BCAAs are becoming ever more popular as supplements in the fitness world. In this article we are going to explain just what they are and how they can benefit you and your training regimen. We will look specifically at the best BCAA for women and which brands we recommend.
What are BCAAs?
Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are part of that group of amino acids that our bodies can’t synthesize naturally. Often referred to as ‘essential’ amino acids because of this distinction we can only obtain them through consumption of food or drinks.
Why are BCAAs important in training?
Muscle fibers comprise actin and myosin filaments which are made from proteins. BCAAs are amino acids with a property known as proteinogenesis; your body generates proteins from them – specifically these muscle proteins. As much as 35% 1 of the protein that forms your muscles is derived from BCAAs. So it stands to reason that if you want your workout to develop your body you need to give it that all-important BCAA fuel.
BCAA research for efficacy
BCAA supplements have been tested by industry and research bodies for over 20 years. Two laboratory studies in 2000 and 2005 (Anthony et al and Crozier et al 2) concluded that for muscle protein synthesis they have the equivalent result as a complete meal. A 2006 placebo-blind trial on a sample of 30 healthy participants revealed an additional beneficial effect.
That effect was a reduction in DOMS – the delayed onset muscle soreness – experienced by many runners and athletes. This in itself is a valuable benefit to every trainer. Other studies including a 2012 investigation into resistance exercise and BCAAs found that both produced a comparable muscle-growing (anabolic) outcome. A further exciting result based on a large global sample of over 4,400 people linked BCAA intake to a reduction in obesity. It appears that using BCAAs alongside heavy workouts will see you gain definition, muscle strength and lose body fat at the same time!
Types of BCAA
There are three branched chain amino acids that have this proteinogenetic property. These are leucine, isoleucine and valine. Laboratory and real-world tests continue to reveal more about these fascinating amino acids. As a supplement, leucine increases the synthesis of muscle proteins and slows the degradation of existing muscle tissue. Isoleucine is also used to produce muscle and contributes to muscle repair.
Valine’s extra benefit is that it helps maintain a healthy nitrogen balance, something which is associated with tissue repair, periods of growth and pregnancy. Of these three, it is leucine which has the most positive evidence and data that support muscle growth.
Although animals can’t synthesize their own BCAAs, they do store it in their cells courtesy of their dietary intake. Naturally occurring foods rich in leucine, isoleucine and valine include eggs, seaweed, poultry, soy protein, cheese and fish.
What are BCAAs made from?
Commercially available supplements are produced from a number of sources, some more appetizing than others. The brands we recommend tend to produce their supplements from natural botanical ingredients such as seaweed. These are dried, purified and milled into fine powders that can be easily absorbed and speedily delivered to your muscles. The powder can also be formed as a tablet or inside a capsule. The ratio between the three amino acids in BCAA supplements is typically 2:1:1 (leucine/isoleucine/valine).
Are women’s BCAA requirements different than men’s?
As with all dietary supplements your recommended intake varies depending on individuals and the type and extent of your training. Importantly, gender plays a big part when it comes to BCAAs. Around 20% of men are genetically predisposed to be find muscle building straightforward. That figure is lower for women so to increase your chances for significant muscle growth BCAAs are crucial. As a supplement, BCAAs have the added benefit of not being steroid-based thus helping training to lead to lean muscle growth, not bulking up. As an example, the recommendation for BCAA intake for women is five to seven grams for body weights up to 65 kg.
Can BCAAs help weight loss?
Or to put it another way do BCAAs help you shed the fat? BCAAs have the effect of increasing muscle mass and the side effect of increasing leptin production. Leptin is the body’s satiety hormone, the hormone that tells you when you are no longer hungry so it’s little wonder that your body becomes leaner and more defined and your hunger pangs decrease.
Benefits of taking BCAAs
Essential amino acid intake in women is linked to many positives. We’ve covered the general advantages of BCAA benefit so let’s bring them all together. First and foremost is the boost to muscle growth. Then we have stimulation of metabolism that promotes hunger reduction and fat loss. They help maintain a stable glucose balance, known as glucose homeostasis, which reduces the likelihood of blood sugar drops and tiredness.
