Branched-chain amino acids (BCAA’s) are a group of the three different essential amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine, taken to boost muscle growth and improve performance during exercise (1, 2, 3, 4).
Quantitatively, BCAA’s make up 35–40% of all essential amino acids present in your body- with a significant 14–18% of those amino acids stored in your muscles (5).
Based on their role in the muscle tissue, BCAA’s may also play a role in regulating your blood sugar levels by sparing glucose from the liver and the muscles and even increasing sugar uptake in muscle cells to lower your blood sugar when needed (6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11).
1. Performance Lab® Sport BCAA
Performance Lab Sport BCAA provides branched-chain amino acids in the ideal 2:1:1 ratio of L-Leucine to L-Isoleucine and L-Valine. The blend supports healthy immune defenses against athletic demands and gym environments.
They are naturally fermented from sunflower lecithin for easy digestion and high bioavailability, making it a great choice for vegetarians. It also contains 100% plant-based, prebiotic-infused Plantcaps from fermented tapioca. For these reasons, it’s our #1 pick.
2. Bulk Supplements Pure BCAA 2:1:1
These BCAAs are at a ratio of 2:1:1 of Leucine, Isoleucine, Valine and are derived from corn. Free of sugar, soy, dairy, yeast, gluten, and additives this is a pure blend with no surprises.
The blend of BCAA helps build muscle strength and endurance plus assists with muscle recovery. Bulk Supplements BCAA can also help maintain healthy blood sugar levels and weight while supporting the liver.
3. Battle Ready Fuel BCAA Powder
Battle Ready Fuel BCAA Powder is a no-nonsense intra workout to fuel even the most explosive of workouts.
Their formula boasts 5g BCAAs per serving, with leucine, valine, and isoleucine being dosed in a 4:1:1 ratio (most BCAA products are 2:1:1).
4. Optimum Nutrition BCAA powder
Boasting 5g of BCAAs in 2:1:1 ratio, the formula also includes Vitamin C to support immunity which is ideal for those with strict training regimes.
Optimum Nutrition’s BCAA’s also include magnesium to fuel hungry muscles and to reduce tiredness and fatigue. Their unique formula also contains Rhodiola Rosea Wellmune and supporting electrolytes to keep your immune system strong and your body hydrated.
5. AlaniNU BCAA
AlaniNU BCAA’s which are available in a refreshing range of flavors support muscle recovery and get you back in the gym faster.
The blend contains an optimum ratio of aminos including into L-Leucine, L-Isoleucine, L-Valine, and L-Glutamine. AlaniNU also contains turmeric root extract for its anti-inflammatory properties which helps with muscle soreness and recovery.
6. Scivation Xtend BCAA
At the heart of the XTEND formula is 7g of BCAAs in the nature-designed and research-proven 2:1:1 ratio. XTEND includes glutamine and citrulline malate making it an all-inclusive amino acid drink.
What’s more, is that XTEND also includes a proprietary blend of electrolytes and is sugar-free keeping you effectively hydrated when you need it most.
7. MusclePharm BCAA
The amino acid blend offers a unique patent-pending 3:1:2 ratio of the 3 key amino acids your body needs that is specifically tuned to deliver the ideal amounts of these three amino acids during all phases of muscle development and maintenance.
MusclePharm BCAA’s help minimizes muscle damage while supporting increased lean body mass, supports lean mass growth, reduces muscle breakdown and helps to aid in protein synthesis.
8. Genius BCAA
Genius BCAA is designed to nourish both your brain and your physique which can help you to reach and sustain peak performance, boost cognitive function and accelerate muscle recovery.
Genius BCAA source only the best quality BCAAs, using InstAminos® Vegan amino acids that are made through a fermentation process. GENIUS BCAA also goes further for performance support with Rhodiola Rosea, Taurine and Cognizin® Citicoline to help improve focus, reduce occasional stress and optimize yourself daily.
9. BSN Amino X
AMINO X is BSN’s cutting-edge amino acid supplement that delivers crucial branched-chain and essential amino acids. With a good range of flavors, BSN amino X offers a full spectrum BCAA profile including 10g of amino acids per serving in a 2:1:1 ratio.
You’ll also benefit from Vitamin B6, which supports energy-yielding metabolism and helps to reduce tiredness and fatigue.
10. Cellucor Alpha Amino
Alpha Amino includes a well-studied 2:1:1 BCAA ratio for optimal performance in addition to 11 essential amino acids.
