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BCAAs vs Whey Protein: Which is Best for Muscle Growth?

BCAAs vs Whey

Branched Chain Amino Acids are a commonly used supplement, often taken as a pre or peri-workout (peri means during).

BCAAs are very popular and are perceived to be an excellent supplement for muscle growth. But how effective are they?

In this article we will be comparing branched-chain amino acid supplements to whey protein, to see which is best for muscle growth. But first, we need to establish exactly what BCAAs and Whey protein are.[toc]

Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)

Essential amino acids are amino acids that cannot be produced in the body and instead must come from the diet.

There are nine amino acids that we need to consume through diet, they are:

  • Phenylalanine
  • Valine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Methionine
  • Leucine
  • Isoleucine
  • Lysine
  • Histidine

If you starved yourself for several days your body would not be able to synthesize these nine essential amino acids.

Branched Chain Amino Acids are essential amino acids that are formed with a “non-continuous link of carbon bonds” [1]. The three BCAAs are Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine.

There are three main functions of BCAAs:

  1. Promote Protein Synthesis [2]
  2. Metabolise Glucose [3]
  3. Promote Insulin Signalling (which regulates protein synthesis) [4]

This makes them essential for muscle growth.

The fourth benefit of BCAAs is that because they travel directly into the bloodstream when consumed (rather than travelling to the liver) they can immediately be used.

BCAAs are oxidised. This means that they can be used to create energy in a similar way to carbohydrates.

BCAAS can also increase circulating growth hormone levels, which can elevate protein synthesis further [5] and can reduce muscle damage.

Overall, BCAAS can help initially when exercising by providing an energy source and increasing the time to fatigue (allowing you to train for longer) [6][7].

They can also help you to recover from exercise by reducing lactate levels and improving muscular oxidation.

Finally, they play an essential role in stimulating muscle protein synthesis by signalling insulin, raising circulating growth hormone levels, metabolising glucose, and promoting protein synthesis. This will cause muscle growth.

You could say that Branched Chained Amino Acids are essential for muscle growth, that without taking them it would be impossible to see increases in hypertrophy.

Of the three BCAAs, Leucine is by far the most important for muscle growth (though all three have a role).

Whey Protein

Whey protein is a dietary supplement that is derived from milk. Milk contains two forms of protein, whey and casein. Both are extracted from milk and used for protein supplements.

You can buy whey protein, casein protein, or a blend of the two (sometimes referred to as milk protein).

The reason why whey protein is the most popular form of protein supplement is that it is absorbed much quicker than any other protein, allowing it to begin the process of muscle protein synthesis almost immediately.

Whey protein contains around 3g of Leucine per 25g serving. Meaning that it provides all the benefits that BCAAs do. It also provides many benefits that are caused by consuming a higher protein diet. A raised metabolism, increased fat oxidation, increased muscle size, and a reduction in muscle loss during diets.

Some of these benefits are also provided by BCAA supplementation too.

A 2004 study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that high protein diets can increase thermogenesis [8]. This means that adding protein to your diet can raise your metabolism significantly.

While this is not a direct benefit of whey protein, it is a direct benefit of raised protein levels. In other words, topping up your diet with a whey protein shake could help you to increase your metabolism and burn more calories.

BCAAs Vs Whey Protein: Which is Better?

Most people can get the recommended dosage of BCAAs through diet, this is the big issue that no BCAA supplement manufacturer can shy away from.

Red meat, white meat, dairy, eggs, peanuts, and fish are all excellent sources of BCAAS. But what about vegetarians or vegans? Well, soybeans, brown rice, lentils, corn, almonds, and quinoa are also sources of BCAAs.

Another excellent source of BCAAs is … whey protein. Meaning that if you are taking a whey protein supplement then you are already hitting your BCAA targets for the day.

This makes whey protein the obvious choice if you are looking to build muscle. Not only does whey protein help you hit your BCAA targets for the day, but it has other benefits too.

While whey protein comes as a complete protein, BCAAs are only the building blocks of protein. They can help stimulate protein synthesis, but you still need protein in your diet.

On the face of it, the choice is clear. Whey protein is clearly the better choice. As a supplement for muscle growth and recovery, it wins out every time. But BCAAs do have their uses too.

Most gym goers who have consumed a whey protein shake will probably agree that taking one during a workout would not be ideal. They’re quite heavy and will leave you feeling a little full or even bloated afterwards.

BCAAs, on the other hand, are virtually calorie free, taste nice and make the perfect peri-workout supplement. Due to the fact that a BCAA supplement can reduce fatigue, it is perfect as a pre-workout too!

Remember that BCAAs can also be used for energy immediately after being consumed (not the case with whey protein no matter how quickly it is absorbed).

It seems that both whey protein shakes and BCAA supplements have specific benefits and there is a time and place for both.

Taking a whey protein supplement immediately after a workout seems to provide a number of benefits, as would taking a whey protein shake as a morning, afternoon, or evening snack.

