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Whey? or BCAA's?

Now that I've condemned (not really) your favorite protein shake it's time for the final article in the series about whey protein. After the first article I received a question about my thoughts on Branch-Chain-Amino-Acids (BCAA's). This article will describe BCAA supplements and how their effectiveness in energy and muscle growth compare to whey.

Branch-Chain Amino Acids


Whey protein naturally contains BCAA's, so in my mind the question we need to be asking is: Should I take both supplements to create a more significant muscle change or am I simply lighting my money on fire?


First let's start with defining BCAA's. All of the protein you eat is made up of a collection of amino acids. Some foods and supplements are made of various kinds of amino acids. There are also 11 different amino acids you're body can make and those are called nonessential amino acids (NEAAs). The 9 your body can't make are called essential amino acids (EAAs).


They are:


  • Leucine**

  • Isoleucine**

  • Valine**

  • Histidine

  • Lysine

  • Methionine

  • Phenylalanine

  • Threonine

  • Tryptophan


** indicates a branch-chain amino acid


Exception: During some diseases or special conditions your body might lose the ability to produce certain NEAAs and therefor supplementation can be required. For example, glutamine is burned faster than it can be manufactured in burn victims, therefor it becomes a "conditionally essential" amino acid. 

Conditionally essential amino acids include:


  • Arginine

  • Cysteine

  • Glutamine

  • Glycine

  • Proline

  • Tyrosine


Amino acids and muscle


In order to build muscle, one must create more muscle (muscle protein synthesis - MPS) than muscle tissue is broken down (exercises or famine). ALL AMINO ACIDS ARE REQUIRED TO BUILD MUSCLE, but muscle growth is mostly stimulated by EAAs. Among all of the EAAs, leucine has proven itself to be the most influential in stimulating muscle protein synthesis. 

However, in a human study including older men, 7.5 grams of leucine supplementation per day did not stimulate actual muscle growth over the course of 3 months time. Neither did another 3 month trial supplementing 10 grams per day. When another study compared muscle mass gains through resistance training (weight lifting) with and without EAA supplements, the gains were almost identical in both groups. 

Sedentary elderly women did see a positive increase in muscle mass by taking 15 grams of essential amino acid supplements. 

So there are some hints that EAA supplementation could help older populations who are untrained. 

BCAA's compared to Whey


A very large meta-analysis (which is a review of many studies performed on the same topic) shows that weight lifting + whey protein supplementation improves muscle mass in all populations (young & elderly) consistently. Also 25 grams of whey protein immediately after a workout is a very good method to reduce soreness and improve recovery over a 3 day period. 

BCAA's or even EAA supplementation show less consistent and smaller benefits than whey protein. That doesn't mean it's ineffective - just less effective and seems to help less trained athletes than highly trained athletes. Of all the BCAA's, leucine is proven to be the most effective out of the bunch and provides other side benefits like improved digestion of all of your food. 

Finally, if you see a supplement called NPAA (remember these are non-protein amino acids) they may be a consideration because they play a role in more ways than just protein synthesis and muscle growth. NPAA's have at least 140 known roles in your metabolism and overall health. 

Summary


Whey is still your best bet to improve performance, reduce soreness and gain muscle mass. Casein may be your second best option and BCAA's/NPAA's your third. 

I want to remind you that, this isn't a case of deeming supplements good or bad. Think of it moreso as good/better/best. As mentioned earlier, amino acids play may roles in the body including balancing neurotransmitters in your brain which can improve anxiety, depression and many cognitive problems. 

There's always more research to be done on this stuff and it will likely never end. This is at least a really good foundational understanding of protein as it relates to weight loss, muscle gain and over all fitness. 

I'd love to work with you on an individual level to help improve your nutrition and lay out a plan that makes sense for you. 

I hope you enjoyed the series on whey protein!

Coach Mike

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