An integral part of the Alpha Amino BCAA formula is its electrolytes, which help keep your body hydrated. They also included BetaPower, a natural and scientifically studied ingredient that protects against cell stress during intense activity, and even boosts physical performance, especially strength, power, and muscle endurance.
How We Rank
There are three amino acids in the BCAA category: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Each acid operates in a different way and provides different benefits to your body. The optimum ratios for amino acids are 2:1:1 of Leucine, Isoleucine, Valine. Ideally free of sugar, soy, dairy, yeast, gluten and additives, pure blends with no surprises. All our choices, such as Scivia Xtend, contain this ratio, or in some cases a more impressive one. Battle Ready BCAA powder is dosed in a 4:1:1 ratio (most BCAA products are 2:1:1). We have also tried to ensure the blends contain L-Glutamine too as this is used for energy production.
We also paid careful attention to the other ingredients contained in the BCAA blends. Just BCAA’s alone wasn’t enough to make our top 10 list, they had to contain something else to give your body that extra boost. For example, Optimum Nutrition includes Vitamin C to support immunity which is ideal for those with strict training regimes. The blend also includes magnesium to regulate muscle function. AlaniNU contains turmeric root extract for its anti-inflammatory properties which helps with muscle soreness and recovery. Genius BCAA also goes further for performance support with Rhodiola Rosea, Taurine, and Cognizin® Citicoline to help improve focus, reduce occasional stress and optimize yourself daily!
BSN Amino X contains Vitamin B6, which supports energy-yielding metabolism and helps to reduce tiredness and fatigue. Th eAlpha Amino BCAA formula boasts electrolytes in its formula, which helps keep your body hydrated and ready to tackle any challenge. Our top pick Performance Lab® Sports BCAA not only has the perfect ratio of branched-chain amino acids, but they are also naturally fermented from Sunflower Lecithin for easy digestion and high bioavailability.
We carefully selected our list of BCAA supplements based on their structure and effectiveness. So many companies use so many filler ingredients such as USN and MyProtein as well as harmful additives and useless added sugars. We have paid careful attention to all the market-leading brands, how they dose the aminos and what beneficial extras they contain to make your workout as effective as possible.
1. BCAA’s show evidence of decreasing both physical and mental fatigue. A human study done in 1997 showed that subjects given BCAA’s during exercise report up to 15% less fatigue compared to a placebo (12).
Another 2011 study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness demonstrated that this increase in energy, or resistance to fatigue, led the BCAA group to exercise 17% longer compared to the placebo group (13).
Further research, published in 1998, increased the stress of exercise by having subjects undergo a cycling test under excess heat. Subjects were given either a placebo or a drink containing BCAA’s.
In the BCAA group, subjects cycled 12% longer compared to the subjects in the placebo group (14).
Lastly, research done in 1991 showed that the effect of BCAA’s on exercise fatigue is much more significant in untrained individuals compared to trained individuals (15).
2. BCAA’s can reduce muscle soreness after exercise. BCAA’s work to lower blood levels of two enzymes, creatine kinase and lactate dehydrogenase, which are involved in the muscle damage pathways.
A 1991 study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness showed that by reducing these enzymes, BCAA’s could improve your recovery by protecting against increased muscle damage (16).
A few other studies (2010, 2012 & 2013) tested this by putting subjects through a workout and asking them to rate their level of muscle soreness.
Another 2016 study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, found that subjects were given BCAA’s showed up to a 20% increase in performance in the same strength-training tests a day or two later (20, 21).
3. BCAA’s may increase muscle mass. A common use of BCAA supplementation is to enhance muscle growth. A 2006 study published in the Journal of Nutrition demonstrated the branched-chain amino acids activate key enzymes (mTOR and p70 S6 kinase) in protein synthesis after physical exercise (24).
Another 1999 study showed that BCAA formulations with higher levels of leucine, compared to isoleucine and valine, can be even more effective at increasing muscle mass (25).
This could indicate that leucine, is the reason muscle mass is increased with supplementation – not BCAA’s. However, more research is needed.
4. BCAA’s help maintains normal blood sugar levels. Two 2005 studies showed that leucine and isoleucine may increase insulin production to assist your muscles in dealing with glucose – ultimately lowering your blood sugar levels (26, 27).
Some studies even show that, depending on the type of diet you follow, your blood sugar levels may increase. A 2009 study showed if you have a high-fat diet then consuming BCAA supplements can lead to insulin resistance (30, 31).
