BCAA vs. Protein: What’s the Difference and Do You Need Both?

bcaa vs protein: preparing protein drink at the gym

BCAA vs. Protein: What’s the Difference and Do You Need Both?

In the world of bodybuilding, athletics, and supplements, it’s challenging to ascertain what you should and shouldn’t be doing. When it comes to BCAA vs. protein, you might be wondering what the difference is between the two and whether you should be taking both. 

No one supplement routine will fit everyone. It’s crucial to understand your options and make the best choice for your health and athletic goals. Let’s look at the BCAA vs. protein debate and examine both options to see how they work together so you can make an educated decision. 

What Is Protein?

Protein is one of three macronutrients that your body needs to survive. The other two are carbohydrates (carbs) and fats. These macronutrients provide your body with fundamental nutrients and caloric energy. Protein is a building block for skin, muscle, and bone, and your body needs it to produce enzymes, hormones, and other chemicals.

Protein assists with building muscle mass through muscle repair while providing the building blocks for muscle growth. Meat, dairy, eggs, legumes, nuts, and seeds are some of the most common protein sources. 

If you don’t work out regularly, you probably get enough protein from food sources alone. But athletes and those who follow intense training routines may need protein supplements to ensure they’re getting enough of this valuable macronutrient. 

On a chemical level, amino acids are the building blocks of protein. They allow your body to produce tens of thousands of proteins. There are nine essential amino acids, or EAAs, and 11 non-essential amino acids. 

Essential amino acids are those that must be obtained through protein intake, as your body cannot synthesize them on its own. When a protein source includes all nine EAAs, it’s known as a complete protein. If it does not contain all nine, it’s an incomplete protein. 

Amino acids, especially EAAs, are the building blocks for muscle gain. They are composed of atoms including oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, sulfur, and carbon, which are arranged as strands. And they’re essential for post-workout muscle recovery and building lean muscle mass (which is really just muscle).

About Protein Supplements

athletic man at a supplement store

Protein supplements come in many forms, the most common of which is protein powder. Protein powder is a popular workout supplement that can be made from either animal or plant sources. It’s generally blended with other ingredients, which may include water, milk, or whole foods like fruit, to make a protein shake. 

Athletes generally need a daily protein intake of between 0.5 and 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight. That’s between 75 and 120 grams of protein per day for a 150-pound person. As such, protein powder helps you ensure you’re getting the amount of protein you need in your diet. 

Casein, whey protein powder, and pea protein powder are three of the most common types of protein supplements. All three contain complete proteins, providing optimum support for muscle tissue repair and growth. Pea protein powder is one of the most popular plant-based protein supplement options. 

Here’s a brief overview of each option: 

  • Whey Protein: Whey protein powder contains proteins isolated from whey, which is a byproduct of cheese making. Whey protein is readily bioavailable, allowing quick absorption
  • Casein Protein: Casein makes up 80% of the protein found in cow’s milk. It is slower to absorb, which is ideal for prolonged protein release to aid in muscle recovery overnight or for extended periods without food. 
  • Pea Protein: Pea protein powder is extracted from yellow and green split peas. Unlike many plant sources, it contains all EAAs and is full of nutrients. It is, however, low in the EAA methionine and must be consumed as part of a balanced diet.

Protein is generally taken as a post-workout supplement around 30 minutes after exercise to capitalize on the post-exercise anabolic window. 

For any of the above options, picking a quality protein supplement is the most important element. Low-quality supplements may result in poor protein absorption, which means that your high-protein shake might not be so high in protein after all. 

When in doubt, Ingredient Optimized protein supplements are a reliable option because they are tested for maximum absorption, or bioavailability. Options include ioWhey Protein and ioPea Protein

Benefits of Protein Supplements 

Protein supplements offer athletes a range of possible benefits. We’ve highlighted some of the top benefits of protein supplements to help you decide if they’re right for you. 

Muscle Growth 

Dietary protein intake significantly enhances the changes in muscle size and strength in healthy adult athletes who follow a resistance exercise training routine. Protein is essential for muscle growth, and if your protein intake is too low, you will not see as much muscle gain. 

It should be noted that the ideal protein intake for each individual is a topic of great debate, and quite fluid based on age, activity level, and health. It’s important to experiment with protein intake to find what delivers the best results for you and your goals.

Muscle Recovery 

Taking protein supplements as a post-workout can help reduce muscle damage and improve muscle protein synthesis for better recovery. Protein helps repair damaged muscle tissues, allowing athletes to recover more quickly from muscle soreness after exercise.

Weight Loss

Consuming high-protein foods and supplements may help you feel hungry less often. This can result in smaller portions and reduced snacking, both of which are beneficial for weight loss. According to a 2017 review, for example, whey protein could help reduce fat mass and body weight in those who are obese or overweight.

What Are BCAAs? 

bcaa vs protein: man mixing a protein drink

BCAAs, or branched-chain amino acids, consist of three of the EAAs, which include leucine, isoleucine, and valine, each of which must be obtained from food sources. These unique EAAs are grouped together because they’re the only ones to contain a chain of elements branching off to one side. 

BCAAs perform several essential signaling and metabolic functions in addition to assisting with energy production and protein synthesis. While BCAA supplements do not contain complete protein, they help with building muscle and with muscle recovery. 

