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February 09, 2022
Amino acids are one of the best, and probably most under rated, performance supplements. When we think of supplements, we probably think of pre- and post-workouts, creatine, and protein powders. The first three have variable responses on exercise performance, and protein is…well, protein. Enter amino acids, specifically essential amino acids (EAA’s) and branched chain amino acids (BCAA’s).
EAA’s and BCAA’s, while likely not at the top of your list of supplements, share a reputation among bodybuilders as top shelf supplements. Both are known to promote muscle hypertrophy and recovery. BCAA’s are probably the more popular supplement, but EAA’s have gained attention for their superior benefits on exercise performance.
Interestingly, BCAA’s are actually essential which begs the question “Which is better – EAA’s or BCAA’s?”.
In this article, we’ll talk about the difference between supplemental EAA’s and BCAA’s. It will describe what they do, why they’re important, and how much you should take, and, of course, which you should take. Keep reading for more.
Amino acids, as we all (hopefully) know, are the building blocks of all proteins. Amino acids contain nitrogen, which is the critical component that drives protein synthesis. All proteins are made up of a specific number and combination of amino acids. There is a lot of chemistry behind the ‘why’ here, so we’ll skip it, but suffice it to say, amino acids are critical.
Muscles, and many other structural tissues of the body, are made up of protein. Some proteins are purely structural, like the lens of your eye; while others are functional, like actin, which is responsible for muscle contraction.
There are twenty distinct amino acids, and they can separated into three distinct groups:
Essential amino acids are so named as the body cannot make them on its own, so they must be supplied by the diet. Branched-chain amino acids are named for the distinct branch-like structure they share, which sets them apart from other the other essential amino acids. Technically, BCAA’s are essential, so they are usually lumped together.
The EAA vs BCAA distinction is more commonly discussed in the fitness industry...
There are 9 total EAA's, of which 3 are BCAA's.
Below are the 9 EAA’s (which include BCAA’s):
The best sources of EAA’s (and BCAA’s) are fish, red meats, eggs, dairy products, and soy-based products.
Both EAA’s and BCAA’s are revered in the fitness industry because of their role in protein synthesis and boosting performance. In fact, EAA’s regulate how efficiently your body uses and turns over protein.
Let’s explore this concept...
The body is constantly making and degrading proteins – this is called protein turnover – and it is dependent entirely on the type and quantity of amino acids available. The body doesn’t store free amino acids, but it can breakdown tissue, like muscle, to access them. But muscles only provide some of the amino acids needed for protein synthesis; the rest must come from the diet.
Dietary protein is important because it contains all the amino acids you need in the correct proportions, especially EAA’s and BCAA’s. Which is what is needed to really fuel protein synthesis.
This is why supplemental EAA’s and BCAA’s are considered so important: not only do they contribute to the supply of amino acids the body can use, but they directly stimulate protein synthesis, which is especially important when trying to improve athletic performance. When the supply of EAA’s and BCAA’s is limited, protein synthesis is limited. This means the body will struggle to keep up with its protein demands, which contributes to poor, or absent, gains in the gym.
The key takeaway here is that protein synthesis is governed by the types and amounts of amino acids available. If you want to maximize athletic performance (muscle hypertrophy) you need to increase protein synthesis. Dietary protein, or protein supplements, are probably the best way to supply the body with much needed protein. But, not all proteins EAA’s and BCAA’s both can help do this.
Let’s move on and compare EAA’s and BCAA’s, and determine which is actually better for enhancing gains.
All BCAA’s are EAA’s, but not all EAA’s are BCAA’s.
In other words, BCAAs, of which there are 3, are part of the 9 essential amino acids.
Get it? Good.
This is especially true in the world of amino acid supplements. Currently, you can find a tub of either in powder form at virtually health store. If you look at the label on your favorite protein powder, you’ll find all these AA’s named.
So why bother?
Well, it has to do with availability and effects. Amino acids are metabolized at different rates when taken alone or as part of a protein supplement, thus they impact muscle growth differently. Let’s take a look.
Remember, the BCAA’s are valine, isoleucine, and leucine, and they all contain a unique branch structure. If you’re hardcore into working out, especially bodybuilding, no doubt you’ve heard of or used BCAA supplements. In fact, prevailing ‘bro-science’ wisdom would suggest that BCAA’s were as important to gains as say, creatine, or even whey protein. Now, credit where credit is due: BCAA’s were (and still are), a crucial link to extra gains.
Here is how BCAA’s promote muscle development.
Dosage and Timing of BCAA’s:
When you take your BCAA’s may determine how effective they are. The research on the proper dosage varies from 5g to 10g, but higher doses don’t really contribute to extra gains. Stick to the 5g serving, or follow the instructions on your favorite supplement.
As for timing, during and post-workout seem to be the best bet. You can load your muscles with much needed amino acids that will help augment the use of glucose, and prime muscles for recovery.
Food Sources of BCAA’s:
If you don’t want to take BCAA supplements, you can find a sufficient amount in any complete protein – eggs, beef, soy, dairy.
Should I Take BCAA’s With Other Supplements?
Yes. You can take BCAA’s alone before or during a workout, even between meals, but BCAA’s are only part of the equation when it comes to building muscle. When taken with whey protein powders, BCAAs are more effective than when taken alone. While muscles are responsive to BCAA’s, they need a source of whole protein. If you’re into pre-workouts, read this article on BCAA’s and pre-workout supplements.
