5 Amino Acids All Gym Lovers Should Know About

Amino acids, the molecules that make up protein, help build everything from our hair to our skin to our eyes (and more!). They’re also crucial for a type of tissue we hold particularly dear—our muscle.

Five aminos have earned some extra spotlight for their muscle-boosting benefits, and may be particularly important for anyone who hits the gym and goes hard on the reg. Whether you’re considering adding an amino acid supplement to your fitness routine, don’t know much about the one you’re already taking, or just want to understand the magic that happens inside your muscles—we’ve got all the amino info you need.

The best-known—and perhaps most important—amino acids are the three branched-chain amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These aminos, called BCAAs, are found in food protein sources like meat and dairy, explains Brian Tanzer, M.S., nutritionist and manager of scientific affairs for The Vitamin Shoppe. “These amino acids work to protect lean body mass—a.k.a. your muscle,” he says.

The importance of branched-chain aminos for our muscles has been well-researched, with one review (published in the Journal of Animal Science and Biotechnology) concluding that the BCAAs—especially leucine—“enhance protein synthesis.” They’re often found in a 2:1:1 ratio of leucine-isoleucine-valine—both in natural food sources and supplements. All three work together, but each has a slightly different function.

Leucine

The first BCAA is an all-star when it comes to muscle-building. Leucine plays a crucial role in muscle protein synthesis (the process in which muscle is repaired and built) and in the production of growth hormones, which also support muscle mass, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). “Leucine also protects muscle tissue from breaking down when under stress, like vigorous strength-training,” adds Tanzer.

Since leucine is also an essential amino acid, meaning our body can’t produce it, we have to get it from food or supplements.

Isoleucine

The second BCAA, ‘isoleucine,’ might sound a lot like ‘leucine,’ but the magic it works in your muscles is a bit different. This BCAA can be converted to glucose and used as an energy source by your muscles when you’re working out, Tanzer says. In addition to regulating energy levels, isoleucine also regulates blood sugar and stimulates hormone production and immune function, according to NCBI.

Valine

Like isoleucine, our third BCAA can also be used as an energy source by the muscle when you’re on your grind. But it also supports your workouts in another, unexpected way. “When you exercise, your body’s serotonin (its feel-good hormone) goes up, which can make you feel a little drowsy after a while,” says Tanzer. “Valine actually blocks the uptake of serotonin in your brain, which can help prevent that drowsy, fatigued feeling.” (This is known as the ‘central fatigue theory,’ in case you want to drop some science knowledge on your gym buddies.)

How To Benefit From BCAAs

To get the max benefits from these BCAAs, you’ll want to get between five and 10 grams into your system both before and after a workout, recommends Tanzer. This can be tough to pull off with food alone, since your body needs to digest the food, absorb the amino acids, and process them in the liver before it can transport them to the muscles through the blood.

That’s where a supplement comes in: “With an amino acid supplement, you skip the breakdown process and can send those BCAAs straight into the bloodstream and to the muscles,” Tanzer says.

You can start sipping on a BCAA supp—most are in powder form—a half-hour or so before your workout and keep on sipping as you sweat. (And since isoleucine and valine can both be used for energy, getting your BCAAs in before the gym can be especially beneficial if you haven’t eaten in a while.) Shake another scoop or two into your water bottle for post-sweat recovery, too.

Related: 4 Possible Reasons Why You’re Still Feeling Wrecked Days After A Workout

In addition to the three ever-important BCAAs, there are two other aminos you may want to keep in mind—and possibly in your shaker cup.

Glutamine

This amino acid plays a role in your post-workout recovery—and just so happens to be the most abundant amino in the body, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Glutamine supports your immune function, which takes a hit whenever your body is under stress—including when you work out, says Tanzer. “Your immune system might pull glutamine from your muscle tissue, leading to gradual muscle breakdown, so replacing that glutamine post-workout can help preserve your muscle mass,” he explains.

One study published in the Journal of Exercise Science and Fitness found that glutamine helped active men preserve muscle strength—and avoid soreness—following strength-training tests.

Tanzer recommends mixing five to 10 grams of glutamine into your post-workout BCAA drink. More bang for every sip!

Citrulline

The last noteworthy amino might be in another supplement you already take: your preworkout. “Citrulline is a precursor to nitric oxide synthesis, which helps relax the blood vessels and boost circulation to your working muscle tissue,” explains Tanzer. Better circulation to your muscles benefits both your workout performance—and later recovery.

Because of its effect on blood vessels, you’ll also find citrulline in some ‘pump’ supps. (You’ll probably also see a similar amino acid, arginine, in these products—but citrulline appears to be the more effective of the two because it is better absorbed, according to Tanzer.)

