A popular sports nutrition supplement on the market among both men and women, branched chain amino acids line the shelves of every major nutrition store. Let’s take a look at what BCAAs are, their benefits and how to use them.
What are amino acids
First, let us put on the lab coats and define what an amino acid is (warning: if you don’t like all the sciency stuff just skip to the next section!). An amino acid is an organic compound that contains an amine group, a carboxylic acid group, and a side chain that varies amongst the different types of amino acids.
These molecules participate in various chemical reactions in cells, also known as “metabolic pathways”, that are vital for the human body to function correctly. All proteins consist of amino acids, which is why it is common to hear them referred to as “the building blocks of protein”. In the form of proteins, amino acids make up a large component of muscle tissue (and other tissues and cells in the human body).
There are 20 common variations of amino acids found in plants and animals. For humans, there are both “essential” and “non-essential” amino acids. Essential amino acids cannot be produced naturally by our bodies and therefore must be ingested. Nonessential can naturally be synthesized in our bodies.
What are BCAAs
A branched-chain amino acid or “BCAA” is an amino acid that has a carbon atom bound to more than two other carbon atoms. There are three key BCAAs: leucine, isoleucine and valine.
These three BCAAs account for about 35% of the essential amino acids in muscle proteins, which is why supplementing them in conjunction with exercise is popular.
While substantial BCAA intake can be obtained through proper diet, those that participate in athletics and weightlifting are recommended to ingest more BCAAs than sedentary individuals. We recommend a product like our own PrettyFit BCAA Burn, which contain a strong ratio of BCAAs as well as all-natural non-stimulated fat burning compounds to improve your metabolism.
BCAAs are crucial to building muscle, repairing damaged muscle tissue, and muscle energy. Of the three BCAAs, leucine has been shown to be the most important in both muscular energy and recovery. 
Benefits of BCAAs
In terms of exercise and building muscle, there are a few key benefits of BCAAs:
- Promotion of muscle-protein synthesis
- Reduce exercise induced muscle damage
- Reduced delayed onset muscle soreness caused by exercise
- Improved muscular energy
How they work
During exercise as an energy source
Muscles are designed to burn BCAAs for energy during exercise. Some conservative estimates available show 3% to 18% of all workout energy being provided by BCAAs.
For this reason, many who perform “fasted cardio” in the mornings like using BCAA supplements to energize their muscles.
Unlike other essential amino acids that are catabolized mainly in the liver, BCAAs can be oxidized in skeletal muscle. Their oxidation is increased during exercise.
BCAA supplementation research has been shown to help improve endurance exercise capacity. Therefore, as the stored BCAAs get depleted during exercise, it is important to replenish these pools both pre and post-workout as part of the recovery process. 
During recovery in the synthesis of protein and muscle tissue
As the “building blocks of protein”, it is logical that replenishing the pools of BCAAs helps the post-workout recovery process. Studies show that BCAA supplementation decreases soreness and muscle damage caused by exercise.
24-48 hours after strenuous exercise, your muscles are prone to “Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness”, commonly known as DOMS. This is caused most notably by the eccentric muscle contractions, the part of an exercise where your muscle is lengthened while under tension.
For example during a bench press, as you lower the bar to your chest, your chest, shoulder and triceps are tense. This tension slows the bar down so it does not slam onto your chest. This part of the movement is known as the eccentric contraction and is a large cause of muscle tissue damage and soreness. This may seem like a bad thing but this is a GREAT thing! The repairing of your muscles, aided by BCAAs, helps your muscles grow larger, stronger and more powerful. 
How to use and dosage
There are varying opinions on optimal dosages of BCAA supplements. Remember there are three branched chain amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
Many sports nutrition supplements list BCAAs in ratios. A common ratio seen is 2:1:1. This means, if there are four grams of BCAAs in this supplement, there are two grams of Leucine, and one gram each of isoleucine and valine.
Leucine is commonly the highest ratio as research shows it is much more important in the muscle repairing, building and energizing process. Therefore, some newer supplements have ratios of Leucine as high as 12:1:1.
Total doses in one serving range from as little at 200 miligrams of each BCAA to upwards of five or more grams per serving.
Another beauty of BCAA supplementation is that you can take it anytime of the day. The most important times though are pre, intra, and post-workouts.
The common form of BCAA supplements is a mixable powder and often times taste like a delicious sports drink.
NOTE: Protein powders have BCAAs in them. A protein powder may not have BCAAs listed in the ingredients though as they are technically part of the proteins listed in the ingredient profile. This means, depending on your goals, if you take a protein powder regularly, you may not need to supplement with additional BCAAs.
Potential side effects of BCAA supplementation
Minimal side effects of BCAA supplementation have been noted and they appear to be safe for healthy adults. As with all supplementation, read label directions cautiously, take recommended servings and always consult with a health physician before starting any supplementation regimen.
Whether you are an athlete, serious weightlifter or just trying to start a more active lifestyle. BCAA supplementation is helpful for gaining or maintaining lean muscle and keeping your body healthy and functioning correctly. Now enough reading, let’s go workout!
- Sowers, S.. N.p.. “A Primer On Branched Chain Amino Acids”. Web. 1 May 2013.
- United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Ch. 8. “Human Nutrition in the Developing World” 1997.
- Shimomura Y, Murakami T, Nakai N, Masaru N, Harris R”Exercise Promotes BCAA Catabolism: Effects of BCAA Supplementation on Skeletal Muscle during Exercise”. J. Nutr. 134 (6): 1583S–1587S. 2004
- Greer BK, Woodard JL, White JP, Arguello EM, Haymes EM. “Branched-chain amino acid supplementation and indicators of muscle damage after endurance exercise.” Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2007 Dec;17(6):595-607. PM 18156664
- Matsumoto K, Koba T, Hamada K, Tsujimoto H, Mitsuzono R. “Branched-chain amino acid supplementation increases the lactate threshold during an incremental exercise test in trained individuals.” J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 2009 Feb;55(1):52-8. PM 19352063
- Negro M, Giardina S, Marzani B, Marzatico F. “Branched-chain amino acid supplementation does not enhance athletic performance but affects muscle recovery and the immune system.” J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2008 Sep;48(3):347-51. PM 18974721