It’s been a while since I have added another article to the Should You Supplement Series and I have not written on the topic because I initially thought I covered everything I wanted to. Personally, I do not supplement much. I always prefer that individuals establish a diet from a wide variety of healthy whole foods first before they consider needing to supplement. After that is addressed it may be a good idea to add in some essential fats that are frequently missing in our diets and possibly doing some vitamin C supplementation as well as a nutrient dense, whole food based multi-vitamin.
With the above being my primarily regimen for an optimal lifestyle, I feel I should address another supplement source, because I do get quite a few questions about it; what protein supplement do you use? This is a fair question because I have used several different protein supplements throughout my life and there are some really good products out there and some really bad ones as well. I have taken a few different brands for a number of years and have weaned myself off of them almost entirely because I realized that with protein power supplements you don’t really know what you are getting.
Read the labels; usually it’s some protein propriety blend consisting of protein in indistinguishable ratios and from sources unknown. Add artificial sweeteners, colors and tons of sugar, fractionated oils and fillers and you have a crazy unknown cocktail with questionable nutritional value and muscle building benefits.
After I train I am not hungry but I know that my body needs nourishment before I can get some solid food into me so protein shakes were the choice at the time. At the same time, I was trying to fill my body with the best food and supplement sources possible and slamming down these protein shakes seemed liked a contradiction to that.
What I found to be a better alternative for me is to use Branched Chain Amino Acid (BCAA) supplementation in powdered form. I usually take a little before, during and after my workouts to keep my muscles full of these protein building blocks.
What Are BCAAs?
All amino acids are necessary for the body to function properly, and BCAAs only make up three (leucine, valine, isoleucine) of the 23 used during protein synthesis to build muscle tissue. These three are also part of a group of nine amino acids considered essential. Essential refers to the type that cannot be created by the body from other sources, so the BCAAs must be present in the protein source consumed to be used by the body for protein synthesis.
These three cannot be produced by the body and are very important because they account for the majority of amino acids directly taken up by the muscles where protein synthesis can occur. The other amino acids are primarily metabolized by the liver for either energy or to be shuttled to the muscles.
The theory behind their effectiveness for building and maintaining muscle is the idea that the body spares the breakdown of muscle/ protein to be used for energy when the bloodstream is saturated with these BCAAs. When BCAAs are present in the bloodstream the body will assume that there has been a breakdown of the muscle protein and will therefore spare the muscles from breaking down more and then find another source of fuel.
Benefits of BCAA Supplementation
There are several studies touting the positive effects that BCAA supplementation can have for athletes. Gualano et al. found that BCAA supplementation for glycogen depleted endurance athletes allows the body to enhance the use of fat for energy which spares the breakdown of the muscles and their protein to be used for energy.
There are several studies, including Matsumoto et al. concluding that BCAA supplementation may reduce fatigue and muscle soreness. Shimomura et al. found that muscle damage caused specifically by squatting may be suppressed by BCAA supplementation which, in turn, could decrease the symptoms of delayed onset muscle soreness. BCAA supplementation can also alleviate soreness caused by eccentric exercises as concluded in the Jackman et al. study.
BCAA supplementation can also help the endurance athletes work at a higher capacity as shown in another study by Matsumoto et al.
What I Personally Use
After researching and reading numerous studies and benefits of BCAA supplementation I have since replaced my protein shakes for BCAA drinks. I have tried a few brands and the one I prefer is the UPS Labs Modern BCAA. (PIC) Just to note I do not make any money by endorsing this product, I have just found it to be the best because it comes in a powder form, which can be consumed before, during and after training and the product does not contain any artificial flavors nor colors like some other products do.
On heavy training days I mix up two scoops with water and begin to sip 30min before training, have whatever is left over during training and then two more scoop to consume when I am done.
The studies and support are out there and show that BCAAs can spare muscle breakdown by using other sources of energy without loading the body up with protein powder supplements. For the athlete looking to add or maintain muscle, decrease soreness and enhance recovery from intense workouts or increase your endurance capacity, they may want to consider BCAA supplementation.
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.
Jackman SR, Witard OC, Jeukendrup AE, Tipton KD. Branched-chain amino acid ingestion can ameliorate soreness from eccentric exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 May;42(5):962-70.
Matsumoto K, Koba T, Hamada K, Sakurai M, Higuchi T, Miyata H. Branched-chain amino acid supplementation attenuates muscle soreness, muscle damage and inflammation during an intensive training program. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2009 Dec;49(4):424-31.
Matsumoto K, Koba T, Hamada K, Tsujimoto H, Mitsuzono R. Branched-chain amino acid supplementation increases the lactate threshold during an incremental exercise test in trained individuals. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 2009 Feb;55(1):52-8.
Shimomura Y, Inaguma A, Watanabe S, Yamamoto Y, Muramatsu Y, Bajotto G, Sato J, Shimomura N, Kobayashi H, Mawatari K. Branched-chain amino acid supplementation before squat exercise and delayed-onset muscle soreness. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2010 Jun;20(3):236-44.