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[Review] The Branched Chain Amino Acid (BCAA) Buyer’s Guide — Uncapping The Top 54 BCAA Supplements

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Chances are, you’ve heard of BCAAs, aka the Branched Chain Amino Acids. Those magical, mysterious letters are seemingly everywhere in the supplement universe; often plastered in vivid color on nearly every jug of protein powder, pre-workout, and amino acid-based recovery drink. And the claims attached are lucrative.

I’m having visions of the the 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42 sequence in LOST.

But unlike most of the garbage that’s veiled by proprietary blends and tossed into the myriad workout cocktails circulating GNC, BCAAs aren’t all hype. And they’re not a filler ingredient. They actually have real, tangible benefits, and can provide a lift for anyone that trains regularly, including increased muscle growth, turbocharged endurance, improved body composition, and significantly reduced post-workout soreness — both for the casual lifter and seasoned vets alike.

We’re digging deep, sifting through the shelves, and ranking 54 of the most popular BCAA supplements. Giddy up. Let’s get alphabetical.

 

What Are BCAAs and Why Are They So Special?


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Image: Dedicated BCAA

The Branched Chain Amino Acids are a group of 3 essential amino acids, specifically: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They make up about 40% of the TOTAL amino acid content in the body—the largest of any group—with about 18% concentrated in muscle tissue.1 You already get an influx of BCAAs naturally from dietary protein sources and protein powder, but supplemental amounts can carry major benefits.

First, a little context. While most amino acids are first broken down and processed by the liver, the BCAAs are unique in that they shuttle straight to muscle cells. They’re a direct line of fuel, which has MAJOR perks — both on performance and muscle growth.

Their primary impact: protein balance.

Your body is a ridiculously complex ecosystem. At a very fundamental level, constructing new muscle tissue comes down to protein balance. The body is constantly churning through amino acids (from the protein you eat). When your muscles are flooded with amino acids and in a blissful state of surplus, they use the excess to synthesize protein, which enhances recovery and ultimately helps build new muscle tissue.

But when you’re undernourished and/or working out excessively, which creates a deficit, the body uses the AAs it does have for energy production and general functioning (read: not gains). Worst case, it actually starts breaking down existing muscle tissue to steal the amino acids it needs. Unless that protein balance stays at a net positive, you WILL lose muscle mass over time — and that’s why eating a waterfall of protein everyday is so critical.

Think of your amino acid pool as a bathtub without a drain plug. Your amino acids are constantly being drained, especially during exercise. The only way to keep it full is with a steady stream of new amino acids. We’re talking buckets on buckets, in the form of HQ dietary protein or supplementary BCAAs.

Simplified: when protein synthesis > protein breakdown, it enables the body to build muscle. When it’s flipped, you start to lose muscle (catabolism).

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Protein breakdown happens when your diet is carb-heavy and low in protein (i.e. America), you’re in a fasted state, or in a chronic caloric deficit from dieting. You’re not getting the amino acids required to support muscle growth.

But let’s say you’re a protein-chomping powerhouse. For anyone who exercises religiously and trains like a beast, amino acid depletion and muscle breakdown happen naturally as a direct result of intense training. Distance cardio, incendiary workouts, and marathon training sessions (usually >1 hour) all quickly deplete the body’s energy stores; namely glycogen, your stored source of carbs. But once those tanks are empty—depending on duration and intensity—it starts dipping into your amino acid pool. And that’s where the issues begin.

Think about how most people approach weight loss. They slash calories and hop on the elliptical for an hour. It works, but it’s a horrible strategy, mainly because you’re churning up muscle tissue in the process. Sure you’ll lose weight, but if a large chunk of that is muscle, your body fat percentage might actually increase.

Your strategy: shield your muscle with an infusion of BCAAs.


