The Three Kings – Branch Chain Amino Acids
Branch Chain Amino Acids
Old School Muscle Builder Re-Emerges To Lead
The High-Tech Bodybuilding Supplement Revolution
AMS Advisory Board
Founder: Andrich Fitness and Nutrition Inc.
Even if you weren’t old enough to have Arnold’s Conan the Destroyer poster hanging on your wall back in the 80’s, you can still probably guess that bodybuilding supplements in those days carried little, if any, credible science to support their claims. I mean compared to the current crop of scientifically validated, muscle building, performance-enhancing supplements like creatine, beta-alanine and natural-enzyme activated hormone precursors (prohormones), the 80’s may as well be the dark ages.
Just a few decades ago there wasn’t even much direct scientific evidence to make the case for athletes eating additional protein, even if you were a bodybuilder whose primary goal in life was building muscle.
But, hardcore bodybuilders are known for doing their own real world “testing”. So if you were seriously getting your pump on in the 80’s, you were probably taking a protein powder, or maybe even compressed Argentinean beef in the form of defatted liver tablets. No kidding, beef liver tabs preceded amino acid tabs for ultra portable protein on the go, and we carried baggies of them everywhere we went!
The point is, protein based products were the best selling supplements of that era, and much like today, the market was developed by an underground network of experienced bodybuilders who used good old-fashioned trial and error to come to the realization that more protein is better, especially when you are attempting to get ripped to the bone. But all that was about to change, when in 1984 a group of three amino acids specifically, leucine, valine and isoleucine, commonly called, Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAA’s), came on the scene with some impressive science that caught the eye of advanced bodybuilders.
In this article you will learn that while BCAA’s were a scientific marvel 25-years ago, the best science for this revolutionary trio of amino acids was still yet to come. In fact, BCAA’s might be the first legitimate muscle building product that still continues to lead us into a high-tech world where science holds the keys to muscle metabolism.
As bodybuilders we realize the importance of consuming ample amounts of high quality animal proteins in the way of beef, chicken, fish, eggs and dairy products. What many of us don’t realize is that biologically speaking, our need for protein is in fact a need for amino acids. That’s why when you eat protein your body must first break it down into more useable chunks of amino acids, primarily in the form of di and tri-peptides, which are “clusters” of amino acids to be used in the body.
In recent years, research has been able to identify specific amino acids as “signaling molecules” that control a whole host of critical metabolic processes, including stimulating muscle growth ––where BCAA’s do their most impressive work. When you eat high quality protein you are getting non-essential and essential amino acids that include the BCAA’s. In humans, about 15-25% of our total protein intake is comprised of BCAA’s, with dairy products, and supplements containing whey and milk proteins contain the highest quantities at roughly 23-25%.
For bodybuilders the most important BCAA factoid is that they make up 35-40% of the essential amino acids in body protein and 14% of the total amino acids in skeletal muscle. The reason we have such concentrated levels of BCAA’s in body protein and skeletal muscle becomes crystal clear when you understand how BCAA’s are metabolized.
BCAA’s––On-Board Muscle Preservation
What initially got bodybuilders (and the sports science community) excited about BCAA’s, was how elegantly the body metabolized these three amino acids. You see, unlike whole proteins or amino acids, BCAA’s by-pass the liver and can be used by the body as fuel in tissues other than the liver. More importantly, research revealed that during exercise BCAA’s were preferentially used as an alternate fuel source, sparing other muscle proteins from being broken down for energy. In essence, this truncated delivery allows BCAA’s to quickly become involved in critical aspects of muscle metabolism, and the first order of business seems to be replacing BCAA’s burned during exercise, or as a direct fuel source during exercise.
The unique metabolic fate of BCAA’s catapulted them to superstar status as an anti-catabolic agent, which simply means, the ability to reduce muscle protein breakdown. This is no small feat, because in many ways, the anti-catabolic mechanism is how anabolic steroids help you maintain greater levels of muscle mass. This revelation caused bodybuilders to start popping BCAA’s like tic-tacs® (me included), especially pre-contest because they knew that in the face of energy restriction your body doesn’t just burn bodyfat, it looks to make glucose by any means possible, and taking carbon from muscle protein is a prime target. The ability to offset muscle protein breakdown is further protected by BCAA’s and their rare ability to generate glucose with just a few simple steps.
BCAA’s – Auxiliary Energy Source
While many bodybuilders think your body has “calorie sensors” that determine how many calories your body needs to; 1) maintain the same body composition, 2) reduce bodyfat, 3) add muscle or 4) add muscle and lose fat simultaneously, the reality is your brain runs a much simpler show. This is not to say that the amount of proteins, carbs and fats you eat each day don’t matter, but what it does mean is your body’s energy needs are based on a system that is set up to insure your brain never runs out of its preferred energy source, which is glucose. And it doesn’t matter if you eat simple or complex carbs, fiber rich or no fiber at all, what finally winds up coursing through your veins is pure glucose. In fact, 50% of every molecule of glucose in your bloodstream right now is being saved for brain function. That’s because if your brain gets “unplugged”, nothing else matters.
We are all hardwired with the same fail-safe energy system that is always switched-on and can create glucose whenever necessary. This system is called gluconeogenesis, which is a metabolic pathway that results in the creation of glucose from non-carbohydrate carbon substrates such as lactate, glycerol, and glucogenic amino acids. As you might expect, the process of gluconeogenesis goes into overdrive to help provide glucose when you are doing high volume weight training, high intensity cardio, and or, restricting calories. In other words, when you are training at peak levels that outstrip available glucose, which could preserve your muscle mass, gluconeogenesis, otherwise known as your alternative energy system, must go into high gear.
