Muscle protein is made up of 20 amino acids — 9 essential and 11 non-essential. Essential amino acids can’t be synthesized by the body and need to be included in your diet. Three of the nine essential amino acids are known as branched chain amino acids (BCAA); these are leucine, isoleucine and valine.

Leucine is a particularly important BCAA as it acts a signal that ‘switches on’ muscle protein synthesis (the process of building muscle). BCAAs are found in a variety of high-protein foods and are also available as a supplement in powder or capsule form. (See our supplement shop in the foyer)

How do BCAAs work?

Eating a meal high in protein and BCAAs will increase your body’s rate of muscle protein synthesis. This is important as you need to be in a positive protein balance to gain muscle. In your body, there’s a continuous muscle protein turnover, with periods of increased muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and periods of muscle protein breakdown (MPB).

If your total muscle protein synthesis exceeds muscle protein breakdown, you will be in a positive protein balance and will gain muscle mass. On the flip side, if MPB exceeds MPS, the overall result will be a loss of muscle.

Using a BCAA supplement can help increase your body’s muscle protein synthesis rates. This increased synthesis rate will result in a positive protein balance and subsequently increase the likelihood of muscle gain.

When to take BCAAs

There’s evidence to suggest that there’s a saturation point and that MPS rates will return to baseline regardless of the amount of amino acids ingested at a particular serving. So, a good tactic would be to consume BCAAs at regular intervals throughout day OR at intervalsin your workout, alongside meals that are low in protein and BCAAs.

Although the evidence shows that ingesting BCAAs without the other essential amino acids isn’t enough to enhance muscle mass, as with most things in the field of sport nutrition, context and relevancy are key.

The current view in the sport nutrition literature is that adding BCAAs to a meal with low protein content will help to maximise your body’s muscle protein synthesis rates.

It could also be of benefit to those who struggle to eat enough protein due to the satiating effect of a high protein diet or altitude induced hypoxia.