 

The Perks of BCAA Supplements


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Image: Bodybuilding.com

Chugging BCAAs works twofold, both on the positive and negative end of the spectrum, depending on your training and nutritional status:23

  • (1) They actively prevent muscle loss (catabolism), especially when you’re fasting, cutting calories, doing a ton of distance cardio, or engaged in long training sessions. BCAAs can help buffer muscle tissue whenever your amino acid stores start running low — that’s why they’re often recommended for people on low calorie diets and as an intra-workout supplement.
  • (2) There’s research to suggest that they can help boost muscle protein synthesis, which helps the body manufacture more protein, and ultimately, muscle mass. BCAAs can push your body into an anabolic zone — the perfect storm that leads to increased muscle growth. While it’s inconclusive, they’ve also been linked to a potential increase in growth hormone.4567

Not only can BCAAs help optimize protein balance, but given their direct pathway to muscle cells, they act as an effective energy source during training. A quick pre-workout injection can help boost endurance and delay fatigue, especially as your tanks start to empty — think of it as a reserve fuel tank, beyond what your body’s capable of storing naturally.89101112

That’s why you should be taking them before an intense workout, and during a marathon sweat session. You’ll go harder, LONGER.

Beyond muscle growth and preservation, they have a VERY tangible benefit. BCAA supplementation can help accelerate recovery (again, because the muscles are flooded with free amino acids) and significantly reduce post-workout soreness (DOMS). They absolutely zap muscle soreness, to the point that it often dissipates completely. While there is some established science to support the reduced soreness claim, I’ve personally noticed a massive difference both in my own training and with clients.131415161718

Ultimately, that helps increase overall training capacity and volume — it also makes the squats you did so much more bearable a day later. You’ll barely feel a thing.

 

Uncapping The Top 54 BCAA Supplements


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Branch out and expand your supplement stack. We tore apart the BCAA universe—54 products deep—analyzed the field, and pulled out the best value plays based on a number of criteria. Here’s what we considered:

  • Price per gram of BCAAs (aka value)
  • Total BCAA content & BCAA ratio
  • Natural-ness — is it flooded with artificial sweeteners and colors, or is it fairly natural
  • Taste — averaged based on Bodybuilding.com flavor ratings
  • Extra amino acids and additives — things like glutamine, citrulline, beta alanine, and creatine all have individual benefits

We’ve only included products that are primarily BCAA driven; for powders, that means >4g of total BCAAs per serving (there’s a full-blown market for broader amino acid blends). For convenience, we’ve broken out the rankings into flavored powders, unflavored powders, and capsules.

Every product class has its individual flaws — flavored powders are mostly gushing with artificial sweeteners and dyes; unflavored powders taste utterly repulsive; and if you’re taking BCAAs in capsule form, you’ll need to down 10+ pills just to get an adequate dose. We recommend taking a flavored powder that sits on the natural end of the spectrum. Unflavored varieties are REALLY hard to stomach. Like, I-need-to-vomit-everywhere bad. But hey, if you’re game, it’s a healthier route (try tossing a scoop in a glass of OJ, or anything else acidic).

Our recommendations:

Dosing: As a general guide, we recommend a BCAA supplement for anyone that consumes inadequate protein and/or that follows a rigorous training schedule. Take 5-10 grams of BCAAs pre- and post- workout. You can also guzzle a serving during the day to optimize muscle growth (especially if you’re cutting calories or fasting).

 

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Pages: Flavored BCAA Powders | Unflavored Powders | BCAA Capsules


 

 
 

