Protein is made up of amino acids. There are essential amino acids (ones we need to get from our diet), and non-essential ones (ones our body can make on its own).
Branch-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are the most important amino acids in the muscle-building process. However, the other amino acids are still needed, so if you’re struggling to meet your daily protein intake needs from real food you should supplement with protein powder, not BCAAs.
Not all protein powders are equal for muscle building. Whey has the “best” amino acid profile because it has the highest in BCAA content. So, choose a whey powder when buying protein.
If you do your weight training early in the morning without having eaten anything prior (people refer to this as “fasted training”), it is advisable to take a scoop of whey protein prior to training to minimize muscle breakdown.
Up until the end of 2017, I recommended BCAA supplementation to clients who trained fasted. However, a significant amount of research has come out since that question the benefit of BCAAs, and I have changed the recommendations I give to clients to whey instead.
This article explains my reasoning for this and the protocols I recommend for both the whey and BCAA supplementation.
WHY WHEY PROTEIN IS BETTER THAN BCAAS WHEN TRAINING FASTED
Before reading further, the underlying assumption is that you have your diet set up to support your goals in the first place. If you aren’t consistently eating an appropriate number of calories you’re suffering chronic micronutrients shortages because you lack fruits and vegetables in your diet, and you’re ignoring the meal timing then the question of BCAAs vs Whey is entirely irrelevant. You have bigger issues.
THE ORIGIN OF THE RECOMMENDATION TO ‘DRINK BCAAS WHEN TRAINING FASTED’
Many of my clients are high achievers with demanding jobs. The majority choose to train early in the morning before the working day zaps their energy and motivation to train. They do not have any time to consume (and start to digest) a meal before training.
This leaves them, potentially, without any amino acids (the building blocks of protein) in circulation in their bloodstream from digested food earlier in the day, when they train. Without the necessary amino acids in the bloodstream to start the repair process, the body is forced to break down muscle into amino acids, which is not what we want.
This is where BCAA supplementation comes in as a recommendation. As the most important amino acids for muscle building, a BCAA powder can be consumed easily before training and absorbed quickly.
Typically, people who choose to train fasted in the morning would consume a 20 g dose of BCAAs split before and after their workout, with those that train very early in the morning consuming an additional 10 g due to the longer time until their lunch. This part of Martin Berkhan’s ‘Leangains’ protocol for his clients that train in the morning which I chose to adopt for my clients myself in the past.
As you can see from the client results, this has work well But, these results may have been even better if they had used whey protein