23 May The Amino Acid Roundtable: Who Wins?
If you’ve been training for a while then chances are you’ve heard of BCAAs (Branch Chained Amino Acids) and maybe even used them. But, what if there were better options out there?
Before exploring other options, let’s first quickly understand the purpose of BCAAs and other amino acids designed to be used around the workout…
Our bodies transition between two states of what is termed as ‘net protein balance’ throughout the day, these are:
Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS)
A positive protein balance, this means that we are shifted toward being ‘anabolic’. To be anabolic in gym terms would be that we’re in a state to synthesise (create) new muscle tissue.
Muscle Protein Breakdown (MPB)
A negative protein balance, this means that we are shifted toward being ‘catabolic’. To be catabolic means we are in a state of breakdown.
In the pursuit of trying to change our physique for the better, we almost always want to try to remain in a state of positive protein balance. We can do this through different pathways that stimulate MPS. This could be weight training (which, if you’re reading this article I’m guessing you already do) and via nutritional and supplemental interventions.
For this piece, we’re going to focus on the supplementation side of things and specifically intra-workout amino acid combinations. In English, a formula that you drink during your training session.
You see, training with weights is actually a catabolic process. That’s right, we’re in a state of muscle breakdown. Firstly, just the act of weight training is causing micro-trauma (damage) to our muscle tissue. Secondly, during this time, stress hormones such as cortisol are increased temporarily. One of cortisol’s primary roles in the body is to specifically breakdown tissues to make nutrients more readily available in certain circumstances.
We can help swing the balance back towards being anabolic though with the inclusion of supplementation while we train.
Now, I will point out that none of these supplements are magic powders or pills that will suddenly transform your physique. Many great transformations have been achieved without them.
But, can they offer a benefit? I definitely think so.
How I weigh up on whether to use these supplements is by using a simple checklist:
- Is your training consistent?
- Are you training with intensity?
- Are you striving to progress every workout?
- Is your diet on point?
- Are you consistent with your diet?
Essentially, are you ticking all the boxes needed to nail down the basics of a transformation?
If yes, do you have the spare cash to invest in these supplements?
If yes, then I really think they’re worth using. When I’m working hard in the gym as well as eating every planned meal I don’t want to leave any progress on the table. To me it makes sense to use the supplements available that may give me that 2-3% advantage.
Quite simply, these are three of the nine essential (not produced by the body) amino acids: Leucine, Iso-Leucine and Valine.
These are most commonly found in a 2:1:1 ratio, though some brands go as high as 8:1:1. However, there are arguments against these 8:1:1 versions actually being less effective due to the three amino acids ‘competing’ for absorption and not working in the synergy originally intended.
Some companies will list benefits such as: reducing tiredness, decreasing muscle soreness, increasing energy production, increasing fat loss, increasing muscle mass etc. Of the list above, some are questionable as to how much of an effect these supplements have. Regardless, what we’re going to focus on is BCAAs effect on muscle building (and preventing breakdown).
They are said to be able to do this via the amino acid leucine’s ability to trigger the process of Muscle Protein Synthesis I mentioned earlier.
The reason that we train, the reason that we consume high protein meals, the reason that we aim to get multiple ‘feedings’ throughout the day all comes down to trying to maximise the stimulation of protein synthesis.
It’s suggested that we have a ‘ceiling’ of around 3000mg of leucine for being beneficial at stimulating MPS. Much more above that is largely un-needed and doesn’t seem to stimulate it any further. Typically 12g of a BCAA product will give you 3g (3000mg) of leucine.
They sound great, right?
Yes. But there’s better.
Due to the huge rise in popularity along with bold marketing claims for BCAA products when they first arrived on the scene, most supplement companies have turned their back on the research demonstrating that actually, Essential Amino Acids (EAAs) appear to be more effective at stimulating MPS. Because of this, all we ever seem to see on the shelves in supplement stores are BCAA products.
One study (Moberg, Apro, Ekblom, Van Hall, Holmberg, & Blomstrand, 2016) demonstrates an almost 20% increase in MPS in muscle biopsies when comparing BCAAs Vs. EAAs intake following weights sessions.
It seems that some of the other essential amino acids (and not just leucine) are at play here.
So that’s settled then, right? EAAs > BCAAs? No so fast…
Enter: The Humble Whey Protein
That’s right. The whey protein that has been consumed for decades within the bodybuilding circles looks to trump both EAAs and BCAAss.
BCAAs spike MPS considerably higher than baseline levels or any placebos.
EAAs spike MPS slightly above that of BCAA’s.
The problem is, both are quite short lived. They are relatively short, sharp peaks.
Whey protein however, not only elevates protein synthesis to the same degree (gram for gram, it has one of the highest leucine contents of almost any food available) as EAAss but it’s also able to sustain this elevation for noticeably longer.
The exact mechanism or reason why is still not known yet. It’s hypothesized that it could be coming from some of the non-essential amino acids (cysteine?) or a completely different pathway altogether involving other bio-active compounds within the whey (Katsanos, Chinkes, Paddon-Jones, Zhang, Aarsland, & Wolfe, 2009).
