If you’re anything like me, then you’re looking for ways to improve recovery following tough workouts. This has become increasingly important for me as I’ve gotten older, and my body’s ability to quickly recover from intense physical activity has decreased.
The importance of eating well and sleeping enough are generally well-recognized, but is there anything else that we can do to help things along? Are there, for example, any supplements that will help to speed recovery?
If you’ve poked around for info, you’ve probably seen articles stating that branched chain amino acid (BCAA) supplements will help with recovery (among other things). But is there scientific support for this notion?
Before we go any further, let’s define what we’re talking about…
What are BCAAs?
BCAAs are a special class of amino acids (protein building blocks) that get their name from their chemical structure, which includes a non-linear (i.e., branched) side chain that isn’t present in other amino acids. There are three main BCAAs (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) and they are thought to play important roles in protein synthesis and glucose metabolism.
Importantly, BCAAs are not synthesized by your body. Rather, they are “essential” amino acids that must be consumed. The best dietary sources of BCAAs include meat, chicken, fish, eggs, and dairy products. There are also a number of BCAA supplements on the market.
As an aside:
- There are nine essential amino acids that your body is incapable of producing: leucine, isoleucine, and valine, plus histidine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, and tryptophan.
- There are six conditionally essential amino acids that your body may not produce under certain circumstances: arginine, cysteine, glycine, glutamine, proline, and tyrosine.
- Finally, there are five dispensable amino acids that are synthesized by your body and thus don’t need to be consumed: alanine, aspartic acid, asparagine, glutamic acid, and serine.
And now, back to the topic at hand…
BCAAs and recovery
If we look beyond the hype, is there actual scientific evidence to support the idea that BCAAs help with recovery? The short answer is yes, there is evidence that BCAAs reduce muscle damage and/or speed recovery after exercise. What follows is a quick synopsis of four relevant articles.
First, Negro et al. (2008) reviewed the literature and found that:
“BCAA supplementation before and after exercise has beneficial effects for decreases exercise-induced muscle damage and promoting muscle-protein synthesis.”
They went on to conclude that BCAAs are useful for muscle recovery and immune regulation in the context of sporting events.
Second, in a study of resistance-trained males, Sharp and Pearson (2010) concluded that:
“…short-term amino acid supplementation, which is high in BCAA, may produce a net anabolic hormonal profile while attenuating training-induced increases in muscle tissue damage.”
They went on to argue that such supplements may increase subsequent performance while decreasing the risk of injury or illness.
Third, in a study of non-weight-trained males, Jackman et al. (2010) stated:
“Our findings are the first to suggest a beneficial role for BCAA supplementation after intense eccentric exercise in males.”
In short, they found that BCAA supplementation reduced muscle soreness (i.e., DOMS) following eccentric exercise, though it did not reduce the temporary occurrence of exercise-induced strength loss in the days following workouts that included such exercises.
Finally, Howatson et al. (2012) investigated the effects of BCAA supplementation on the occurrence of exercise-induced muscle damage in resistance-trained individuals. They concluded that:
“BCAA administered before and following damaging resistance exercise reduces indices of muscle damage and accelerates recovery in resistance-trained males.”
They further suggested that BCAAs achieve this effect by improving protein synthesis and reducing secondary muscle damage due following exercise.
So… The short answer is that yes, there does seem to be scientific support of the idea that BCAAs help with recovery.
Do you need a BCAA supplement?
But are BCAA supplements really necessary? Maybe. It’s been argued that if you’re getting sufficient protein on a daily basis (on the order of 1-1.5 g/kg of body weight), then BCAA supplementation is unnecessary. If that’s not the case, however, then you might want to think about it.
As for me… I’ve experimented with a 2:1:1 BCAA mix as an intra-workout supplement, and it does seem to reduce DOMS. Of course, I’m just one guy, so this is purely anecdotal. It could be coincidental, or even a placebo effect. My experience does, however, fall in line with the scientific data.
Negro et al. (2008) Branched-chain amino acid supplementation does not enhance athletic performance but affects muscle recovery and the immune system. J. Sports Med. Phys. Fitness 48:347-351.
Sharp & Pearson (2010) Amino acid supplements and recovery from high-intensity resistance training. J. Strength Cond. Res. 24: 1125-1130.
Jackman et al. (2010) Branched-chain amino acid ingestion can ameliorate soreness from eccentric exercise. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 42: 962-970.
Howatson et al. (2012) Exercise-induced muscle damage is reduced in resistance-trained males by branched chain amino acids: a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled study. J. Int. Soc. Sports Nutr. 9: 20.