Before we dive into the topic of BCAAs, we need to be clear about protein. Protein is a macronutrient that can be found in both the animal and plant world: meat, fish, milk, yogurt, cheese, eggs, nuts, legumes… they all contain protein. And your body is composed of protein. In fact, protein is the third largest component after water and fat.
When you decompose a protein, for example during the digestion of a steak or a soya meal, you find that it is built from amino acids (AA), like a lot of small bricks. Your body is composed of 20 different AAs. Twelve are NEAA (Non-Essential Amino Acids) and eight are EAA (Essential Amino Acids). You need to intake these eight as part of your diet because the human body is not able to synthesize them. Three of these eight EAAs (leucine, isoleucine, valine) are what we call BCAAs (Branched-Chain Amino Acids).
Protein is powerful stuff. You only need to look around during your grocery shop. A few years back packaging labelled with “light”, “no sugar”, “zero carbohydrates” was everywhere, but now all we see is “rich in protein”!
There are many who are now fastidious about their intake of protein…but why? Some believe that protein has fewer calories than other macronutrients, but this is not correct because proteins provide the same calories as carbohydrates (they both provide 4 calories per gram). On the other hand, well-informed sport and fitness enthusiasts are advocates of protein as they recognize how AAs, especially the BCAAs, are fundamental for building and maintenance of muscles.
Research into the benefits of supplementation with protein, specifically BCAA, is mixed and varied. The strongest evidence suggests that BCAA supplementation before exercise enhances recovery. Supplementation after strength and power exercise can help your body preserve your muscles hit by eccentric contractions (the eccentric contraction is the tension you develop when you elongate your muscle, for example when you go down during a squat in BODYPUMP™).
Amino acids are not only components of your quads, abs and biceps. When you eat a protein meal, the AAs you digest are a clear stimulus for protein synthesis. The BCAAs play a big part in this because they are directly metabolized into the muscles instead of the liver. They are like an alarm bell for the muscles, saying “let’s produce new protein!”.
It’s not all about muscle health! Only 30 to 40 percent of the proteins of your body are used to build muscles, the rest are used to build everything from your skin and hair to your hormones and neurotransmitters.
So do you need BCAA supplementation?
If your goal is to build muscle, you should evaluate your daily intake of protein, especially leucine. If you are an endurance athlete you may want to adopt BCAA supplementation in order to help reduce central fatigue. If you are not young anymore, you could consider BCAA supplementation to help slow muscle loss.
At the moment there are no studies that define the tolerable limit of consumption of BCAAs. What is clear is that supplementation is safe for humans for over three times the normal dose suggested:
- Leucine: 34 mg/kg/day
- Isoleucine: 15 mg/kg/day
- Valine: 19 mg/kg/day
Confused about all these numbers and information? Here’s what you really need to know.
The RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) of protein is 0.8g per kg per day. However, if you regularly practice sport or engage in physical activity, regardless of the type of exercise or your level of fitness, you need more than this quantity. The recommended amount for one elite athlete is up to 2.2g/kg/day.
If you’re an avid exerciser keen to explore how you can maximize your training, here’s what I suggest:
Firstly, start to monitor your daily intake of protein and if you feel the need, use shakes and bars for reaching your dose.
Second, knowing the specific role of BCAAs, observe if you have a right amount of them before or after your training. If your goal is to use them to lessen the impact of fatigue during endurance training, plan an intake before your workout. If you want to preserve the body from the damages of the eccentric contractions or if your goal is to increase muscle mass, plan an intake before and after your training (usually a maximum of one to three hours afterwards).
It’s also a good idea to consider your method of intake. Fueling your body with real food is always best, and for most everyday exercisers supplementing your protein in other ways is not necessary. If you do choose to supplement with liquids consider taking them 30 or 40 minutes before your workout. If you choose solid proteins (or pills), they take longer to digest, so it could be better to plan an intake from 90 to 120 minutes before.
If you’re serious about maximizing the benefits of protein supplementation I suggest you seek tailored personalized advice from a nutritionist.
Alessandra Casagrande is a powerlifter, personal trainer and physical education graduate with a passion for nutrition. She is currently completing a Nutrition Science degree. Based in Italy, she is Les Mills’ Head Trainer for CXWORX and a National Trainer for BODYATTACK, BODYPUMP and LES MILLS TONE.