What is a BCAA – Are they for you?

You have seen them around at your local Supermarket, GNC, or sports nutrition website (like this one!) and this may have resulted in questions like “what is a BCAA” and “is it something I need?” but often the product labels aren’t enough to go on.

Trust me, I know how that feels – walking aimlessly through the supplement store in my local mall, lost in the crazy variety of products. All those flashy labels and packaging designed to catch your eye but sometimes not telling you a thing about what you’re buying.

Well today we’re going to take a good look at BCAAs, for better or for worse, so read on to find out more!

Preworkout, post workout, intra workout, etc. But then there is the less explanatory ones like Creatine and BCAAs.

Here I have collected some information on the subject for you guys and gals to benefit from. The end result is that you’ll (hopefully) have some questions answered and you’ll have some idea of if it is something that could work for you.

Here is a summary of the topics to come:

  1. What is a BCAA?
  2. Why are they important?
  3. Benefits
  4. Side Effects
  5. Other things to consider
  6. Where to buy
  7. Conclusion

As always, let’s get right into it!

 

What is a BCAA?


I’m going to do my best to get this info out there without getting unnecessarily deep into the science stuff. Because the science of nutrition does get pretty complex after all.

That being said, the real do-it-yourself bodybuilders must have a University degree worth of knowledge with all these different medical ingredients you have to learn about. It’s all important stuff too, not to be dismissed by simply labeling it “bro science” and moving on.

BCAA stands for branched-chain amino acids, which covers 3 of the various 9 essential amino acids.

Essential amino acids are special because our bodies cannot supply enough through standard production – they have to come from our nutrition. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein in our bodies, if you remember biology class from your school days.

 

Why are they important?


Well the 3 essential amino acids (the BCAAs) we want to focus on are Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine. Especially Leucine, as it stands to be the most important of the lot. You may have seen these names in the listed ingredients on some of your supplement labels. Protein comes to mind..

And delicious steak. Yum!

But anyways, they’re apparently quite important in the overall process of protein synthesis, which is to say they help you build muscle faster and slow the breakdown at the same time. That’s something we can all use during recovery periods.

They also assist in the prevention of DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) which you may have heard of before. Or you’re just familiar with the feeling – a special kind of post workout agony your muscles sometimes go through if you’ve recently started training again. Or maybe you’ve just pushed yourself with a new exercise, and this is the price to pay for the next 24-96 hours (1-4 days).

Either way, the addition of BCAAs in your nutrition overall can help you get through that awful pain by reducing the damage done to your muscles and assisting in a speedier recovery. Cool eh!? I certainly think so, because having sore muscles for several days after a workout is less than desirable.

There also is some beneficial effects for your immune system as well. For more details, check out this article here.

Increased concentration and ability to focus is another upside of taking BCAAs, benefiting any sort of endurance athletes like marathon runners by delaying the effects of fatigue. Possibly something that may be useful for Esports athletes and professional gamers, but I’ll save that for a separate article.

Quick Recap (Positives):

  • Helps build and grow muscles
  • Reduces muscle pain during recovery (DOMS)
  • Faster absorption into the muscles than through food
  • Enhanced concentration
  • Boosting of the immune system

 

Side Effects:


However, BCAAs are not the magic bullet of the supplement world by being without any downsides.

For starters if watching your blood sugar levels carefully is something that you are required to do, for medical reasons or otherwise, you should approach BCAAs with a bit of caution. It’s said that more sugar is fed to your muscles as a result of taking the supplement and therefore decreases what is available for the rest of your body.

So again, if you have Diabetes for example, definitely consult with your Doctor before using BCAAs.

Low blood sugar levels aren’t just bad for people with medical conditions though. Low sugar levels can cause fatigue, anxiety, headaches, dizziness, and weakness among other things. So even if you’re in great health overall, remember to be safe regardless.

Quick Recap (Negatives):

  • Lowers blood sugar levels, increasing the possibility of fatigue, dizziness, etc.
  • May not be recommended for individuals with Diabetes or other conditions that require careful monitoring of blood sugars.
  • Increased sweating and possible anxiousness for people prone to anxiety

 

Other things to be cautious of:


  • Pregnant or breastfeeding –  the effects of BCAAs on individuals that are pregnant or breastfeeding are still unclear, due to a lack of legitimate medical studies. Unless you’ve heard from a trusted source that it’s okay, I wouldn’t take the chance. Safety first!

 

Where to buy


You can find BCAAs as a supplement in the vitamin/pharmacy sections of your local supermarkets like Wal-Mart and so on. Most dedicated supplement and sports nutrition chain stores would carry them as well (think GNC).

If you’re looking online, Amazon has a worthy selection to look through. In addition to the plethora of options to pick from, there are user reviews and other great info there. Plus free 2 day shipping and exclusive deals for Prime members.

Some other great choices are of course bodybuilding.com and Muscleandstrength.com as both are great online stores with excellent deals on all year round. And more information than you can shake a stick at!

 

Conclusion


I think at the end of the day, the addition of BCAAs to your overall stack of supplements can be a very beneficial thing.

From everything I’ve gathered, the pros far outweigh the cons overall whether you’re a serious endurance athlete or someone relatively new to the workout scene. The increased ability to recover after tough workouts and reduce the pain that follows is almost too good to walk away from. Not to mention the heightened focus!

My experience so far with BCAAs has been positive for sure. I am recovering faster and coming back stronger, which is especially helpful where I’ve been hitting the gym about 14 times a week as part of the Kris Gethin program I’m working through currently. Proper supplementation is key in order to keep going with high intensity day after day like that.