Along with boosting blood-flow, the nitric oxide produced by citrulline can also boost the muscle’s ability to use energy, according to a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. The researchers found that cyclists performed better on a time trial and reported feeling less fatigued after taking citrulline regularly.

Citrulline may also help remove ammonia and lactic acid (which build up throughout exercise) from the muscles, and may help you grind on without that muscle ‘burn’ feeling, says Tanzer.

Somewhere around six grams of citrulline pre-workout is ideal, says Tanzer, though you’ll still benefit from the lower doses found in many preworkout formulas. You can add extra to your usual preworkout before you hit the gym, and add some to your recovery drink, as well, he says.

Just check with your doc before taking citrulline if you have any kidney issues, Tanzer recommends. The ammonia citrulline helps pull from the muscles has to go through the kidneys before leaving the body.

Related: Check out a wide variety of amino acid supplements.

8 Tasty Ways To Combine Your Morning Coffee With Your Morning Protein Powder

For so many of us, coffee is what gets us out of bed in the morning. That sweet-smelling, energy-giving liquid enables us to conquer the world. But if you want your morning coffee habit to be even more beneficial, we have a suggestion for you—add protein!

Protein is a powerhouse macronutrient. It fills you up, helps build muscles, and assists in cell repair and creation. It’s important to get a good amount of protein at the beginning of the day to kickstart your metabolism and keep your body well-fueled, and protein powder is an easy, tasty solution.

Here are eight ways you can get your java and protein fix in one. Mornings, prepare to be transformed.

Related: How Much Protein Do You Really Need?

Cafe Mocha Protein Shake

Go for some chocolate-y goodness with this mix of cold coffee, almond milk, and plnt’s chocolate protein powder to create a drink that will certainly keep you going until lunch. Check out this recipe from food and fitness blogger Jennifer Meyering.

Vanilla Swappuccino Protein Shake

Love Frappucinos, but trying to steer clear of all that sugar? Make a healthier version at home by mixing up Hungry Girl’s Vanilla Swappuccino Protein Shake. Use BodyTech’s French Vanilla Whey Protein Powder for a whopping 17 grams of protein in one serving.

Energy Bites

You don’t need to drink your protein to get the coffee-flavored taste you want in the morning—make energy bites with coffee-flavored protein powder, instead! Garden of Life’s Organic Plant Protein in Smooth Coffee is a delicious way to add a kick to Ambitious Kitchen’s to-die-for peanut butter energy bites.

Ready-to-Drink Coffee with Protein

Pressed for time? Skip all the mixing and blending and pick up Orgain’s Organic Coldbrew+Protein, a prepared version of iced coffee. 10 grams of protein will fill you up on the go.

Espresso Protein Smoothie

If you’re paleo (or just trying to get more healthy fats into your life), this espresso protein smoothie from Paleo Power Couple will definitely fit the bill. It’s delicious, too, with a big serving of coconut milk and two full shots of espresso (yes, please). With the paleo power of Ancient Nutrition’s Bone Broth Protein in Coffee flavor, you’ll feel super-energized.

Related: Shop plant protein and get your mornings started.

Coffee Protein Pumpkin Brownies

Brownies for breakfast? Why the heck not? With fiber from pumpkins, caffeine from coffee, and protein from a powder like BodyTech’s Vanilla Whey Protein, these brownies have a lot more nutritional value than the ones you’re used to.

Vanilla Cappuccino Protein Pudding

If you’re vegan (or even if you’re not), you will love this decadent pudding from One Green Planet. Make it with plnt’s Vanilla Pea Protein powder for extra plant-powered benefits.

Iced Mocha Green Monster Smoothie

It doesn’t seem like coffee would be a good combination with greens, but Oh She Glows has created a crazy-delicious spin on a green smoothie, adding coffee for taste and effect. You won’t even taste the spinach! Add plnt protein in chocolate to up the chocolate-y goodness factor.

Related: Shop whey protein from all of the best brands.

 

All Calories Are Not Created Equal—Here’s Why

For plenty of people, calories are king. We watch, count, and talk about calories an awful lot—but is there a difference between a PopTart calorie and a broccoli calorie? And do we really need to whip out our calculators every time we sit down for a meal?

First things first, we need to understand what a calorie really is. A calorie is a unit of energy that our body gets from a food or drink we consume, explains Keri Gans, M.S., R.D.N., owner of Keri Gans Nutrition. Our body needs calories to maintain basic functions and power us through daily activities, like exercise. (We each need a different ideal number of daily calories, depending on our gender, size, our health goals, and our activity level.)

What That Number Doesn’t Tell You

Calories alone shouldn’t be your only food-selecting compass. “There’s a big difference between 100 calories from almonds and 100 calories from cookies,” says Gans. While 100 calories of almonds provides heart-healthy unsaturated fats, fiber, protein, and some calcium, 100 calories of cookies likely provides little more than a quick burst of energy (and later, crash) from simple carbs and sugar. Without fiber or protein on board, the cookie’s carbs and sugar break down fast and send your blood sugar flying.