Using BCAAs with the profile of three essential amino acids has also exhibited evidence of enabling easier absorption of the other six essential amino acids. For women the effect on the nitrogen balance is desirable as it can support a healthy pregnancy. It also increases nitric oxide production which helps boost the immune system and wards off infections. Nitric oxide is important in healthy blood flow and blood pressure too. Reduced post-training aches and pains means you are also less likely to be dissuaded from continuing your workouts (See also our guide to endurance supplements for runners).
The amino acids in BCAAs, particularly leucine, restrict catabolism, the loss of muscle mass, which means that the hard work you put in to your body will endure. So, in a nutshell, BCAAs have many beneficial effects on your body but there are also some less desirable side effects especially if you take too much.
Do BCAAs have side effects?
BCAAs, as with any supplement you buy, can have its side effects. Some are more common than others but one can be particularly noticeable. One of the best documented is hair loss although the evidence for and against is hotly contested. BCAAs have a brief list of generally benign, though not pleasant, side effects that a small proportion of takers experience.
These include – but are not limited to – nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and bloating. One real concern is the link between BCAAs and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease). There is a statistically significant higher rate of mortality linked to patients who use BCAAs. So the current advice is to avoid these supplements if you have ALS or its symptoms. If in doubt, speak to your physician.
When is the best time to take your BCAA supplement?
One commonly asked question is ‘Do you take BCAAs before, during or after a workout?’ This is a very important question. Not only do you want to make sure you’re using your supplements to get the best effect but you also want to make sure you aren’t wasting your money by taking them when they won’t give you their full benefit.
Several studies have been conducted into the best time to take BCAA supplements. As yet, no double blind, meta analysis studies exist that have lead to industry wide medically backing for their efficacy. However, those that have been carried out have yielded some interesting results. The first of these was an experiment that took young men and gave them strengthening exercises to perform with their non-dominant arm. They took 10 g of BCAAs prior to the exercise and the conclusion was the BCAAs reduced muscle soreness and presented lower than expected markers of muscle damage in blood samples.
So, taking BCAAs prior to exercise seem to have a beneficial effect. But it’s not the end of the story. A second study divided a group of healthy men and supplied them with 5.5 g of BCAA, to take either before or after weightlifting workouts over a period of 10 weeks. Both groups yielded nearly identical results of positive weight gain. So perhaps the timing wasn’t as important as long as it was around the period of workout. Up until recently it was assumed that protein consumption had to take place within an hour of exercising in order to build muscle. Current wisdom today is that this period may extend up to five hours giving you a much larger window in which to take supplements.
To muddy the waters a little, we know that BCAA levels in your blood peak around 30 minutes of taking the supplement but this hasn’t helped physicians pinpoint the most beneficial consumption time.
Anecdotal stories abound about the positive boost that you can get if you take BCAAs during a session. Although this has yet to be backed up by solid evidence, there does appear to be something to this. BCAAs tend to improve mental and physical endurance and can give you a little extra edge during distance running and cycling.
What’s the recommended BCAA dosage?
The exact dose for maximum benefit is difficult to judge as studies are still ongoing and of course we know everyone reacts differently to each supplement. But as a rule of thumb, women who are undergoing a regular gym schedule should take 3 – 5 g per day, while those pursuing more rigorous training would benefit most from no more than 12 g per day. In the former case you would split this across two doses but in the latter you would take it across five doses. It is also important not to exceed the manufacturers’ recommended daily dose which will be written on the container.
BCAA powder vs BCAA capsules?
Both have their pros and cons. Capsules are convenient, easy to carry and straightforward to organize for specific doses. They take a little longer to dissolve in your stomach to start working but this is only a minor delay. Powder on the other hand needs dissolving in water or fruit juice so you can drink it. So it doesn’t have the pros that capsules do. But powder does have an edge over capsules. If you are a really keen weight trainer or into a lot of endurance work then you will be taking up to 12 g daily – this adds up to a lot of capsules which will be expensive. Weight for weight, BCAA powder works out cheaper than capsules.