We’ve outlined the benefits of each EAA contained in BCAA supplements: 

  • Leucine: As the most important of the three BCAAs, leucine is important for the biochemical production of muscle tissue. Leucine boosts your body’s ability to heal its muscles, reducing muscle soreness. It also helps maintain and balance energy levels by stabilizing glucose in your bloodstream. Because it’s considered the most essential BCAA, you can obtain it through leucine supplements such as ioLeucine in addition to BCAA supplements. 
  • Isoleucine: As the name implies, isoleucine is an isomer to leucine, which means it has the same molecular formula with a different structure. The critical difference is that leucine is metabolized through fats only, and isoleucine can metabolize through both fats and carbohydrates. Isoleucine assists your body with healing, muscle recovery, immune functions, and regulating some hormones.
  • Valine: When taken with leucine and isoleucine, valine is a popular supplement for muscle tissue repair, muscle growth, and enhanced energy. In addition, it is essential for muscle coordination, mental focus, and emotional calm, all of which can assist an athlete during a workout. 

Together, BCAAs form a dynamic trio to assist in muscular development and growth while speeding up recovery and reducing muscle soreness between workouts. They’re also vital elements of the brain, liver, heart, kidney, and muscle tissues. 

About BCAA Supplements 

Taking branched-chain amino acid supplements can significantly decrease muscle soreness while assisting with building muscle. Unlike protein supplements, you won’t find many different types of BCAA supplements, though both plant-based and animal-derived options exist. 

In general, BCAA supplements are more beneficial when taken as a pre-workout supplement as opposed to a post-work workout supplement in comparison with a placebo. A dose of between 6 and 10 grams of BCAAs is effective, though each supplement brand may recommend different amounts.

BCAA products are sold in pill form and as powders that you can mix with protein shakes or water. Much like protein supplements, it’s essential to pick a quality product to ensure your body can absorb the BCAAs you’re taking. Ingredient Optimized products like ioBCAA, which will be launching in the coming months, are a reliable option due to their high bioavailability.

Benefits of BCAAs

Like protein supplements, BCAA supplements may enhance your performance as an athlete. Below are several to consider. 

Muscle Growth

BCAAs, and leucine in particular, stimulate muscle protein synthesis, which assists in muscle growth. Consuming BCAAs in conjunction with a resistance workout such as weight lifting may result in as much as a 22% increase in muscle protein synthesis in comparison with a placebo. 

However, the increase from BCAAs is lower than the increase of muscle protein synthesis from complete protein supplements such as whey protein. 

Muscle Recovery 

BCAAs have been shown to reduce muscle soreness and decrease muscle damage after a workout. Supplementing with BCAAs, as a pre-workout in particular, may speed up your recovery time and get you back in the gym sooner.

Learn more how BCAAS can help you meet your fitness goals.

BCAA vs. Protein: Understand the Differences

bcaa vs protein: flat lay of gym essentials and supplements

One primary difference between BCAA vs. protein supplements is that BCAA supplements only contain three of the nine EAAs. Whey, casein, and pea protein each contain all essential amino acids needed for muscle recovery and muscle growth. BCAAs contain only leucine, isoleucine, and valine. 

Another key difference is their structure, which impacts how quickly your body can digest a given supplement. BCAAs are individual peptides whereas proteins are complex structures of amino acids bonded together. It is much easier for your body to digest BCAAs because they’re already broken down, but proteins take longer to digest. 

The more complex structure of proteins explains why some types (e.g., casein) can keep you feeling full for longer: because they take longer to digest. This is not true of the individual aminos in BCAAs, which your body can transport and use in as little as 30 to 60 minutes. Casein protein, on the other hand, can require several hours to digest.

Although BCAAs can help improve muscle protein synthesis, growth, and recovery, they can’t function to their full effect without the other essential amino acids. However, if your main goal as an athlete is to increase your muscle mass, it could be worth adding BCAAs to your supplement regimen in addition to complete proteins. 

BCAA vs. Protein: Can You Take Them Together?

All complete proteins from whole foods and supplements contain the three BCAAs. As such, BCAA supplements are safe to take alongside other protein supplements. You can use them as a standalone pre-workout or mixed with your existing pre-workout drink. 

When taken before your workout, BCAAs are immediately available to your body for building muscle. On the other hand, protein must be digested so your body can break it down into the amino acid building blocks. While not necessary for all athletes, BCAA supplements offer direct amino acid availability and could assist you in reaching advanced competition results. 

Of all the BCAAs, leucine is considered the most important. As such, it is often available as a single supplement that can be added to drinks such as water or whey protein shakes. And if you’re using plant-based protein powder, it may be beneficial to add leucine to boost the protein quality

Reach Your Goals With the Right Supplements 

Before making any changes to your dietary nutrition, it’s best to consult a healthcare provider or sports nutrition professional. These experts can help you determine what your body needs to help you build muscle mass or lose weight to reach your goals safely. When you know which direction you’ll take in choosing between BCAA vs. protein, consider Ingredient Optimized products, which are designed for increased bioavailability, allowing your body to get more from every serving. Check out ioWhey Protein from Performix and Kaged Muscle Clean Meal to get started.