This might be hard to believe, but...
Scientific research suggests that you really can -- in a very simple and inexpensive way -- use targeted sports nutrition to boost muscle performance and recover from intense training quickly.
What I'm talking about is sufficient and well-timed BCAA supplementation, and in this article, I'm going to answer all your questions about these crucial amino acids, and why you need to be ingesting 8-16 grams of them each and every day, either through your whole-food diet or nutritional supplement regimen (ideally both).
What Are BCAAs?BCAAs, or "branched-chain amino acids," are a group of essential amino acids (elemental components of protein) that play a unique and crucial role in a number of metabolic processes in your body, including muscle performance and the regulation of muscle protein balance. It is these latter functions that are of interest to us, particularly as it relates to:
- Improvements in muscular and endurance performance
- Reduced muscle protein breakdown, and enhanced muscle protein synthesis after intense training
- Improved results from calorie-restricted diets to promote fat loss
Remarkably, up to one-third of muscle protein is comprised of BCAAs (Mero, 1999)!
Of them, research shows that one heavily studied amino acid, leucine, appears to have the biggest impact on athletic performance and body composition, although it is best ingested as part of the group rather than supplemented with individually (as standalone L-leucine, which you've probably seen all over the supplement marketplace).
Given Leucine's scientific backing as the BCAA powerhouse, let's talk a bit more about it...
Leucine is a unique and powerful regulator of muscle activation and protein synthesis.
After strength and endurance training, which increases the rate of muscle protein breakdown in addition to synthesis, ingesting leucine quickly swings the scale of protein balance in favor of synthesis rather than breakdown, leading to net muscle "accretion" -- or in less scientific speak, more lean muscle.
Amazingly, it does this through different mechanisms, making leucine much more than simply a one-trick pony.
The two primary ways in which leucine kickstarts muscle-building are as follows:
- Lecuine initiates "translation", effectively ending the catabolic state muscle finds itself in after intense training. You see, nutrition is required to activate the anabolic, or muscle-building state following exercise, and leucine appears to be one of the key factors of nutrition responsible for that action (ending muscle breakdown and initiating muscle production/re-building). This is often referred to as leucine's effect on the mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin) pathway.
- Leucine is "insulinogenic," meaning that -- like carbohydrates -- it stimulates the release of insulin from your pancreas. This is key because insulin itself is anabolic, proven to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and halt muscle breakdown when administered during and after exercise (Manninen et al, 2006).
Now, in addition to faster workout recovery and stimulating lean muscle repair and rebuilding, another outstanding benefit of BCAAs/leucine supplementation is the ability to preserve lean muscle during low-calorie dieting for fat loss.
You see, during calorie restriction, your body pulls nutrients from a number of energy reserves throughout your body in an effort to ameliorate the deficit you've created through calorie-restriction, and one such reserve is your muscle tissue!
During bouts of calorie deprivation, such as when trying to "make weight" for certain sports in which relative strength is important, or get down to your ideal racing weight in endurance sports, your muscle represents a very attractive fuel source to sustain normal metabolic activity, and this is why it's so damned hard to hold on to your precious muscle when significantly cutting calories to get lean.
Well, BCAAs, and leucine predominantly, through its ability to reduce muscle breakdown (the process of dismantling muscle into its component amino acids for fuel) and signal protein synthesis, greatly minimizes the likelihood that you'll lose critical muscle during the weight loss phases of your nutrition program!
And... Last but certainly not least, there is significant evidence that BCAAs (and particularly leucine) can also improve endurance performance by delaying "central fatigue."
Many systems undergo exhaustion during endurance exercise, and factors such as the rate of glycogen (stored carbohydrate) depletion, dehydration, etc., all play a role in decreased performance when fatigue begins to set in.
Well, another such "system" that exhausts after prolonged endurance activity is your nervous system, and this process of CNS exhaustion is referred to as "central fatigue."
There is a body of evidence that BCAAs delay the onset of central fatigue, thus enhancing endurance performance (Crowe et al, 2006).
Scheduling And Dosage Recommendations
Ok, so by now, you should be absolutely convinced that BCAAs are crucial to your ability to optimize your body's response to training, meaning: faster recovery, more lean muscle and quite possibly even faster fat loss.
They quite likely will also improve your sports performance by supplying crucial energy during intense training, and by delaying the onset of central fatigue (as well as reducing your perception of fatigue).
So, the key questions are... In order to reap those benefits, how much BCAA do you need to ingest, and when?
Well, BCAAs are central to a number of important metabolic functions in addition to regulating muscle, and so the answer to "how much" needs to account for all demands.
Research suggest approx. 1-4 grams of BCAA (specifically leucine) per day to allow its chief role as muscle regulator to be carried out, and then, after those requirements are met, another 7-12 grams for other metabolic roles.
This totals 8-16 grams/day of BCAA, and I will say that you need to be on the high-end of that range if you're serious about sports performance and maximizing your training results.
Now, understand that BCAAs are present in food protein sources (like meat), and also in your protein shakes, particularly in dairy-based protein powders and shakes (i.e. whey and casein).
HOWEVER, at key times, such as before, during and after a weight training workout, scientific research shows that supplementing with standalone BCAAs -- in addition to your workout shake -- provides additional benefit.
That is why I strongly encourage you to supplement with potent, high-quality BCAAs around your workout (before, during and after)...
This will ensure that you're ingesting enough BCAAs to reap all the benefits noted above:
- Faster workout recovery
- Enhanced muscle repair and rebuilding
- Enhanced fat loss
- Improved strength and endurance
Quite honestly, supplementing with BCAAs is probably the easiest, fastest and least expensive way to enhance the benefits of intense training. So get on it!
- Mero, A. Leucine Supplementation and Intensive Training. 1999.
- Manninen, A. Hyperinsulinaemia, hyperaminoacidaemia and post-exercise muscle anabolism: the search for the optimal recovery drink. 2006.
- Crowe, M. Effects of dietary leucine supplementation on exercise performance. 2006.