The debate over EAA vs BCAA has been ongoing ever since these two supplements were invented. This article tackles this debate as to which one is better for use in the bodybuilding realm. With all the supplements designed to improve working out, none has been more lasting, and more proven that good old protein. It is undeniably the most significant factor in building muscle. Without sufficient protein, or more specifically, the amino acid content in protein, there can be no recovery from injury or development of new cells. When the body is deficient in aminos, all the functions of health are compromised, and the beneficial effects of exercise are lessened. Yet when there’s a surplus of protein, results are optimized. So there you have it. Case closed. Protein is king. Therefore it’s no wonder that throughout the years and the improved capabilities of isolating nutrients that there have been ways to enhance protein’s effects. And there have been plenty.
In the beginning
Back in the 1960s, they came out with something called Liquid collagen, which is essentially exactly what it sounds like — liquified animal collagen made from tendons and ligaments, and it happened to be 100% protein. Unfortunately, it also tasted like shellac that has been up a muskrat’s ass. No way was that going to catch on. But at least it wasn’t as bad as a product called “Protein From the Sea, “which, as hard to believe as it may seem, was basically dried fish flakes. Isn’t that fish food? In a word, yes. And you were supposed to make a milkshake out of that. Spread it cereal! Pour it on fruit! How they managed to sell a single can of that stuff, I’ll never know. But once the ’70s came along, the science improved, and one of the biggest advancements was isolating specific amino acids. They were “Essential Amino acids.” At first, they thought there were only eight, but today it’s established that there are nine that we need every day — histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. The reasoning for taking in additional “essential amino acids” was that the body converts many aminos into what it needs in the digestion process; however, there are some that can not be converted. We must eat them. Those are “the essential aminos,” and by supplementing them, you can get a bigger bang of protein with less food. That was a huge breakthrough!
In the 1980s, there came along “free form” aminos, individual aminos, which required no digestion, so the effects were immediately available once you swallowed them. That made sense, so bodybuilders gave them a try. Bodybuilders were always on the vanguard of trying anything that will give them an extra 1% advantage in the quest for building more muscle.
Then came Branch Chain Amino Acids. They were the three aminos that were specific to muscle growth. Valine, leucine, and isoleucine. Those three BCAAs account for 35% of the essential amino acids in muscle protein and 40% of the preformed amino acids required by all mammals. By supplementing BCAA’s, one could rapidly accelerate muscle growth. Or so it was theorized. Of course, it is impossible to determine exactly how much they help since they are a part of the overall ingested nutrients. But logic will dictate that they certainly may be beneficial, which is why Branched Chain Amino Acids became very popular among bodybuilders and athletes looking to obtain both size and strength. It’s for that same reason that in the 1990s, glutamine became popular when it was touted as being equally important to muscle growth. But as explained earlier, the body converts certain aminos from others, and glutamine is converted from the BCAA’s. So if you take BCAA’s, you really don’t need glutamine, even if it was absorbed well, which it is not. The body is designed to convert it, not take it in an isolated state. For that reason, taking glutamine on its own does next to nothing yet, and those who had their pulse on the effects of supplements became aware of that before long, but not before supplement companies sold tons of it! Eventually, after it became obvious that taking bottles of it made no difference, glutamine fell out of favor, (although some supplement companies still remote it — perhaps to unload the excess stock they have since it never did sell very well. ) So, it seems that BCAA’s are indeed the very best protein supplementation you can get. However, BCAA’s have recently come under scrutiny.
One of the problems with BCAA’s is that people expect too much from them. And if you already take in 200 or more grams of good quality protein a day, from food and powdered protein supplements, you already get a good amount of BCAA’s and taking a couple of BCAA’s capsules will not provide any visible difference in muscle growth. You have to take enough of it, and you have to take it regularly.
There will always be challenges to the claims of supplements. Much of it is legitimate though much of it is also an attempt to discredit their effectiveness because the health benefits are in competition with the pharmaceutical companies. Recently there was an article by Robert Wolfe in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition where he argues for the lack of evidence of BCAAs to boost muscle protein synthesis and increase muscle growth and goes on to suggest that simply using the nine essential amino acids is the better way to go. So as you can see, we’ve come full circle. Could it very well be that the essential aminos are the most natural way our bodies utilize the benefits of protein? Let’s bring the current EAA vs BCAA debate into a little more context.
