Whether you’re brand new to working out and the wide world of supplements or you’ve been around for a while now, the question of BCAAs always comes up. Are they worth it?
The truth is that this is a very polarizing topic. There are those who will argue vehemently that they are, indeed, worth it, and then those who will make you feel terrible for even considering them.
I have to chuckle at “great debates” like this one as they’re so common in the fitness industry, especially since social media is so big and so opinionated these days.
In this article, I’m going to deliver the information that you’ll need to determine for yourself whether or not BCAAs are worth adding to your unique fitness regime and lifestyle. We’ll discuss what BCAAs are, how they work, what the benefits are, some BCAA recommendations from some of the best supplement brands in the fitness industry, and, finally, whether BCAA's are worth it or not (in my opinion).
What Are BCAAs, and Are They Worth It?
Before we can make any kind of judgment regarding whether or not BCAAs are worth it, we really need to first understand what they are.
BCAAs stand for branched-chain amino acids and they are essential nutrients that our bodies don’t make on their own. These amino acids are found in the foods that we eat and the supplements we take. When on board in your body, your muscles will “burn” these amino acids for energy.
There are actually a total of 21 amino acids that our bodies need to function. Out of those 21, our bodies can produce only 11. The remaining 9 amino acids are considered essential, which means that since we do not produce them on our own, we must get them from foods or supplementation.
You can supplement with an EAA (essential amino acids) formula that includes all 9 of the essential amino acids we need, or, you can choose to go with a BCAA formula that only contains 3 of the essential amino acids.
The three specific amino acids that makeup BCAAs include:
What makes BCAAs unique is their chemical structure. The term “branched-chain” indicates that they have a branched-chain that allows them to function differently when taken as a supplement.
BCAAs From Food Sources (Diet)
It’s important to note that BCAAs can be derived from your diet via the whole foods you consume. The following foods are good sources of BCAAs:
- Whey, milk, and soy proteins
- Beef, chicken, fish, and eggs
- Baked beans and lima beans
- Whole wheat
- Brown rice
- Almonds, Brazil nuts, and cashews
- Pumpkin seeds
What Are the Benefits?
BCAAs are used to help support muscle metabolism and also play an important role in building muscle tissue protein. For athletes and those who lift weights, taking a BCAA supplement might help with recovery from workouts and improve athletic performance.
There are several studies that suggest that BCAAs may prevent muscle catabolism (breakdown) during exercise, but there isn’t as much evidence when it comes to the athletic performance benefits of BCAAs.
Below are some of the potential benefits of supplementing with BCAAs:
- Facilitate muscle growth
- Relieve muscle soreness
- Decreased exercise fatigue
- Prevent muscle wasting
Are There Any Potential Risks and Side Effects to Consider?
BCAAs are not often linked to any harmful side effects, they are generally considered safe for use by adults. While rare, the following side effects have been reported with continued usage over a long period of time:
- Pain Headaches
Why Do People Take BCAA Supplements?
Those who choose to supplement their diet with BCAAs maximize their amino acid intake and enhance their fitness and recovery. Although we can consume the optimal amount of BCAAs through our diets, many athletes and workout enthusiasts opt to supplement their diet with BCAAs to ensure that they are getting the maximum amount as well as the maximum benefit of each essential amino acid.
Reasons for beginning a BCAA supplement routine include improving athletic performance, preventing DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), preventing muscle wasting, breaking a fitness plateau, optimizing workouts when fasted, and enjoying a flavored beverage other than water during a workout session.
Do They Actually DO Anything?
In short, yes, they do! There are a lot of people out there in the fitness industry that will scream from the rooftops to anyone that will listen that BCAAs are a complete waste of money, but I (and the science) beg to differ.
Are BCAAs a good fit for everyone? No, but what supplement is?
Do they do anything for your body? Yes, this is why they are essential amino acids - our bodies need them for certain functionality! The real question shouldn’t be whether or not they do anything, but rather whether supplementing with them provides an additional worthwhile benefit.
Here’s a very brief overview of what each of the three BCAAs does in your body:
- Leucine - Helps with protein synthesis, tissue regeneration, and metabolism.
- Isoleucine - Involved with wound healing, immune system support, and hormone production.
