If you want to know what BCAAs are, why they’re not enough for muscle building, and why EAA Max is a better option for your amino acid supplement needs, then you want to read this article.
We’ve all seen those lifters at the gym sipping on jugs filled with neon-colored liquid in between sets of curls in the squat rack.
You, yourself, may have been one of those very individuals.
But, if you weren’t, and you always wondered what in the heck those guys with all the muscles were drinking during training, relax, it’s not a cocktail of illegal chemicals (or at least it shouldn’t be). Those jugs of brightly colored yellow, green, and pink liquid are BCAA supplements, some of the most common (and overhyped) supplements there are.
BCAA supplements have been around for over a decade and despite some conflicting research remain a strong seller in the industry.
Let’s take an up-close look at BCAA supplements, their purported benefits, and answer the question of whether or not you should supplement with BCAA’s.
We’ll start by answering a very simple question:
What are BCAA’s?
BCAA’s stand for branched-chain amino acids. They are a group of three essential amino acids including:
Essential amino acids, for those of you who don’t know, are amino acids that the body cannot synthesize on its own, meaning you must obtain them from your diet.
Leucine is the true powerhouse of the trio, as it has been shown to directly stimulate muscle protein synthesis (MPS) via activation of the mechanistic target of rapamycin (mTOR), which is the pathway responsible for cell growth.
The weaker, younger brother of leucine is isoleucine, and it too can stimulate protein synthesis in the body; however, it doesn’t pack quite the mTOR-stimulating punch of leucine. Isoleucine does, however, improve glucose metabolism and uptake in skeletal muscles.
The third arm of the BCAA trio is valine, which has received very little research on its own and doesn’t pack near the potency of isoleucine or valine.
Where Can I Find BCAA?
BCAA are naturally found in just about every high quality protein source you’d expect in any muscle building diet, including:
Whey protein isolate (which is particularly high in leucine)
You can also find the BCAA in plant-based proteins as well, but they’re usually not found in high amounts like they are in animal proteins.
At this point, you’re probably thinking:
“If I can get BCAA from food, what do I stand to gain from using a BCAA supplement?”
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest and boldest claims behind BCAA supplements and see if they actually hold up.
What are the Advertised Benefits of BCAA Supplements?
Upon initial inspection, it would seem foolish not to use BCAA supplement, especially when the advertisements used by supplement companies selling the product cite studies noting BCAA supplements:
Boost immune function
Decrease exercise-induced muscle damage
Increase muscle growth
However, when you really start to drill down into these studies and look beyond the keywords in the abstract, you quickly realize that the results of the studies are misinterpreted.
Furthermore, many of the scenarios used in the studies aren’t relevant or practical to the average person who trains regularly and eats a well-balanced diet.
BCAA Preserve Muscle
For example, much of the research commonly cited by supplement companies selling BCAA supplements as “muscle builders” was performed with subjects who didn’t eat enough protein.
One study in particular that is a favorite of the industry involves a group of wrestlers in a calorie deficit. After three weeks of taking BCAA’s, the group preserved more muscle and lost more fat than the control group who did not supplement with BCAAs.
There’s two glaring errors with the study though:
First, the group taking BCAA’s ingested 52 grams of BCAAs per day. That’s 10 times the amount of BCAA contained in a typical BCAA supplement! At this rate, you’d go through your tub of BCAA in about 3 days.
Second, the wrestlers only at an average of 80 grams of protein per day, which is hardly enough protein to sustain an athlete weight 150 pounds, which was the average weight of the athletes in the study.
As you know, adequate protein intake is vital during periods of dieting, as it helps preserve muscle and limit muscle loss. However, in this study, subjects were eating about ½ of the protein they actually should have.
Other studies demonstrate other muscle-related benefits to BCAA supplements, but again, they suffer from not controlling for protein intake or diet.
So, all these studies really tell us, is that if we don’t eat enough protein and train fasted, BCAA supplements might help us hold onto more muscle. As you can see, this is far from a realistic scenario for anyone serious about building muscle or losing fat.
While research does show that BCAAs exert anabolic effects when taken pre workout, intra workout, and post workout, this misses the forest for the trees. There’s nothing inherently special about the BCAA’s in BCAA supplements compared to the BCAAs you get from food. And there’s zero evidence that a BCAA supplement is anymore effective than food either for putting on size.
In fact, there’s actually some studies that shown that food and whey protein are superior to amino acid supplements.
This is why we recommend having some protein, either from food or a protein shake, before and after training.
And, to top it off, provided you’re consuming adequate protein every day, your body will get all of the branched-chain amino acids it needs to repair and build muscle from food alone. Research confirms this as well.
Now, you might say that since a person trains with intensity multiple times per week, or several times each day, maybe they might have higher BCAA requirements.
Indeed they would, but that doesn’t mean you need a BCAA supplement to fulfill those needs. All you would need to do is eat more food, or have another whey protein shake. And besides, wouldn’t you rather eat your calories or have a delicious protein shake than drink some kind of neon-colored liquid?
All that being said, there is one scenario where BCAA supplementation might make sense -- fasted training.
What is Fasted Training?
Many people think that fasted training means “training on an empty stomach,” but this isn’t entirely true.
Fasted training actually means exercising in a “fasted” state, which is related to insulin levels, not how full your stomach feels. More specifically, your body is becomes fasted state when it is no longer digesting and absorbing nutrients from your last meal, and insulin levels have returned to their low, baseline levels.
How Long Does This Take?
When you eat food, your pancreas releases insulin into the bloodstream so that it can pick up glucose and other nutrients in the blood and shuttle them into your muscle cells. This “nutrient delivery” stage is referred to as a “fed” or “postprandial” state. It can last from anywhere from 60 minutes post feeding all the way up to 6 hours, depending on how big your meal was and what kind of foods you eat. This is due to the fact that protein, fat, and fiber all contribute to slowing down the speed of digestion.