References, Notes, Links

  1. Examine.com — Branched Chain Amino Acids []
  2. Blomstrand, E., Saltin, B. BCAA intake affects protein metabolism in muscle after but not during exercise in humans. Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology and Metabolism 281(2):E365-374, 2001. []
  3. Borsheim, E., et al. Essential amino acids and muscle protein recovery from resistance exercise. American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology and Metabolism 283(4):E648-E657, 2002. []
  4. De Palo, E.F., et al. Plasma lactate, GH and GH-Binding protein levels in exercise following BCAA supplementation in athletes. Amino Acids 20:1-11, 2001. []
  5. Donato, J., et al. Effects of leucine supplementation on the body composition and protein status of rats submitted to food restriction. Nutrition 22(5):520-527, 2006. []
  6. Stoppani, J., et al., Consuming branched-chain amino acid supplement during a resistance training program increases lean mass, muscle strength and fat loss. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2009, 6(Suppl 1):P1, 2009. []
  7. Tipton KD, Borsheim E, Wolf SE, Sanford AP, Wolfe RR. Acute response of net muscle protein balance reflects 24-h balance after exercise and amino acid ingestion. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2003 Jan;284(1):E76-89. Epub 2002 Sep 11 []
  8. Crowe, M. J., et al. Effects of dietary leucine supplementation on exercise performance. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2006 Aug;97(6):664-72. Epub 2005 Oct 29 []
  9. de Araujo JA, et al. Effect of chronic supplementation with branched-chain amino acids on the performance and hepatic and muscle glycogen content in trained rats. Life Sci. 2006 Aug 29;79(14):1343-8. []
  10. De Lorenzo, A., et al. Effect of acute and chronic branched-chain amino acids on energy metabolism and muscle performance. Diabetes Nutr Metab. 2003 Oct-Dec;16(5-6):291-7. []
  11. Shimomura, Y., et al. Nutraceutical effects of branched-chain amino acids on skeletal muscle. J Nutr. 2006 Feb;136(2):529S-532S. []
  12. Gualano AB, Bozza T, Lopes De Campos P, Roschel H, Dos Santos Costa A, Luiz Marquezi M, Benatti F, Herbert Lancha Junior A. Branched-chain amino acids supplementation enhances exercise capacity and lipid oxidation during endurance exercise after muscle glycogen depletion. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2011 Mar;51(1):82-8. []
  13. Exercise-induced muscle damage is reduced in resistance-trained males by branched chain amino acids: a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled study Howatson G, Hoad M, Goodall S, Tallent J, Bell PG, French DN. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012 May 8;9(1):20 []
  14. Nutraceutical effects of branched-chain amino acids on skeletal muscle. Shimomura Y, Yamamoto Y, Bajotto G, Sato J, Murakami T, Shimomura N, Kobayashi H, Mawatari K. J Nutr. 2006 Feb;136(2):529S-532S. SV92GWA3PQNX []
  15. Branched-chain amino acid ingestion can ameliorate soreness from eccentric exercise Jackman SR, Witard OC, Jeukendrup AE, Tipton KD. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 May;42(5):962-70 []
  16. Branched-chain amino acid supplementation before squat exercise and delayed-onset muscle soreness Shimomura Y, Inaguma A, Watanabe S, Yamamoto Y, Muramatsu Y, Bajotto G, Sato J, Shimomura N, Kobayashi H, Mawatari K. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2010 Jun;20(3):236-44 []
  17. Branched-chain amino acid supplementation attenuates muscle soreness, muscle damage and inflammation during an intensive training program. Matsumoto K, Koba T, Hamada K, Sakurai M, Higuchi T, Miyata H. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2009 Dec;49(4):424-31 []
  18. Greer, BK, et al. Branched-chain amino acid supplementation and indicators of muscle damage after endurance exercise. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2007 Dec;17(6):595-607. []

 

Bryan DiSanto

Bryan DiSanto

Founder & Editor-in-Chief at Lean It UP
ELLO ELLO I'm Bryan DiSanto. I'm the Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Lean It UP, a CPT/CSN/Fitness Coach, Chef trained at Le Cordon Bleu – Paris, NYU graduate, ex-fat kid, and all-around fitness junkie.

I also contribute to Men's Health Magazine.

When I'm not working on my abs (or somebody else’s), whipping up avocado roses and avocado toast, or running a Tough Mudder, I'm probably yelling at a Carolina Panthers game somewhere.

Come be friends with me on Snapchat (BRYDISANTO).
Bryan DiSanto

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  • Darren

    Hi Bryan, What are your thoughts about ON Amino Energy? I didn’t see that on the list. Thank you for taking the time to write out all this helpful information!