One analogy you could use is:
BCAA/EAA supplementation is like switching on the ignition to your car, but without any fuel you’ll not get very far. The non-essential amino acids (or other compounds) within the whey protein seem to be like adding ‘fuel’ to the car; thus driving the MPS process for longer.
Enter: Hydrolysed Casein
OK, so we’ve worked out that in theory the order in terms of effectiveness – despite marketing claims – is probably closer to:
BCAA then EAA then Whey
How does it work in practice though? Well I can tell you from experience that drinking whey protein during a workout is not much fun. Of course, firstly whey protein tends to be somewhat thick and almost like a milkshake in texture. Trying not to bring that back up in the middle an intense workout is a challenge in itself.
Secondly, what happens when we train? We get that much sought-after ‘pump’. And we all know that we look a lot better in the gym (and immediately after). This is due to a process called vaso-dilation, which is where blood leaves your non-essential organs (reproductive system, digestive system etc) and instead travels to your working muscles. It is estimated that at rest only 10-12% of our total blood volume is within our muscle tissue, but when we train this can move up to around 60% – dependant on training style and volume.
The issue here is that not only is it tough to keep a milkshake consistency liquid down physically, but we also won’t digest it as efficiently due to our digestive system not producing digestive enzymes or stomach acids as well as it normally would.
The benefit of ‘free-form’ amino acid formulas like BCAAs and EAAs is that they’re easily diluted, with a squash-like consistency and bypass most of the digestive process by entering through the small intestine almost straight into the bloodstream.
However, there is a relatively new supplement called Hydrolysed Casein (also known as Pepto-Pro) that is a ‘complete’ protein much the same as whey. But, it’s pre-digested and broken down into smaller di and tri peptides. What this means for us is that it enters the small intestine in a very similar way as the free-form amino acids. This takes care of the vaso-dilation/digestion issue we touched on earlier.
Also, it dilutes much easier than whey protein and is much ‘thinner’ in consistency – so you can actually keep it down whilst training!
The only downside is it can be a tough taste to mask, and is very expensive when compared with EAAs.
So, with all of the above in mind you’re now at that point where you’re thinking ‘Dude, just tell me what to drink whilst I train!’
Let’s first off rule out BCAA supplementation. If you’re going to spend the cash on these supplements, I wouldn’t waste it on these.
Below I’ll list the 3 options that I’ve found to be the most beneficial personally and appear to be backed by the science:
Option 1 – 20g Hydrolysed Casein.
Whilst on paper it appears to tick all the boxes, if training multiple times per week the cost can add up. Is the carry-over to muscle gain worth the financial trade-off? It’s tough to quantify.
Option 2 – 15g EAA’s with 10-15g Whey Isolate.
We have the benefit here of the EAA’s entering the bloodstream very quickly, as well as the whey providing the ‘complete’ protein side of things. And, due to combining them, we use less whey – so much easier to stomach during a workout than a full serving of whey protein.
Option 3 – 20g EAA’s.
Better than BCAA’s at stimulating MPS. Perhaps not quite as well as a complete protein, but if over a 24hr period you’re hitting 30-40g protein at each meal – we should have this covered. The most cost effective and easiest to drink.
For me personally, at the frequency and quantity I need of Hydrolysed Casein I couldn’t justify the cost of it Vs. the marginal benefit it may give over the other options.
When I’m really pushing the envelope, I go for option 2 of combining the EAA’s and Whey Isolate and it seems to work very well. It’s cost effective, it’s easy to digest and I get the benefits of the free-form amino acids within the EAA’s as well as the complete protein / full amino acid spectrum from the whey.
For my clients, unless super advanced and really trying to pack muscle on, I go for option 3.
An EAA formula like Project AD – Aminotaur tastes very good (Cola flavour in particular!), causes no GI (Gastro-Intestinal) distress at all and certainly does the job in terms of pushing that balance back toward switching on MPS and away from MPB.
My preferred way of using any of the above combinations is to mix your chosen supplement at the dosages advised, with around 700-1000ml of water. You would then drink 1/3 of the mixture on your way to the gym, starting around 15mins before. Once you get there, drink the remaining 2/3 in between sets whilst you train, and aim to finish it by the end of the workout.
If you’ve got any questions about amino acids, protein or anything nutrition, feel free to fire them over!
Should you choose to use CardiffSportsNutrition.co.uk for your supplements – please feel free to use code RNT10 for a 10% discount on top of the free delivery already offered.
Katsanos, C., Chinkes, D., Paddon-Jones, D., Zhang, X.-J., Aarsland, A., & Wolfe, R. (2009). Whey protein ingestion in elderly results in greater muscle protein acrrual than ingestion of its consistuent essential amino acid content. Nutrition Research , 651-658.
Moberg, M., Apro, W., Ekblom, B., Van Hall, G., Holmberg, H., & Blomstrand, E. (2016). Activation of MTORC1 by leucine is potentiated by branched-chain amino acids and even more so by essential amino acids following resistance exercise. American Journal of Physiology – Cell Physiology , 874-884.