There are a lot of health items out there geared towards enhancing your performance in the gym. It can be intimidating and overwhelming trying to sort through all of the pills, powder, and supplements out there to figure out what’s useful and what’s a waste of money. While there are no shortcuts or magic pills, there are some products out there that can support or complement your fitness routine. I’m no supplement guru, but I can share some of the knowledge I’ve learned and products I’ve found helpful along the way in my own fitness journey. Today we are going to look at AA (amino acids) and BCAA (branched-chain amino acids) supplements.
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What are they?
Amino acids are considered the building blocks of protein. They’re vital to maintaining healthy bodily functions and do everything from support cellular structure, transport and store nutrients, stimulate protein synthesis and assist in tissue repair in muscles, organs, bones, skin and hair. While hundreds of amino acids exist, twenty are credited with key roles in human protein and eight of those are considered essential amino acids (EAA). Our bodies don’t actually produce this organic compound, so we get it through our diet in protein-rich foods (meat, soy, legumes, whole grains and certain seeds and vegetables).
AA and BCAA supplements are designed to provide your system with a quick boost of amino acids before, during or after a workout. Your body can metabolize them faster without having to first break down a heavier food source, meaning those little guys can hop to work stimulating protein synthesis and tissue repair in your muscles. AA and BCAA supplements come in pill or powder form (personally, I prefer the powder form that I can mix in with my water bottle at the gym for faster absorption).
Do they work?
There is actually much evidence to support the athletic use of AAs and BCAAs. The Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning 4th Edition cites three studies in which EAA supplements were given to healthy adults either before or after exercise. In each study, the individuals consuming the EAAs demonstrated a positive increase in anabolic drive (building new muscle tissue), with the greatest response coming from when the EAAs were consumed 30 minutes prior to exercise. The conclusion between the three studies collectively was that EAAs and BCAAs both safely and effectively demonstrated the ability to stimulate protein synthesis. It was also concluded that a greater anabolic drive can be produced when pairing the supplements with a training program (I.e. better results in a shorter span of time) vs. training without them.
Are they safe?
Amino acid supplements have become increasingly popular over time with typical gym-goers to Olympic athletes. But it’s always wise to check into a new substance before you test it out. According to Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning 4th Edition, no known reports or scientific studies have investigated or found evidence of negative or adverse effects from using EAA or BCAA supplements. Since amino acids are an organic compound our bodies use on a daily basis to keep everything running smoothly, you’re essentially just adding a little more wood to the fire.
When are they useful?
Technically, you can pair them with any exercise or drink them anytime since they’re just additional amino acids. But since supplements are a financial investment, I typically reserve them mainly for my lifting sessions (sometimes also on recovery days). They’re a great tool for muscle growth and recovery and being intentional helps me stretch them farther and fit them into my budget.
I didn’t use them until I began a strict weight training program where I was lifting for an hour or more, five days a week and my focus was building muscle and lowering my body fat percentage. At first, I wasn’t sure what difference they were making until I ran out of them. The following week I noticed a big difference in muscle soreness following workouts compared to the prior weeks when I had been drinking AAs and BCAAs before and during each session.
I’ve found them to be a great addition in my routine (even if I’m only lifting three or four times a week). I’ve also seen a noticeable growth in muscular definition over the last six months using them in a weight training routine compared to when I’ve trained with the same consistency without supplement use in the past two years. (You have to put in the work, but I think they pair well with the effort.)
If building muscle is a goal and you intentionally weight train a few times a week (on your own, with a trainer or even in a weight training or BodyPump class), you might enjoy incorporating them into your routine. You might also evaluate your fitness routine and decide they’re not a necessity for your level or type of activity and choose to focus on getting EAAs through your diet instead. Either way, find what works for you to decide if they’re worth your investment.
BCAA supplements I have used
There are numerous AA and BCAA brands, flavors and varieties out there. I haven’t come close to trying them all, but I do have a few current favorites. Your local vitamin and supplement shops will usually carry AAs and BCAAs (some places may even have samples packs of products available to test) and you can shop for them online. I tend to order all of my supplements online because it’s quick, convenient and I get free shipping through Amazon Prime. I’m also in no way compensated by or affiliated with any of these companies to promote their supplements. These are simply things that I have tried and liked in terms of price, flavor and usefulness in my own routine.
Optimum Nutrition Amino Energy
Evlution Nutrition BCAA Energy
Evlution Nutrition BCAA Energy – High Performance, Energizing Amino Acid Supplement for Muscle Building, Recovery, and Endurance (Blue Raz, 30 Servings)
Some AA or BCAA supplements are labeled as “energy” or “focus” supplements and include an extra boost of caffeine or other stimulants to put some extra pep in your step at the gym. These are currently my favorite brands of energizing AAs/BCAAs. Both brands have some fun fruity flavors (the blueberry mojito is to die for) and I’m simply bananas about their coffee flavored BCAA flavors. Because they do include a boost of caffeine, I only take these for morning or early afternoon workouts so that the caffeine doesn’t interfere with my sleep cycles later that night.
FitMiss Women’s BCAA Powder, 6 Grams of BCAAs Amino Acids, Post Workout Recovery Drink for Muscle Recovery and Muscle Toning Strawberry Margarita, 30 Servings
FitMiss BCAA’s advertise that they are specifically formulated for women. Whether or not that really makes a huge difference, I still enjoy this non-caffeinated brand of BCAAs because they are tasty (my favorite flavors are Strawberry Margarita and Blue Raspberry) and slightly cheaper than some of the other brands I’ve discovered. I take these for late afternoon or evening workouts.
If you’re vegan, there are some great options out there for you too, like Labrada BCAAs (I liked their strawberry kiwi BCAAs). This is the brand of BCAA’s I used during my vegan experience.
There are a lot of great brands out there, so feel free to do some research and exploration of your own in finding the right one for you!
The world of health and fitness supplements can be a complex and confusing place. There is a constant influx of new products and research out there and it can feel a bit overwhelming when you’re first getting your bearings. I’ve learned a little bit of research goes a long way when it comes to making confident, informed decisions about which products I choose to incorporate into my routine. Hopefully, our look into AAs and BCAAs today can help you feel more confident in your own fitness journey too.
All writing and images copyright © 2016 Rachel Elise Weems Woods
1. NSCA. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. 4th ed. N.p.: n.p., n.d. National Strength & Conditioning Association. Web.
3. “What are amino acids?” Aminoacid-studies.com. N.p., 2017. Web. 12 Jan. 2017
4. Heikkinen, Anni et al. “Use of Dietary Supplements in Olympic Athletes is Decreasing: A Follow-up Study between 2002 and 2009.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 8 (2011): 1. PMC. Web. 18 Jan. 2017