By Fleur van Griensven
BCAA’s are thought to put you in an anabolic state. Some people claim that you should use them before training when you are in a fasted state to prevent muscle loss. Is this true and should we all run to the nearest shop to spare our gains? Or is it just a smart marketing strategy from producing companies?
What are BCAA’s?
BCAA’s are branched-chain amino acids. These amino acids are branched (in Dutch vertakt), which in comparison to other amino acids makes it easier for enzymes to digest. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. When we consume protein our body uses specific enzymes which breaks these down into smaller units, the amino acids. There are 20 amino acids which can be converted into one another. At least, that’s true for the non-essential ones. The essential amino acids need to be present in our food because the body can’t synthesize them itself. There are 8 essential amino acids: Lysine, Tryptophan, Phenylalanine, Leucine, Isoleucine, Threonine, Methionine and Valine.
The three BCAA’s are Leucine, Isoleucine and Valine. During intensive activity, muscles will convert these quickly into energy. BCAA’s are supplemented just before or during training. The reason for supplementation is to stop muscle breakdown, recover quicker and in the long run build more muscle mass and strength. 
Are BCAA’s useful?
Many studies have been done on BCAA’s. A lot of people claim that you should take them before training fasted or during training. Some studies do find an effect of supplementation, whilst others don’t. There are many promising abstracts, but they are almost always hampered by lack of dietary control and/or a low protein intake. Making real conclusions based on these studies is hard.
The effectiveness of BCAA supplementation to reduce exercise-induced muscle soreness is mixed. One randomized placebo controlled study compared a BCAA’s + carbohydrate versus a carbohydrate sports drink following 3 days of intense weight training. BCAA + carbohydrate supplementation did not improve markers of muscle damage/soreness compared to carbohydrates only. 
A randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled study concluded the opposite. Participants received a BCAA supplement or a placebo. Before and after the damaging exercise (100 drop-jumps) they measured different muscle damage variables. They concluded that BCAA administered before and following damaging resistance exercise reduces markers of muscle damage and accelerates recovery in resistance-trained males. This might be due to greater bioavailability of substrate to improve protein synthesis. 
Research which shows a net anabolic effect of BCAA supplementation before, during or after training is often used to sell these powders . Supplementing BCAA’s would eventually increase build-up of muscle. No evidence supports that ingestion of BCAA supplements is more effective than consuming a proper amount of food (protein) with respect to building muscle. In fact, there’s research to the contrary: food, and whey protein specifically, may be even more effective than a BCAA drink . This is why you can consume a whey shake before training to get into a net anabolic state. It’s cheaper than BCAA powders, comes in many delicious flavours and is more effective.
What are the costs of BCAA’s?
BCAA’s can be bought in shops and online. The prices differ per brand and they sell both powders as tablets. For example, BCAA’s from Body & Fitshop will cost you €14,90 for 500 grams. The recommended daily serving is 20 grams before or during training, so a package lasts for about 25 days. Thus, quite expensive.
The amino acids shown in the picture above (Amino X from BSN) are even more expensive. You pay €19,90 for 435 grams. The daily serving is 29 grams, so you would pay €1,33 on a daily. Are these any better than Body & Fitshop own label? They both contain the three amino acids L-leucine, L-isoleucine and L-valine but probably in a bit different ratio. The Amino X also contains L-alanine, Taurine and L-arginine and vit D3 + vit B6. Will this add any effect to the product itself? Not sure, but you will just pay for something extra next to the BCAA’s you actually want to buy.
Selling BCAA’s on the market is a smart marketing strategy, because you basically pay for only three amino acids with a bit of a nice flavour added to it. Companies make good use of this by slogans as: ‘Amino X BSN, next level technology!’ or ‘BCAA Sensation V2 only contains the perfect ratio amino acids’. Yeah right if this would all be true, would just not one product with everything be enough? Companies try to come up with new things to make us consumers think that we just have to buy the new product. Smart marketing strategy it is!
Conclusion, BCAA’s: a smart marketing strategy?
Concluded can be so far:
The studies find a mixed effect of supplementation, but if they do find an effect are lacking in many aspects.
They are a smart marketing strategy.
They are expensive.
You can get your BCAA’s from food instead which is cheaper and more satisfying.
In general, there are studies that seem to show promising effects of supplementation. These however are hampered when taking a closer look. A whey shake just before training has shown to be even more effective in provoking a net anabolic response. If you think that you need to take a serving of BCAA’s before training fasted, first ask yourself the following. Is training fasted going to be any better in losing fat than having a meal and smash the hell out of your cardio session? An article about fasted morning cardio might follow, but at the end of the day it still comes down to being in a negative energy balance. If you enjoy doing cardio first thing in the morning go ahead, but don’t get deceived by this BCAA marketing strategy, drink a whey shake and save yourself money!
References  BCAA. Retreived from: http://www.eigenkracht.nl/supplementen/specifieke-supplementen/bcaa  Wesley C. Kephart et all (2016). Post-exercise branched chain amino acid supplementation does not affect recovery markers following three consecutive high intensity resistance training bouts compared to carbohydrate supplementation. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.  Glyn Howatson et all (2012). Exercise-induced muscle damage is reduced in resistance-trained males by branched chain amino acids: a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled study. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition  Sharp CP, Pearson DR (2010). Amino acid supplements and recovery from high-intensity resistance training. Journal Strength Conditioning Research.  Hulmi JJ et all (2010). Effect of protein/essential amino acids and resistance training on skeletal muscle hypertrophy: A case for whey protein. Nutrition & Metabolism.