If you've spent time in the gym trying to build muscle, you've probably heard that you need all kinds of supplements to make progress in the gym.
BCAAs are one of the most popular amino acid supplements in the fitness industry, along with whey protein powder, pre-workouts, and creatine supplements.
Recently, EAAs have made their way into the category of “must-haves” for muscle gain. All BCAA supplements include EAAs, but EAAs are not necessarily BCAAs.
Keep reading to learn more about the difference between EAAs and BCAAs and which ones you should include in your supplement regimen.
The Difference Between BCAAs and EAAs
What are EAAs (Essential Amino Acids)?
Amino acids are the building blocks of many proteins in the human body. There are twenty amino acids that make up these proteins. Nine of those are essential amino acids (EAAs). EAAs are amino acids that your body cannot make on its own.
Your body is an amazing machine and can synthesize vitamins and amino acids from other substances in the body.
However, there are some nutrients you have to get from your diet or supplements. Essential amino acids (EAAs) are some of those nutrients. This is why they are called “essential.”
The nine essential amino acids include:
Why are Essential Amino Acids Important?
Amino acids are required to stimulate muscle protein synthesis of the body and other important nitrogen-containing compounds, such as creatine, peptide hormones, and some neurotransmitters.
Again, essential amino acids cannot be made by the body, so they must be consumed from the diet or by supplementation.
What are Non-Essential Amino Acids?
Of all the amino acids used in the human body, 11 of them are considered nonessential.
Nonessential means that our bodies can produce the amino acids from other substances in the body, even if we do not get them from the food we eat.
Nonessential amino acids include:
- aspartic acid
- glutamic acid
What are Conditionally Essential Amino Acids?
Conditional amino acids are typically not essential, except in special circumstances. These amino acids become essential during times of illness, stress, and pregnancy.
When the body is under unusual stress, it must conserve energy, vitamins, and nutrients, so amino acids that can normally be synthesized in the body must be consumed from the diet. Arginine is often supplemented during times of trauma or illness.
During pregnancy, glycine and arginine are considered essential because the body needs them in higher amounts to support the fetus and the pregnant woman.
Conditionally essential amino acids include:
What are BCAAs (Branched Chain Amino Acids)?
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), named for their unique branching chemical structure, are subunits of protein that support tissue repair and muscle growth.
BCAAs are often found in animal protein foods like eggs, meat, and dairy products. They are also available in supplement form.
Three of the nine EAAs are BCAAs, including leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
Leucine is required to produce proteins in the body and repair your muscles after a hard workout. Leucine also helps to synthesize growth hormones, regulate blood sugar levels, and support healing and recovery after injury. Leucine is commonly found in fish, poultry, meat, eggs, and milk.
Isoleucine is an essential amino acid (EAA) that is also a BCAA. It is kept in the tissue of the muscles. Isoleucine is necessary for making new muscle tissue, supporting healthy energy levels, a healthy immune system, and hemoglobin production.
Valine helps build and repair muscle tissue. It helps to maintain healthy energy levels and boost muscle growth. Valine can be consumed from animal proteins like meat, fish, and dairy, but are also available in some plant proteins, most notably soy.
Who Needs BCAAs?
Many people can benefit from supplementing with BCAAs. Whether you’re a professional athlete or fitness enthusiast, BCAAs may have several health benefits. BCAAs can be particularly helpful for people who have fitness or weight management goals.
Evidence suggests that supplementation with BCAAs may:
- Increase exercise endurance by decreasing fatigue during exercise. Having increased levels of BCAAs in the body can help inhibit too much tryptophan from entering your brain. The body uses tryptophan to make serotonin, which may contribute to exercise fatigue.
- Reduce muscle soreness after hard workouts. BCAAs may decrease soreness that is caused by strenuous workouts.
- Support muscle repair and development after exercise. BCAAs consumed in protein from the diet act in stimulating muscle protein synthesis and inhibits skeletal muscle breakdown.
- Provide a short-term energy source during longer workouts. Glucose is your body’s preferred source of fuel. When glucose levels become low, BCAAs can provide a source of energy.
- Boost the immune system. Vigorous exercise can place significant stress on the body and result in lowered immunity. This is believed to be due to insufficient levels of glutamine, an amino acid that fuels immune cells. BCAAs can be converted into glutamine in muscles.
