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Fact checked by Andrew Lenau, ISSA CPT & Sports NutritionistFACT CHECKED
Updated On: March 06, 2023
BCAA and creatine are two of the top supplements on the market today. And by “top” I simply mean that they are two of the most purchased supplements. However, only one of them really deserves all of the hype. In this article, we’re going to talk about creatine and BCAA and which one you should take.
One thing to keep in mind when talking about supplements is that everything is not as it appears. The supplement industry is an “industry” that makes money off of supplements. This simply means that raising their profits is the number one goal and they will sell people anything, with or without evidence to back up their claims. Further, if they can get their hands on some sort of “evidence”, it will be manipulated and twisted to say things that aren’t really true. So, when you see ads in magazines or on TV, keep in mind that just because some jacked guy is selling it, it could still be totally worthless.
Well, the good news is that when it comes to BCAAs and creatine, neither is “totally worthless,” but one is definitely better than the other at improving your performance in the gym. So now, let’s look at what creatine and BCAAs are and how they can improve your performance.
Creatine is a non-proteinogenic amino acid that is naturally found in our bodies at all times. This would be the first major misconception about creatine, as some people seem to think it’s a foreign substance. Again, creatine is 100% natural as we MUST have creatine in our bodies for optimal function. In fact, we already consume creatine as most of our stores come from our diet, while the rest is synthesized within our bodies from other amino acids.
The vast majority of creatine is stored within our muscles as it is used by the metabolic system known as the phosphagen system, which produces adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, during very intense events of short duration. ATP provides the energy required for every muscle contraction; it's the true fuel that keeps us going. Therefore, our creatine stores help to provide energy for activities that are very short in duration and of high intensity, such as weightlifting or sprints. In other words, creatine helps fuel more intense workout sessions.
However, depending on our diet, our creatine stores are only at about 60-80% full at any given moment. Therefore, when we supplement with creatine, we are just topping off these stores and filling them up to 100%. What this does is it gives us a little bit more energy to knock out more work by getting one or two more reps or perhaps adding an extra 2.5lb plate to our bench. This extra work then translates into more strength gains, resulting in weight gain in the form of added muscle mass.
In the past few years, many different versions of creatine have been manufactured with the claims of offering more benefits. Most of these are either exaggerated or entirely false and we would recommend that you go with good ol’ creatine monohydrate.
Protein, EAAs and BCAAs are related as they are all just different combinations of amino acids. It is made up of 21 amino acids when it comes to protein. These amino acids come in various combinations and quantities, depending on the source. Regardless, nine of these amino acids are considered essential amino acids; our EAAs. The “essential” means that we must consume them through our diet as they can not be synthesized in our bodies as the other amino acids can. In other words, if we don’t eat them, we don’t have any.
So then, from these nine essential amino acids, three of them are called the branch chained amino acids, otherwise known as our BCAAs.
The three BCAAs are:
These three amino acids are especially important as they play the most significant role in muscle protein synthesis, especially leucine. In fact, one of the reasons whey protein is often considered the top source of protein is due to its very high levels of leucine. Therefore, their pivotal role in muscle protein synthesis and muscle recovery is the very reason why they have been touted to be such an important supplement to take. While that’s not entirely false, as with everything, there’s a bit of nuance involved.
When it comes to creatine, it 100% without a doubt works. In fact, creatine is the most well-researched supplement and the most effective. Within the fitness industry, creatine is one of few things that “guarantees” success.
There are literal 100’s of studies of creatine that show its effectiveness. However, there’s one catch. You need to put in the work to see the results. In other words, creatine gives you the energy to put in the extra work that will provide you with the results. And if you put in the work, you’ll definitely see your body change.
Taken from the International Society of Sports Nutrition, here are just a few of the benefits trainees receive after taking creatine when on a structured resistance training program:
So, in short, creatine 100% works and it’s one of the few supplements we feel confident enough to recommend for the majority of lifters to buy it. It just works. And there's no need to worry about what happens when you stop taking creatine, as it's very likely that if you continue training your hard, your gains will remain.
As hinted at above, BCAAs may work but not as well as the advertisements would have you believe. And again, there’s nuance. BCAAS are 100% definitely crucial in promoting muscle protein synthesis without a doubt. However, while they are most important, the other 6 essential amino acids also optimize the effect. In other words, BCAAs work awesome, assuming they are in the presence of the remaining amino acids.
While BCAAs were promoted by sports researchers in the past, new studies have shown that EAAs are a better option between the two. While there may be some benefit to BCAAs, the latest research seems to suggest that if you are going to go the amino acid route, your best bet is to snag some EAAS.
Also, keep in mind that there are some other factors that can play a role in determining how effective these are. Perhaps the most critical factor is your overall protein intake. If you are eating a sufficient amount of protein throughout the day, the need for BCAAs or EAAs drastically reduces. If you’re having trouble getting all of your protein in, the easiest solution is to use a protein powder.
