what are branched chain amino acids, where are they found and why are they important if you want to gain muscle mass

what are branched chain amino acids, where are they found and why are they important if you want to gain muscle mass

Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are known by people who want to improve their aesthetics in the gym because they are fundamental to this objective. They are one of the best-selling dietary supplements, but we are going to see if it is a good idea to get hold of them and their relationship with complete protein.

From highest to lowest: from protein to branched chain amino acids

The complete protein is made up of 20 amino acids that can be divided into two large groups: essential amino acids and non-essential amino acids. Non-essential amino acids are synthesized by the body, while essential amino acids must be consumed through the diet since our body does not synthesize them.

Essential amino acids (EEA) and branched chain amino acids (BCAAs)

Essential amino acids (EAAs) are those that we should care more, although complete protein consists of both essential and non-essential amino acids. There are nine: leucine, isoleucine, valine, methionine, lysine, phenylalanine, tryptophan, threonine, and histidine.

Among the essential amino acids we find three main amino acids, which are called branched chain amino acids (BCAAs): leucine, isoleucine and valine. Therefore, branched chain amino acids are the three essential amino acids that are essential for skeletal muscle.

Leucine: the main amino acid


Leucine is the protagonist of the three branched chain amino acids for increase muscle mass and prevent muscle loss. In skeletal muscle it is found in a 2:1:1 ratio, that is, twice as much leucine as valine and isoleucine.

This information is important when choosing branched-chain amino acids, since, as we will see later, we can find them in different proportions from 2:1:1 to 12:1:1 (twelve times more leucine than valine and isoleucine).

Why are branched chain amino acids important?

Branched chain amino acids make up about one-third of skeletal muscle protein, making them essential part of the increase and maintenance of muscle mass. However, they need all the other amino acids that make up the protein for muscle hypertrophy.

From branched chain amino acids to protein

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If we turn all of the above, branched chain amino acids are the three main amino acids of skeletal muscle. They are essential amino acids because we need to ingest them with the diet, our body does not manufacture them endogenously.

Leucine, isoleucine and valine are the three branched chain amino acids, with leucine being the main one of the three. Leucine is the doorman of the club that allows the other amino acids to enter the muscle or not, but without all the other amino acids that make up protein, neither leucine nor branched chain amino acids would be able to build muscle mass.

Everything you need to know about BCAAs or branched chain amino acids

We can better understand it with the following simile: we have a bricklayer (mTOR) that will be activated if we give it coffee (leucine) and will thus build a wall with the help of bricks (amino acids). No matter how much coffee (leucine) you drink the bricklayer will not be able to build the wall if he does not have bricks (amino acids). Therefore, consuming only branched chain amino acids is not useful, since all of them are needed.

How much protein (and amino acids) is recommended to consume per meal?

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As a general recommendation, we can carry out some five meals a day, each including between 20g and 40g of protein quality. Multiplying it by five we obtain about 100g – 200g of protein, a medium range that may be adequate for the general population.

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To know how much protein you should eat per day you can multiply your weight by 1.6g – 2.2g and you’ll get the recommended daily grams of protein for muscle mass gains. A 80kg person will need between 128g and 176g of protein per day.

How many essential amino acids does that amount of protein per meal include?

In those 20g – 40g of protein per meal are including about 9 – 10g of essential amino acids, Vital for increasing muscle mass. For hypertrophy we need all of them, but it is the essential amino acids that cannot be missing since our body does not manufacture them.

How many branched chain amino acids does that amount of protein include per meal?

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Protein synthesis works like a switch that can be turned on or off. To activate it we need exceed a minimum threshold of the protagonist of muscle mass: leucine. That minimum threshold is about 2 – 3.5g of leucine per meal.

Like a normal switch, once it’s on, nothing else can be done. Therefore, taking larger amounts will not provide extra benefits. In older adults, a somewhat larger amount may be recommended, since they absorb worse and are more likely to lose muscle mass.

The reality about BCAAs: these are the reasons why they are not worth taking

That is why purchasing a BCAA supplement with a proportion of 4:1:1, 8:1:1 or 12:1:1 doesn’t make sense because it will have more leucine, but it will not be useful to us.

The recommendation of 20g – 40g of protein per meal is precisely designed to meet that minimum threshold of leucine and other branched chain amino acids. We know that overcoming it does not induce greater muscle mass gains, so it is preferable to spread that switch activation over several meals.

Where to find branched chain amino acids?

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Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) are one of the most consumed supplements, along with protein and creatine. Nevertheless, their level of evidence is not high since by themselves they are not capable to increase muscle mass. As we have already mentioned, all the amino acids that make up the complete protein are needed.

Adding BCAAs to a meal or protein shake can be an option, although it is preferably essential amino acids (EAA) since in addition to the three branched chain amino acids they include others that we need to ingest with the diet.

If you are in the definition stage and want to buy BCAAs, we suggest you know this before

In any case, consuming 20g – 40g of a quality whey protein will already include all the recommended amino acids and in their proper proportion. Therefore, it is preferable use that money for other supplements, or better yet, to increase the quality of our diet.

Foods rich in branched chain amino acids

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The best option to consume amino acids is food, since we will save money on supplements and also take advantage of the synergy that is created with its different nutrients. The egg and the milk For example, in addition to quality proteins, they contain minerals and fats that help us increase muscle mass to a greater extent than a dry shake.

Those two foods are a good choice to include branched chain amino acids and all the others in the diet. Other foods like salmon or turkey must also be taken into account. Animal protein is more recommended than vegetable protein because with less food we obtain more protein.

However, health will appreciate not abusing certain foods of animal origin, including others such as soybeans, peanuts, peas, quinoa or chickpeas. Whatever the food, we need to reach that minimum threshold of leucine and that 20g – 40g of protein per meal in five or six meals a day, depending on our needs.

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