Ask any knowledgeable trainer or Google “top supplements for maintaining lean muscle,” and respected sources will include BCAAs. Yes, creatine or whey protein will most likely top the list, followed by beta-alanine and then BCAAs (Branched-Chain Amino Acids). There seems to be some debate as to the fifth-best supplement, some say nitric oxide boosters, others suggest caffeine, or perhaps another amino acid, L-glutamine. But BCAAs are always in the top four, and they are the subject of this “Best of” article.
BCAA supplements have been a staple of serious athletes for years. In this article, we will explain the role of amino acids, define EAAs (Essential Amino Acids) with a primary focus on the BCAAs, leucine, isoleucine, and valine. We’ll discuss when to take your BCAAs, the various forms of BCAAs, and drill down on the benefits of BCAA supplementation. We will explain why we believe BCAAs will work for you, detail some alternative sources of BCAAs, and finally, provide our recommendations for the best BCAA supplements.
The Role Of Amino Acids
Amino acids are organic compounds that function as the building blocks of protein. Your body needs twenty different amino acids to develop and function properly. Although all twenty are critical for your health, only nine are classified as essential – that’s because EAAs (Essential Amino Acids) cannot be made in your body, so you must get them through your diet or supplementation. These essential and non-essential amino acids combine to form our body’s various proteins, including muscle proteins.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids
BCAAs are three of the nine essential amino acids; they are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These amino acids are named for their molecular structure and are the most critical amino acids for muscle development. They are the building blocks required for the synthesis of other amino acids and proteins, but unlike other amino acids, BCAAs are primarily metabolized and utilized in skeletal muscle rather than the liver. The BCAAs, particularly leucine, stimulate protein synthesis and support your body by reducing the rate of protein breakdown, which could have a positive impact on DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).
As mentioned, part of what makes BCAAs so unique is how the body handles them. Typically, when you consume amino acids, they travel to the liver first. There they are broken down to be used as fuel or for building and repairing muscle and other tissues. Branched-chain amino acids, however, are sent directly to the muscles where they are used as fuel or to build and repair tissue. In this way, BCAAs help build, maintain, and repair muscle. They enhance exercise performance, endurance, and recovery, and may also help with weight loss, and reducing fatigue after exercise.
Key Ingredients For BCAA Supplements
BCAAs make up a large chunk of the body’s total amino acid pool. Together, they represent around 35–40% of all essential amino acids present in your body.
The established, correct ratio of BCAAs is 2:1:1 – 2 parts Leucine, 1 part Isoleucine, and 1 part valine. Some brands formulate to an 8:1:1 or even a 10:1:1 ration; however, we recommend you save the additional cost and stick to the industry standard 2:1:1.
- Leucine, the king of muscle protein synthesis
- Valine, for tissue repair, to maintain nitrogen balance in the body, to stay more alert
- Isoleucine, for glucose uptake, muscle development, and repair
BCAA Supplement Benefits
BCAAs May Increase Muscle Mass
Studies show that BCAAs, if taken in the correct 2:1:1 ratio of leucine to isoleucine and valine, stimulate protein synthesis, increasing muscle mass.
BCAAs Decrease Muscle Soreness
BCAAs are thought to improve recovery and provide protection against muscle damage. They reduce the rate of protein breakdown and lower the blood levels of creatine kinase and lactate dehydrogenase, which are involved in muscle damage.
BCAAs Improve Exercise Performance and Endurance
Athletes who use BCAAs report less physical and mental fatigue, allowing them to train longer and harder, particularly for those who are dieting, carb-restricted, or working out in a fasted state. Ironically, it appears BCAAs perform better on lesser trained athletes in some instances.
Additional Benefits Of BCAA Supplements
- Prevent Weight Gain
- Enhance Fat Loss
- Work Out Longer
- Lower Blood Sugar Levels
When To Take BCAA Supplements
BCAAs were initially introduced as an intra-workout product, i.e., designed to be consumed during the workout. Today, many experts recommend taking your BCAAs pre-workout, post-workout, and first thing in the morning to ward off the catabolic effects of fasting overnight.
If this sounds like a lot of BCAAs, particularly when you get them in your diet and whey protein shake as well, it’s what is recommended to maximize the benefits. The recommended dosage is 15 – 20 grams per day, in a minimum of five-gram increments.
Different Forms Of BCAAs
Over time, the original BCAA-only products have morphed. Today you can find BCAAs available with added citrulline-malate for better muscle pumps, cutting formulas to enhance weight loss, and even products with Beta-Hydroxybutyrate salts for those who follow a keto diet. There are also new delivery systems. In addition to a powder that you add to water, similar to a pre-workout or post-workout drinks, BCAAs are now available as ready-to-drinks, gummies, and capsules.
Do I Need BCAA Supplements?
We believe everyone can benefit from using BCAAs. For those seeking optimal results, you need a comprehensive regimen of adequate protein intake, a consistent training program, and time for rest and recovery.
Individuals who will notice dramatic improvements from BCAA supplementation include:
- Endurance athletes
- Those who do very intense or high-volume workouts
- People who are exercising while in a fasted state
- Those not consuming adequate protein
- People who train multiple times per day
Potential Side Effects Of BCAA Supplements
Supplementing with BCAAs is generally regarded as safe. Possible adverse side effects include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and bloating.
BCAAs may interact with other medications, so if you are taking prescription medications, please check with your medical professional before starting any amino acid supplement.
BCAA Supplement Alternatives
The three most obvious alternatives to a BCAA supplement are a protein-rich diet, protein supplementation, or a full-spectrum EAAs (essential amino acids) product. The EAAs products include the three BCAAs, plus the other six essential amino acids:
Some manufacturers of EAA products will omit histidine, believing that their levels will rise when the other EAAs are consumed.