So, if you eat a meal high in protein and fat, for instance, the digestion and absorption time of that meal will be considerably longer than if you had eaten a meal consisting of Skittles or any other form of pure sugar content of your meal.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with training in a fed state, and to be honest, there’s several benefits to training with some kind of food in your system, not the least of which is better performance and decreased muscle breakdown.
But, when you’re in a fed state and insulin levels are elevated, the hormones that drive fat burning are dampened.[11,12]
Additionally, certain “fat burning” supplements, such as caffeine or yohimbine, exert maximum effect when used with fasted training.
Do I have to train fasted to lose fat?
Not at all.
All that is required to lose body fat is a caloric deficit.
Training fed or fasted doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, and research shows that training fasted does not lead to any better fat loss than training fed, given you observe a calorie deficit.
All that being said, training fasted does come with one very big, very real drawback -- increased muscle loss.
In other words, when you train fasted, muscle breakdown occurs faster and to a greater extent than when you train in a fed state.
And with that, we come full circle back to why so many people use BCAA supplements.
Leucine reduces muscle protein breakdown, making it useful to preserve lean muscle mass when training fasted.
As an added bonus, leucine also has a far lower impact on insulin secretion than whole food or even whey protein powder, both of which would put you in a fed state and break your fast.[15,16]
Studies show that you need 3-5 grams of leucine prior to training to ward off muscle loss. Since, most BCAA supplements only contain 5 grams total of BCAA in a 2:1:1, meaning you get 2.5 grams of leucine and 1.25 grams each of isoleucine and valine per serving, you’d need a minimum of 2 scoops every time you train.
This also means that your tub of BCAA’s probably won’t even last you a whole month.
BCAA are “OK”, but...
Given the choice between training fasted or using BCAAs, taking the BCAA supplement to prevent muscle loss is the clear winner. And, don’t get us wrong, in a pinch, BCAA’s certainly can “get the job done”, but the simple truth of the matter is that leucine is the only one you really need to guard against muscle breakdown.
So, you could just buy some bulk leucine, which is considerably cheaper on a per gram basis than BCAA supplements, and call it a day. However, pure leucine tastes bad...really, really bad.
The kind of bad that no matter how much tooth brushing or mouth rinsing you do, the funk just won’t go away.
Furthermore, one of the biggest selling points touted with BCAA supplements is their ability to promote muscle growth via stimulation of mTOR and subsequently boosting muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
However, there’s a catch -- in order for your body to build new proteins, it needs ALL of the essential amino acids (EAA’s) present in sufficient quantities, not just the three BCAA’s.
Supplementing with only the BCAA’s is like fielding a baseball team with only the pitcher, catcher and 1st basemen. Sure, it can get by in a pinch (i.e. training fasted), but you’d be hard-pressed to actually win the game (i.e. build muscle).
And it’s here we see why BCAA supplements cannot offer a solution to your amino acid supplement needs -- they’re missing the other 6 EAA’s required for protein synthesis.
Therefore, if you are interested in using an amino acid supplement, it only makes sense to use one that contains ALL of the EAA’s. Here’s why we recommend EAA’s over BCAA’s.
Why EAA’s Are Better Than BCAA’s
EAA Supplements Provide All 9 Essential Amino Acids
The EAA’s are called “essential” because your body cannot produce them on its own, which means it must obtain them through the diet. In addition to leucine, isoleucine, valine (the three BCAA’s), the essential amino acids category also includes:
By choosing an essential amino acid (EAA) supplement, you’re providing your muscles with everything they need for repair, recovery, and growth.
EAA’s Contain BCAA’s
A fact often overlooked when trying to decide which amino acid supplement is better EAA’s vs BCAA’s is that an EAA supplement will by definition include the three BCAA’s.
Remember, the BCAA’s are a special subgroup of the essential amino acid family. Therefore, in order for a supplement to qualify as an EAA product, it must contain leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
So, by choosing an EAA supplement, you would get all of the mTOR stimulating activity of leucine, and all the purported benefits of BCAA supplements, in addition to having all of the other amino acids needed by your body to build and repair muscle protein.
This makes EAA’s a more complete solution than BCAA supplements, and it’s why we recommend choosing an EAA supplement for your amino acid supplement needs.
EAA Max -- Your Amino Acid Solution
Primeval Labs created the solution to your amino acid supplement needs in EAA Max.
Every serving of EAA Max delivers 5g dose of 2:1:1 BCAA’s to help stimulate mTOR, improve energy production, and support muscle growth and repair.
EAA Max can be used before, during, or after training to support your performance and muscle recovery. But that’s not the only time having a complete amino acid supplement comes in handy.
EAA Max can also be used any other time of day when you want a quick hit of aminos or as a light pre-bed snack to support muscle repair and growth while you sleep.
Furthermore, Primeval Labs has developed the best flavoring technology available to provide the best tasting amino product possible. EAA Max comes in EIGHT different flavors, meaning that even the pickiest palate can find a flavor they enjoy.
The Bottom Line on BCAA and EAA Supplements
BCAA supplements are a gold mine for supplement companies, but they simply don’t live up to the hype.
Provided that you are eating some type of protein pre and post workout and that you consume enough protein every day, BCAA supplements have little to add to your training except for increasing the amount of money you spend on supplement every month.
However, if you train fasted, BCAAs can help reduce the rate of protein breakdown and thereby support lean mass gains, but you could accomplish the exact same thing (for roughly the same cost) by using an EAA supplement or having a whey protein shake right before training.
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