What Are BCAA’s?

Two common questions I get about one of my supplements is “What are BCAA’s? “Why do you take them?” My trainer introduced me to BCAA’s just over a year ago when I was training for a competition and on a special fat loss diet that included fasting days (on which only BCAA’s were consumed). I truly do notice a difference when I’m taking this supplement. In short, BCAAs help increase muscle size and strength, protect hard-earned muscle from breakdown, reduce muscle soreness and fatigue, increase athletic endurance and enhance recovery. When looking for a BCAA supplement look for one without sugar, and ideally with nothing artificial (colors etc). Dose is specific to your goals so check the label of the supplement you choose.

What are BCAA's?


Among the most beneficial and effective supplements in any sports nutrition program are branched chain amino acids. These are the essential aminos leucine, isoleucine, and valine.

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. When you eat a protein food (i.e. eggs, chicken, etc), it gets digested in the stomach and intestine into individual amino acids and short chains of amino acids that are small enough to be absorbed into the bloodstream. These amino acids have far reaching effects in the body from building and repairing tissues, to producing chemicals that enable our brains to function optimally.

What Is The Difference Between Essential and Non-Essential Amino Acids?
Essential amino acids cannot be made by the body. You must get them from complete protein foods or combinations of incomplete vegetable foods. There are 9 essential amino acids: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, tryptophan, and valine. Your body can make non-essential amino acids by itself from vitamins and other amino acids.

The term “non-essential” can be misleading since all amino acids are essential for proper metabolism and certain non-essential amino acids, such as glutamine, become very essential. The 13 non-essential amino acids are alanine, arginine, aspartic acid, cysteine, cystine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, hydroxyproline, proline, serine, & tyrosine.

The essential branched chain amino acids (BCAA’s) are of special importance for athletes because they are metabolized in the muscle, rather than in the liver. Here’s how this works: After digestion once protein is broken down into individual amino acids these aminos can either be used to build new proteins or be burned as fuel to produce energy. [SOURCE w/ some edits made]


It may not seem like the metabolic process of different amino acids matters as long as the end point is muscle tissue. The truth is that the manner in which amino acids are metabolized plays a large role in their functions within the body. The metabolism of BCAAs is different that the metabolic processes of other amino acids. What truly makes the BCAAs special is how they are metabolized. While most amino acids are metabolized in the liver BCAAs are metabolized primarily by muscle. Despite their structural similarities the three branched chain amino acids have different metabolic routes. The breakdown of leucine is accomplished solely through fat pathways.  Valine is broken down solely through carbohydrate pathways, and isoleucine through both. The different metabolic pathways of these three amino acids lead to varying requirements for each.

BCAAs, unlike most other amino acids, are metabolized in within muscle tissue, allowing them to be oxidized (used as energy) by muscle cells to produce cellular energy in the form of ATP. ATP is the primary source of energy that fuels muscle contraction and allows you to lift weights.

The fact that leucine, isoleucine, and valine are metabolized within muscle tissue allows them to be a quick energy source when the body needs it. There is a significant increase in BCAA metabolism during prolonged exercise simply because the body requires more energy during periods of stress such as training. This makes BCAAs incredibly effective when taken around workout time.

The unique metabolic processes, requirements, and versatility of BCAAs allow them to impact nearly every aspect of training.

BCAAs And Fat Loss

The effects of BCAA intake on fat loss is something that has only been explored in more recent years. Newer research is showing that BCAAs can have a positive effect on fat loss. This doesn’t mean you can eat pizza at every meal with a side of BCAAs and the fat will just melt away though. BCAAs seem to maximize fat loss when one is already on a fat loss diet. On any fat loss diet, carbohydrates will need to be lowered to some degree. It seems that BCAAs ability to spare glycogen and increase insulin sensitivity may play a role in speeding up the results of a fat loss plan.

BCAAs should also be used as a supplement during any fat loss plan because of the muscle preserving effects. On any calorie restricted plan muscle tissue loss is a serious concern that must be addressed. All of the positive effects that BCAAs have on muscle growth will also serve to protect muscle during periods of calorie restriction. It is always important to remember that anything which builds muscle will also preserve muscle.


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