Supplement Review: Do BCAA's Help Build Muscle & Lose Fat?

Posted on 04-Jan-2018 by Kripa Jalan

With a myriad of supplements available in the market, the search for ones to improve athletic performance and aid in recovery continues to run strong. At this point, BCAA’s or Branched Chain Amino Acids, surface as a strong contender in the supplement game. Comprising mainly three essential amino acids, namely Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine in a 2:1:1 ratio, BCAA supplements have been shown to stimulate protein synthesis and also prevent exercise-induced protein breakdown, thereby resulting in muscle retention. While Isoleucine regulates blood sugar levels and Valine helps in tissue repair and maintaining Nitrogen Balance, Leucine required in double the amount as compared to the other two is used as a source of energy.

Why take it?

Dieting can directly be associated with muscle catabolism. Coupled with a grueling exercise regimen, the body could potentially be left with plundered glycogen stores. It then has a tendency to hold on to fat reserves and raid the amino acids in muscle tissue to derive energy. Amino acids are essentially the building blocks of proteins and consequently muscle mass. If this rate of breakdown exceeds the rate of synthesis, it will result in the loss of muscle tissue. BCAA levels can increase the availability of carbohydrates and help protect the muscles from exercise-induced protein breakdown. Although there’s no way to put a complete stop to these mechanisms, BCAA’s can definitely help alleviate these grievances.

When should you take it?

BCAAs are oxidized differently as compared to other amino acids and can be utilized in the muscles to fuel exercise.  An article cited by the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition reviewed the effects of BCAA supplementation on trained volunteers via strenuous exercise. Out of twelve males, 6 were assigned to a placebo group and 6 to a BCAA administered the group. The grueling exercise consisted of 100 consecutive drop-jumps. All the variables were measured immediately before and after the damaging exercise at 24, 48, 72 and 96 hours. There was a prominent reduction in Creatine Kinase and Muscle soreness and a significant increase in the recovery of muscle contraction in the BCAA group as compared to the placebo group. The remaining indicators didn’t show a marked difference. The study thus proved that BCAA ingested pre and post-training reduces muscle wear and tear and hastens muscle recovery. The study clarified the effects of BCAA supplementation before and after exercise but shed little light on its consumption while training.  The American Journal of Physiology conducted an experiment to gauge this effect. Branched-chain amino acids (BCAA) or a placebo was given to seven subjects during 1-hour of cycling and a 2-hour recovery period. Ingesting BCAA during the training period did not affect the rate of exchange of the aromatic amino acids in the legs or increase their content in the muscles. Contrarily, in the recovery period following exercise, a rapid decrease in the muscle concentration of aromatic amino acids was discovered. The results consolidated the claim that BCAA’s have a protein sparing effect when ingested in the recovery period post-training, However, had little or no difference when consumed whilst training.

What are the other benefits?

1. Improves mental & physical performance.

A study conducted on marathoners and cross-country athletes suggested that both mental and physical performance were improved by the consumption of BCAA’s during exercise. Additionally, the plasma concentration of the aromatic amino acids was altered when a BCAA supplement was given during the marathon.

2. Greater strength & endurance.

Branched Chain Amino Acids have been known to affect hormone levels as well. They lower the levels of Cortisol and increase the levels of Testosterone in the body, which translates to a greater ability to undergo intensive training, resulting in greater strength and endurance.

3. Reduces fatigue

Fatigue from rigorous training is a complex occurrence attributed to the central nervous system (CNS) and muscle tissue. An increase in brain 5-HT (5-hydroxytryptamine) or Serotonin concentration and overall activity has often been shown to result in physical and/or mental fatigue. Ingesting BCAA’s could potentially inhibit the increase in 5-HT and thereby enhance performance. An important relationship surfaced between brain 5-HT and central fatigue. BCAA supplementation reduces the amount of Tryptophan that enters the brain and consequently reduces the amount of Serotonin produced. This gives you room to step up your workout intensity. However, BCAA supplementation has been shown to reduce exertion but not enhance athletic performance in untrained males. Therefore, their benefits may be limited to those with a certain degree of fitness.

4. Promotes fat loss

It is a well-known fact that fat in surplus hinders performance. The greater the muscle mass, the more calories burnt consequently resulting in fat loss. Diets rich in protein and moderate in carbohydrates greatly enhance fat loss. This finding can be attributed to a number of factors ranging from increased satiety to an increased level of thermogenesis. BCAA Leucine seems to play a vital role in the diet. Apart from providing energy by sparring glucose it also modulates insulin levels and regulates protein synthesis. As a result, stable blood glucose levels are maintained and muscle catabolism is inhibited.

A word of caution…

Having cited these findings, it is necessary to note that numerous studies are often conducted on rats and other animals. Therefore, their relevance to humans is questionable. Further investigation is required to reach an unchallengeable conclusion.

Is it found naturally in foods?

Some may argue that BCAA’s are found naturally in several food sources like meats and eggs or even in protein powder supplements one may consume. However, the BCAA’s found in these sources are bound to other amino acids and only liberated when digested, which could take up to several hours. However, in their free form in supplements, they need no digestion and are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream. Furthermore, as a supplement by itself the nutrients are administered in controlled and measurable amounts, they ensure prevention of protein degradation. When consumed in the form of foods, there is no guarantee that the nutrients will be utilized well to their full potential. When administered during a workout they provide a quick source of energy owing to the Isoleucine content as previously mentioned. The speed factor comes into the picture due to the fact that BCAA’s can quickly bypass the liver and stomach and enter the bloodstream.

In conclusion, BCAAs are vital to muscle function in more ways than one. Largely used to aid in recovery post-exercise, can also be taken pre-exercise or during training sessions to slow down muscle fatigue, serving as a preventive measure.  


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