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The BCAA Basics
A number of nutritional ingredients contain scientific justification for their use and over the past 5 to 10 years the number of published studies in reputable scientific journals which support the use of the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) has increased substantially. The branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are leucine, isoleucine and valine. Our bodies use twenty different amino acids to build the hundreds of thousands of proteins found in all parts of our body. In particular, studies have indicated that a subset of these twenty amino acids, the essential amino acids, are preferentially needed by skeletal muscle to synthesize more skeletal muscle proteins (Tipton, Gurkin et al. 1999; Volpi, Kobayashi et al. 2003). All three of the BCAAs are also essential amino acids. In other words, they are important!
Other studies tell us that during intense, prolonged bouts of exercise these amino acids are favored by muscle as a source of fuel, while more reviews have highlighted the unique contribution they make with regard to modulating how one muscle cell communicates to other muscle cells (Nair and Short 2005)(NAIR SHORT J NUTR REVIEW). In the final analysis, however, no other area of BCAA research has seen as many publications in the last 5 to 10 years as the area demonstrating their contribution towards minimizing soreness and aiding recovery.
This research has given us a much better idea of a few key determinants:
- How much BCAA to take
- When BCAAs should be taken
- The optimal ratio in which they should be consumed
One of the best studies to show us this information was published in 2010 in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. This study used twenty-four healthy untrained male volunteers (Jackman, Witard et al. 2010). Two groups were used and one group was supplemented with BCAAs and the other group was supplemented with a placebo. Over a three-day period the BCAA group consumed four daily doses of 7.3 grams of the BCAAs for a total of 29 grams of BCAA each day and a grand total of 88 grams (over the entire 3-day period). The placebo was consumed following an identical pattern.
All twenty-four participants completed an intense bout of eccentric knee extensions consisting of 12 sets of 10 repetitions using a supra-maximal weight at a load of 120% 1RM. Eccentric contractions occur during every repetition you perform and they are during the phase in which the muscle is stretching or getting longer. These types of contractions result in much more muscle soreness, but on the plus side also result in more force generation inside the muscle.
More force = More strength = More overload = Greater strength, power and muscle mass. In other words, the purpose of this high-volume, super-heavy, exercise bout was to make the participants sore and to challenge their muscles' ability to recover.
The very first dose was provided the morning of the exercise bout and the supplementation period continued throughout the next three days of recovery. The ratio of the BCAAs was approximately 2:1:1 (leucine: isoleucine: valine) and on different occasions over the next three days, the participants were measured for the level of soreness they felt, the amount of damage markers in their blood as well as their ability to produce maximal force. Both groups experienced a significant reduction in their ability to produce force, but no differences occurred between the two groups. When soreness measures were compared, the participants who supplemented with BCAA reported significantly less soreness and there appeared to be no impact on the differences in blood markers of muscle damage.
A more recently published study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition provided 20 grams of BCAAs per day for seven days before and four days after completing a damaging bout of exercise (Howatson, Hoad et al. 2012). Each daily BCAA dose (or placebo) was further broken up into two doses of ten grams per day and all participants were instructed to take each ten gram dose in the morning and evening for the seven days leading up to the exercise bout and for the four days after they completed the exercise bout -- a total of 11 days of supplementation. The participants in this study were highly trained resistance-trained athletes, which makes this study a little more relevant to the effects you might see.
Again, the ratio of the provided BCAAs was 2:1:1 (leucine: isoleucine: valine) and to damage the muscle, all twelve participants were required to complete one hundred consecutive drop-jumps. A number of valuable variables were measured including changes in force production, muscle damage in the blood, muscle soreness, vertical jump and thigh as well as calf circumference (to see if the exercise made these muscles swell from the damage). The damage bout caused significant changes in nearly all variables. In particular, changes in creatine kinase (a marker of damage found in the blood) were significantly improved when BCAA was ingested when compared to placebo. In addition, the recovery of the ability to produce maximal force was also improved to a greater extent in the BCAA group. The authors of this study (like the other authors) concluded that providing BCAAs before and after damaging exercise can reduce the recovery time.
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In conclusion, the desire to train as hard as you can puts your body in peril if you don't aggressively work to help it recover. If you just pound, pound, pound on your body, it will break down. Several studies over the past several years have documented that providing BCAAs in 20 -- 25 gram doses in the immediate days leading up to a stressful exercise bout can improve your muscle's ability to maximally produce force and reduce soreness. This means you can get back in the gym quicker and be able to train harder.
Do you often experience soreness after a particularly brutal workout? What exercise produces the most soreness for you? Let us know in the comments field below!
Howatson, G., M. Hoad, et al. (2012). "Exercise-induced muscle damage is reduced in resistance-trained males by branched chain amino acids: a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled study." J Int Soc Sports Nutr 9(1): 20.
Jackman, S. R., O. C. Witard, et al. (2010). "Branched-chain amino acid ingestion can ameliorate soreness from eccentric exercise." Med Sci Sports Exerc 42(5): 962-970.
Nair, K. S. and K. R. Short (2005). "Hormonal and signaling role of branched-chain amino acids." J Nutr 135(6 Suppl): 1547S-1552S.
Tipton, K. D., B. E. Gurkin, et al. (1999). "Nonessential amino acids are not necessary to stimulate net muscle protein synthesis in healthy volunteers." J Nutr Biochem 10(2): 89-95.
Volpi, E., H. Kobayashi, et al. (2003). "Essential amino acids are primarily responsible for the amino acid stimulation of muscle protein anabolism in healthy elderly adults." Am J Clin Nutr 78(2): 250-258.