Branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) supplements are a popular derivative of protein and essential amino acid (EAA) supplements for exercise performance.
Although they aren’t quite as popular, they are beginning to show up more and more as we learn about their particular benefits when it comes to muscle gains.
If you are new to taking BCAAs or are considering trying them out, you may be wondering when you should take them. Like protein supplements, there is a great debate about the timing of BCAAs.
Read on to find out more.
What are Essential Amino Acids?
Amino acids are essential pieces to the protein puzzle. These are the molecules that make up protein and are categorized into essential and non-essential.
There are 20 amino acids total, 11 of them are considered non-essential as our body is able to make them on its own. The remaining 9 are considered essential and we must obtain them from our diet .
EAAs can be found in high-protein foods such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, and some vegetarian sources such as soy. These food sources contain what is considered a “complete” protein, which means they provide all 9 essential amino acids .
Other foods may contain small amounts of protein that are not complete, such as many plant sources like beans, legumes, many grains, and some vegetables. These are considered incomplete sources because they are missing one or more of the 9 EAAs .
While there has been much debate in the past over the quality of these incomplete proteins, recent research has determined that as long as you are getting in a variety of protein sources in your diet, essential and non-essential, you don’t need to worry so much about if all your proteins are complete or not .
What are BCAAs?
Of the 9 essential amino acids, 3 of them contain a branched-chain chemical configuration: isoleucine, leucine, and valine.
This chemical structure is what makes BCAAs special and is believed to contribute to some of the perceived benefits of them including increased muscle growth when combined with regular resistance exercise and improved recovery post-exercise [4, 5].
Are BCAAs also EAAs?
BCAAs are considered EAAs, which means we must obtain them from our diet.
Just like EAAs, BCAAs can be found in high-protein food sources however, it can be difficult to target foods with concentrated forms of BCAAs as this is typically not found. Instead, many choose to take BCAA supplements.
BCAA supplements not only include a concentrated amount of the 3 EAAs, but they include them in a specific concentration to maximize their benefits.
For example, research has found that the BCAA leucine is particularly beneficial for muscle growth as it helps to stimulate muscle-protein synthesis (MPS), which is the process of creating new muscle tissue.
Many BCAA supplements contain a ratio of 2:1:1 leucine to isoleucine and valine for this reason .
When Should You Take BCAAs?
Unfortunately, studies are lacking on the best time to take BCAAs but most agree it works best when taken before or after exercise whether in an isolated supplement or contained in a whey protein supplement [7, 8].
It used to be recommended to take BCAAs within 45-60 minutes of a workout as your blood levels of BCAAs peak about 30 minutes after taking them. However, updated research has found that this window may be a lot wider .
Additionally, if you’ve had a good dose of protein within 1-2 hours of starting your workout this timing may not mean as much compared to those who prefer to exercise fasted.
Don't We Get Enough BCAAs From Food?
If you are consuming adequate protein from your diet, you are meeting your EAA needs. Since BCAAs are EAAs, this means you are also getting adequate amounts of these to support overall health and body function.
However, BCAA supplements contain concentrated doses of leucine, isoleucine, and valine that you wouldn’t be able to get from one high-protein food item.
Many of the researched benefits of BCAAs were found from studies that utilized concentrated forms therefore
BCAA supplements or protein supplements that contain higher doses of BCAAs may be more impactful for those looking to boost muscle growth and post-exercise recovery than consuming dietary sources.
What are the Main Benefits of BCAAs?
Increased Muscle Growth
BCAAs, like creatine and other sports supplements, became popular because of their benefits towards muscle growth, particularly the BCAA leucine which is believed to stimulate MPS, in both men and women.
However, many studies have found that MPS was stimulated at a higher rate when all 9 essential amino acids were present .
Decreased Post-Exercise Fatigue
While there are many reasons you may experience post-exercise fatigue, BCAAs may help. When you exercise your muscles use BCAAs. After a period of time your blood levels of BCAAs begin to drop causing the EAA tryptophan levels increase in your brain.
Tryptophan is then converted to serotonin, a chemical in the brain that is believed to exacerbate exercise fatigue. Supplementing with BCAAs may help to reduce tryptophan levels in the brain and improve energy levels during your workout [14, 15].
Improvements in DOMS
Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is an uncomfortable side effect of strength training. During resistance training, it’s believed the constant load on the muscles causes tiny tears in the muscle fibers that require repair.
Consuming BCAAs may help to reduce soreness associated with DOMS by helping to mitigate muscle damage and reduce length of time it takes to repair this tissue. This may be particularly helpful when taken before exercise .
Preventing Muscle Wasting
Our muscles go through a constant state of being broken down and rebuilt. Muscle wasting occurs when our muscles are breaking down faster than we are building them back up.
This can happen in the presence of chronic conditions, cancer, malnutrition, or older age. To prevent or slow down muscle wasting, BCAAs must be present as they make up 35% of our EAAs.
Do You Take BCAAs Before or After Workout?
The jury is out on what time is better to take BCAAs, before or after exercise. With that said, there appears to be little difference in benefit either way so it’s better to choose the timing based on what would work best with your routine.
What is the Best Time to Have BCAA?
There is no particular time of day that is better for taking BCAAs but rather it should line up with your exercise routine. If you workout in the morning versus the evening will impact the timing you may choose to take them.
Additionally, some recommend taking BCAAs before bed as this is when your body takes time to repair. It’s believed this may help to boost recovery but research on this is limited.
Should I Take My BCAA Everyday?
Taking BCAA supplements daily can help to improve muscle building benefits. Because of this, it works best when you time it with your daily routine.
If you are still unsure about when to take BCAAs you can also consider splitting your dose and consuming half before exercise and half after. Also remember to include good sources of the 6 other EAAs to get the most benefit from taking BCAAs.
Further reading: Do BCAAs Break Intermittent Fasting?