You might be wondering, what’s the difference between a protein and a BCAA? Well, you wouldn’t be alone. It can be a little complicating. Especially when you find out that some BCAAs are what essentially make up particular proteins.
So, to better understand what these BCAAs are, and what they do, we will need to get a little scientific. Only a little bit, though, don’t worry.
BCAAs are just more complex amino acids. They are amino acids with a branching aliphatic side-chain… but I can see that I might have lost you already. Let’s start again.
What are amino acids?
You may already know that proteins are macromolecules, consisting of much smaller chained molecules. Well, they are. And these smaller chains are made from amino acid residues. Amino acids, in layman terms.
People often speak about essential and non-essential amino acids. These refer to what the body can and cannot naturally produce. There are 11 amino acids which the body can naturally produce—these are non-essential.
The other 9 are essential amino acids since we need to ingest them via outside sources. Like steaks and protein-rich nuts, dairy products, and legumes.
Animal meat products are the most common and natural source of amino acids, but there are plenty of other sources. Many dairy products also offer high protein content. And a product that has been incredibly popular in recent decades is just about full of great amino acids.
Whey isolates are amazingly effective sources of protein and offer many of the body’s required amino acids. This includes some BCAAs, also, such as leucine.
However, where whey is an excellent protein product, it is not specifically isolated for BCAAs. This is where the best amino acid supplements can help. BCAA specific products can also offer a few distinct advantages which protein supplements cannot. As I will explain… now!
What are BCAAs good for?
Branched-chain amino acid supplements, when compared to regular protein powders, can be used a little more accurately. If you are looking to cut down on weight, for instance, while still maintaining most of your muscle mass, it’s a good idea to find a quality BCAA.
When you are dieting, your body can quickly revert to a state of catabolism. This, to be put quite simply, means muscle loss. Catabolism refers to the body breaking down more proteins than it synthesizes—hence the muscle loss.
And while dieting is an excellent way to boost metabolism on its own, when combined with exercise it can backfire. The physical strain of training on top of dieting can quickly cause fatigue. Which means less overall training and less weight while lifting.
So instead of getting what might seem like the double-benefit of exercising plus dieting, you get something different? Your muscles learn to burn less energy to do the same work. Which means less muscle mass, and less fat-burning.
Research has also shown extensively that BCAAs encourage protein synthesis. More so than some protein products, even. And those are already proteins!
Of course, it isn’t as simple as that, but you can see that by encouraging faster rates of protein synthesis, or growth, BCAAs are fantastic muscle builders and perfect for maintenance.
Another advantage of BCAA over whey is that it can be digested and broken-down more quickly. While whey isolates take several hours to release the BCAAs within their structures, BCAAs are already free-form.
They don’t need to be broken down! Which again leads to faster recovery times, and is also one possible reason for the reduced fatigue.
How much BCAA should I take?
This is a common question, with both scientific and practical answers. The scientific answer will give you exact usage in grams, for every BCAA (including all other amino acids, if you’re interested).
However, the more practical answer is to find a quality product and trial it for performance. If you take it the recommended dose, and nothing changes, it doesn’t matter how many studies tell you the ‘right amount to take’!
One last thing. BCAAs are also natural energy boosters. With the free-form nature of the amino acids, there is also some immediate energy output to these products. This is why I would suggest BCAAs are the best supplement to drink during workouts.
There are many pre-workout bcaa supplements on the market, also, and these have a similar goal. Each will come with recommendations for how much BCAA to take a day, along with appropriate usage and warning labels. Like I say though, find a trusted product and take note of the effects for yourself.