- Valine - Helps with muscle protein synthesis, tissue repair, and energy production
BCAAs and Athletic Performance
For those of us who choose to supplement with BCAAs, we’re usually looking for one of the following benefits in relation to training and/or athletic performance.
Drinking BCAAs during a workout can help to fuel your performance by providing additional energy during a long workout. Additionally, BCAAs might also help to delay fatigue during your session.
Muscle growth and repair
BCAAs can encourage tissue repair and regeneration which, in turn, helps to build muscle.
Reduced muscle soreness and inflammation are common among those who use BCAAs, allowing them to get back in the gym quicker and experience less discomfort.
Are BCAAs a Waste of Money?
Whether or not purchasing a BCAA supplement is a waste of money will be dependent on your goals and current nutrition situation.
Those who plan to take BCAAs regularly as part of their supplement routine can potentially experience many benefits that make paying for BCAAs incredibly rewarding and worthwhile.
On the other hand, those who aren’t willing to take BCAAs regularly or who don’t train hard and often, they might find that this supplement is a waste of money. Furthermore, those who consume plenty of BCAAs through their diet and don’t have muscle-building and recovery goals in relation to their fitness also might not benefit from BCAAs.
So Who Shouldn’t Buy BCAAs?
The biggest population that should avoid spending money on BCAAs are those who eat a high-protein diet that’s rich in animal products and a lot of variety. Additionally, BCAAs aren’t a good fit for those who don’t work out, train, or have any endurance or resistance training goals.
Who Should Buy BCAAs?
Anyone who has a desire to improve their gym sessions, as well as their recovery, might benefit from adding BCAAs to their supplement routine. Also, for anyone who eats a plant-based diet (vegetarian or vegan), the addition of BCAAs can help ensure that you’re getting the benefits that you might be missing out on by avoiding animal products.
For those who exercise regularly, particularly using resistance training, adding BCAAs might give you that little extra boost in the gym that you’ve been looking for. Also, those who fall short on their daily protein intake might experience some additional benefits by adding supplemental BCAAs.
Lastly, for anyone who works out fasted, sipping BCAAs can help you to have more energy and be less likely to lose stamina and endurance during your workout session.
Which BCAAs Are Best?
I work out early in the morning in a fasted state and I find that consuming BCAAs during my workout helps me to stay hydrated and gives me the energy I need to power through my workout. My personal favorite BCAAs are below:
1st Phorm is my go-to BCAAs formula. They make some of the highest quality supplements on the market and everything is done with extreme attention to detail and integrity. Plus, their flavors are all 10/10. Read my review of 1st Phorm BCAA to get more details on the product.
Transparent Labs is another favorite of mine. This brand makes premium workout supplements that are rooted in research and science. Transparent Labs BCAA formula also includes Glutamine, which offers another level of benefits for those into fitness and nutrition.
Klean Athlete also makes a great BCAA option that’s both effective and clinically proven. This formula includes BCAAs + ATP, which has been shown to support peak physical performance by increasing strength, power, and muscle gain.
And if you're a female looking for female-specific BCAAs, find out what my best women's BCAA supplements are. If you're trying to lose weight and put muscle on, read more on our best supplements for weight loss and muscle gain for more information.
Final Thoughts: Are BCAAs a Worthwhile Investment Or Waste of Money?
BCAAs are worth investing in for those who want to supplement their healthy diets with additional branch-chained amino acids to help bolster and support workout recovery, energy, and performance.
Those who claim that BCAAs are a waste of money are usually those in the fitness industry who are eating plenty of animal products and don’t find that adding additional BCAAs to their diets gives them any additional benefits. Plus, the rising costs of supplements lend to trainers and fitness experts being leary with how many supplements they recommend that their clients and audience invest in.
The way I see it, if you would like to improve gym performance and speed up recovery potentially, and you have the means to do so, adding a BCAA is well worth it. Personally, I use BCAAs several times a week, sipping them during my workout. I find the benefits to be justifiable, plus I really enjoy the taste.
For some, their money is better spent elsewhere when it comes to supplements. If that’s the case, just be aware of the amount of protein and whole food you’re eating and you should be covered.
All in all, you really have nothing to lose when taking BCAAs as there are virtually no side effects. If you enjoy using BCAAs and feel as though you see and feel a benefit, I say go for it!