December 18, 2021
Going to the gym should be easy, but thanks to the billion-dollar supplement industry, they do their best to make it as confusing as possible. 20 years ago, "workout supplements" were barely even a thing to consider. When you walked into a GNC you'd have some protein powders and maybe some fish oil or vitamins to choose from. Oh, the simpler times. Now, "BCAA vs Pre-Workout?" is just one of the dozens of choices you need to make when deciding how you're going to increase the effectiveness of your workout.
What makes this even more confusing is that BCAAs and Pre-Workout are two of the most popular supplements on the market, so there are many options. That's why we wrote this article to make things easy, as they should be. Should you take BCAA or Pre-Workout? Once you wade through the marketing, the answer is easy.
In this article, you'll learn:
Before we can even start talking about the whole BCSS vs Pre-workout dilemma, we'll break down what these compounds actually are. Let's begin with BCAAs.
BCAA's stand for "B"ranched "C"hain "A"mino "A"cids. This probably doesn't help a lot as you're probably thinking, "What the hell are "branched chains?" and "What the hell are amino acids?". Glad you asked.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. In fact, the term "protein" basically just designates that at least one chain of at least 50 amino acids, known as a polypeptide, exists in its structure. Other smaller chains of amino acids exist, such as a peptide which consists of the link of 20-30 amino acids.
So for all intents and purposes, the term "protein" just means a bunch of amino acids chained together. These chains can consist of different combinations of the 21 amino acids that exist. In fact, the availability and need of these amino acids are what separates the 21 amino acids into 3 sub-groups.
Non-Essential Amino Acids
There are 6 amino acids that are known as non-essential amino acids. These are amino acids that your body synthesizes within the body in sufficient amounts so that you never need to consume them from your diet. These non-essential amino acids are:
That's why you rarely ever hear of these at the local supplement store because your body has enough. And if you do see these being sold, DO NOT buy them as your body has enough again.
Conditionally Essential Amino Acids
There are also 6 amino acids known as conditionally essential amino acids. These are amino acids that are also synthesized within your body, and your body generally has enough under normal circumstances. However, consuming more through your diet could be advantageous under certain "conditions" (get it?). For example, some conditions could include times of sickness or increased stress. These amino acids include:
You probably noticed glutamine which is why there is confusion about the need for exogenous supplementation. While it does help with repair and recovery, studies show that a surplus of glutamine doesn't increase its effectiveness.
Essential Amino Acids (EAAs)
Lastly, your body has 9 essential amino acids (EAAs). To reach optimal levels, these are the amino acids that you MUST consume in your diet. The 9 EEAs include:
These 9 EAAs are what is needed to build muscle. In fact, a quantity of EAAs is what differentiates animal protein and plant protein, as most plant sources of protein lack one or more of the 9 EAAs.
Anyways, these are important as this is where you'll also find your three BCAAs. They are:
They are called "branched-chain" due to their molecular structure as they contain a "branch," which is a central carbon atom bound to three or more carbon atoms.
However, they are so important because these three amino acids are the primary amino acids responsible for muscle protein synthesis, specifically leucine (this is why you sometimes see leucine sold separately as its own supplement.). Their role in muscle protein synthesis is what makes them so popular as trainees believe that if they can increase their BCAA levels, they will improve muscle protein synthesis. There are also other benefits attached to BCAA supplementation, including:
"Pre-workout" is a much more nuanced topic as a pre-workout can be anything that you take before your workout with the belief that it will increase your performance. Generally, they will include some sort of stimulant or nitrous oxide booster to improve mood and workload. In fact, a lot of pre-workouts will even add BCAAs to help sell their product. Therefore, it's impossible to break down a specific pre-workout, but the most common ingredients found in a pre-workout are:
Again, there are so many it's impossible to list them all. Well, it's not impossible, but it would take a really long time and be of little benefit as pre-workouts all have the same intent; improve your workout. However, as mentioned, we'll look at "pre-workout" from the viewpoint that you're looking at something to get hyped for your next workout session.
Now that we know what BCAAs are and their intent, do they work? Unfortunately, despite their widespread use and fancy marketing, taking BCAAs doesn't seem to offer any extra benefit under normal conditions (we'll get to that below).
While the 3 three amino acids really are the primary compounds responsible for increasing muscle protein synthesis, studies have shown that's not enough to drive muscle growth. It seems that all 9 essential amino acids are necessary for muscle growth and that taking EAAs is always superior to taking BCAAs.
Further, since we now know that bolus protein is simply a long chain of amino acids, even taking EAAs doesn't seem to provide benefits during the time of sufficient protein consumption. The only place where this may come in handy is during prolonged events or when working out fasted. Still, some studies even show this to be obsolete, and its effectiveness can be highly dependent on the individual.
All this considered, new research has shown that BCAAs don't really provide benefits and have been taken off the "effective supplements" by ISSN, the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
Special Conditions Where BCAA Can Provide A Benefit
As a general rule, you're better off taking EAAs as they have had more consistent results in the lab showing efficacy. However, there are times where BCAAs may provide a benefit.
