BCAAs offer a quick energy source, and aid in the repair and building of muscle, the best time to take them is on your training days. Every product will list recommended dosages so do read the instructions carefully. For example, something like Matrix BCAA RAW drink should be taken in the following way:

  • Mix one scoop (approximately 10 g) into 200-250ml of water.
  • Drink post-workout.

Extra benefit in terms of protein synthesis and muscle preservation can be derived from taking BCAAs at other times of day, but this should be in addition to the above, not instead of. It’s worth noting BCAAs are best taken on an empty stomach.

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