Updated: Aug 23, 2020
Branched-chain amino acid supplementation has become somewhat of a punching bag in the fitness industry with many falling out of love with it. This is probably to do with the numerous studies that have come to light showing that BCAA supplementation is not needed providing you are consuming sufficient protein for your activity level. For reference, we are referring to the amino acids, leucine, isoleucine and valine, with leucine being the vital one for muscle protein synthesis. The link down below provides a real in-depth look at BCAAs and their effectiveness.
Now, this is where things get interesting as Tom managed to find a "whopping" meta-analysis in support of BCAA. This study essentially tells us that BCAA supplementation led to a "LARGE" decrease in DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) compared to a placebo. This sounds like a game-changer. This is the full abstract from the study.
"Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is a symptom of exercise-induced muscle damage that occurs following exercise. Previous research has indicated that branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) supplementation may attenuate exercise-induced muscle damage that causes delayed onset muscle soreness, however, the results are inconsistent. The primary aim of this study was to examine the previous literature assessing the effect of BCAA supplementation on DOMS following an acute bout of exercise in adults. This review was conducted in accordance with PRISMA guidelines (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-analyses) and identified peer-reviewed articles comparing a BCAA supplement to a placebo non-BCAA supplement following an acute bout of exercise. An electronic search of three databases (EbscoHost, Web of Science, and SPORTDiscus) yielded 42 articles after duplicates were removed. All studies included in the current analysis were: 1) peer-reviewed publications; 2) available in English; 3) utilized a random control design that compared a BCAA group to a placebo control group following exercise; 4) and assessed soreness of muscle tissue during recovery. DOMS was assessed in 61 participants following ingestion of a BCAA supplement over the course of these interventions. The cumulative results of 37 effects gathered from 8 studies published between 2007 and 2017 indicated that BCAA supplementation reduced DOMS following exercise training (ES = 0.7286, 95% CI: 0.5017 to 0.9555, p < 0.001). A large decrease in DOMS occurs following BCAA supplementation after exercise compared to a placebo supplement."
Fedewa MV, Spencer SO, Williams TD, Becker ZE, Fuqua CA. Effect of branched-Chain Amino Acid Supplementation on Muscle Soreness following Exercise: A Meta-Analysis.Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 2019;89(5-6):348-356. doi:10.1024/0300-9831/a000543
The conclusion we came to on the podcast was that more research is needed. This meta-analysis sounds really promising but we could not find anything about subjects individual protein intake. This is crucial to know. If all these subjects were taking only 50% of their required protein intake a day then, of course, BCAA supplementation would be beneficial. If this study was to say that all subjects were taking sufficient protein for activity level then we would 100% be backing BCAA for those who need acute recovery from intense training (such as CrossFit)
What about fasting? That is a question I posed to Tom on this week's podcast episode and he came back at me with a great study on Muslim bodybuilders during Ramadan. It basically said that being in a fasted state had no impact on their body mass or composition. Linked down below is the study in question if you want all the details.
Trabelsi K, Stannard SR, Ghlissi Z, et al. Effect of fed- versus fasted state resistance training during Ramadan on body composition and selected metabolic parameters in bodybuilders.J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2013;10(1):23. Published 2013 Apr 25. doi:10.1186/1550-2783-10-23
We came to the conclusion that more research is needed overall. We certainly won't be endorsing BCAA supplementation in regards to promoting muscle protein synthesis but the evidence does suggest that they might reduce DOMS. The most important point is making sure you're taking sufficient protein for your activity levels. Do this correctly and the need for BCAA is somewhat minimised.
Something we spoke about in length on the podcast was the rise in popularity of the canned BCAA beverage. Particularly NOCCO as me and Andy absolutely love the stuff. NOCCO is a caffeinated, sugar-free, vitamin-packed BCAA drink that I think tastes great. Now it is rather expensive coming in at £2 when it's at full price. So on the evidence we suggested is it worth it? We think marketing has a lot to do with it. Tom alluded to the fact that BCAAs have always had "sexy" marketing with all its colours and flavours.
Marketing aside there's nothing inherently wrong with these canned beverages but it's absolutely crucial that if taking not just for the taste but for the supplements inside that you know the correct dosages. As these BCAA drinks market the fact they contain BCAA lets look at that more closely. To maximise protein synthesis you need 2.5g of Leucine which is the most important amino acid in regards to muscle protein synthesis. NOCCO, for example, has 3g of BCAA inside. With a ratio of 4:1:1 it has 2g Leucine, 0.5g isoleucine and 0.5g valine. Now, this is pretty close to that 2.5g mark but for £2 a can you would ideally want something that maximises results. As we mentioned earlier though we do not recommend taking BCAA for muscle protein synthesis however for mitigating the effects of DOMS? This dosage could be useful. Regardless, NOCCO tastes great, I love everything about it and I will continue to buy it. The combination of caffeine (180mg) and the vitamins inside give a nice energy kick before my workout and perhaps sipping on during low-intensity sessions. Reign (£2) offers very little for me personally. DOSAGE! This drink only has 1g of BCAA inside. Pointless. It's on the can to say look at me I have this inside! Caffeine wise it offers 200mg so slightly more than NOCCO but then it is in a bigger can. There are just two examples of why it's important to know the dosage. The region is also important as a mistake I made in the podcast episode was claiming that Reign contains 300mg of caffeine (If it did we'd be all over it) but that is not the case in the UK so it's important to know that dose will vary on the region.
I personally came to the conclusion that if you enjoy the taste of these drinks then no one is telling you that you can't enjoy it. Why do you people buy Coca Cola and the like? They enjoy the taste and perhaps the marketing as well. If you're happy to pay £2 a can for some of these drinks then do it! (I do it!) If you are buying these drinks for the BCAA I'd be hesitant with the evidence we have even with that promising new meta-analysis. For the caffeine then sure go for it but there are plenty of other great-tasting energy drinks for half the price.
If you want to hear all of our thoughts on this topic then listen to the full episode down below.
Next week is all about veganism. We have a fantastic guest for our podcast episode and we hope to get into what I would say is quite a controversial topic not only in health and fitness but in wider society.
Final Point. Do you take BCAA supplements or drink any of the drinks mentioned? We'd be really interested to know your thoughts and experiences. Leave a comment down below or get in touch via the contact form as we'd love to hear from you. Back next week with more health and fitness related information to wrap your brains around! Speak soon.