BCAAs vs Creatine: For Muscle Growth and Beyond

If you're at all familiar with the supplement world, you know a bit about BCAA and creatine. These are two of the most popular, most widely used fitness supplements today. But with so many different recommendations floating around, it can be tough to know which is best.

Some recommend branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) for muscle growth while others recommend creatine. Some even choose to include both. Which side is the right one?

We'll answer that question, and share everything you need to know about both of these supplements, in the post ahead.

BCAA vs Creatine: The Differences

Creatine monohydrate and branched-chain amino acids are popular and effective supplements for those looking to improve their physical fitness, but what is the difference between the two?

The first difference is that they are different compounds. Creatine is a compound produced in our body (and found in many food sources), while BCAA supplements are a collection of three "essential" amino acids, leucine, isoleucine, and valine.

Functionally, the biggest difference between BCAAs and creatine is how they affect performance.

BCAAs help build muscle mass while creatine helps to increase power and strength, specifically during high-intensity training.

Creatine Production in the Human Body 

Creatine is naturally found in your body's muscles.

Your liver and kidneys take the amino acids glycine and arginine and make about 50% of your total body's creatine.

There are also many food sources that are good sources of creatine, mainly red meat, seafood, and animal milk.

BCAAs Cannot Be Produced Naturally

BCAAs are a collection of three essential amino acids. Essential amino acids are called that because your body can't produce them by itself. You need to get essential amino acids from your diet, or from supplements.

You can get both BCAAs and creatine from high-protein foods such as meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products.

More on BCAAs

Amino acids are the building blocks for protein. Each protein molecule is made up of a collection of smaller substances, called amino acids.

BCAAs are a subset of three specific amino acids, leucine, isoleucine, and valine, that contain a branch in their chemical structure.

The similar chemical structure of branched-chain amino acids is believed by many to make them work synergistically, being metabolized by the body faster and providing bigger and faster benefits for things like muscle protein synthesis.

Why are BCAAs Called Essential Amino Acids?

There are a total of 20 amino acids however, 11 of them can be synthesized by the body. 

This leaves nine that are considered essential and are required to be obtained from our diet.

BCAAs are three of the nine essential amino acids, which are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.

What is Creatine?

Creatine is an organic compound naturally present in our muscles.

It is considered an effective supplement for improving strength and performance because it helps boost adenosine triphosphate (ATP).

ATP is what provides energy to your cells for functions like muscle contraction. Increasing ATP can help boost energy intensity and therefore performance.

About half of your body's creatine is produced from consuming high-protein foods while the other half is produced by the non-essential amino acids glycine and arginine in your liver and kidneys.

Is BCAA or Creatine Better for Muscle?

Both BCAA supplements and creatine supplements have benefits for building muscle. The one you choose depends on the specifics of your goals, along with your dietary preferences.

If you follow a strict vegetarian or vegan diet, you'll benefit from taking BCAA supplements, as it's likely you're not getting enough from your diet alone.

Likewise, if your exercise focuses on endurance rather than intensity, BCAAs may fit your needs better.

If your gym sessions focus on increasing power and intensity, creatine supplementation may be a better choice.

However, to fully understand whether BCAA or creatine is the best for building muscle, we need to know more about how muscle growth happens in the first place.

Muscle Protein Synthesis: How it Works

Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS) is your body's process of using protein to build and repair muscles following intense exercise.

When we work our muscles, we create tiny tears in the muscle fibers. 

These tears require protein to rebuild and repair these fibers so that they become a little bit bigger and a little bit stronger the next time you replicate that activity.

The breakdown of muscle fibers causes inflammation that often results in muscle soreness. 

Ensuring you are consuming adequate protein in your diet or supplementing with a high-quality protein shake can help boost recovery and improve muscle soreness following intense activity. But more importantly, giving the body the compounds it needs will enhance muscle protein synthesis, and speed up the process of building lean muscle mass.

BCAAs and Muscle Protein Synthesis

Researchers have found a link between BCAAs and MPS.

Some studies have even found that consumption of BCAAs alone might help to enhance muscle protein synthesis after exercise. 

Specifically, leucine, one of the three amino acids in the branched-chain family, is believed to activate a specific pathway in the body responsible for stimulating muscle protein synthesis.

It should be noted however that studies have also found we must include the other essential amino acids, not just BCAAs, to successfully build muscle mass. Without these, results are not as successful.

That being said, although BCAAs are linked with improved MPS, all amino acids play a role.

Therefore, taking a whey protein supplement post-exercise might have similar, if not better, results. This is especially true for people who struggle to get adequate protein in their diet.

You could also take a full amino acids supplement like Naked EAAS, which contains leucine, valine, and isoleucine in the science-backed 2:1:1 ratio for optimal muscle recovery.

Benefits of BCAAs for Muscle Development

Whether you take them in a supplement or focus on consuming high-protein food sources, BCAAs have many benefits when it comes to muscle development.

Not only do BCAAs help with MPS to stimulate muscle growth, but they also help with decreasing post-exercise muscle soreness by improving recovery. 

