Among regular lifters, protein is the most valued macronutrient for its role in muscle recovery and growth.
However, protein is a more complex nutrient than it seems at face value. Protein is made up of a variety of amino acids, which are commonly referred to as the building blocks of proteins.
When it comes to amino acids, there are two types to be aware of: essential amino acids, which cannot be synthesized by the body, as well as non-essential amino acids, which can be produced by the body. Essential amino acids need to be consumed – either through dietary intake or supplements – whereas non-essential amino acids do not need to be consumed.
High protein diets provide the necessary amino acids to help facilitate muscle recovery by fending off catabolism and promoting anabolism. However, no diet plan is perfect, which is where amino acid supplementation comes into play.
Amino acid supplements help fill any dietary gaps, and have the potential to promote faster results. There are two different categories of amino acid products, each with their own individual profile and purpose.
Specifically, essential amino acids (EAAs) and branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are important supplements for athletes. Here, we discuss the difference between the two, explain the best times to utilize them in your daily supplement protocol, and provide factors to look for when buying these products.
What are BCAAs?
Among the proteinogenic (protein creating) amino acids, there are three BCAAs: L-leucine, L-isoleucine, and L-valine. BCAAs are considered essential because the body cannot synthesize them on its own.
Of the three, leucine is noted as being the most critical BCAA, as it has been shown to trigger muscle protein synthesis, which is the biological pathway that facilitates anabolism. Essentially, this process is what promotes muscle growth in the body. When it comes to supplementing with BCAAs, a 2:1:1 ratio of leucine, isoleucine, and valine has been shown to be the most effective for supporting muscle protein synthesis.
Additionally, muscles can use BCAAs as a source of energy during exercise. Again, leucine is the BCAA known to be the main amino acid to fuel the body with energy during exercise. Numerous studies have found that supplementing with BCAAs before exercise sessions can promote muscle endurance and blunt fatigue, helping you hit those last few reps which are vitally important for growth and progress.
What are EAAs?
There are nine essential amino acids, which includes the three branched chain amino acids. L-leucine, L-lysine, L-valine, L-isoleucine, L-threonine, L-phenylalanine, L-methionine, L-histidine, and L-tryptophan make up the nine EAAs.
The main difference between EAAs and BCAAs is that EAAs provide a full spectrum of amino acids. While leucine enhances muscle protein synthesis, your body requires more than just leucine alone for progress to occur.
Supplementing with the full spectrum of essential amino acids significantly contributes to performance and supports healthy muscle function.
Fast Tracking Results
Both BCAAs and EAAs have their place in your daily supplement regimen, but to maximize their benefits, you’ll want to use them at different times.
Consuming BCAAs before your workouts supports muscle energy and helps fend against fatigue, especially during prolonged periods of caloric deficits (e.g., dieting or competition prep phases for bodybuilders). Taking BCAAs with meals can help provide additional leucine to the protein content, ensuring muscle protein synthesis is sparked.
EAAs are best utilized before and after fasted cardio sessions, as well as after weight training. Following weight training, your body is depleted, and its needs are heightened for recovery to occur, which calls for all nine essential amino acids.
Another critical time to utilize EAAs is during prolonged sessions of cardiovascular training, such as training for endurance events (e.g., marathon or triathlon events). In these situations, it’s advisable to consume EAAs throughout the session.
The goal when using amino acid supplements is to suppress muscle breakdown and promote muscle protein synthesis. Additionally, providing the body with the necessary amino acids will enhance muscle health. Both BCAAs and EAAs assist with these goals, but in different ways. Proper use before, during, and after training – as applicable to your needs – will yield optimal benefits.
How to Choose a Quality Amino Acid Supplement
As with all nutritional supplement products you purchase, certain considerations must be made when selecting an amino acid supplement.
First, it’s important to consider the quality of ingredients used in the formula or stand-alone supplement. Shockingly, many supplement companies use bird feathers and human hair as the raw materials to produce their amino acid products. These raw materials are cheap for the company to use, but, as you can imagine, not optimal quality for the consumer.
When choosing an amino acid supplement, opt for formulas that are fermented and are derived from plant-based sources to avoid consuming human and animal by-products.
You’ll also want to ensure you choose products that have been third-party tested for purity and are certified as being free of banned substances. Third-party testing is a voluntary step a company can take, but it speaks volumes about the company when they do. When performed, an unbiased company tests the product to unveil the ingredients as well as their specific dosage.
Very few companies opt to have their products tested by a third-party, either due to the cost of the testing, or possibly because their products aren’t of the highest quality.
For many athletes, banned substances are a serious concern. Doping tests can be performed to discover the use of such substances – of which the list is incredibly lengthy. A product that is able to display a certificate to let athletes know it’s free of banned substances, such as Informed-Sport, will allow the athlete to use it with confidence.
Reputable certificate companies allow you to search specific supplements through their website to see if they do, in fact, meet the requirements to claim “free of banned substances”.
Both BCAA and EAA products play a role in your athletic performance and physique progress, especially when used at optimal times around your training session. Remember that these products supplement a well-rounded nutrition plan, filling in any gaps which exist. Employing both BCAAs and EAAs will ensure a comprehensive profile of these important compounds.
As you shop for amino acid products, recall the factors that mark a high-quality product which is safe for all athletes to use, keeping your health at the top of the list of priorities.