The good news is that studies regarding the effect of high-fat diets on BCAA supplement’s effect on the body have been mainly performed on animals or in cells. Thus, the results may not accurately depict what occurs in the human body. In the more complicated arena of the human body, the effects seem to depend on your individual biochemistry.
For instance, one 2012 study on subjects with the liver disease showed that with 12.5 grams of BCAA’s three times a day reduced blood sugar levels of 10 subjects. Another 17 saw no effect (32).
5. BCAA’s can enhance fat loss. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Nutrition showed that subjects who consumed an average of 15 grams of BCAA’s daily were seen to have 30% lower risk of obesity or fat gain compared to those only consuming 12 grams per day through their diet (33).
However, total protein consumption is an essential factor for fat loss. Further BCAA’s may help you lose fat as opposed to total body weight (including lean mass).
On 1997 study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, on competitive wrestlers, saw that consuming a high protein, calorie-restricted diet, lost 3.5 pounds when they added in BCAA’s over 19-days (34).
The body fat loss in the BCAA group was also significant, as the BCAA group lost 0.6% more body fat than the control group even though the BCAA group consumed equal calories and less total protein each day.
More research done in 2009 shows that weightlifters supplementing with 14 grams of BCAA’s daily lost 1% more body fat over eight weeks compared to those given 28 grams of whey protein daily. The subjects consuming BCAA’s also saw a 4.4 lb gain in muscle mass over the control group (35).
6. BCAA’s can improve the symptoms of patients with liver failure. A common complication from liver failure is hepatic encephalopathy. Hepatic encephalopathy causes confusion, coma, and lack of consciousness.
A 2014 study out of Scotland provides evidence that patients who suffer from liver disease and take BCAA supplements can reduce the severity of their hepatic encephalopathy. In the big picture, BCAA’s did not increase the overall rate of survival from liver failure, and they did not decrease the risk of other complications – such as infection or gastric bleeding (36).
Another 2014 study showed that in subjects having liver surgery taking a BCAA supplement improved their liver function, decreased the duration of their hospital stay, and even reduced the risk of complications from the surgery (37).
A 2011 study showed that BCAA supplements are seen to improve resistance to fatigue which translates into improving weakness, quality of sleep, and even cramps in patients with liver disease (38).
More recently, a 2015 study also showed that for the treatment of liver cancer, BCAA supplements help reduce the amount of water retention in the body leading to a 7% reduction of the risk of premature death (39).
7. BCAA can enhance your exercise performance. BCAA supplements can be excellent at helping to reduce exercise fatigue and improve endurance. In a recent study involving 26 college-age males, researchers randomly assigned participants to groups. One group took a BCAA supplement and the other a placebo. The team then asked the participants to cycle to exhaustion (40).
It was discovered that during the cycling, blood levels of serotonin were lower in the participants who took BCAA. Serotonin is an important brain chemical that also plays a role in exercise fatigue. BCAA supplementation also improved energy metabolism and lowered levels of substances that indicate muscle damage, such as creatine kinase and lactate dehydrogenase. The results of the study concluded that supplementing with BCAA’s can improve exercise performance.
8. BCAA’s help prevents muscle wasting during illness. BCAAs, particularly leucine, can help to maintain muscle mass in people with chronic conditions. According to a review of the effects of amino acids in those with clinical conditions a variety of illnesses can affect protein synthesis, which can lead to a loss of body protein and skeletal muscle mass.
The evidence discovered suggested that a high-protein diet that provides additional leucine can help maintain muscle mass in people with chronic diseases such as cancer (41).
9. BCAA’s can help improve HIIT training and sprint performance. BCAA’s are great to use for speed and high-intensity training. A 2015 study looked into the effects of combined BCAA and arginine supplementation on intermittent sprint performance over 2 consecutive days.
The study consisted of 7 females and 15 males who had all had success competing at a national or international level in handball. The study involved participants playing simulated handball games over 2 consecutive days.
The investigators found that intermittent sprint performance on the second day was significantly better in the athletes who had taken the supplement, compared with those who had taken the placebo (42).
1. BCAA supplements are not as beneficial as whole proteins. Taking the whole protein source, as opposed to isolated amino acids, can improve absorption because large doses of individual amino acids can outcompete other amino acids for absorption, resulting in better muscle growth (43).
2. BCAA evidence is mixed as to their effectiveness. Not all studies show that BCAA increases fatigue resistance across the board (44).
It seems as if BCAA supplementation may only provide benefits if you’re not consuming adequate protein through your diet.