In summary, BCAA’s provide some of the most important amino acids in terms of muscle development. Their benefits have been shown over and over, and are known intimately in the gym. But, BCAA’s are more effective when taken with or as part of an EAA supplement. While they have a direct effect on muscle metabolism, BCAA’s rely on the other essential aminos to support protein synthesis. This is why EAA supplements have been gaining popularity over BCAA’s.
There are nine essential amino acids, and BCAA’s make up three of them. In terms of their benefits, EAA’s provide all the benefits of BCAA supplements, and then some. Any complete protein will contain the full complement of EAA’s in their proper proportions, meaning their use is not limited by the absence of one or more amino acids, as is the case with BCAA’s.
Here are the major benefits of EAA supplements, compared to BCAA’s alone.
Dosage and Timing:
As with BCAA’s, and many other supplements, timing and dosage matter for EAA’s. Regarding dosage - 10g – 20g per serving is probably all you need. This is likely what you’ll find with most EAA supplements. Some may approach 30g or even more, and this is fine, but 20g is probably as much as you’ll need to take.
As for timing, it matters with EAA’s. Traditional wisdom – and research – suggests during and immediately after a workout are ideal. We wouldn’t recommend taking EAA’s during a workout and them immediately after (including as part of a protein supplement). Research suggests that the protein synthesis stimulated by EAA’s lasts 1-2 hours; so doubling up on doses doesn’t equal double the effect.
Here’s a better strategy: take your whey protein or EAA’s after your workout, which is really the best thing you can do. Then, have a serving of EAA’s with your next meal, between 2-3 hours later. This saturates the muscles with EAA’s, and turns on muscle protein synthesis again. Don’t overdo it though – your body can make only so much protein, and it can’t effectively store excess aminos.
You can find EAA’s in high amounts in the same foods where you’ll find BCAA’s. The foods with the highest concentrations of EAA’s are:
Plant based sources
These are also complete proteins, meaning they all contain ALL the EAA’s in the ideal amounts. This is a critical factor when it comes to protein and amino acids – your body thrives on complete proteins. If you eat a balanced diet, you are likely consuming enough EAA’s. If you prefer more plant based foods (everyone could use more fiber!) read this article for information on plant based proteins. If you prefer food (specifically plant) sources, the above are great, but any combination of rice, wheats, nuts and legumes will provide the full spectrum of EAA’s, so hopefully you like trail mix!
Should I Take EAA’s With Other Supplements?
You can, but it’s not necessary. Pre-workouts and creatine supplements will definitely boost performance beyond what EAA’s can do, but in different ways. And it’s hard to say to what degree. Plus, you need EAA’s; you don’t need pre-workouts.
If you do take a supplement with EAA’s, take a protein powder. Remember, protein powders provide whole protein and the full complement of EAA’s. EAA’s can boost muscle protein synthesis, but they can’t replace the energy that protein powders provide, especially during calorie restriction. Still, EAA’s can help preserve muscle mass when dieting, especially in combination with a protein powder.
In summary, EAA’s provide the 9 essential amino acids your body can’t make, including the 3 BCAA’s. What’s not to love? EAA’s increase muscle hypertrophy, reduce muscle damage, and speed up recovery. They have the same effects on overall muscle development as BCAA’s, but are superior. EAA’s saturate the muscles longer, and stimulate protein synthesis to a greater degree.
If you’re going to take either, take EAA’s. EAA’s include the BCAA’s, and the other aminos your body needs. So it's not even a matter of being better, but being more complete and what the body needs.
That said, EAAs may not even be necessary for you if you are eating enough protein from sources like meat, whey and certain complete vegan protein sources. By complete, we mean containing all 9 essential amino acids, as meat and whey protein does.
Where EAAs make the most sense is when you are restricting calories (such as during a cut for bodybuilders). You won't be consuming enough protein and thus EAAs yet you will still be training hard. Enter EAAs.
All in all, if we had to look at supplements from a greater and lesser need perspective, it would be as follows: Whey > EAAs > BCAAs.
To sum this all up, let’s start from the beginning:
If you need a recommendation for your next trip to the health store, go with EAA’s. They will provide all the amino acids needed to optimize protein synthesis. They get along well with other supplements, and they’re literally needed by the body. They are the next best thing to protein powders, particularly when you’re restricting calories.
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Enjoy your new favorite supplement, and don’t forget to add on a few reps.
(1) Shimomura, Y.; Yamamoto, Y.; Bajotto, G.; Sato, J.; Murakami, T.; Shimomura, N.; Kobayashi, H.; Mawatari, K. Nutraceutical Effects of Branched-Chain Amino Acids on Skeletal Muscle. J. Nutr. 2006, 136 (2), 529S-532S. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/136.2.529S.
(2) Bloomgarden, Z. Diabetes and Branched-Chain Amino Acids: What Is the Link? J. Diabetes 2018, 10 (5), 350–352. https://doi.org/10.1111/1753-0407.12645.
(3) Blomstrand, E.; Eliasson, J.; Karlsson, H. K. R.; Köhnke, R. Branched-Chain Amino Acids Activate Key Enzymes in Protein Synthesis after Physical Exercise. J. Nutr. 2006, 136 (1 Suppl), 269S-73S. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/136.1.269S.
(4) Hulmi, J. J.; Lockwood, C. M.; Stout, J. R. Effect of Protein/Essential Amino Acids and Resistance Training on Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy: A Case for Whey Protein. Nutr. Metab. 2010, 7 (1), 51. https://doi.org/10.1186/1743-7075-7-51.
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