Whether you are a competitive bodybuilder, a physique competitor, or just someone who likes to look lean and mean at the beach, one thing is for certain—you have trained and dieted to get ripped. The unfortunate thing about dieting (beyond feeling hungry) is that it requires caloric restriction, which can promote catabolism (muscle break down) and undermine your muscularity and strength gains.
Fortunately, supplement scientists toil to find safe and natural compounds that blunt catabolism even while training under caloric restriction. Believe it or not, branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) may be the perfect tool for this ever-important job. The BCAAs are the essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine. Of the nine essential amino acids, BCAAs are key players in anabolism and energy metabolism and, although BCAAs make up a great proportion of the amino acid content in skeletal muscle, they are readily broken down (catabolized) during exercise and caloric restriction. However, current research clearly shows that supplemental BCAAs not only provide food for muscles, but also act as important “molecular switches” that turn on anabolism, blunt catabolism, and enhance recovery.
A recent study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition investigated the effectiveness of BCAA supplementation during 8 weeks of “cutting” and heavy bodybuilding-style weight training. Resistance trained male volunteers (aged 21-28 years old) were randomized to either a BCAA or carbohydrate based drink group, given a bodybuilding weight-training program (4 day split), and prescribed a hypocaloric diet to be followed for 8 weeks. Volunteers were instructed to take 1 serving (112 calories, containing either 14 g of BCAAs or 14 g of carbohydrate) of their assigned supplement prior to and following their workouts. At the end of 8 weeks, it was reported that those who received the BCAA supplement maintained their body mass due to a 1.3lb reduction in fat mass and about a 1 lb gain of lean mass. As well, those who took BCAAs saw improvements in 3-RM squat and bench press strength. In contrast, those who took the carb-based supplement lost overall body mass, mainly due to a catabolic loss of 1.98 lbs of lean mass—translating to a small increase in 3-RM squat strength and a significant decrease in bench press strength versus the BCAA condition. The authors concluded that, those who participate in heavy resistance training, while dieting, can maintain lean mass and muscular performance by utilizing a BCAA product pre and postworkout.
ACTION POINT: Although this study promotes BCAA use during dieting, we recommend including a BCAA supplement as a regular addition to your regimen (to protect your hard earned muscle mass and augment your muscle building efforts). The BCAA product you choose should have at least twice as much leucine as the other aminos. Take 5-10 g of BCAAs upon waking, again 30 minutes pre-workout and immediately after training.
Dudgeon WD, Kelley EP, Scheett TP. In a single-blind, matched group design: branched-chain amino acid supplementation and resistance training maintains lean body mass during a caloric restricted diet. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2016 Jan 5;13:1