On the downside, I’ve been sweating somewhat heavier than normal which is also said to be a possible side effect. And as an individual who suffers from anxiety on a regular basis, it’s also said that I’m a target for possible anxiety spikes. I haven’t had this issue so far, to which I am more than happy to report.

But as I always say, check in with your Doctor if you’re unsure whether taking any kind of supplement is right for you.

And be safe out there!

– Tyson

10 thoughts on “What is a BCAA – Are they for you?”

  1. I’ve been lifting for a bit over a decade and have tried BCAAs a couple times. I actually have a jar in the closet right now.

    Unfortunately for myself, the anxiety-inducing side effects are very real. Or actually, I would say more of anger and irritability. It took me a while to make the connection but I’m sure it there. I think there was some evidence BCAAs can affect serotonin levels that would explain the mood alterations.

    My go-to is creatine. I recently started mega dosing it after using it for years with low doses. Besides definite strength improvements, my overall energy levels and cognitive energy have improved as well! Just like you, I’m prone to anxiety and low-level depression, especially when tired. Creatine has actually been shown to improve these symptoms and I can vouch for it.

    I’m not too worried about missing out on the BCAA effects as I’m sure our bodies can take all the necessary amino acids from food, our biology isn’t that fragile that it would need all the amino acids separately. Just eat enough protein from multiple sources. That’s my two cents!

    • Hey Jukka, thanks for the feedback!

      In my research, I have come across a couple other people’s accounts of BCAAs causing their anxiety to spike (one even talked of several panic attacks) but the cases were few and far between. I did however find some info that does match your comment about the BCAAs affecting serotonin levels, also leading to impaired decision making by test subjects. But if I recall the doses had to be pretty high.

      Either way, it’s always good to consider every angle.

      Creatine has been a relatively new addition to my daily loadout, and I think I see what all the rave is about. It’s like walking around drinking super fruit punch that helps get you stronger, faster too.

  2. Hi Tyson, thank you for a great article on BCAA. I enjoyed reading it and learnt a lot.

    As someone who has started training recently, I was wondering if I should be taking something for the muscles to recover quickly.

    I have never taken any supplements in my life as I try and eat a healthy balanced meal however after reading your article I am thinking maybe I should try out BCAA. How quickly should I be expecting to feel the benefits of taking BCAA?

    Also, for someone like me in his early 60’s apart from BCAA is there anything you else you can recommend to me to take so that my body recovers quicker?

    • Hey Moni thanks for popping in!

      From everything I have read, the BCAAs tend to take effect pretty quick – studies that spoke of the subject were conducted over short periods of time like two weeks or less. I myself noticed muscle soreness and recovery improvements after a few days but there is always other elements in play too.

      I’ve also found statements saying “no significant effects of recovery until around 10 days after taking it each day”.

      On the topic of whether you should take them or not, obviously I’m not an expert but I will mention that you may be getting enough already in your diet. If you have plenty of protein sources like meats, fish, eggs, and even protein supplements like whey powders, you might be good.

      I have a good webmd article that touches on the subject a little further https://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/branched-chain-amino-acids-uses-risks#1-3

      If you’re looking for faster recovery, I might increase protein intake and definitely take a good look at Creatine.

  3. Thanks for breaking this down so well. I’ve never used BCAAs directly, though I do get some in my protein supplement. I don’t know that that’s as much as ideal, though, so I have thought about adding some. What you mentioned about them causing low blood sugar makes me a little nervous as I’m mildly hypoglycemic already, so I’ll proceed with caution. Do you know if that side effect is as prevalent if the BCAAs come from food rather than a supplement?
    Great article, very helpful!

    • Hey Jordan thanks for the compliment!

      Yessir you’ve seen them in your protein supplements already eh? My preworkout mix has some already present as well. And when you take your diet into consideration, those protein sources provide valuable BCAAs as well.

      Good question though, and I had to look into it and it turns out the supplement has less of an effect on your insulin levels than food does, therefore less of an effect (is the conclusion I’ve drawn). Some people found it easier to control their blood sugar levels by using the BCAA supplements in general.

      Anyways thanks for coming by!

  4. Thanks Tyson,

    I keep hearing the “word” BCAA handed around and used (abused!) a lot with no clear explanation, a lot of “why” but not a lot of “what”.

    Now I know that What, and they why, how is the best way of taking BCAA for the most beneficial effect?

    • How to take them comes down the supplement itself, as some brands have different ratios and doses. For example, the kind I take says 1-3 servings per day and each serving is 5.5g – so 5-15g is good?

      But wait, the nutrition label doesn’t even say what the “daily recommended amount” should be. I think that is largely because the amount of BCAAs a person should take changes based on the diet. If you have a diet that is heavy in protein sources like meat, fish, eggs, dairy, and whey, then you might not see much effect because they all have BCAAs in them already.

      But if you’re lower on your nutritional intake, and not eating like a weightlifter then you’ll benefit more from its ability to prevent muscle degradation.

  5. Could you tell me how much and when we should take a BCAA? I mean, how much g/kg and before/after training?
    And second question, which one is better: powder or pillar?

    • Studies are all over the place as for how the timing relates to training, so I go by the meal calendar instead. I generally take before or during meals like you would vitamins.

      I have an article here that touch on the amounts, and some other excellent information:

      https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/when-to-take-bcaa#other-factors

      But basically it says about 200mg/kg daily for significant results, and it’ll be a few days (upwards of 10 or so) before you get the desired effects.

      As for powder or pill, I like the powder if you can get a good flavour (not unflavoured because it doesn’t smell great). But the pills would be more convenient, something to consider.

      Thanks for commenting!

Leave a Comment