by Matt Weik, BS, CSCS, CPT, CSN
For as long as I can remember, BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids) have ruled the throne when it comes to helping enhance recovery following intense bouts of exercise. If you have been utilizing BCAA supplements, you are probably aware that they are composed of three important amino acids — leucine, isoleucine, and valine. The powerhouse of the group is leucine, as it helps reduce the breakdown of muscle tissue. It’s for that reason you will see leucine being more prevalent in the standard 2:1:1 BCAA supplement ratio. But what are these EAAs everyone is now raving about, and how do they play into your recovery protocol? Are they better? What purpose do they serve?
EAAs Are Enhancing the Recovery Category
What exactly are EAAs? They are essential amino acids that the body cannot make on its own and therefore needs to come from food sources or supplementation. How do EAAs differ from BCAAs? They are “essentially” all the same. BCAAs (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) are all essential amino acids — they are three of the nine EAAs.
Are EAAs taking over the recovery category? It’s certainly trending that way, even though there are benefits of utilizing a straight BCAA supplement as well. However, if you want the best bang for your buck and take your recovery, muscle-building potential, and muscle preservation to the next level, you’re going to want to consider utilizing all nine of the essential amino acids.
The nine essential amino acids (EAAs) that we need to be familiar with are phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine, and histidine.
What’s important about EAAs is that not only do they help prevent the breakdown of muscle, but they also help build it. EAAs stimulate mTOR, which then initiates muscle protein synthesis. BCAAs are great for preventing the overall breakdown of muscle protein but tends to be inferior at building lean muscle mass. So, do EAAs replace BCAAs? No, not exactly. However, if you want to take your recovery and muscle building to new heights, supplementing with EAAs is a great option and can be extremely advantageous.
Must you get all of your essential amino acids from supplementation? The answer is no. You CAN get essential amino acids through food as long as they are complete protein sources. Some of these complete protein sources include meat, eggs, dairy, poultry, and seafood. There are even some plant-based sources that contain all nine essential amino acids, such as quinoa and soy.
What Does the Research Say?
We knew from many years ago that research showed the importance of exogenous supplementation of BCAAs. The findings concluded that these three BCAAs were capable of reducing whole-body protein breakdown, which is essential when trying to preserve lean muscle tissue. Additionally, BCAAs can help decrease body fat percentage.
If preserving your lean muscle mass is important to you (and it should be), supplementing with EAAs can help preserve muscle function, even as you age or when you are unable to exercise (think along the lines of having an injury or even surgery). Essential amino acids have also been found to be effective at not only preserving but improving lean body mass.
Supplementing with EAAs, both pre and intra-workout, also has its advantages. During exercise, EAAs can help prevent the loss of force-generating capacity during lifts and allow you to push yourself harder each and every set.
If you are following a ketogenic diet, leucine can generally knock you out of ketosis. However, when all essential amino acids are present, they help buffer the glycemic response so that you can remain in a state of ketosis. This would allow you to utilize a recovery product such as EAAs intra-workout while in a completely fasted state while helping reduce muscle breakdown and improving recovery.
Along the same lines as dieting is the response to hunger. If you’re in a caloric deficit while following a diet, you generally tend to suffer from some hunger pangs throughout the day. Using EAAs during a diet can help with appetite regulation and help you feel satiated longer, so you aren’t as likely to binge or cheat on your diet.
Putting it all together, research has discovered that to get the greatest response from amino acids, you should supplement with BCAAs and EAAs regularly. This serves many purposes. The first is that you will be able to improve your performance in the gym by delaying muscle soreness and fatigue. The second purpose is to signal mTOR and enhance muscle protein synthesis to help build quality lean muscle mass. The third reason is to help improve your post-workout recovery, so you are able to get back in the gym and train hard. And the fourth is to aid in preventing muscle breakdown.
The research behind essential amino acids is solid, and we’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg. Therefore, when you want to level up your results, consider adding an EAA product to your supplement regimen and take your workouts and fitness level to new heights.