BCAA Benefits: Is Fasted Training with Branched Chain Amino Acids Effective for Losing Fat and Gaining Muscle?
Today I’d like to discuss branched chain amino acids. You may have heard of BCAAs before but do they really live up to their claim of being effective for losing fat and gaining muscle? While I’d say there are many benefits of BCAAs, whether you decide to supplement with them will depend in part on when you exercise and how restrictive your diet is. For fasted training, I’d highly recommend using branched chain amino acids to help prevent muscle loss while maximizing fat loss. Any other time, there’s probably only a marginal benefit at best.
Branched Chain Amino Acids
Let’s start with the basics. What are branched chain amino acids? In short, they’re the best building blocks of protein (essential amino acids known as valine, leucine, and isoleucine). While your body cannot produce BCAAs on its own, you’re likely getting plenty of these amino acids from your diet, primarily through protein. However, anyone pursuing a calorie restrictive diet knows that increasing protein intake leads to an increase in calories eaten as well. Therefore, the primary benefits of branched chain amino acids in raw form are that they are essentially free of calories and provide your body with the materials it needs to build and preserve muscle.
BCAA Benefits and Side Effects
There have been a variety of studies done on BCAA benefits. Here are some of the key findings associated with branched chain amino acids:
- Reduction of cortisol levels when combined with weight training (read this article to see why that’s important)
- Increase metabolism and fat loss
- Improve exercise performance and reduce fatigue
- Preserve muscle mass during endurance training
- Taking BCAAs after a workout may increase lean muscle mass
- Taking BCAAs before or during a workout may decrease soreness, help repair damaged muscles, and reduce breakdown of muscles
- Improve immune system (read this article for more)
As with any supplement, there’s always the potential for side effects. I haven’t found any definitive research that shows serious short or long term side effects. One key recommendation is to stay hydrated. Otherwise, it’s really no different than eating a lot of protein. To be safe, I wouldn’t use these in excess (30g per training day should be more than enough for the average person) and maybe cycle off every couple months just to make sure.
Benefits of BCAAs During Fasted Training
With all the benefits of branched chain amino acids listed above, BCAAs are most valuable when you’re performing fasted training or eating a calorie restrictive diet in general. It’s those times that you might not be getting an adequate amount of amino acids where supplementation can be important for preserving muscle mass while you focus on burning fat. Because they are essentially calorie free, BCAAs only produce a minimal insulin response (if any) allowing you to gain the all the benefits of fasted training without the potential for muscle breakdown.
This is important because you can ensure your muscles have the proper building blocks in place while still training in a fasted state. In a fasted state, your body is primed to burn fat since glycogen levels are low. One concern, although modest in my opinion, is that you may risk losing muscle by performing fasted training or early morning cardio. Think of BCAAs as an insurance policy. There’s no guarantee but why not give yourself the best chance to preserve muscle while taking advantage of the fat burning that comes from fasted training? In fact, this article shows how 12g of BCAAs taken around workout time is enough to significantly reduce muscle breakdown which is especially important if you are in a calorie depleted state.
Timing of BCAA Supplements
So when should you take branched chain amino acids? Personally, I like the approach advocated by Martin Berkhan on Leangains:
- 10g of BCAAs right before early morning fasted training
- 10g of BCAAs 2 hours later
- 10g of BCAAs another 2 hours later (4 hours after first serving)
- Post workout meal 2 hours later
It’s a great method for fasted training whereby you can maximize fat burning while preserving muscle. When I do morning cardio, I’ve been having 5-10g right before training, 10-15g 2 hours later, and then breakfast 1-2 hours after that. This allows me to maximize the HGH release from an intense HIIT workout while the steady flow of branched chain amino acids prevents muscle loss.
Branched Chain Amino Acid Supplements
You have a couple choices for branched chain amino acid supplements. My preferred drink is Scivation Xtend. While the old formula was drinkable, the new formula is outstanding. To me, it’s like drinking Gatorade with the essential building blocks of protein, no calories, and no sugar. Honestly, when I first opened the new formula tub, the smell from the powder was not appealing. However, once mixed with water, I loved all three flavors I tried (grape, orange, and lemon lime). I recommend getting a few different flavors so that your taste buds get a nice variety over the course of a couple days.
Another consideration is to take BCAAs in pill form. This may require taking a lot of pills if you follow the fasted training routine above. However, it’s unclear how many grams of BCAAs you really need to prevent muscle loss. Depending on how many branched chain amino acids you get from your daily diet, you might only need a few additional grams around your workout to get the maximum benefit.
Bottom Line on Branched Chain Amino Acids
There are no absolutes when it comes to training and branched chain amino acid supplements. I think claims of losing fat and gaining muscle just by ingesting BCAAs on their own may be overstated but it’s hard to say definitively. In my opinion, the biggest benefit of BCAA supplementation is during fasted training or when you’re engaged in an overall calorie restrictive diet. The branched chain amino acids provide your muscles with the essential building blocks of protein ensuring that your muscles are adequately nourished. The lack of calories allows you to maintain the fat burning effects after an intense workout. Whether you need to take 5g or 30g is up for debate as well, but I’d give Xtend or Prograde BCAA a try if you’re looking to get some BCAA benefits from fasted training.
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