In large part, whey protein gained prominence in the strength community due to its high level of branched-chain amino acids for protein synthesis.
Excellent dietary amino acid-rich sources:
|Amino Acid||Primary Food Sources|
|Leucine||Chicken, Beef, Pork, Fish (Tuna), Eggs, Soy Protein, Milk, Cheese|
|Valine||Soy Protein, Raw Brown Rice, Cottage Cheese, Fish, Beef, Lamb, Chicken, Almonds|
|Isoleucine||Beef, Chicken, Pork, Fish, Tofu, Lentils, Nuts, Seeds, Vegetables (Peas)|
Best BCAA Supplements
When picking the best intra-workout supplements, we adhered to the following criteria:
- We sought products with the correct ingredients
- We insisted upon products with a minimum of five grams per serving of amino acids, in the appropriate 2:1:1 ratio
- We ensured the products are manufactured in a certified cGMP facility (Good Manufacturing Practices)
- We looked for companies and brands that have independent third-party testing such as NSF, Informed Choice, or Safe for Sport certifications
Bulk Supplements BCAA
One of our top-rated BCAA supplements is Bulk Supplements BCAA. This supplement contains 3 essential amino acids, leucine, isoleucine, and valine. It helps in muscle-building and endurance, as well as supporting blood sugar levels and healthy weight. This is a popular supplement for athletes and bodybuilders.GET THE BEST PRICE ON BULK SUPPLEMENTS BCAA
Cellucor Alpha Amino Ultimate
Another one of our favorite BCAA supplements is Cellucor Alpha Amino Ultimate. This supplement contains 13 amino acids, including 5g BCAAs at the 2:1:1 ratio. It also includes 750mg Creatine HCI and 3g of MyoeDge for building lean muscle and strength.
Cellucor Alpha Amino Ultimate supports muscle building, cellular hydration, and recovery. Additionally, it comes in a variety of flavors including watermelon lime, strawberry coconut, orange sherbet, and blueberry lemonade.GET THE BEST PRICE ON CELLUCOR ALPHA AMINO ULTIMATE
Xtend Sports Recovery Gummies from Nutrabolt’s Scivation
Scivation’s Xtend was the first BCAA intra-workout in the sports nutrition space. The company is now part of the Nutrabolt family, along with Cellucor and their best-selling pre-workout C4. Pictured here is their new Sports Recovery BCAA Gummies.
Although the Gummies are under-dosed at 3.5 grams per serving of six, we thought the unique delivery system would be a welcome change for those tired of the same old powders. If you love the taste of gummies but don’t mind a powder, Xtend also markets a Sour Gummy flavor in their BCAA products.GET THE BEST PRICE ON XTEND SPORTS RECOVERY GUMMIES
Post Jym BCAAs + Recovery Matrix, from Jim Stoppani
Formulated by Jim Stoppani, Ph.D. This brand was initially introduced on BodyBuilding.com exclusively. Since then, it has quickly become a best-seller with other E-commerce sites and in brick and mortar retailers. No proprietary blends, efficacious ingredients at the appropriate dosages, manufactured in a cGMP certified facility. In addition to six grams of BCAAs, the Recovery Matrix includes L-glutamine, Creatine HCI, Beta-Alanine, L-carnitine, and Betaine. For the very serious athlete.GET THE BEST PRICE ON POST JYM BCAAS + RECOVERY MATRIX
Genius BCAA, from the Genius Brand
The Genius Brand™, trademarked in 2017, is considered one of the fastest-growing supplement brands in the world. The company markets and sells an extensive number of products in the sports nutrition, weight management, and cognition spaces. These products include Genius Joy, Genius Sleep Aid, Genius Consciousness, and of course Genius BCAA. The company uses patented and trademarked ingredients, no proprietary blends, and no artificial colors, flavors, or sweeteners.
Genius BCAA contains five grams of BCAAs per serving, in a 2:1:1 ratio. The BCAAs are trademarked as InstAMINOS®. As you would expect from the Genius brand, this product also contains a patented Citicholine, Cognizon® for brain health, caffeine for energy, and Rhodiola Extract for reducing stress.GET THE BEST PRICE ON GENIUS BCAA
Naked BCAAs, from Naked Nutrition
Naked BCAAs features five grams of Vegan BCAAs per serving, in the correct 2:1:1 ration. Naked is vegan, soy-free, gluten-free, non-GMO, with no artificial flavors, sweeteners, or coloring. This product is for the purist who wants their BCAAs, and nothing added.
In addition to the clean label, Naked BCAAs is the best value in the category, with one-hundred servings per container priced at $34.99 on Amazon.GET THE BEST PRICE ON NAKED BCAAS
Stacking BCAAs With Other Supplements
BCAAs may be stacked with a variety of other sports nutrition supplements. The most popular way to stack BCAAs is with a pre and/or post-workout regimen. Although the combinations are almost endless, some of the most popular sports nutrition stacks would include:
- Citrulline Malate
BCAAs may also help body composition by preventing weight gain and enhancing fat loss. People dieting, fasting, using weight loss aids, or a thermogenic, should include BCAAs in their supplement regimen.
Final Thoughts: Best BCAA Supplements
Amino acids and BCAA’s have been clinically studied and are regarded as some of the most beneficial and effective supplements in the sports nutrition industry. If you want to increase energy and endurance while working out, add muscle, and speed up your recovery, we strongly suggest incorporating a BCAA supplement into your routine.