In addition, other research illustrates that BCAA’s may not enhance muscle growth compared to placebo in those following the same exercise program (45).
3. BCAA supplements are not recommended for those with ALS. Those suffering from ALS should not take BCAA’s. Plus, there’s a rare congenital disorder known as maple syrup urine disease (MSUD) where subjects should limit their intake of BCAA’s because the body cannot process BCAAs effectively (46).
4. BCAAs can cause potential stomach problems mimicking IBS. Supplementing with branched-chain amino acids might cause stomach problems, but this all depends on the individual consuming them and any sensitivities they may have. Potential issues may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach bloating. In very rare instances, branched-chain amino acids can cause high blood pressure, headache, or skin whitening.
BCAA intakes of 15–35 grams per day are considered safe for most people (47). Remember, patients with ALS or maple syrup urine disease should strictly limit their intake of BCAA’s.
The dosage of BCAA’s you take depends on your goals and body. A report from the World Health Organization in 1985 recommends a daily dose of BCAA’s based on mass at 15 mg of BCAA per pound (48).
More research says that illustrates you may be able to use double that, at 34 mg/kg of body weight per day (49).
Based on the average sizes of men and women this translates into at least 9 grams of BCAA’s for women and 12 grams of BCAA’s for men. Note that BCAA’s are found in protein-rich foods so that supplementation BCAA is not necessary to reach these amounts.
BCAA requirements may be higher in highly active people, making supplementation beneficial. For athletic populations, doses range between 10-20 grams of BCAA’s per day. Optimally, you can take BCAA before or after your workout. For gaining muscle mass you’ll see best results by taking BCAA supplements while fasting (i.e., before bed or in the morning).
Are BCAA’s good for weight loss? Taking a BCAA supplement between meals and before and after every workout will keep your body in a muscle building and fat burning state – which can aid in weight loss. However, it is not a magic cure-all.
When is the best time to consume BCAA’s? BCAA’s are best taken before and during a workout on an empty stomach, by adding 5-10 grams to your shake regimen, to fuel your body and repair your muscles.
Is BCAA powder or capsules better? They provide the same functions in the body. As such, it is a personal preference.
Are BCAAs safe for the liver? Yes, BCAA’s have never shown any liver toxicity.
Is it safe to take BCAA’s? Yes, toxicity is nearly impossible.
Do BCAA’s interact with any drugs or prescription medications? There are no drug interactions.
Can BCAA’s cause hair loss? No, there is no evidence to support that claim.
How many times should you take BCAA’s per day? There is no upper or lower limit for BCAA’s. Rather you should consume them.
I’m a woman, will BCAAs make me freakishly big and muscular like a man? No, (some) men are muscular, and all have the potential to be because they have much more of the anabolic hormone testosterone running tough their veins. Even if you worked out every day and 100x your BCAA dose, you would never get even close to the potential that men have.
Do BCAA’s keep you going for longer? BCAA supplementation can actually reduce the amount of tryptophan (an α-amino acid that is used in the biosynthesis of proteins) that gets through the blood-brain barrier, therefore actively reducing the amount of serotonin produced. This can directly affect how hard you work allowing you to push that little bit harder and longer to get better results.
Can you take BCAA’s on an empty stomach? Yes, in fact, an empty stomach may provide an advantage as absorption will be better. However, some people may report an upset stomach from consuming BCAA’s on an empty stomach. Those people should take it with food.
Do I need BCAA’s for cardio? No, you do not need to consume BCAA’s for cardio, however, it may be a good insurance policy to help prevent any muscle breakdown or at the very least minimize it. This is especially true when performing fasted cardio.
Is it okay to take BCAA’s on non-training days? Yes, BCAA’s are okay to consume on non-training days. They may even be helpful at expediting recovery on off days.
How much BCAA do men and women require each day? The daily requirements may actually be as high as 65 mg/lb (144 mg/kg) of body weight per day. Based on these newer studies, healthy adult women should aim to consume a minimum of 9 grams of BCAAs per day and men a minimum of 12 grams of BCAAs per day.
Is glutamine a BCAA? No, L-glutamine is a conditionally essential amino acid. It is often added to BCAA mixtures as it helps recover from exercise-induced muscle damage.
What are the best food sources for BCAA’s? The best food sources include meat, fish, poultry, milk, beans, cheese, eggs, and various seeds and nuts.
Which is the best BCAA? Out of the three BCAA’s, leucine has been shown to have the most muscle and strength supporting benefits.
