If you’re looking to gain an edge on your training goals, it’s about time you give branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) a go. Like other amino acids, BCAAs help your body create the proteins that build and repair muscle. But BCAAs are unique in their ability to boost your gains. For one, your body can absorb the BCAAs more quickly than other amino acids and proteins, which means no time is wasted delivering these protein-builders to damaged muscle tissue.
Still, there are a few things to know if you want to maximize the benefits of a BCAA supplement. Check out these do’s and don’ts.
Do: time your BCAAs based on your goals
The best time to take your BCAA supplement may vary depending on your goals—and adjusting your routine accordingly can really make a difference in your progress.
For example, research suggests that saving your BCAAs for after exercise may maximize muscle protein synthesis (the process of using protein to build muscle tissue), says Hillary Ake, R.D., C.S.S.D., a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics. In fact, one study published in Frontiers in Physiology found that muscle protein synthesis was 22 percent higher in men who took 5.6 grams of BCAAs post-workout compared to those who sipped a placebo drink. So, if you’re after strength and muscle gains, getting in some BCAAs post-workout might be the best option for you.
Meanwhile, BCAAs can also act as fuel and may help delay fatigue during endurance exercise—and delaying fatigue may net you performance benefits. One study in Amino Acids found that supplementing with 12 grams of BCAAs daily for 10 weeks helped cyclists boost their cycling power and time trial performances. For that reason, some endurance athletes opt to take BCAAs before and during their workouts, Ake says.
Do: Give leucine special treatment
While the research is inconclusive, BCAA supplements may work best when they offer a higher ratio of leucine to isoleucine and valine. In fact, many supplements already come in a 2:1:1 ratio (two grams of leucine for every gram of isoleucine and valine), says board-certified sports dietitian Mary Wirtz, R.D., C.S.S.D., consultant for Mom Loves Best.
Why the emphasis on leucine? “Leucine is the most potent activator of muscle protein synthesis,” says dietitian Alex Larson, R.D., who works with endurance athletes. Essentially, our bodies have a “switch” that essentially turns on the machinery to start muscle protein synthesis at the molecular level, according to Ake. Leucine flips that switch “on” so our bodies can begin rebuilding muscle.
When purchasing a BCAA supplement, Ake recommends really focusing on that leucine dosage. Check your labels and opt for a brand that offers 2.5 to three grams of leucine per serving to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. “So if your supplement has two grams of leucine per scoop, you might do two scoops,” Ake says.
Don’t: Go overboard
While getting more BCAAs into your body can boost your muscle and performance gains, downing scoop after scoop won’t turn you into The Rock. As with anything else, when it comes to BCAAs, it’s possible to get too much of a good thing.
Overdoing leucine, in particular, may be ill-advised. According to Larson, consuming more than 30 grams of leucine per day can compromise your body’s ability to create vitamin B6, vitamin B3, pyridoxine, and niacin, potentially leading to deficiencies.
To keep everything in balance, stick to 20 grams of combined BCAAs (and two to 10 grams of leucine, specifically) per day, Larson suggests. She recommends supplementing within about 30 minutes of your workouts and otherwise dividing any extra supplementation out across your meals.
Do: Start with whole foods
BCAA supplements can be an effective tool for those who are short on time, always on the go, or who want to level up their training efforts, but don’t rely on them alone to pack in these important aminos.
Plenty of foods are rich in the BCAAs, so anyone looking to build muscle will do well to pile their plate with these eats. Some of the best sources? Beef, chicken, fish, chickpeas, lentils, and Greek yogurt, says Wirtz. With these foods, not only do you score BCAAs for muscle repair, but you also reap a wide variety of vital nutrients, too. Chicken, for example, is a good source of zinc, niacin, selenium, and phosphorus, Wirtz says.