Working out is complicated. I used to think it was just put on some clothes go to the gym and lift some weights or put on some running shoes and head outside and run. But as soon as you start getting into an area of fitness you learn there is a culture around that particular area of fitness and a list of things you need to fit in.
When you’re a runner you’re introduced to a world of GPS watches, gels and electrolyte drinks. When you’re into Crossfit, you learn there’s a world of Reebok gear and paleo diets. And when you’re into strength training you learn the world of sports supplements. “The stack”, as it’s often referred is the supplements weight lifters may take before, during or after a workout. And this stack goes far beyond protein powder, it includes supplements to bulk up, increase reps, increase recovery, etc. But do all these supplements work? Should you be spending your money on creating your own “stack” or is it just great marketing?
I decided it was time I wrote a series on sports supplements, reviewed the research and gave you my opinion on some of the most popular workout supplements. Starting with Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs).
What are Branched Chain Amino Acids?
BCAAs are essential amino acids, meaning they must be obtained from the diet. They include leucine, isoleucine and valine. They are found in animal protein, soy protein, legumes and grains. Leucine is often seen as the most important BCAA because it stimulates muscle protein synthesis.
What are the Benefits?
BCAA’s have a lot of perceived benefits including:
- Increasing muscle protein synthesis. Leucine is used in a pathway to create muscle and is the rate limiting step. Therefore, without sufficient leucine muscle synthesis may be reduced.
- Decreased feelings of fatigue
- This is particularly useful for endurance athletes. As we exercise for a prolonged length of time, our body produces tryptophan, this can signal the release of serotonin in the brain which elicits feelings of fatigue. BCAAs compete with tryptophan for the same receptors and therefore, it’s thought that with increased BCAAs, less serotonin will be created and therefore, less feeling of fatigue.
- BCAAs can act as a fuel source for muscles, particularly when glycogen stores are low, which allows a person to workout longer
- Prevent muscle breakdown
- The net rate of muscle breakdown appears to decrease when BCAAs are taken before exercise, which can reduce overall muscle soreness
At present, not all research suggests an improvement in performance with BCAAs however, they are considered safe, and there has not been any negative impact on performance from supplementation. Based on their role in many key areas including muscle synthesis and degradation, fatigue and energy, BCAAs could have a positive influence on the performance of many athletes, including endurance athletes and weight lifters.
Should you supplement with BCAAs?
While it appears BCAAs may be important in many aspects of improving athletic performance, it’s important to note that supplementation isn’t necessary as they can be obtained from whole food sources. There is no evidence that BCAAs from supplemental sources are better than whole food sources. If consuming BCAA containing food pre/post workout, a supplement may not be necessary but it’s unlikely harmful either.
If you decide to proceed with a supplement, I suggest taking note of feelings of fatigue, muscle soreness and energy before you initiate supplements and after. If you notice a perceived benefit, continue with supplementation, if not, discontinue and save yourself the money.