When to Take BCAAs: Does It Really Matter?

man working out: when to take bcaas

When to Take BCAAs: Does It Really Matter?

Many bodybuilders and other athletes use BCAAs to help them meet their fitness goals — and BCAAs certainly have many benefits. The question though is when to take BCAAs. Are there certain times of day when they’re more effective than others?

Let’s look at what BCAAs are and why they’re so popular with athletes. We’ll also explore the best time to take them, and what to look for when buying supplements so that they really work for you.

What Are BCAAs?

Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a type of protein. They’re part of a group of essential amino acids that the body needs to function. Since your body can’t make essential amino acids, you need to get them from your food or supplement intake — and specifically from protein.

Amino acids are critical because they form the building blocks of protein. You need protein to build and maintain your entire structural framework, including your bones, organs, and muscle mass. Protein also provides energy to your body, helps produce hormones, enzymes, and hemoglobin, and strengthens your immune system, amongst other things.

The BCAAs are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They’re called “branched-chain” amino acids because of their branched molecular structure, and together they make up about one-third of your muscle protein.

Although your body needs all the essential amino acids to function correctly, BCAAs have specific benefits compared to the other essential amino acids, especially when it comes to muscle building and recovery. These benefits can give us clues about when to take BCAAs.

Benefits of BCAAs

woman flexing her muscles

Before we talk about when to take BCAAs, it’s important to understand why you’re taking them.

You could, of course, take a protein supplement like whey protein powder and you’ll get the BCAAs found naturally in any protein. Those BCAAs are bound to other amino acids, so it takes an extra step in the digestion process to break down that bond.

On the other hand, pure BCAAs are digested and absorbed within 30-40 minutes. That means they’re quickly available for your body to use — and therefore probably worth it if fitness is a priority for you.

Amino acid supplementation, and especially BCAA supplementation, is important for several reasons — and when to take BCAAs may depend on why you’re taking them.

For Muscle Building

BCAAs are fundamental to muscle protein synthesis, which is the process of building new muscle tissue. This anabolic (muscle building) process happens through a combination of protein and resistance training. Leucine is particularly important for muscle growth as it triggers the muscle protein synthesis process, which is then supported by isoleucine and valine, especially post-workout.

Women especially need BCAAs to increase the testosterone that’s also needed for effective muscle building.

As a bonus, when you’re restricting calories while building muscle, BCAAs help with fat loss. This is a useful benefit if your goal is body sculpting, building lean muscle, or simply weight loss.

When to take BCAAs for muscle building: Take them pre-workout to kickstart the anabolic process and/or during or after your workout to continue with muscle building.

For Energy and Muscle Protection

Your muscles need glucose for energy. At the beginning of a vigorous workout, your body can easily get the fuel it needs from the glucose already available in your system, most likely from your last meal.

As you use up that readily available glucose during a long workout, your body starts to look for another energy source, specifically the glutamine that is stored in your lean muscle. This leads to catabolism — or muscle breakdown — which, as an athlete, is the last thing you want. When you supplement with BCAAs, those are quickly available to the body. They can therefore help keep your energy levels high without the need for muscle breakdown.

BCAAs also help you to work out longer by delaying the feeling of fatigue. That fatigue is caused by a hormone called serotonin. Tryptophan is a precursor of serotonin, and BCAAs compete with tryptophan for uptake in the brain. So if you feed your body with BCAAs, it holds off that serotonin, and you get to keep going longer. 

When to take BCAAs for energy and muscle protection: Take them before or during a long workout to give your body the fuel it needs, replace what’s been used up, and make sure your body doesn’t mine your muscles for energy.

For Muscle Recovery

When you work out intensively, you cause muscle damage and the body then carries out muscle repair — which in turn builds bigger muscles. This process again needs BCAAs to support protein synthesis. BCAAs have also been shown to reduce delayed onset muscle soreness (or DOMS), something many athletes and bodybuilders suffer from after a workout.

When to take BCAAs for muscle recovery: Although there are differing opinions on this, some research shows that taking BCAAs pre-workout may best help your body repair and preserve your muscle mass.

When to Take BCAAs for Best Results

There are many different theories about when to take BCAAs and as you’ve seen, you may want to take them at different times depending on what you’re using them for. In fact, whether you take them as a pre-workout supplement or post-workout may not matter as much as we used to think.

The latest research shows that there is a fairly large window in which BCAAs can be effective. This is even more true if you’ve had a meal one to two hours before working out as your body will then already have access to the nutrients it needs.

Do You Need a BCAA Supplement?

BCAA supplements and other workout pills

If you’re only moderately active on a daily basis, you’re probably getting enough BCAAs from your meals — provided you regularly eat high-quality protein sources like beef, chicken, fish, eggs, or dairy products. This protein breaks down into those critical amino acids your body needs.

However, if you’re an athlete or bodybuilder, you need extra BCAAs, typically around 55 milligrams of leucine per kilogram of bodyweight per day and half that of isoleucine and valine. That equates to somewhere between 10 and 20 grams of BCAAs per day. It’s challenging to get that much from food, so you may need to add a BCAA supplement.

Remember too, that your body can’t survive on BCAAs alone, so make sure you’re also getting all the other essential amino acids, either from food or supplements.

Important note: BCAAs are safe for most people to take every day but if you have a medical condition of any kind, consult your nutritionist or another health professional before taking BCAA supplements. BCAAs can cause harm under certain conditions, for example, if you suffer from maple syrup urine disease or are pregnant or breastfeeding

What to Look For in a BCAA Supplement

When it comes to sports nutrition, there’s no shortage of types and brands of supplements out there. The trick is to choose the one that’s most effective.

You’ll find BCAAs in protein supplements like whey protein powder and pea protein. If you really want the most muscle-building bang for your buck though, you may want to go for a pure BCAA powder. 

Here’s what to look for:

  • The ratio of leucine to isoleucine and valine should be approximately 2:1:1.
  • Check the serving size to make sure you’re getting enough BCAAs over the day, based on your bodyweight. Ideally, you want to get the total amount split over at least two doses.
  • Make sure the BCAA supplement is free of artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors, and preservatives.
  • Avoid supplements that contain fillers like soy or gluten, or emulsifiers like guar gum or xanthan gum.

Your best bet is a high-quality supplement like Ingredient Optimized ioBCAA. Ingredient Optimized products have been independently proven to be more bioavailable than non-optimized supplements, and they’re free of anything artificial. ioBCAA partner products will be available soon so keep an eye out online and in stores.

How to Take BCAA Supplements

man scooping our supplements for working out

We’ve discussed when to take BCAAs and the next obvious question is how to take them. They’re widely available as tablets or as powders. BCAA powder is easy to blend into a smoothie or shake, mix into oats, soups, or stews, or simply dissolve into water.

When to Take BCAAs? It’s Your Choice

Your body needs protein to build its entire structure, as well as to give you energy and boost your immune system. BCAAs are especially critical for muscle building and repair, as well as for providing fast energy during an intense workout. 

When you’re deciding on a brand, make sure you choose a high-quality product that offers exceptional bioavailability and optimal nutrition. 

While there are different opinions on when to take BCAAs (and it may also depend on why you’re taking them), there seems to be a fairly large window for effectiveness. Try experimenting with taking BCAA supplements at different times to see what works best for your particular fitness goals.