Body Composition: EAAs vs. BCAAs
Muscle Protein Synthesis and Muscle Development
BCAA’s are vital to many processes in the body including building muscle, improving recovery, and improving performance. These BCAAs work together with EAAs to support these functions.
Remember, BCAAs only contain 3 of the EAAs. If you take BCAAs alone, you could be missing out on 6 other EAAs if your protein intake is inadequate.
BCAAs are catabolic, meaning they pull amino acids into the muscles from other areas of the body. If your body does not have a substantial supply of EAAs, it may not have the amino acids necessary to support other functions, which could negatively impact your health and performance.
The branch-chain amino acid leucine has been shown to stimulate important enzymes in protein synthesis after exercise. One study showed that people who drank BCAAs including leucine after resistance training gained 22% more muscle than the group that didn’t.
Although this study showed more muscle growth in people who took BCAAs, it’s important to mention that this increase was less than what is observed in other studies where people consumed a whey protein supplement with a similar amino acid content after a workout.
Whey protein is a complete protein, meaning it contains all of the EAAs that our bodies cannot make on their own, unlike BCAAs. Given that participants experienced more muscle growth when drinking whey protein after a workout, it makes sense that a BCAA supplement that includes EAAs in the formula would be more effective than the one without EAAs.
Branched-chain amino acids might help with weight management and increase fat loss.
One study showed that participants who consumed about 15 grams of BCAAs each day may have a 30% lower risk of unintentional weight gain than those who consumed an average of 12 grams per day.
In another eight-week study, participants provided with 14 grams of BCAAs per day lost 1% more body fat than participants given 28 grams of whey protein per day. The BCAA group also had an increase in muscle mass of about 4 pounds.
Unfortunately, there are limitations to these studies. While some research may suggest that BCAAs can help with weight management, the results are inconsistent. More research is needed on this topic.
FAQs About EAAs vs. BCAAs
Do EAAs Work Better than BCAAs?
BCAAs contain only 3 of the essential amino acids. EAAs appear to promote muscle synthesis more significantly when compared to BCAAs.
Research on the effectiveness of EAAs vs BCAAs is limited. One study found that EAAs were more effective at encouraging muscle protein synthesis than only BCAAs. Another study suggested that supplementing with EAA prior to a workout increased muscle endurance and delayed fatigue.
EAA supplements are probably most helpful for people who have difficulty hitting their daily protein needs and are likely not getting all of the EAAs.
Should I Take EAAs With BCAAs?
Supplementing with a product that contains both BCAAs and EAAs may have other benefits besides improving athletic performance. It may also increase your energy levels and support mood and mental health. For the majority of people, consuming both BCAAs and EAAs is essential to maintain good health and improve your athletic performance.
When Should I Take EAAs?
There isn’t a wrong time to take EAAs, but if your goal is to optimize performance and increase strength and muscle gains, then you may want to place more emphasis on timing.
An EAA supplement can provide short-term energy for before and during a workout because they are digested quickly and transported directly to the muscles. EAAs are also needed to build and repair muscle and support recovery.
If performance enhancement and muscle gain are your goals, the best time to take EAAs is before, during, and immediately following a workout. This might help in reducing muscle soreness and increase muscle synthesis, which means more strength gains!
Do EAAs Build Muscle?
EAAs consist of 9 of the 20 amino acids used in the body to build proteins and synthesize tissues. The body requires these amino acids in order for you to gain muscle. An inadequate supply of these essential nutrients can hinder your progress in the gym, especially if you don't get enough protein to support your workouts.
Supplementing with EAAs can stimulate and boost muscle protein synthesis, which is just a scientific way of saying build muscle.
BCAAs and EAAs have several health benefits including increased muscle gain, better energy levels, mood support, and a stronger immune system.
The final verdict on BCAAs vs EAAs is that they are usually most effective in supporting fitness and weight management goals when taken together. Both BCAAs and EAAs are required for muscle building and optimizing performance, but EAAs must be consumed from the diet or supplementation. Your body can make all but three amino acids of the branched chain variety on its own.
If you have to choose between EAAs and BCAAs, opt for EAAs. This will help you make sure you’re getting enough of the EAAs to support your muscle-building goals.