BCAA supplements would be effective as part of a pre-workout supplement, or as a peri-workout supplement. They would also be excellent for vegans, or for those on low-calorie diets.

Fitting Whey Protein and BCAAs Into Your Training Day

Drinking Protein Shake

In this section, we are going to look at how we can fit both a whey protein supplement and a Branched Chain Amino Acid supplement into a typical training day.

In this scenario, the person taking them will be looking to build muscle. This means that they will need to be in a calorie surplus (more calories consumed than burned) and will require a lot of protein. They will also be training in the mid-afternoon (6:30 pm).

Morning 8am-12pm (Breakfast): Whey Protein Shake

Starting your day off with a protein shake is a really good idea.

A 2014 study in the Journal of Nutrition by Mamerow et al found that most people tend to consume the majority of their protein during their evening meal [9].

Spreading your protein intake out throughout the day is marginally more effective at stimulating protein synthesis. It also helps you to hit high protein targets, because it leaves you less protein to eat before bed.

Lunch 12pm-2pm (Lunch): Whey Protein Shake

Having a second whey protein shake is a judgement call on your part. You may be getting enough protein from your regular diet – in which case a lunchtime whey protein shake could be overkill.

But most people looking to gain muscle are constantly consuming much less protein than they should.

Pre Workout 6 pm: BCAAs, Creatine & Caffeine

A really good pre-workout shake should contain caffeine, it has many benefits. These benefits include increased performance, a reduction in fatigue, an increase in power, and a lower perception of effort. They are all associated with high doses of caffeine taken before a workout.

Creatine is also an excellent supplement, it can be taken either pre or post workout, so this is up to you.

You could theoretically have a whey protein shake instead of a BCAA supplement for your pre-workout. Either option would be good.

A whey protein shake would probably be a better choice if you were feeling quite hungry and weak. But a BCAA supplement could help you to reduce fatigue, combines very well with creatine and caffeine, and is pretty light.

Peri-Workout: BCAAs

Nobody in their right mind would take a whey protein shake during a workout. They are quite heavy, require a separate shaker, and unless you want the worst smelling shaker in the world, you’d need to immediately rush to the bathroom to wash your shaker out. Not a great idea.

A BCAA supplement, on the other hand, is usually very light, tastes nice, and is actually designed to be taken during a workout.

Post-Workout: Whey Protein Shake & Creatine

After your workout has finished, your body will be crying out for protein.

If you have already taken a pre or peri-workout protein source then you probably won’t need to take a post workout protein shake. Muscle protein synthesis will already have begun. But if you haven’t taken anything, then an immediate post-workout whey protein shake is perfect.

With creatine, as mentioned earlier, you can either take it pre-workout or post workout. In fact, you can also take creatine as a regular supplement at any time of the day. But there are slightly more benefits to taking it post-workout, and some studies have indicated that whey protein and creatine both work best when combined together. They have synergy.

Evening 8pm-12pm (Dinner): Casein/Whey Protein Shake

For most people, your evening meal is the biggest source of protein for the day. So a protein shake would be entirely unnecessary.

However, taking a whey protein shake before bed can really help to improve recovery from an intense resistance workout.

Though whey protein is a fantastic supplement for recovery, a recent study has indicated that casein protein may actually be more effective.

A 2012 study in Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise [10] found that taking casein protein immediately before bed helped improve post-exercise overnight recovery, and was more effective than whey.

Notes: Remember that this plan does not reflect a specific diet plan for you (the reader).

You almost certainly do not require 5+ whey protein shakes per day! When possible, you should be trying to find protein from a variety of food and drinks. The plan merely states which supplement would be effective at which time.

Pre-workout, a BCAA supplement would be very effective, post workout a whey protein shake would be excellent. You do not necessarily need to take both though!

Another thing to note, this program was based on someone looking to GAIN mass (weight).

If you were trying to lose weight and wanted to maintain muscle then you could potentially benefit from increasing your BCAA supplement intake. However, whey protein is also effective during dieting for the same reasons.

Final Thoughts

If you had just enough money for either a Branched Chain Amino Acid supplement or a decent quality whey protein supplement, then we’d recommend going for the latter.

There are almost zero benefits from taking BCAAs that whey protein does not also provide.

However, if you can afford both then there are some benefits to diversifying.

Taking a BCAA during a workout is definitely preferable to taking a whey protein shake.

Of course, it is completely possible to gain muscle without taking BCAAs or taking a whey protein supplement. Red meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, lentils, and many other foods can easily provide you with sufficient protein to hit your targets.

Once you get serious about bodybuilding, or you take your athletic training to a new level then both whey protein and BCAAs can make your life easier. But they aren’t compulsory.

Both supplements will make a difference in your training, your recovery from training, and your body composition. You just need to make sure that your training and diet are consistent enough for you to get results!

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