Studies have found BCAAs help to reduce muscle tissue damage following exercise which can help to improve the length and severity of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS).

BCAAs might also help to reduce post-exercise fatigue, which can boost performance. 

Your body uses BCAAs during exercise. Once they start to be depleted, the essential amino acid tryptophan increases in your brain which causes a boost in serotonin.

Higher serotonin levels in the brain are believed to be linked to post-exercise fatigue. Some studies found supplemental BCAAs showed improvement in post-exercise fatigue levels.

How Does Creatine Aid Muscle Growth?

Although creatine does not stimulate MPS like BCAAs, it can still help to build muscle mass. 

Creatine helps stimulate energy in your muscles which allows you to lift heavier at a higher intensity. This energy allows you to get a better workout that will create better results in muscle growth. 

Creatine vs BCAAs: Post-Workout Recovery

When it comes to recovery, both BCAAs and creatine have benefits. 

BCAAs can help mitigate post-exercise muscle damage, reduce exercise-induced fatigue and potentially speed up recovery time [9].

Creatine is also believed to enhance post-workout recovery by decreasing recovery time between bouts of high-intensity exercise. 

However, not all research supports this theory and some studies found no improvement in recovery with creatine supplementation [11].

Preventing Muscle Breakdown: Creatine or BCAAs?

BCAAs appear more suitable for the prevention of muscle breakdown than creatine. Protein in our muscles is constantly being broken down during activity which is why we need to continue to consume protein to help rebuild what we lost.

We begin to lose muscle when the protein we are breaking down is more than the amount we are taking in. This can occur during certain periods of illness or injury, as well as during the natural aging process.

About 35% of the essential amino acids found in muscle mass are BCAAs. Research has found that supplementing these can help to prevent muscle protein breakdown and improve overall health outcomes and risk for malnutrition.

Timing BCAA and Creatine for Optimal Muscle Growth

Whether you're taking a BCAA or a creatine supplement, you might be wondering when you should take it.

Unfortunately, the perfect timing for either of these supplements has not yet been determined and may not matter as much as you think.

Best Time to Take BCAAs for Athletic Performance

Whether you are an athlete or an average gym goer looking to improve your physical fitness, the timing of BCAAs is basically down to preference.

Because of limited studies, no set guideline has been determined when it comes to timing of these supplements.

In fact, newer research suggests that the previously recommended window of time to consume protein pre or post-workout has now been extended to up to 5 hours. 

This means the timing for your supplemental BCAAs may not be that important if you have already consumed a meal with protein within that time frame [17].

Timing Creatine for Athletic Performance

Although there is limited research to support the specific timing of creatine supplementation for athletic performance, most agree that taking creatine right before or right after exercise is likely best compared to waiting longer periods.

According to one study conducted over a 10-week period, participants who took supplemental creatine close before or after weight training gained more muscle and strength than the group who took it hours earlier or later [18].

Do I Need BCAAs if I Take Creatine?

You don't need to take BCAAs if you are already taking a creatine supplement and vice versa. But it could help to boost your exercise performance and recovery even further.

In fact, it's common for many supplement companies to mix creatine and BCAAs for a combined effect on muscle hypertrophy, strength, and to further increase lean muscle mass.

With that said, it is not necessary to take both of these supplements if you don't want to or if you feel like it does not meet your specific goals. 

For example, if you are just looking for improvement in muscle growth and recovery and don't feel you need increased energy for improved intensity of exercise then you can stick with just a BCAA supplement.

Can I Mix BCAAs and Creatine?

If you have a BCAA and creatine supplement you like, it's perfectly fine to mix them.

Both supplements are generally mixed with light liquids, such as water or juice. So it's a natural fit to add both in with your pre, post or intra-workout hydration.

In addition, creatine monohydrate (the most common form of creatine supplementation) is usually a flavorless powder, so you shouldn't have any weird taste issues by combining the two.

Just be aware of whether or not your supplements contain any additional ingredients, besides BCAAs and creatine. Pay attention to your body as well, and change it up if you feel any side-effects, like stomach discomfort.

Is Creatine or BCAA Better For Me: How to Pick

The best way to pick between creatine and BCAA supplements is to consider your personal goals. 

If you are looking to boost muscle mass, BCAAs may be for you.

If you want to access enhanced muscle strength and power, creatine might be more helpful.

Be aware that creatine supplementation may lead to temporary weight gain due to water retention. This is normal when you first start taking creatine, but should subside over time.

Bottom Line on BCAA vs Creatine 

Both BCAAs and creatine have research-backed benefits when it comes to improving your body composition and exercise performance. Both are great choices if you're looking for a way to get more out of your workouts and hit your goals faster.

Before choosing a supplement, consider your goals. It's also important to consider your diet and specific exercise routine. From there, you should be able to pick the best supplement for your specific situation.

Luckily both supplements are well-researched. As long as you choose a high-quality supplement from a trusted brand, and you also put in the work required in the gym, you should see results either way.

Further Reading:

Does Creatine Make You Bloated?

Can You Put Creatine in Coffee?

How Long Does Creatine Take to Work?