3 Best BCAA capsules for women
We recommend the MET-Rx BCAA 2200 Supplement which has added vitamin B6 to help convert food into energy. The capsules are moderately large so make sure you have a drink to help swallow them! These are a popular choice among runners.
- Contains ample amount of BCAA 2200 for sound health
- It tastes great whether it is served hot or cold
- Provides nourishment to the body
Another product we rate highly is MyProtein’s BCAA capsules. Three should be taken two to four times daily during your workout days. Each pretty large tablet gives you 3 g of BCAA goodness.
Our third choice has to be Raw Barrel’s No Bull BCAA capsules . The tablets are 1 g doses each which are ideal for moderate training purposes.
- EXTRA STRONG 1000mg BCAA TABLETS - each pill has at least twice as many amino acids as the other leading brands. This means you take half the tablets for the same dose - and get twice the value.
- BUILD MUSCLE, burn fat and support muscle recovery. Our BCAA's have been shown to help increase lean muscle mass by increasing your protein synthesis. In fact you will notice a difference in lean muscle development within only the first week.
- PURE, clean, quality, pharmaceutical grade and laboratory tested branched chain amino acids (l-leucine, l-isoleucine, l-valine) - don't clog up your body with any fake fillers. No added bull, just the good stuff.
- FREE DIGITAL GUIDE with every purchase, The No Bull Guide to Fitness - Learn what the fitness industry doesn't want you to know! And discover the The Proven 7 Step Blueprint To Your Perfect Body...
- LIFETIME SATISFACTION GUARANTEE - We like to go the extra mile, which is why that if you don't see RESULTS or are not happy for ANY reason, you can contact us for a FULL REFUND, no questions asked. Making your purchase COMPLETELY RISK FREE. At Raw Barrel we believe customer service is just as important and the purest supplements.
3 Best BCAA powders for women
When it comes to powder options we heartily recommend BulkSupplements’ BCAA powder which is available in 2.2 lb packages. The powder – like many pure BCAA powders – tends to have a bitter taste so it’s often nicer to drink when mixed with sweet cordials.
- PUMP UP FAST: Boost muscle growth and metabolism with this instantized BCAA branched chain amino acids powder that boosts muscle growth fast. Engineered with the optimal 2:1:1 ratio of L-Leucine, L-Isoleucine and L-Valine, this potent branched chain essential amino acid formula will deliver noticeable results in your bodybuilding, crossfit or powerlifting training.
- MAINTAIN MUSCLE MASS: This 100% pure pre/post workout BCAA powder promotes protein synthesis, boosts lean muscle growth, and minimizes tissue damage that normally occurs after intense strength training so you can make the most out of your workouts.
- FAST RECOVERY: The essential amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine act as transport vehicles for faster absorption, which translates to faster post-workout recovery and better performance results.
- LAB-TESTED FOR PURITY: We test all of our products for quality and purity so the results exceed your expectations.
OWN-PWR produces a great unflavored ‘Micronized’ BCAA powder . This is supplied in 60 servings of 5 g BCAA doses.
Last but not least is MyProtein’s BCAA Essential Amino Acid supplement .It comes in three sizes: 0.5 lbs, 1.1 lbs and 2.2 lbs and is remarkable value for money.
Whichever supplement you choose, always remember the caveat that they should be taken to supplement (the clue’s in the name!) a healthy diet with a high enough caloric intake to meet your workout needs.
In this article we’ve discussed what BCAAs are and why they are so important for your body’s daily working and the major part they play in muscle growth and development. We’ve seen how they can help you lose weight to gain more definition. BCAAs are available in convenient capsules and powders which you can take before, during and after workouts. We’re confident that if you pick one of our six top choices and follow the instructions you’ll see early changes within days and more substantial benefits within weeks!
Footnotes and Further Reading
Jamie is a running addict and gym junkie. He trains 7 days per week and is currently doing an MA in nutrition and sports science