Further, the type of training is going to play a large factor in if and when to take BCAAs. If you are going and performing a basic 45-minute workout class, BCAAs again become less of a factor. However, if you’re going hard for a prolonged period of time, having that extra BCAAs could then become a bona fide benefit.
The third variable to consider would be your food timing. If you workout fasted, or it’s just been more than a few hours before you last ate, having the BCCAs could be beneficial as, again, one advantage BCAAs have is that they’re extremely easy to digest. This means the amino acids get into your bloodstream faster and delivered to your muscles.
Finally, the last variable to consider would be to look at your diet, specifically if you’re a vegan or not. The one issue vegans may find is that it’s harder for them to consume higher amounts of protein, meaning the extra amino acids may be more beneficial. Again, the main reason is that your BCAAs are the primary amino acids responsible for muscle protein synthesis, and if you aren’t getting sufficient amounts, the extra supply could help.
However, at the end of the day, your average trainee probably doesn’t really need BCAAs if they’re eating the required amount of protein and aren’t engaged in excessive training.
As you can see from above, BCAAs and creatine are actually significantly different in their structure, effectiveness, and purpose.
BCAAs might be able to help increase your muscle protein synthesis after a workout while creatine supplies more ATP to allow you to do more work in the gym. Creatine works chronically, meaning that you’re required to take it every day in order to keep your creatine stores high. On the other hand, BCAAs can be taken on the days you need. Last, there are enough studies to back up creatine that we can say you have a 99% chance of seeing an improvement. Not so much with the BCAAs.
So looking at the above information, which one should you take? While BCAAs might be of some advantage, creatine definitely is. So if you are looking at improving your performance in the gym but can only take one supplement, without a doubt, you should be buying creatine. In fact, that goes for any other sports supplement. As mentioned, creatine is the most effective ergogenic aid there is, so you should definitely start there.
As creatine is actually pretty inexpensive, you might find that you have some extra money laying around. If this is you and you know the reality of the effectiveness of BCAAs, then you should check out post that covers the Best BCAA Supplements on the market. Again, it’s not going to hurt you, and it might help, especially if you fall under one of the exceptional cases above.
But, at the end of the day, creatine should always be your priority over BCAAs.
The biggest flaw with this question is to assume that you can only take on one or the other. As they work by entirely different mechanisms, it’s perfectly acceptable to take creatine and BCAAs at the same time. In fact, when you take creatine, you should consume plenty of water, so since you’ll be drinking a lot with your BCAAs, you can actually mix creatine with your BCAAS.
It doesn’t really matter when you take your creatine in terms of nutrient timing. Morning, afternoon, post-workout; the timing doesn’t really have an effect on it’s effectiveness. Remember that when you take creatine, you are basically just consistently keeping your stores high, so the timing doesn’t really matter as consistency is the real key (you can read more about creatine timing here). However, when it comes to BCAAs, they are generally taken either as an intra-workout or post-workout drink. Therefore, you can just “kill two birds with one stone” and mix them up together. Plus, BCAAs usually taste great, making you more likely to drink more liquid!
There’s a saying that goes, “Don’t try to major in the minors.” Basically, this is referring to people who neglect to address the significant issues and instead spend their time and energy worrying about the small stuff. In the case of sports nutrition, the minors would supplement. So what should you be majoring in? Well, actually, a few things.
Your Nutrition. Are you hitting your macros? Eating an appropriate amount of calories? Getting enough hydration? If these are out of whack, any supplement will have little effect. Here are some food plans to help you out:
Your Programming. Remember, the supplements only work if you put in the work and put in work correctly. This means using a structured program with progressive overload. Here are programs to help you get started if needed:
Your Sleep And Recovery. Getting adequate amounts of sleep is one of the most effective things you can do to improve your muscle growth and strength gains, and you don’t even have to actually do anything! You just sleep! Even creatine won’t help if you’re only getting 3 hours of sleep every night.
It’s vital that you have the three fundamentals above in check before you start worrying about any type of supplementation. Remember, supplements are there to “supplement” your training; they are not the base of your workout.
While we don’t like the word “better” as these two supplements work completely differently, as mentioned above, we would have to say that creatine is better. Creatine has all of the studies to back up claims, and more importantly, it has very little pushback from anyone. Well, there are always haters out there, but any claim against creatine has been debunked (we’ll save that for another article!). On the other hand, BCAAs has gotten some negative feedback concerning its effectiveness over the past couple of years. While we don’t think that’s entirely fair as it could offer some benefits, it’s enough to make us wary of recommending it to our readers. In other words, creatine for the win!
Related: Best Creatine on the Market
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February 20, 2024
February 20, 2024
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