When you pick up a food product, Gans recommends asking yourself: “What nutrition does this give me that I need? What does it contain that I could do without?” Pay attention to where your calories are coming from. Protein and fiber? Great. Saturated fat and added sugar? Not so great.

Get in the habit of reading ingredient lists: “If we’re just focusing on the calories in a packaged food that has 50 ingredients, we’re way off,” says Brittany Michels, R.D., dietitian for The Vitamin Shoppe. Calories aside, our healthiest food choices are packed with nutrients, aren’t processed, and are free of antibiotics, chemicals, and preservatives, she says.

Foods that have a high ratio of important nutrients (like vitamins and minerals) to calories are called ‘nutrient-dense’ foods, explains Michels. These foods give your body more health bang for your buck. Meanwhile, foods that provide calories but little or no vitamins or minerals are ‘empty calories,’ says Gans. To support your body and health, you want your daily calories to be as nutrient-dense as possible. Foods like salmon and seeds may be high in calories, but they also happen to pack plenty of nutrients.

Related: What You Need To Know About The Popular Whole30 Diet

Considering Calories And Weight Loss

The number of calories you consume does matter, especially if you’re trying to lose weight, so while calories aren’t equal across the board, you should consider them.

You’ve probably heard that you need to consume fewer calories than you burn in order to shed pounds—but you don’t need to count every single calorie to get there. Instead of slaving over your food-tracking app, Gans recommends choosing whole foods and learning how to combine them for balanced, healthy meals. “Fill a quarter of your plate with lean protein like chicken or fish, a quarter with whole grains or fiber-filled carbs like quinoa or sweet potato, and half with vegetables like spinach or broccoli,” she says. When you combine nutrient-dense foods, you’ll feel full and satisfied, and likely land in the right calorie range without all the counting.

Keeping these portion sizes in mind is key, though, says Gans. Too much of a nutrient-dense, healthy food is still too much. Take avocado, for example. The fruit contains fiber and heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, but one serving is just a quarter of an avocado, says Gans. So if you spoon your way through the whole thing (been there, done that), you’re still racking up major calories and sabotaging your weight-loss efforts. Other good-for-you fats, like nuts and olive oil, can also be easy to overdo if you’re not conscious of serving size, says Gans.

The bottom line: Calorie count doesn’t define whether a food is healthy or not. Keep your body in tip-top shape (and at a healthy weight) by picking nutrient-dense, whole foods over empty, processed foods, while staying aware of serving sizes when you nosh.

Related: Find a supplement to support your weight-management plan.

13 Burpees That’ll Blow Your Mind (And Torch Serious Calories)

When you’re looking to SWEAT, there’s one move that always jumps to mind: burpees. After all, this bodyweight move hits just about every muscle and is sure to send your heart rate through the roof.

Check out these 13 creative ways to mix up your favorite hurts-so-good move. Warning: A few of them are pretty advanced, so test with caution!

Related: Find the performance supp that’ll give your next workout just the boost it needs.

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15 Beautifying Ingredients That Are Sitting In Your Kitchen Pantry

Natural beauty products and practices are growing in popularity—and for good reason. Plenty of drugstore products are filled with unpronounceable chemicals, fillers, and irritants, which is why from-the-earth ingredients are so valued, especially ones for the skin and hair.

And guess what? You probably have a good deal of beautifying ingredients sitting right under your nose. Like, right in your sandwich.

Here, 15 items you can find in your kitchen pantry that have serious beauty benefits.

1. Olive Oil: It totally makes sense that this do-everything kitchen favorite has serious skin benefits, as well. Extra virgin olive oil is an amazing moisturizer, makeup remover, and overall skin protector, according to the journal Clinics in Dermatology . Add it to masks or scrubs (you can even make your own scrub with a two tablespoons of olive oil and honey and a half cup of sugar) or just plain slather it on when you’re skin is feeling parched (and no, it’s not true that oil will block your pours).

2. Coffee grinds: You may have seen coffee scrubs in upscale skin-care stores, but they’re just as easy to use in your own DIY exfoliating blends. Make sure you use fresh, unused grounds, and combine them with an oil or other emollient. Then, scrub away! This is terrific to use on dry or rough body parts, like elbows, knees, or even lips. A word to the wise: You better enjoy the smell of coffee, because it’s strong!

3. Honey: As good as honey tastes, you should know it’s just as good for your skin. The sweet treat has been used for centuries for skincare, in scrubs, as a bath soak, and even to wash your face. Organic manuka honey is a terrific variety to try, prized for its purity.

Related: Why Has Manuka Honey Become So Popular–And What Do You Actually Do With It?