Does BCAA raise blood sugar? A lot of low carbs, paleo or ketogenic dieters are often concerned that BCAAS may raise blood sugar. No, BCAAS does not raise blood sugar or spike insulin.
Can’t you just take whey protein as that is full of amino acids? This is actually a very good query which requires a good explanation. The BCAAs in your typical whey protein powder are peptide-bound to other amino acids. In order to raise BCAA levels in your body, especially when you are training, they must be liberated through digestion and then absorbed into the bloodstream. Yes, whey protein digests pretty quickly anyway, it still takes several hours for all the amino acids to be broken down and absorbed into your plasma. Branched-chain amino acids in supplement form, however, are free-form, require no digestion, and are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream. It means you can supply your body with the amino acids it needs for repair and recovery while you are training.
Are BCAAs bad for kidneys? In dialysis patients, BCAA oral supplementation can induce an improvement of appetite and nutritional status. During chronic renal failure, the aims of nutritional interventions are to minimize uremic toxicity, avoid malnutrition and delay the progression of kidney disease.
Can BCAA cause liver damage? No, however, elevated circulating BCAA is associated with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and injury.
Do BCAAs give you energy? BCAAs fuel your skeletal muscles during training, which can help give you the edge you need to push your limits. Supplementing with BCAAs helps preserve your stores of glycogen (the primary fuel your muscles use for energy production).
Are BCAAs really necessary? BCAAs are essential amino acids. The body cannot make them, so a person needs to get BCAAs from their diet or as supplements. Research suggests that taking BCAA supplements may improve muscle mass and performance and may reduce muscle damage from exercise.
Do BCAAs make you pee? There is no evidence to show that BCAAs make you pee. However, by consuming a lot of water with them, you may increase your bladder excretion.
Are BCAAs useless? Science showed that adequate protein intake will render BCAA-supplementation as (for the most part) useless.
Do BCAAs help hair growth? BCAA does not cause hair loss and may help prevent it. Recent theory on hair loss is that it is a result of deficiencies in the potassium ion channels of the hair follicles. BCAA supplements have shown promise in boosting the potassium ions thus helping in improving the effectiveness of hair loss medications.
Are BCAAs made from hair? Animal-based BCAAs are made from human hair or duck feathers. Some are made from pig fur. BCAAs made from pig fur or duck feathers are rich in keratin. Plant-based BCAAs are mostly derived from soy or corn.
Can BCAAs harm you? BCAAs may interfere with blood glucose levels during and after surgery. You may also be at increased risk if you have chronic alcoholism or branched-chain ketoaciduria. Also, avoid using BCAAs if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
Do BCAAs keep you awake? As you exercise, the levels of BCAAs in your blood decrease, causing tryptophan – yes that chemical that makes you sleepy after eating turkey on Thanksgiving – to increase. By supplementing BCAAs before and during a workout, you can make sure to keep your mind sharp and your body fully awake for the duration.
Are BCAAs vegan? Depending on the manufacturer, most BCAAs are vegan.
Do BCAAs break down protein? No, however, some studies do show that BCAAs decrease muscle protein synthesis as well as protein breakdown, meaning a decrease in muscle protein turnover.
Will BCAAs break my fast? The short answer is yes, BCAAs do technically break a fast. However, not in a way that will reduce any of the potential health benefits of fasting.
Are EAAs better than BCAAs? There is research that shows EAAs beat out BCAAs as the best amino acid supplement, and their benefits go far beyond building muscle. EAAs are a true nutritional powerhouse that can help you optimize your training, recovery, sleep, mood, and so much more. However, finding a quality EAA supplement can prove to be challenging.
Do BCAA’s make you sleepy? No, BCAA’s have not been shown to induce fatigue. Rather they have been shown to help fight it off.
Are BCAAs broken down in the liver? Further, BCAA’s are not broken down in the liver, like other unbranched amino acids. Instead, they are mostly broken down in the muscle, which provides evidence that BCAA’s may play a role in energy production during exercise.
Branched-chain amino acid supplements show clear and strong effects in regards to increasing muscle growth and boosting physical performance.
The good news is that you may not need to purchase a separate BCAA supplement because many protein sources today already have significant amounts of BCAA’s in them.
At the end of the day taking a BCAA supplement may not be necessary especially if you’re consuming enough protein from your diet- unless you’re a competitive athlete looking for that added nutritional edge to boost muscle building and your performance.
For Healthtrends #1 BCAA recommendation, click here.