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What are Branched-Chain Amino Acids?

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Branched Chain Amino Acids, or BCAAs, are one of the most popular fitness supplements sold worldwide. But what are they?

First things first; amino acids are the building blocks of protein. They’re what your body uses once it’s digested the protein you eat. BCAA’s are a group of three essential amino acids with a branched molecular structure, and a special set of functions.

The three essential BCAAs are: leucine, isoleucine, and valine, and they all play some interesting roles in the body.

Here’s a look at how BCAAs can improve your overall fitness, strength, and conditioning, along with a few notes on risks and side effects.

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BCAA Benefits

  • Supplementing with BCAAs might increase strength — A 2009 study1 found that a BCAA supplement taken along with a weight training program caused, among other things, increased strength gains compared to a whey supplement or sports drink.
  • BCAAs can reduce DOMS – that’s Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness - also known as “I can’t put my pants on after leg day”. It’s one of the meanest side effects of intense strength training. As it turns out, various studies2 show that taking BCAAs can reduce this next-day pain.
  • BCAAs might increase endurance — A 2016 study3 found that an amino acid supplement, including BCAAs, significantly improved the performance of endurance runners.
  • BCAAs can make you feel less mentally exhausted — Various research4 has found that supplementing with BCAAs can reduce how mentally drained and exhausted you feel during a tough endurance event.
  • BCAAs may prevent muscle breakdown during exercise — Some muscle damage during exercise is a good thing since it causes the muscle to repair stronger than before. It’s possible that too much muscle can be damaged or lost, though, especially during intense training. Research5 shows that using a BCAA supplement might reduce muscle damage.
  • BCAAs can increase lean muscle mass — Along with boosting strength, studies6 have found that BCAAs can lead to increases in lean muscle mass.
  • BCAAs can encourage fat loss — Yep, research7 suggests BCAAs can help you get shredded, too.


BCAA Risks & Drawbacks

BCAAs can do a lot of good but, unfortunately, there are also risks and drawbacks. Here’s a short list:

  • Taking too much of a BCAA supplement can actually reduce your endurance — Too much of a good thing? A 2012 study8 found that while a modest BCAA dose improved endurance, just a bit too much actually reduced it. If in doubt, stick to lower doses.
  • BCAAs might reduce reaction times — a 2011 study9 on football players found that a BCAA supplement reduced their reaction times by around 10%.
  • BCAAs might increase the risk of developing motor neurone disease — Motor neurone disease — also known as ALS — is a neurodegenerative disorder which leads to total paralysis, and appears to strike almost at random. Some research10 has suggested that BCAA supplementation can increase the risk of developing motor neurone disease.


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