In the world of supplements, protein – whether from whey or another source – tends to hold steady as king of them all. But here’s something from high school biology you may have forgotten: Proteins are made of amino acids.
Actually, those amino acids are the very reason that protein is so important. Put very simply, amino acids are the building blocks of life. When you ingest a protein, your body breaks it apart into the individual aminos, reorders them, refolds them and turns them into whatever is needed at the time. But some amino acids are incredibly unique in the way they’re used in your body, especially when it comes to fitness.
Of primary concern to athletes is a group of three amino acids, leucine, isoleucine, and valine,called Branched-chain Amino Acids (BCAAs). As their name suggests, these aminos have a specialized shaped that allows them to be used in ways that other amino acids could only dream about. What, exactly, makes BCAAs so important? If proteins are made of amino acids, why should you also take amino acid supplements, instead of just getting all your protein?
Guaranteed, Balanced Dosage – As mentioned, whey protein naturally contains BCAAs. So, why take a separate supplement. Even a high quality protein, like Gnarly Whey, will only contain a set amount of BCAAs – which will also be mixed with all of the other aminos. And amino acids compete for absorption with each other. To get the full benefit of BCAAs, then, a dedicated amino acid supplement is needed.
Improved Muscle Growth – Okay, but what’s the point? What do BCAAs actually do? Lots of stuff, as it turns out. The primary reason that people turn to amino acid supplements, though, has to do with muscle growth. Leucine, in particular, has been shown to regulate and improve muscle protein synthesis after exercise. Stimulated by the stress of your workout and encouraged by the jolt of leucine, then, your muscles will have everything they need to grow and be better prepared for your next workout.
Increased Endurance – We’ll talk about this a little more in the next point, but amino acid supplements change the way your body uses your primary fuel sources – carbs and fat. For many athletes, especially those who depend on short bursts of power like sprints, glycogen depletion is a major problem, leading to exhaustion and a sharp drop in performance. Interestingly, a 2011 study put 7 male volunteers through a workout that was designed to totally destroy their glycogen supply. One group was given BCAAs and the other was given a placebo. The glycogen stores in the BCAA group were protected so well that these subjects saw a 17.2 percent increase in the time it took for them to hit the wall.
Greater Fat Burn – So, how do you think BCAAs protected the glycogen of those athletes? By burning fat instead. For those trying to lose some body fat, or athletes training on a low-carb diet, then, BCAAs will help your body make the switch to depending on fat for fuel.
Reduced Fatigue – Related to the above-mentioned findings, BCAAs have demonstrated the ability to ward off the mental fatigue that sometimes accompanies long workouts. Primarily, this is because the relationship between low BCAAs and tryptophan. Normally, when your BCAA levels drop, your body produces more tryptophan which then becomes serotonin in your brain and leads to feelings of tiredness and mental fatigue. BCAA supplements prevent this process.
Increased Mental Focus – By keeping the tryptophan monster away, amino acid supplements improve your short term memory and processing abilities. During competitions – especially those that last for several hours – this can be the key to victory.
Muscle Sparing – I know you don’t like to think about it but we need to discuss a harsh truth: Exercise damages your muscles. Usually, this damage is exactly what your body needs to rebuild and get stronger. Sometimes, however, things go too far and your muscles are actually broken down and used for fuel. Endurance athletes and those who routinely exercise in a fasted state or at a caloric deficit are especially at risk here. BCAAs, however, protect your muscle fibers from suffering too much damage.
Improved Recovery – This ability to increase muscle protein synthesis and guard your muscles means that you can recover from your workouts faster, getting back to your routine with less downtime. And remember, it’s during these periods of rest that your fitness improves. Ensuring that your recovery is complete, then, is vital to making progress.
Reduced Muscle Soreness – But wait, there’s more! The reduced damage and improved recovery has also been shown to limit the soreness that generally sets in after a strenuous workout.
Improved Performance in Sports – If we take all of the physical and psychological benefits of amino acid supplements together, something amazing becomes apparent: It can improve your overall performance. Your body will respond better to your workouts and your mind will operate more efficiently during the actual event, allowing you to maintain your focus and make better decisions.