For decades, bodybuilders and elite athletes alike have understood the importance of proper protein intake. Muscles are not the only living cells in our bodies that depend on a proper intake of protein. Every living cell in our bodies uses proteins to function, and maintain their own structure.  Enzymes that break down food require protein. What are Proteins? How do they work, and how do they relate to free form amino acids, or even BCAA’s.

This is going to come as a shock to many, but what if you were told that your body, muscles, and every living cell within you actually doesn’t need protein? It’s true! Yes, we as carbon based life forms do not need protein to function or live. This may seem contradictory considering what was just said about all of our cells needing protein. Let us delve deeper into this issue to understand how this all makes sense.

Proteins are nothing more than long chains of different amino acids. There are a total of 21 amino acids found in our body, (much literature out there will still say 20 because the 21st is still a recent discovery) and when any combination of these are bound together in long chains, they form what we now call a protein. Some “proteins” or combinations of amino acids may be used to form, repair, and maintain the cells of one part of our body, when a totally different combination is used for another type of cell.

Consumption of Protein

When we consume foods that are rich in protein, we are consuming certain combinations of amino acids pre-arranged into whatever shape and pattern they are in. Eggs may have it’s amino’s in a different pattern and shape than that of beans. Out of the 21 amino acids we know about, 9 of them are considered “essential amino acids” or EAA’s. These are the nine that our bodies cannot make on their own and must be supplied through our diet. Now the foods we eat not only have these aminos’ arranged differently and in different shapes, but some foods don’t contain all nine EAA’s we must get from our diet. While all animal proteins contain all nine, very few plant based proteins are considered complete proteins, meaning they are lacking in some of the amino acids we need. Having a proper knowledge of which plant proteins need to be consumed within a reasonable time of each other is important for those on a plant based diet.

So we see that protein is just a lose term that can be misleading and vague. When we read the back of a food label, it only states how much protein there is, but not if it’s rich in certain amino acids. Most people would think that pork rinds are rich in protein based on the label, but these proteins are pretty much useless because your mostly looking at fat and collagen with very few of the amino acids needed to perform any major functions of the body.

So now that we see what protein actually is, what happens when we consume it? In the process of digestion, stomach acids actually denature any protein we’ve eaten. It has to. Whatever shape and pattern these amino acids were in when they went in, are not suitable for what our bodies need them for. In the denaturing process these amino acids are unfolded and broken apart into their purest form. These amino acids are no longer proteins because each one has its own name and is all by itself. Once the digestion process is over, these amino acids are released into the blood stream and begin joining with other amino acids to build, repair, and maintain the different cells that require such.

So now what everyone wants to know is which amino acids are most important for building and maintaining muscles. This is where all the talk about BCAA’s or Branched Chain Amino Acids comes from. Out of the nine essential amino acids, three of them are the most crucial to building, repairing and maintaining muscles.  Those are specifically valine, isoleucine, and leucine.

Why Supplement with BCAAs?

So if BCAA’s are already found in the proteins we consume, why supplement with them? The reason is that All proteins have a digestion rate at which it takes for the whole process we just covered to take place. Whey isolates take at least 30 minutes to be completely denatured, then they have to go to the liver, and after about 30 minutes the amino acids are now starting to be released into the blood stream, to go to work at the sites that need them. Whey concentrates take 45 minutes. Egg Proteins and chicken take about 4 hours, and most red meats, and Casein take up to 6 hours.  While these digestion times are great for making sure you have plenty of amino acids trickling into your blood stream when you can’t always get to your next meal, downing a steak right before your workout is just not a good idea.

Now BCAA’s are also called free form amino acids. What this means is that the BCAA’s we take prior, during, or after a workout have already been predigested in a lab. What this means is that protein sources, whether they be from whey or plants are introduced to digestive enzymes in a lab. They actually denature and separate them in the lab and break them down into their purest form for us. So now you have a product that has already been denatured, and separated for you. Upon ingestion, they do not need to be digested by our bodies because they are already freed from whatever source they were already bound in, thus we get the term free form amino acids. Because all of this has been done for us, once these amino acids make it to our small intestines, they are absorbed through the walls of the small intestines bypassing the whole liver process and going directly into our blood stream.

Upon ingestion BCAA’s are at work in our muscle cells in as fast as 15 minutes. We know and understand that the moment we start hitting it hard in the gym or during an athletic event, muscle damage is already taking place, and the faster we can repair those damaged cells the faster we can recover, and grow bigger muscles.

What’s the Best Way To Take Them?

Many athletes like to fill up a jug full of water and BCAAs, and to each their own. Still there is always a better approach that is backed by science, and not just gym talk that’s full of myths and legends of magical powers. The only way proteins, or amino acids can make it to our muscle cells is by their first being a spike of the hormone insulin from our pancreas.  Insulin is our storage hormone, it sends amino’s and carbs to our muscle cells. This is for energy and recovery, and excess carbs, and fats will be stored in our fat cells.

So, should we consume carbs with protein or BCAAs? No! Though carbs can be much needed for energy, it is now understood that the amino acid Leucine is the only amino acid capable of producing its own insulin spike. We understand that our bodies are always more sensitive to insulin when we’ve had longer breaks from it. This is where many develop insulin resistance or type II diabetes by snacking too often, constantly spiking insulin and becoming more and more resistant to it.

So knowing all of this, why would you continually sip on aminos for the duration of your work out, and risk them not being as affective because of constant small spikes of insulin? It’s best to take your BCAA’s at least 15 minutes prior to your work out. One study done by injecting BCAAs into athletes determined that this created muscle fullness for two hours. So you see if you just take the whole serving in one shot, your muscle damage is pretty much covered for the next two hours of whatever you can throw at it.  

After your workout it is always good to have one more serving (because digestion isn’t an issue this does not need to happen immediately). As long as you have BCAAs before and after, you have pretty much created the best scenario to optimize the whole muscle break down and repair process.

Do Different Brands Matter?

As long as what you are purchasing is made in the USA, quality control should be on point, but some brands tend to be a bit more comprehensive. Body Fuse, Nutrakey, and Motiv-8 are brands that all make a good amino complex that not only supply us with BCAAs, but have other things added to them such as proper levels of sodium, potassium, and magnesium, to aid in proper hydration. Body fuse also has a good amount of vitamin C in theirs and a little bit of glutamine is in these as well to help go the extra mile.

BCAA’s work. Let’s get them in, and go hard!

Article by John Rodriguez: Manager of Nutrition Zone Point Loma San Diego. Owner of Fit Life Nutrition & Fitness, studies Nutrition and Exercise Science at Mesa College.