Dr. Anthony Gustin is a board-certified sports chiropractor, functional medicine practitioner, entrepreneur, podcast host, and founder of Perfect Keto.
Protein is essential for building and maintaining muscle. But what exactly is it about protein that helps you increase muscle mass and recover faster after workouts?
Much of it comes down to three specific amino acids (the building blocks of protein).
Protein is made up of amino acids, and when you digest protein, you break it back down into its amino acid constituents. Three of them, called branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), go straight to muscle tissue, helping you rebuild your muscles stronger after a hard workout.
BCAA supplements are some of the longest-standing workout supplements on the market. They play an important role in decreasing the breakdown of muscle and recovering from muscle soreness.
But do you really need them as a dietary supplement, or do you get enough BCAAs from your diet?
Read on to learn about the effect of BCAAs on body weight, post-workout muscle recovery, and weight loss, how to get BCAAs from food, the best BCAA supplements, and the right serving size of BCAAs you need to build muscle.
BCAAs are amino acids — the building blocks of proteins.
Proteins are made up of giant, sprawling strings of amino acids. Your body needs 20 different amino acids to build the many proteins your cells use to function and your tissues need to grow and repair.
Eleven of the 20 amino acids are non-essential: your body can make them, which means you don’t have to get them from your diet.
The other nine amino acids are essential, meaning you have to get them from food or supplementation. Your body cannot produce essential amino acids on its own.
Different amino acids do different things, and it’s important to get a full spectrum of essential amino acids from your diet. This article is going to focus on three specific essential amino acids: the branched-chain amino acids.
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) refer to three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
BCAAs get their name from a branching chain that comes off their molecules. That branch makes them especially useful for repairing and building muscle. And when you digest BCAAs, they’re shuttled straight to your muscle tissue for repair.
You can find BCAAs naturally in “complete proteins” — proteins that contain all nine essential amino acids. Animal proteins like meat, eggs, and dairy are excellent complete protein sources.
You can also get pure BCAAs in supplement form. Supplements will likely have a different BCAA make-up than most food sources. They typically contain a 2:1:1 ratio of leucine to isoleucine and valine, which is ideal for repairing muscle tissue after a workout[*].
BCAAs have a variety of benefits, ranging from faster muscle repair to better immune function. Here’s a look at the four main benefits of BCAAs.
#1: BCAAs Help You Gain And Maintain Muscle
BCAAs are best known for helping you build and maintain muscle.
Studies on the effects of BCAA supplementation show that getting plenty of BCAAs post-exercise increases your muscle protein synthesis, which helps you repair muscle faster and build more of it[*].
That said, you’ll get plenty of BCAAs (and the same muscle-building benefits) from eating a complete protein after you work out. Whey protein contains all three BCAAs and increases post-workout protein synthesis more than any other protein because it’s so easy to absorb[*]. Or you could just eat a nice big grass-fed steak.
#2: BCAAs Help Prevent Post-Workout Muscle Soreness
It’s worth mentioning that BCAAs don’t improve exercise performance if you take them before a workout — they’re only good for faster recovery from muscle damage and faster muscle growth.
It doesn’t matter whether you take BCAAs before or immediately after a workout. Either way, they’ll help you recover faster.
#3: BCAAs Improve Immune Function
Your immune system relies on BCAAs, too. Immune cells create BCAA-rich proteins to fight off infections, protect your tissue from damage, and speed up wound healing [*].
Taking a BCAA supplement daily can also help you recover faster from illness or injury[*].
#4: BCAAs For Intermittent Fasting
Intermittent fasting — going 14+ hours without food — has all kinds of benefits, from anti-aging to burning more fat.
If you don’t break your fast immediately after exercise, you’ll continue to enjoy increased fat-burning. However, your muscles won’t have the amino acids they need to repair, which can mean slower recovery time and possible muscle loss.
Taking 5 grams of a BCAA supplement before you work out will technically break your fast (BCAAs contain 4 calories per gram), but your muscles will use them up so quickly that you should end up in a fasted state before too long.
BCAAs definitely won’t take you out of ketosis (fat-burning mode) as long as they don’t contain added sugar or other carbs, and the fact that they’ll protect and repair muscle makes them worth taking if you’re working out in the middle of a long fast.
On the other hand, if you plan to end a fast with a workout and then eat immediately afterward, you don’t need BCAAs.
If you’re taking a BCAA supplement, 5 grams of BCAAs should be plenty to give your muscles the amino acids they need for repair.
You’ll find BCAAs in any complete protein source. Some good options are:
- Whey protein
Any kind of animal protein will be rich in BCAAs. If you prefer vegan protein sources, you can also get BCAAs from walnuts, cashews, almonds, and lentils.
BCAA supplements have been a bodybuilding staple since the 1980s. They’re one of the oldest workout supplements around — and they’ve stayed popular because they really do work for building muscle and speeding up recovery. They’re safe and effective.
That said, there are a lot of low-quality BCAA supplements on the market. If you decide to get a BCAA supplement, make sure you check the label for artificial sweeteners, colors, and flavors.
Pure BCAAs are very bitter, so manufacturers often use artificial sweeteners to make them more palatable. Look for a BCAA supplement sweetened with stevia or monk fruit.
Avoid BCAA supplements sweetened with aspartame, sucralose, and acesulfame-potassium (also listed as acesulfame-K).
BCAAs also don’t dissolve in water, so some BCAA supplements include fillers like maltodextrin to help them mix into liquids better. Maltodextrin can spike your insulin and take you out of ketosis, so double-check your labels for that as well.
BCAAs are good for muscle growth, muscle soreness, immune function, and intermittent fasting. Give them a try to speed up recovery and reach your physical goals faster.
Grass-fed whey protein isolate is another option if you want a complete protein that also tastes delicious. Whey protein is especially high in leucine, making it one of the preferred protein sources for muscle building (muscle protein synthesis).
Since your body is constantly breaking down muscle proteins, especially during exercise, stimulating muscle protein synthesis is important to help preserve and build more muscle mass.
Whey protein is also rapidly digested, making it an ideal post-workout protein source.
The Takeaway: Should You Take BCAAs?
Whether you’re getting your BCAAs from complete protein sources, a supplement, or your whey protein smoothies, getting more BCAAs into your diet is a good idea.
These essential amino acids will improve recovery after tough workouts and stimulate muscle growth so you’re not wasting your time in the gym.
They’re also incredibly safe, making BCAAs a supplement you might want to add to your keto lifestyle.