When you open the door to fitness supplements, it’s tempting to take everything you can to see results faster and wring every benefit possible out of your workout.
However, this quickly becomes time-consuming and expensive. Plus, not all supplements are effective for everyone.
One supplement that people often question as necessary is branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). This popular fitness supplement is a must-have for some, but others question if it’s really worth taking.
In this article, we’ll weigh the benefits of taking BCAAs and outline who is most likely to benefit from adding this supplement to a fitness regime.
What are BCAAs?
Before we get into the details of how they benefit fitness, let’s zoom out to better understand what are BCAAs.
These are called the “building blocks” of protein. When protein is digested, amino acids are absorbed and utilized in the body.
The body can actually produce some amino acids on its own. Out of the twenty amino acids your body needs to function, it can produce eleven. The other nine are considered “essential,” meaning they must be obtained from food.
BCAAs are a specific group of three of the essential amino acids that the body cannot produce - leucine, isoleucine, and valine. You can get these from food or a supplement.
Another reason why BCAAs are unique is because of their chemical structure. As their name indicates, they have a branched-chain, which allows them to function differently when taken as a supplement.
Athletes and fitness enthusiasts commonly take supplemental BCAAs, either as a powder mixed into water or other beverages, or as a capsule.
Why Do People Take BCAAs?
People take BCAAs to maximize these amino acids in the body and level up their fitness in some way. Taking a supplement covers all the bases in case the diet isn’t sufficient to provide the muscles with the maximum amount of BCAAs.
This is different from simply increasing protein in the diet, because of the amino acid makeup of the body. BCAAs make up over a third of the amino acids in the body. Taking a supplement targets these amino acids specifically, whereas increasing protein intake would provide less.
Some people start taking BCAAs to break a fitness plateau, improve workout performance, prevent delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), or prevent muscle wasting. Gym-goers often also mix BCAAs with other sports supplements like creatine.
In a hospital setting, BCAAs are often used to help with certain liver conditions.
Do BCAAs Actually Do Anything?
BCAAs have many roles in the body. The real question is whether or not supplementing them has an added benefit. Here’s a brief overview of the BCAAs and their functions:
Leucine - involved in protein synthesis, tissue regeneration, and metabolism
Isoleucine - helps with wound healing, supports the immune system, and is involved in the production of many hormones
Valine - involved in muscle protein synthesis, repairing tissues, and supporting energy levels
How Taking BCAAs Could Improve Fitness
Most people who take BCAAs are looking for one or more of these research-proven benefits:
Workout performance - Serve as an extra source of energy during long workouts, and could help delay fatigue.
Muscle growth - Encourage tissue regeneration and repair, which helps build muscle.
Workout recovery - Can help reduce soreness and inflammation after a workout.
Are BCAAs Safe to Take Every Day?
For generally healthy people, BCAAs are safe to take every day. However, certain genetic conditions interfere with BCAA metabolism and people with these conditions should avoid them.
Side effects from taking BCAAs are rare. Of course, it’s best to consult with your provider before taking any new supplement.
Are BCAAs a Waste of Money?
The cost of any supplement can add up over a period of time and just like any other supplement, whether or not BCAAs are worth the money depends on your goals and your current diet.
To experience any potential benefit from BCAAs, you need to commit to taking them consistently over a long period of time.
If you already take a lot of supplements and think adding another could be difficult, or you know that your routine is currently more inconsistent, BCAAs might not be worth the money right now.
However, if taking BCAAs is a sustainable part of your supplement routine, finding a way to break plateaus in your fitness journey is well worth the money.
Who Doesn't Need BCAAs?
BCAAs are also found in food. The best sources include animal-based protein such as beef, lamb, cheese, milk, and yogurt.
If you follow a high-protein diet that includes animal products and a lot of variety, it’s possible that you’re already getting plenty of these amino acids.
Supplemental BCAAs are also unnecessary for people who exercise for general health, rather than to actively improve endurance or resistance training.
Who Can Benefit from BCAAs?
People who follow a plant-based (vegetarian or vegan) diet would likely benefit from supplemental BCAAs.
There are plant-based sources of protein that provide BCAAs, including beans, lentils, nuts, and soy. However, the amount they provide is much less than animal proteins and a lot of variety is required to obtain all 3 amino acids.
Intense resistance training increases the need for BCAAs to the point where diet alone may not be enough. Someone relatively new to lifting or who increases the intensity of their workouts may experience better workouts and quicker results when they take BCAAs.
BCAAs have the potential to improve fitness and muscle growth in several ways. Although these amino acids are only available through food, it’s not difficult for most people to get enough with a varied diet. This is more difficult for people who follow a plant-based diet.
Taking BCAAs can cover your bases if your protein needs are high for a variety of reasons. Targeting these specific amino acids can help with energy during your workout, muscle building, and post-workout recovery.