This is when having BCAA levels in blood and muscle becomes extremely important. You see under the strain of exercise and diet induced glucose insufficiency your body will take BCAA’s directly from muscle tissue to make the extra energy it needs. Remember, your body needs to create glucose not only to cover the extra energy requirements caused by increased exercise, but more importantly, to keep your brain switched-on. Research has shown just how critical BCAA’s are to the process of gluconeogenesis because they are intimately involved in the glucose – alanine cycle. In this pathway, BCAAs are stripped from the muscle tissue and parts of them are converted to the amino acid alanine, which is transported to the liver and converted into glucose (See fig 1).
Because the process of gluconeogenosis relies on non-carbohydrate substrates such as amino acids from muscle tissue to make glucose, supplementing with BCAA’s may hold the key to maximizing muscle mass¬¬––especially while dieting. In theory, this means that by consuming supplemental BCAA’s the body will not have to break down muscle tissue to derive any extra energy demands. This theory was confirmed in a study that showed that the use of BCAA’s (up to 4 grams) during and after exercise can result in a significant reduction of muscle breakdown during exercise i.
BCAA’s ––Legitimate Muscle Growth Signaling Agent
The impact BCAA’s can have on preserving lean muscle tissue and providing substrates to make glucose on demand can literally make or break your ability to build a phenomenal physique. That is of course if you’re training hard enough, and keeping tabs on your overall nutrition plan i.e., not eating a bunch of garbage. Nonetheless, these stellar attributes pale in comparison to the more recent science that has shown one of the BCAA’s, Leucine, is actually the silver bullet that triggers muscle protein synthesis, and in turn muscle growth.
Years ago sports scientists’ looking into muscle metabolism discovered that the metabolic pathway that is primarily responsible for the magnitude and duration of any up-regulation in protein synthesis is called, mammalian target of rapamycin or mTOR. This is a key finding because everything from rebuilding worn out tissues to recovering from injury, to increasing muscle size and maintaining resting metabolic rate, are dependent on protein synthesis.
The big news for bodybuilders is that we now know how Leucine intersects with this key pathway to initiate the growth response. In short, this pathway can be triggered nutritionally with proteins high in leucine or by adding BCAA’s or free leucine to any high protein meal to initiate protein synthesis of greater magnitude. No doubt, this particular BCAA is pro-anabolic. Which brings us to the last, but not least effective benefit BCAA’s can bring to your bodybuilding game.
BCAA’s ––Non-Carbohydrate Insulinotropic
Most bodybuilders are familiar with the hormone insulin, its effect on muscle tissue, glucose disposal and fat storage. In truth, insulin is a double-edged sword, because it can significantly increase muscle protein synthesis, and also fat storage. The principal driver of insulin is carbohydrate, which in turn becomes glucose in the bloodstream. The contemporary approach to altering body composition is to reduce carbohydrate levels in the diet to minimize fat storage through the output of insulin.
Enduring a nutritional strategy that virtually “mutes” the insulin response can become counterproductive for bodybuilders who want to build, or preserve muscle mass, especially while shedding or maintaining their current level of bodyfat. That’s because when insulin levels are slightly elevated whole body protein retention can be increased. Ironically, this net increase is due to a reduction in muscle protein degradation via circulating insulin, and not through insulin mediated protein synthesis. For these reasons it appears Leucine can provide a missing link with tremendous potentialities for bodybuilders.
The BCAA Leucine, has been shown to interact with the insulin signaling pathway to stimulate protein synthesis, resulting in maintenance of muscle protein during periods of restricted energy intake. It also appears that Leucine is able to regulate insulin signaling and glucose use by skeletal muscle. Pretty cool considering Leucine is not a carbohydrate. As we learned, muscle proteins and BCAA’s are in high demand when gluconeogenesis is ramped up. However, leucine appears to also regulate the use of glucose in skeletal muscle by stimulating glucose recycling via the glucose-alanine cycle. If that sounds confusing don’t worry, all you need to know is that Leucine plays a key role in making your muscles bigger and fuller, without adding unwanted bodyfat.
BCAA’s ––The Master Plan
As you can see BCAA’s provide a remarkable range of value for bodybuilders. From the available data we can make a good case for ingesting additional BCAA’s at several intervals during the day (see table 1 below)
Breaking Overnight Fast/Re-Initiate Protein Synthesis
Take W/25-30 Grams Of Whey Protein + Additional Lean Slow Digesting Protein (Turkey Patty Etc)
Reduce Muscle Protein Breakdown/Provide Substrates For Gluconeogenesis
Can Be Taken W/Pre-Workout Cocktail/Beta-Alanine/Creatine/Stims
Post-Workout (Within First Hour)
Stimulate Protein Synthesis
Take W/25-30 Grams Of Whey Protein + Additional Lean Slow Digesting Protein (Turkey, Chicken, Beef, Fish Etc)
With Meals (heavy contest prep/mass building cycles)
Amplify mTor Signaling for Greater Protein Synthesis
Must Be In Addition To Normal High Quality Protein Intake For Each Meal
Table 1—BCAA Timing/Dosage Chart
The science and our understanding of BCAA’s have continued to shine from their market inception in 1984. At the moment, for value and effectiveness, these three amino acids should be on the top of any hardcore bodybuilders supplement list.
Copyright: Vince Andrich/AMS 2010
i MacLean DA, Graham TE, Saltin B. Branched-chain amino acids augment ammonia metabolism while attenuating protein breakdown during exercise. Am J Physiol. 1994 Dec;267(6 Pt 1):E1010-22