Whether you’re a competitive bodybuilder or physique athlete or just someone who likes being lean and mean, chances are you trained and dieted to get that ripped look. The unfortunate thing about dieting (beyond feeling hungry) is that it requires caloric restriction, which can promote catabolism and undermine your muscularity and strength gains.
Fortunately, supplement scientists toil to find safe and natural compounds that blunt muscle breakdown even while training under caloric restriction. What researchers recently found is that branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) may be the perfect tool for this crucial job. Of the nine essential amino acids, the BCAAs leucine, isoleucine and valine are key players in anabolism and energy metabolism. And although BCAAs make up a great proportion of the amino acid content in skeletal muscle, they’re readily broken down (catabolized) during exercise and caloric restriction. The new research, however, clearly shows that supplemental BCAAs not only provide food for muscles but also act as important “molecular switches” that turn on anabolism, blunt catabolism and enhance recovery.
A recent study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition investigated the effectiveness of BCAA supplementation during eight weeks of “cutting” and heavy bodybuilding-style weight training. Resistance-trained males ages 21 to 28 were randomized to either a BCAA or carbohydrate-based drink group, given a bodybuilding-style training program and prescribed a hypocaloric diet to be followed for eight weeks. They were instructed to take one serving of their assigned supplement (112 calories, containing either 14 grams of BCAAs or 14 grams of carbs) before and after their workouts.
At the end of eight weeks, researchers found that those who received the BCAA supplement maintained their body mass due to a 1.3-pound reduction in fat mass and about a 1-pound gain of lean mass. Those who took BCAAs also saw improvements in three-rep max (3RM) squat and bench press strength. In contrast, those who took the carb-based supplement lost overall body mass (mainly due to a catabolic loss of 1.98 pounds of lean mass). They also experienced a small increase in 3RM squat strength and a significant decrease in bench press strength compared to the BCAA group.
ACTION POINT: Although this study promotes BCAA use during dieting, we recommend including a BCAA supplement as a regular addition to your regimen to protect your hard-earned muscle mass and augment your muscle-building efforts. The BCAA product you choose should have at least twice as much leucine as valine and isoleucine: the magic 2:1:1 ratio. Take 5 to 10 grams of BCAAs upon waking, again 30 minutes preworkout and immediately after training.