EAA vs BCAA Debate
As mentioned, EAA’s are essential because the body is not capable of synthesizing them on its own. In order for the protein, we ingest to become muscle ( or to function as cell repair and renewal anywhere else in the body for that matter ) all, and only the EAAs are required. Again, this is because the other – non-essential – amino acids can be synthesized as needed. That’s the key. The body will provide for itself to fill the needs to prevent waste and disease. But bodybuilders want to go beyond avoiding illness and have extraordinary physiological advantages. That is an area that the medical profession doesn’t delve into very much. But back to the comparison of BCAA’s and EAA’s — technically, if we take in BCAA’s, we are, in fact, also taking in part of the EAA at the same time. And if you take EAA’s, you’re taking in BCAA’s. Since any given protein (from an animal source — milk, egg, meat. etc.) consists of the full complement of 20 essential and non-essential amino acids, it is the EAA availability, not BCAA availability, that is the main factor for muscle protein synthesis at any given time. They may seem a little convoluted, but here’s how it works. We know that all of the EAAs are an absolute requirement for protein synthesis, right? Now, if we only take in BCAA, we are missing the rest of the EAAs and thus do not have the full spectrum. So, does that mean that only taking in BCAA means no protein synthesis? Perhaps. If so, why take BCAA’s? You might as well just use a good powdered protein supplement like whey or casein, which are high in EAA’s and in the way the body was meant to receive them — by eating them. Better yet, why pay for pre-packaged flavors when you can buy unflavored powdered protein and add your own cocoa, vanilla, coconut, or a banana, with the sweetening of your choice (be it natural like cane sugar, or artificial like sucralose) or even some strawberry ice cream! It’ll sure taste a lot better than many of those commercial brands. Check out www.proteinfactory.com for an excellent assortment of high-quality protein powders at a lower cost than the retail brands. But for now, let us take a closer look at the BCAA and EAA comparison and how it relates to overall protein ingestion.
Muscles, especially when they are overworked, are continually making and breaking down protein. Most of the time, though, muscle tissue is stable — neither growing nor shrinking. In order to become bigger and stronger, the muscles must be stressed, and it must be fed. Hence, the old standby of working out with weights and getting enough protein is a tried and true principle. And remember, steroids work by recirculating protein! They do not build muscle out of anything. Protein is always the catalyst. Always. So even with anabolic enhancement, you need to take in enough protein. And when it comes to the muscles attempting to get protein to grow bigger and stronger, BCAAs are the first amino acids to be liberated from muscle tissue that’s been broken down. This is why the original idea behind taking in BCAA’s when training was because the increased levels of BCAA in the blood basically “tricks” the body into thinking that no more protein breakdown was needed in muscle tissue, thus sparing muscle proteins. Beyond it being “logical,” which is all the old-timers had to go by, there is now ample evidence that proves this very point. Taking BCAA’s before and after, exercise is a great insurance policy in the quest for optimum muscle repair and increased growth.
Another thing to keep in mind (and has been well-documented) is that BCAA’s have also been shown to decrease muscle soreness, thus allowing for faster recovery and more potential progress from your workouts. So right there, we’re back to favoring the argument for additional BCAA’s. Another case for the use of BCAA is based on the effects of L-Leucine on anabolic signaling. Leucine may be the absolute most significant amino in regard to building muscle since it has a powerful activating effect on the machinery inside cells that control protein synthesis. In other words, L-Leucine is paramount to protein synthesis. This has been demonstrated many times over in controlled experiments in both lab animals and humans. It’s been measured and published in studies for years. This is the best reason to believe why supplemental BCAAs, and especially leucine, maybe so useful for the growth of muscle tissue beyond what can be achieved through nutrition alone. The question remains — must the BCAA’s be in the entire spectrum of EAA’s? Are BCAA’s just a part of the equation? That has yet to be determined unequivocally, but it would seem so. You need the EAA’s. They come first. But BCAA’s will “supplement” the muscle-building potential.
Final Answer: EAA vs BCAA
What’s the take-away for all of this? All things are taken into consideration; it may very well be that EAA’s are the better choice since they already contain the BCAA’s. But even if the body has enough of the EAA’s, taking additional BCAA” s can certainly “boost” the effects. The stomach and intestines don’t know that the BCAA’s are a separate pill. It takes everything in as simply an ingested source of nutrients. So we’re back to square one. Protein is the primary factor, and EAA’s are the largest component in protein utilization. Meanwhile, BCAA’s, as well as extra Leucine peptides, can be an additional advantage in creating an optimal anabolic environment. BCAA’s by themselves will prove disappointing without the full spectrum of aminos. Therefore, the best recommendation is to get a good fell spectrum protein powder, be it egg, whey, or casein. Avoid plant-based protein such as soy or pea since they lack adequate amounts of many of the essential amino acids, and as we’ve established, all nine essential aminos are necessary to obtain the muscle-building benefits we want from protein.
Protein always has, and always be the main component in building muscle. It should never be overlooked. Just stay aware of getting enough of the essential amino acids. And if you can add some BCAA’s along the way, it can only help. Do that every day, along with a solid training program, and you can rest assured of getting the best results possible.
Nelson Montana is a bodybuilding expert and author. He has written hundreds of articles for all types of bodybuilding media outlets. He is the author of two books, The Bodybuilding Truth & Bottom Line Bodybuilding. He is also an expert supplement formulator and is the creator of the best-selling testosterone supplement Unleashed.