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Branched-Chain Amino Acids: A Blast From The Supplement Past
With all the new supplements hitting the market on a near-daily basis, there are undoubtedly some hidden gems that get ignored. Not the new, fancy ones, mind you, but the timeless mainstays of bodybuilding's past, the supplements forever known for packing an extra inch of muscle on your arms, yet have somehow fallen in popularity. Branched-chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) are precisely one of those supplements - not quite relegated to obscurity, but nevertheless overlooked.

Like so many new supplements hitting the market, new research studies are sparking a BCAA uprising. Taking amino acids may sound boring and outdated, but there are reasons why they were such a bodybuilding fixture for so long. Lots of reasons, it turns out. Lots of exciting, growth-producing reasons. Let's take a closer look at what BCAAs can do for you.

The BCAAs are comprised of three amino acids - leucine, isoleucine, and valine - that when taken together, can produce impressive improvements in strength, lean mass, energy production, and fat loss. BCAAs not only perform these actions independently, but can also increase hormone production for additional muscle gains and prevention of catabolism (muscle breakdown). In short, BCAAs promote protein synthesis in muscle, provide energy in muscle directly (an effect exclusive to these three amino acids), decrease soreness following exercise, increase exercise endurance, and increase testosterone, growth hormone, and insulin.

BCAAs may comprise up to one-third of muscle protein, making them the powerhouse amino acids for muscle building. Of the three, leucine is the most heavily researched. There's a reson for that, as it's the amino acid that appears to offer the greatest training and ergogenic benefit. Leucine plays a significant role in protein synthesis, and is unique in its ability to participate in several metabolic processes. Researchers believe it works by signaling insulin, a hormone that has a powerful effect on lean muscle gains, as it helps "push" amino acids and protein into cells, improving "muscle building" and recovery. Insulin not only promotes protein synthesis, but inhibits protein breakdown. Interestingly, and unlike other supplements or nutrients such as carbohydrates, leucine has the power to increase insulin regardless of blood glucose concentration. This is one of the many reasons bodybuilders take BCAAs throughout the day, including during training and even waking during the night to ingest more - the constant flow of insulin promotes a constant surge of protein into muscle for growth.

Since we know high-glycemic carbohydrates have the power to increase insulin levels, we can spike its levels even more by combining BCAAs with a fast-acting carbohydrate (i.e., grape juice), especially during and post-workout. Throw in some creatine, and you have a rather potent muscle-building cocktail.

Leucine doesn't just help build muscle by increasing insulin, however. It also has the unique effect of directly stimulating pathways that lead to muscle growth. Without getting overly technical, leucine performs this by kicking off the cascade of physiological events responsible for protein synthesis, specifically as directed by messenger RNA. In short, leucine actually reverses the catabolism (muscle breakdown) caused by resistance training, allowing for increased protein synthesis and anabolism (muscle building).

Let's continue with the simplified physiology, this time in terms of BCAAs' role in regulating blood glucose. When BCAAs, especially leucine, are broken down in muscle, it spurs the production of the amino acids alanine and glutamine. Actually, glutamine is also converted to alanine, which impressively allows for the production of glucose from non-carbohydrate sources. Not only does this process improve energy production, it may allow you to limit carbohydrate intake, potentially leading to weight loss without sacrificing needed energy. Leucine, in other studies, also limits muscle loss during restricted diets, potentially improving leanness and muscularity.

Increased energy within muscle can certainly ward off fatigue, improving workout endurance and strength. But recent research is showing that BCAAs also play a role in limiting central fatigue. Central fatigue results from an "imbalance" in brain chemistry, particularly in regards to the neurotransmitter serotonin. BCAAs, fortunately, appear able to combat central (brain) fatigue by limiting the uptake of tryptophan into the brain. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, and as serotonin levels rise, so do our levels of fatigue.

In total, BCAAs hold a lot of ergogenic potential, specifically by kick-starting the spike in insulin, directly stimulating muscle growth, increasing energy via glucose regulation, and warding off fatigue. But how can we take advantage of these powerful effects? Recommendations for BCAA intake are all over the map, with some athletes taking BCAAs throughout the day, all day, in amounts ranging anywhere from three to fifty grams daily. After all, BCAAs are just protein, so there's no harm in experimenting with doses or taking high amounts, although that may certainly be cost prohibitive.

Leucine is without a doubt the most important of the three, but it takes all three together to not only give BCAAs their name, but also their most powerful effects. With leucine, you need approximately 3-4g daily just for protein synthesis, but more like 8-16g daily for all of its metabolic effects. Leucine should be taken with the other two amino acids, isoleucine and valine, but you should take twice as much leucine as the other two. So, if you're taking ten grams of leucine on training days, you should also ingest five grams each of isoleucine and valine.

Ideally, your doses would be divided throughout the day, with the majority of your intake occurring about an hour before, during, and immediately following your workout (on non-workout days, divide your dose in half). If you take 12 grams of leucine daily, try ingesting three grams before your workout (with roughly 1.5g each of the other two amino acids and about 40-60 grams of high quality carbohydrates), three grams during, and three after (with roughly 60-80 grams of high glycemic/fast-acting carbohydrates). If you want to spread them out throughout the day, try two grams of leucine in each of the above scenarios, with the remainder spaced in two gram doses in the four-hour period before and after training.

Although high quality protein foods like beef and chicken can supply adequate BCAAs for the average person, supplementation ensures that you are fueling your workouts with a surplus of muscle potentiating BCAAs. Thus, in an effort to exploit the benefits discussed above you should be ingesting a high-quality, BCAA packed, whey protein supplement before and immediately after your workouts. The best product currently on the market is NytroWhey by ProSource. Consisting of pure Cross Flow Microfiltered (CFM) whey protein isolate, NytroWhey is a superior source of BCAAs. In fact, almost 25% of its amino acid profile is derived from BCAAs. In addition, ProSource's unique manufacturing process ensures that NytroWhey retains all of the delicate protein fractions that are normally lost in processing. As a result, NytroWhey has a ton of alpalactalbumin, lactoferrin, and glycomacropeptides to supercharge your immunity, bolster bioavailabilty and, as such, promote anabolism.

The dietary key to muscle growth is not only consuming enough BCAAs, but also ingesting enough protein. Much of a quality protein source is derived from the presence of BCAAs, so maintaining a high protein intake during resistance training is a must to prevent muscle loss and stimulate growth. Try to consume at least one gram of protein for each pound of lean body mass. A 200 lbs. individual with 10% body fat, therefore, has 20 lbs. of fat and 180 pounds of lean mass, requiring 180 grams of protein daily (assuming he is engaged in intense weight training). Spaced out over six meals, that's 30 grams of protein per sitting. Of course, as stated in the above scenario, a solid portion of this amount can be consumed with supplemental BCAAs taken before, during, and after workouts. Ingesting adequate protein, with a proper percentage from the BCAAs, is an often overlooked, natural, and convenient method for significantly increasing muscle mass and strength.