Do BCAAs Live Up to the Hype?

Despite a surge in popularity, the science on BCAAs is still a mixed bag.

We all want that supplement that just changes the game. Take this product, and all your workouts will double in effectiveness and recovery time will be half. Unfortunately, most supplements we consume are a lot of money and time for a 1% difference.

BCAAs are supposed to help prevent muscle from being used as fuel during intense exercise, and help mitigate muscle soreness. I read the research some years ago, and decided to try it. If you’ve ever taken unflavored BCAA powder, it tastes like a skunk smells. Instead, I chose a pill form. A hippo would have trouble swallowing those things. They were huge.

My then girlfriend (now wife), got in the car and we drove to the gym. At a stoplight, I asked her to open the jar and give me a few of those BCAA pills. I was going to work out and stay in an anabolic state. I tried to swallow the first one, but it lodged in my throat and I started choking. I threw up all over myself, turned the car around, and went to get ice cream instead. Best workout of my life.

The Underwhelming BCAAs

Pill-swallowing problems aside, branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a good example of a supplement that over-promises and under-delivers. A recent study1 showed no difference between BCAAs and carbohydrate supplementation in terms of muscle soreness and performance between heavy squat workouts. The study had its limitations, but it showed no positive impact from BCAAs, despite being funded by a company that sells them.

One shortcoming of the study was that it didn’t equally match the carbohydrate content or calories for each group. In other words, the higher calorie content of the carbohydrate group may have helped its results compared to the BCAA supplement. While far from a perfect study, it showed a real world example of taking the supplement. If BCAAs lived up to all the hype, the results would have jumped off the screen regardless of being equally matched to carbohydrate.

Studies like this one really drive home the fact that unless your workouts are on point, sleep is optimal, and overall food intake is of the right amount and quality, 1% won’t matter. BCAAs are just one example of many that could possibly make a difference for the highest level of athletes, but less so for the rest of us. Often a supplement will have a great result in a study so it blows up the market. It is wise to give it some time and further study to see if a larger pool of data confirms this. Most of the time, it won’t hold a candle to regular food.

Look at Your Whole Routine Instead

I understand the emotional decision to believe in something that will work instantly. It takes courage to take an objective look at the realities of your current routine. Most times, you’ll find that the fundamentals can use some work before you need to worry about supplementation.

Look at your training:

3 Guiding Principles for Every Athlete

Look at your coaching:

Move Well First: A New Path for Coaching Fitness


1. Kephart, Wesley C., Petey W. Mumford, Anna E. Mccloskey, A. Maleah Holland, Joshua J. Shake, C. Brooks Mobley, Adam E. Jagodinsky, Wendi H. Weimar, Gretchen D. Oliver, Kaelin C. Young, Jordan R. Moon, and Michael D. Roberts. “Post-exercise Branched Chain Amino Acid Supplementation Does Not Affect Recovery Markers following Three Consecutive High Intensity Resistance Training Bouts Compared to Carbohydrate Supplementation.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 13, no. 1 (2016). Accessed September 17, 2016. doi:10.1186/s12970-016-0142-y.

Headline photo credit: J Perez Imagery

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