Still, even during these particular conditions, you'd be better off just eating whole protein or EAAs. In other words, BCAAs really have no purpose.
Perhaps the only benefit of consuming BCAAs is that they taste good. If you find drinking water all day to be "bleh" and sports drinks are too sweet, BCAAs actually taste pretty good and can encourage hydration. They are relatively cheap and when you consider everything, it may actually be a valid reason for purchasing for many people. Plus, many brands will now include other compounds such as electrolytes which is fantastic for hydration.
And to be very clear, having extra BCAAs isn't going to hurt you. Well, even that isn't entirely true as it can affect your amino acid uptake. Regardless, as long as you're not drinking copious amounts of BCAAs, you're good to go.
Generally speaking, pre-workouts work. This obviously depends on the ingredients that the specific pre-workout uses. For example, energy drinks such as Bang quickly become the preferred pre-workout for many people. Further, studies show that they produce generally favorable results during workouts. These drinks work typically due to the large amounts of caffeine found in them. These energy drinks contain typically around 300mg of caffeine per can which is a generous portion. Therefore, caffeine is one of the primary ingredients you want to see in your pre-workout.
Nitrous oxide boosters are another highly effective ingredient found in pre-workouts. For example, a study found favorable results with 28 days of resistance training and the pre-workout drink NO-Shotgun use.
Other common ingredients are various muscle buffers such as beta-alanine and sodium bicarbonate. Again, both of these ingredients are extremely beneficial at producing favorable results in the gym. However, one thing to consider is that some muscle buffers, such as beta- alanine, require chronic use to elevate the body's levels before you see a favorable effect. While this is fine, you'd want to still incorporate some consumption on days you don't consume an energy drink.
Another popular addition to pre-workouts is creatine. Creatine alone is the most well-established ingredient on the market. It is universally agreed upon as being the most effective. There is no question with this. However, it seems that the timing of creatine does not seem to affect its benefits. Again, this stems from the fact that creatine works from chronic use rather than acutely. This too, is not a big deal, but the creatine found in energy drinks is often under-dosed, so be sure you consume at least 5g of creatine daily to receive its benefits.
As mentioned above, many of these energy drinks will incorporate an entire list of ingredients, including BCAAs or EAAs. Honestly speaking, a good portion of these added ingredients are put in there to increase the pricing to make it seem it has a superior product while giving no benefit other than a possible placebo effect.
All in all, pre-workouts definitely work but be mindful of flashy advertising and exaggerated claims. And always remember, pre-workouts only work if you put out the extra effort.
The main difference is that BCAAs are a specific compound while pre-workout is any random combination of different compounds with the intent of improving your performance. Therefore, it’s hard to even compare the two as one is specific (BCAA) while the other is an umbrella term (pre-workout)
So the real question is which is better for training? What's going to produce more gains in the gym? Without a doubt, that title goes to using a pre-workout. As seen above, BCAAs don't quite live up to the supplement industry's hype on them. Further, many pre-workouts actually contain BCAAs or EEAs anyway, which would get a bit redundant.
Regardless, pre-workouts is an umbrella term that covers a host of supplements, some being better than others. Therefore, keep an eye out for the ingredients mentioned above, and you'll be ok.
When it comes to discovering if you should be using BCAA or pre-workout before your drink, you've seen that this designation falls firmly on the side of pre-workouts. You also may need to experiment some and find what ingredients tend to assist with a better workout. For example, many trainees will discover that caffeine is the main ingredient they like and will eventually just start to drink strong coffee or use caffeine pills as a pre-workout. Everyone is different so take some time to discover what works for you.
Whatever you decide, be sure to buy from a brand that uses 3rd party testing. This should be easy to find out as it is often part of their marketing plan. Regardless, this will assure you that you are drinking what you think you are drinking.
With that being said. ALWAYS push it in the gym, and you will see progression. All supplements work by providing you with the energy you need to push out more work or provide you with enhanced physiological processes to heal faster after muscle damage. Either one requires you to work harder. Further, if your sleep or nutrition is out of whack, that should be your first concern before stressing out about using BCAA or a pre-workout for training.
All that being said, use the pre-workout for gains!
Related: Best Pre-Workouts on the Market
Here are some answers to frequently asked questions concerning these two supplements:
1. Can you take pre-workout and bcaa together?
Absolutely. As mentioned above, BCAAs are common ingredients in pre-workouts so there’s a good chance your pre-workout already has BCAA in it.
2. BCAA vs pre-workout for weight loss?
Neither of these supplements are really applicable to “weight-loss”. However, you could find benefits for each one that could help with body recomposition or cutting. For example, having a good pre-workout can result in a more intense workout which could mean more calories burned. On the other hand, extra amino acids may mitigate muscle loss. However, you should always control your body weight with your diet.
3. When to take BCAA and pre-workout?
Generally speaking, the majority of these supplements will have you consume the drink approximately 30 minutes before working out. This is because many of the ingredients require 30 minutes to be fully absorbed in the body and produce effects. Still, one common practice is to also consume either or during your workout as well.
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