4. Avocado: Avocado is full of healthy fats (like monounsaturated fatty acids) and Vitamin C, both of which help your skin stay healthy-looking and supple. Mash it up and pop it on your face. (And make sure to save some for guacamole—the best time to snack is as your mask dries!)

5. Egg whites: Sticky, goopy egg whites are actually a bit of a miracle worker for your face, helping to pull gunk from your pores while toning, and tightening the skin. In fact, egg whites are a craze in the Korean beauty world! They contain both collagen and protein, two powerhouse ingredients for skin-care.

Related: Is Matcha Really A Miracle Worker?

6. Mayonnaise: Women have been using mayo hair masks for decades to get enviable super-shiny hair. Ask your grandma—she might have slathered some Hellman’s on her tresses back in the day, too! Yes, you may smell like a potato salad while you’re doing it, but the healthy fats and moisture in the condiment are super-nourishing for hair. Leave in for at least 20 minutes and then shampoo it out.

7. Coconut oil: Coconut oil is the workhorse of the natural world, and for good reason. This incredibly healthy oil is great for baking, cooking, and even oil pulling. It’s also a powerful moisturizer for both hair and skin, and can be used in a variety of treatments. Buy a big tub of organic coconut oil and keep it in your bathroom to use when skin is dry, makeup is stubborn, or hair needs a little oomph.

8. Yogurt: The lactic acid in this kitchen staple (also a super-healthy treat) is an amazing exfoliator, helping to slough off the blah skin and reveal the bright skin underneath. If you want to try a yogurt facial, be sure to use an unflavored option, though! Then, rub in a few teaspoons and let it soak in for 10-15 minutes.

9. Apple cider vinegar: It’s easy to find apple cider vinegar, which is good news for your skin and hair. ACV (as it’s often abbreviated) makes a terrific natural skin toner and it promotes a healthy scalp. This type of vinegar also helps clarify hair, especially when you’ve got a lot of product buildup. It’s also not uncommon to use it as a shampoo!

10. Cornstarch: Cornstarch, frequently used as a thickener in soups and stews, can do double-duty on both your face and your body. It can be used as a setting powder after makeup application (or just to mop up oil) and its super-absorbency makes it a quick, easy fix for other areas where you find yourself getting damp, like inner thighs or armpits.

11. Cucumber: Most people have seen this crunchy veggie used as an eye de-puffer, but did you know it can tone the skin and help to relieve the sting of sunburn? According to the journal Fitoterapia, the jury is still out on how the particular compounds in cucumber help the skin, but they do contain high water content (while boasting a soothing scent), which can help to moisturize the skin.

Related: We Tried 5 DIY Body Scrubs—Here’s What Happened

12. Turmeric: Turmeric is a star these days, adored for its digestive and immune systems support. Some evidence, according to Phytotherapy Research, points to skin health benefits, and it makes a great addition to a facial mask or scrub.

13. Mustard powder: Mustard is much revered in the Indian Ayurvedic health (considered the world’s oldest holistic healing system), both for its culinary and medicinal properties. The powder, made from the mustard seed, can be a great exfoliator for the skin.

14. Banana: DIY hair devotees swear by banana hair masks, and studies in Phytojournal have shown that the fruit favorite can add to the endurance, shine and softness of your hair. Blend the fruit up with an oil of your choice, plus some honey, and let sit for 20-30 minutes. Rinse out and enjoy the tropical vibe left behind.

15. Green tea: You already know that green tea is great for your insides (hello antioxidants!) but its benefits can be reaped on the outside, too. Try it as a toner, mix it with other ingredients to make a mask, or put it into action as a hair rinse. According to the Journal of the German Society of Dermatology, green tea has shown remarkable efficacy in skin-care.

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10 Santa-Worthy Holiday Protein Treats

If we could live solely off Christmas cookies this time of year, trust us, we would. After all, it is bulking season, right?

Since we want to survive into the new year without overdosing on sugar, though, we’ll take our holiday treats with a side of protein and greens, please.

Behold, 10 of the most decadent—but non-waistline destroying—holiday recipes. Ever. Prepare to drool.

Mint Chocolate Protein Shake 

 

Double Hot Chocolate Merengue Protein Shake

Related: Your shake is only as strong as your protein powder—pick your favorite BPI blend. 

Pistachio Protein Eggnog

Caramel Candy Cane Protein Shake

 

Grinch Spritzer

Related: Stock up on The Vitamin Shoppe brand products used in these goodies. 

Christmas Pudding Protein Milkshake

 

S’Mores Butterscotch Chilled Protein Latte

 

Snickerdoodle Gingerbread Cookies

 

Santa’s Cookies And Cream Protein Shake

Related: Take your healthy baking and blending to the next level with these plnt ingredients. 

Christmas Morning Shake