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BCAA | Avoiding a Catabolic Catastrophe

Reading Time: 6 minutes

 Anabolism Vs Catabolism


So first of all it’s important you know the difference between catabolism and anabolism. The concept is pretty easy to understand actually, catabolism simply means to “break-down” complexes in metabolism and anabolism to “build up”.

When we exercise, the amount of energy we use, energy expenditure, greatly increases and as a result, our body’s are desperate for a quick energy fix! Unfortunately for us fitness fanatics the easiest source of energy after glucose is often in the form of muscle, whereby muscle in the body is broken down to form essential amino acids for energy.


What are BCAAs and how do they work?


So this is where the importance of BCAAs come in! But wait… what actually are BCAAs?

BCAA stands for branched chain amino acids. In the body, we need amino acids as building blocks to make proteins and muscle, you can almost think of it in terms of building a house… protein being the house and amino acids the bricks! There are 20 different amino acids which can combine in unique sequences to create a range of different proteins. These 20 amino acids can be categorised further into essential and non- essential amino acids.

What’s the difference you ask?

Well the difference lies clearly in the name: essential amino acids are essential for living, but we don’t make and synthesis these little beauties in the body, therefore we must consume them through the diet in order to function and survive. Non- essential amino acids however- yep you’ve guessed it, non essential amino acids can be synthesised in the body, and therefore it is not an essential to consume them in the diet.

So these metabolism miracles are important for everyone, but for fitness focused individuals in particular! This is because strength training and endurance exercise increases energy expenditure in the body, and when our bodies need energy…they will literally search every source to find it, including our muscle tissue! This increased energy requirement therefore promotes muscle breakdown, catabolism, and the oxidation of amino acids, meaning our muscle can waste and become weaker and a lot of hard work in the gym… is wasted!


But we get BCAAs in the diet, right?


Yes! We can get BCAAs in the diet through several different sources of protein. However, when consumed in the diet these amino acids are only released after protein sources are digested and broken down, which is a time consuming process for the body! Overall, there are 9 essential amino acids, but in terms of muscle building and muscle recovery the three most important amino acids for us to remember are Leucine, Iso-leucine and valine. These three amino acids are primarily needed for muscle growth, lean muscle maintainence and energy, whereby it has been confirmed that leucine in particular is the most significant amino acid required for protein synthesis and muscle repair.




The Evidence behind the Claims

Don’t just take my word for it, within sport science studies involving BCAAs are some of the most commonly performed studies, providing HEAPS of evidence to prove their importance.

For example, in a study by Blomstrand and Saltin (2001) it was investigated whether BCAA intake could affect muscle contraction and blood BCAA concentration after exercise. By measuring these factors scientists could provide an indication of the net rate of protein degradation after exercise. In the study, 7 healthy male cyclists, who were not involved in regular exercise, were asked to carry out one hour of cycling, and given amino acids before and after the activity. Results from the study suggested that BCAA supplementation increases leucine concentration, providing a protein sparing effect that can enhance muscle recovery after exercise.

Not only this but Blomstrand and Newsholme (1992) demonstrated that a mixture of valin, leucine and isolecine could enhance recovery and performance in sustained intense exercise. The study involve 26 participants in the 30km race and 32 in the marathon, whereby it was found that 7.5-12g of BCAAs taken during exercise increased BCAA concentration in the blood and muscle cells, however, in the placebo group who received no BCAA supplementation, there was a decrease in plasma and muscle amino acid concentration. Overall, results confirmed that BCAA concentration was reduced during exercise, however, subjects consuming BCAAs had a greater blood concentration with a decreased rate of protein degradation.


But Why Supplements?


BCAA supplements generally contain three muscle maintaining amino acids that are “pre-digested”- this means when they are consumed they are more quickly absorbed and broken down to nitrogen in the muscle cells. Not only this, but often they contain vitamin B6, which also acts to enhance energy production within metabolism. However, when selecting your supplements you should be cautious… make sure that you stay clear of extracted BCAAs that are not pure! By opting for BCAA supplements like Myprotein powder and capsules this means you can achieve optimum bioavailability in the blood whilst achieving excellent purity, consistency and mixability. In BCAAs supplements the main acids present are characterised as ketogenic and glutogenic. This means they are metabolised in a way to produce glucose bodies and keto bodies in the blood, which are required to build muscle and provide energy, whilst also regulating insulin production. The regulation of insulin also plays an important role within muscle maintenance; this is because insulin is an anabolic hormone that has an incredibly important role of helping to transport fuelling nutrients like glucose to the muscles.




When Should I take BCAA Supplements?


There are several sources of evidence which suggest consumption of amino acids, especially both before and after a workout can prevent muscle breakdown and promote muscle synthesis.  BCAAs can be consumed at any point in the day but consequently due to scientific evidence it is advised to consume BCAAs before, during and after a workout to achieve maximum benefits. Within BCAAs leucine is the most potent amino acid among the BCAAs for stimulating protein synthesis, nevertheless, supplementation of leucine alone may cause BCAA imbalance, whereby overall, it is large concentration of mixed amino acids and an increased concentration of insulin that causes a greater rate of protein synthesis. For that reason it is crucial you ensure you receive a balance of all 9 essential amino acids! Not only this, but if you are physically active it is also worthwhile to supplement your diet and workouts with non-essential amino acids, in order to avoid that dreaded a catabolic catastrophe!



What are Supplement Sources of BCAAs?


Here at Myprotein we believe nutrition is individually tailored, differing within each individual. So we’re not just going to advise you to go ahead and buy any BCAA supplement, it’s about choosing the right one for you, and this all depends on your training goals and time periods. For example, if you’re on a hyper caloric diet… you are eating more than enough calories… then the chances are you may already be meeting your amino acid requirements, unless you’re looking to build a large amount of muscle mass. However, if you’re “cutting” or consuming a hypo caloric diet… you are deficient in calories, then you will require BCAA supplementation in order to prevent muscle catabolism and enhance fat breakdown.

There are several supplements other than BCAA powder and capsules that can provide you with the BCAAs needed to achieve your goals, including both whey and casein protein. Whey protein in particular contains a large percentage of BCAAs and it is this reason why whey protein is one of the most quickly absorbed proteins, often consumed after a workout. However, if your vegetarian, or you don’t like to have protein shakes before you train, then BCAA capsules and powders are a must have!





BCAAs are a must have supplement within several different areas of training from running, clycling and pure cardio training, to strength and weight training. By taking BCAAs you can aid your recovery, gain energy, maintain muscle and prevent injury. So make sure your getting enough of these “essential” amino acids.






Blomstrand, E., & Newsholme, E. A. (1992). Effect of branched‐chain amino acid supplementation on the exercise‐induced change in aromatic amino acid concentration in human muscle. Acta physiologica scandinavica, 146(3), 293-298.


Blomstrand, E., & Saltin, B. (2001). BCAA intake affects protein metabolism in muscle after but not during exercise in humans. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology And Metabolism, 281(2), E365-E374.


Shimomura, Y., Murakami, T., Nakai, N., Nagasaki, M., & Harris, R. A. (2004). Exercise promotes BCAA catabolism: effects of BCAA supplementation on skeletal muscle during exercise. The Journal of nutrition, 134(6), 1583S-1587S.



Our articles should be used for informational and educational purposes only and are not intended to be taken as medical advice. If you’re concerned, consult a health professional before taking dietary supplements or introducing any major changes to your diet.



Writer and expert

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