Modern bodybuilding supplements are more well-researched and more effective than at any other time in history. And, aside from creatine and whey protein, branched-chain amino acids just may be the most popular of all.
While most bodybuilders know that BCAAs can help them create a better physique, it’s not always clear just when and how to take supplements to get maximum benefit.
In the case of branched-chain amino acids the question of timing can be answered by first understanding the main advantages they offer.
There are three branched-chain amino acids — leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
They are part of eight essential aminos, meaning that your body cannot manufacture them and that you must consume them through your diet.
While the BCAAs have been shown to have potential health benefits outside of bodybuilding, they provide three primary muscle-making advantages:
Improved Protein Synthesis and Decreased Protein Breakdown
Branched-chain amino acids have been shown in several studies to increase the rate at which your muscles can create new protein. BCAAs also decrease the rate of protein breakdown that you experience during training and when dieting. This duo of bennies can tip the nitrogen-balance scales in your favor and lead to a more muscular physique over the long haul.
Enhanced Fat Burning
While the mechanisms are not completely understood, multiple studies show that athletes consuming BCAAs tend to be leaner than those taking a placebo or no amino supplements at all. One theory is that the increased protein synthesis associated with BCAA intake requires energy, which the body might pull from fat stores. Another possible mechanism is the activation of fat-burning receptors called PPARs.
More Training Intensity and Endurance
Especially when you’re on a low-calorie diet, such as when trying to lose fat, your body can actually burn muscle tissue to fuel your training sessions. This is a bodybuilder’s worst nightmare: the very workouts that you HAVE to do are eating your muscles! Fortunately, BCAAs can be used as a direct source of fuel for muscular contractions, sparing your own tissue and allowing you to train harder and longer.
All of these benefits are possible because BCAAs from supplements get into your bloodstream very quickly. As they are not peptide-bonded to other aminos, like they are in whole protein sources, supplemental BCAAs are digested and ready for use within minutes of consumption.
This has a huge impact on when you should take BCAAs.
Because BCAAs can provide training fuel and help keep your protein turnover balanced in your favor during training, the best time to take them is peri-workout, or near the time that you train.
As a starting point, take 5-10 grams before your workout, mixed into a protein shake if you use one. Many trainees also sip a drink with more BCAAs during their workout, though this CAN cause some stomach distress and is probably not necessary if you’re following short, high-intensity routines.
If you work out for more than an hour at a clip, you might also consider supplementing with BCAAs after you train to help halt muscle breakdown and kickstart an anabolic environment.
Similarly, BCAAs first thing in the morning may also help nudge you out of the catabolic state that sleep can throw your muscles into.
BCAAs can also be used as pick-me-ups throughout the day since they enter your bloodstream so quickly and can affect your mood and alertness in a positive fashion.
Branched-chain aminos, then, can be used throughout the day, but the most advantageous time is pre-workout for most lifters.