BCAA vs Pre-Workout

Which supplement is best before the gym?

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTUpdated: June 16, 2023

To enhance your performance and optimize your workout results, taking supplements beforehand can be beneficial. However, it can be challenging to determine which supplements are ideal for your gym routine.

Two common options are BCAA and pre-workout powders. This article aims to compare the advantages and disadvantages of BCAA vs. pre-workout and aid you in deciding which one is more suitable for you.

BCAA vs Pre-Workout

What Are BCAAs vs Pre-Workout?

To begin, let’s establish the definitions of these supplements. This will ensure a common understanding before comparing their respective functions and potential applications.

What Are BCAAs?

Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a unique group of three amino acids with a branched molecular structure. Leucine, isoleucine, and valine are the three BCAAs that comprise 40% of the proteins in our muscle tissue.

These amino acids are essential for building muscle, which makes them a popular supplement among bodybuilders. You can also get BCCAs in high-protein foods such as meat, legumes, nuts, and protein powders.

However, it might take hours for the BCAAs to reach your bloodstream. On the other hand, BCAA supplements enter your bloodstream immediately and peak at around 30 minutes1.

In the chart below, you can see how taking a supplement is like getting BCAAs on demand. So you can get muscle-building amino acids in your bloodstream exactly when you need them.

BCAA vs Pre-Workout Amino Acid Absorption Rate

What Is Pre-Workout?

Pre-workout supplements contain multiple ingredients and are designed to be consumed about 30 minutes prior to resistance training to boost energy levels and performance.

These supplements typically include stimulants and certain compounds that aid in improving blood flow and preventing exhaustion. The most frequently used elements in pre-workouts are caffeine, l-arginine (or l-citrulline), and beta-alanine.

BCAA vs Pre-Workout Function

Next, let’s get into more detail about what BCAAs and pre-workout supplements do in your body after taking them. This information will help you form a clearer picture of which is better based on your fitness goals.

What Do BCAAs Do?

The primary function of BCAA supplements is to increase the available pool of muscle-building amino acids. In this way, BCAAs work similarly to protein supplements or high-protein foods to provide the building blocks for muscle growth.

When you exercise, your body starts to break down BCAAs found in muscles to support various energy pathways2. Therefore, you require more BCAAs when you work out regularly.

Studies show that supplementing with BCAAs before exercise reduces muscle protein breakdown3. In addition, taking BCAAs before a workout has been shown to increase protein synthesis after your workout1.

Lastly, studies also suggest that taking BCAAs, specifically before a workout, helps to reduce muscle soreness later on4,5.

However, it’s important to note that BCAAs do not directly improve energy or performance. And they do not include all the essential amino acids in complete proteins.

BCAA vs Pre-Workout Muscle Protein Breakdown

What Does Pre-Workout Do?

The primary function of pre-workout supplements is to increase energy and delay fatigue. They do not directly influence muscle growth but allow more intense workouts, which could translate into gains.

As a multi-ingredient supplement, each component serves a different function. So let’s look at the individual pre-workout ingredients and what they do.

Caffeine For Energy

Caffeine binds to adenosine receptors in the brain to block fatigue signals. As a result, you feel more energized and focused.

This is helpful during a workout because it can improve your stamina6. In addition, studies suggest that caffeine positively affects your metabolic rate, promoting fat loss7.

A typical dosage is 150 to 250 mg, but you should adjust this based on your body size and tolerance.

L-Arginine Or L-Citrulline For Blood Flow

L-arginine is an amino acid that relaxes blood vessels and allows more blood to pass through. This temporary vascularity and muscle volume increase are called “the pump.”

With increased blood flow, more oxygen and nutrients get into the muscles. And that can enhance recovery and growth. For resistance training workouts, 5 grams is a suitable dosage.

L-citrulline works with arginine to extend the pump, allowing more strenuous training sessions, faster recovery, and potentially more significant muscle gain. The recommended dosage of citrulline is 2-6 grams.

Beta-Alanine For Performance

Beta-alanine delays fatigue by buffering the pH levels in the presence of lactic acid. This allows longer, more intense training sessions.

A meta-analysis showed that people supplementing with beta-alanine significantly increased their exercise capacity9. That is, the amount of time they could work before getting fatigued.

An effective dose of beta-alanine is 2-3 grams.

Beta Alanine Exercise Capacity
Other Ingredients

Another common pre-workout ingredient is creatine. Before a workout, creatine provides immediate fuel for ATP production. A standard dosage of creatine is 5 grams per serving.

Related: Creatine Dose Calculator by Bodyweight

A lot of pre-workouts will contain an array of other ingredients for energy and focus. But the ones listed here are the heavy lifters for improving your workouts.

BCAA vs Pre-Workout Pros & Cons

As a quick review, I’ve compiled a bullet list of the advantages and disadvantages of BCAAs and pre-workout supplements. If you’re scanning through this article, this section summarizes everything I’ve talked about up to this point.

BCAA Pros & Cons

  • Absorbs almost immediately

  • Reduce muscle protein breakdown during exercise

  • Increase muscle protein synthesis after exercise

  • Reduce delayed muscle soreness after exercise

  • Lacking all the essential amino acids (EAAs) necessary to build muscle

  • Not a great source of energy

  • Does not directly improve performance

Pre-Workout Pros & Cons

  • Increase energy & boost metabolism

  • Improve blood flow & delivery of nutrients

  • Delay fatigue & train harder

  • Tastes good

  • Most don’t contain recommended dosage of key ingredients

  • Also contain excess stuff you don’t necessarily need or want

  • Might contain too much stimulant for you

BCAA vs Pre-Workout: Which Is Better

By now it should be clear that both BCAAs and pre-workout supplements have benefits for optimizing your workouts.

On one hand, BCAAs provide the building blocks for proteins. This means your body breaks down less muscle and has all the raw materials to build new muscle after your workout.

On the other hand, pre-workouts give you energy, stamina, and a killer pump. While this doesn’t build muscle directly, it boosts your workout intensity, which can lead to gains over time.

BCAA vs Pre-Workout Pinterest

When it comes to choosing between BCAA and pre-workout, it’s important to consider your workouts, goals, and nutrition. Rather than competing against each other, both options have their benefits depending on your individual needs. 

For those struggling with motivation and intensity during workouts, pre-workout may provide the boost you need. However, it’s important to note that pre-workout alone won’t burn fat or build muscle. 

On the other hand, if you’re already performing well during workouts, BCAAs may be a better option to aid in recovery and rebuilding, especially if you’re not consuming enough protein prior to exercising. 

Ideally, using both BCAAs and pre-workout can offer the best of both worlds, but this may not be feasible for everyone. Ultimately, the choice between the two should be based on your budget and fitness goals.

Choosing The Right BCAA vs Pre-Workout

If you’re ready to make a purchase, I recommend reading this section first to ensure you pick a supplement that’s worth your money and gives you the desired results!

A Good BCAA Supplement

There are a ton of BCAA supplements on the market, and picking one that meets your needs isn’t always easy. My recommendation is to avoid BCAA supplements with a lot of extra ingredients.

Single-ingredient BCAA supplements make it easier to avoid putting extra sugar, calories, or other unwanted ingredients in your body and to determine the optimal amount to take.

The studies referenced in this article used a dosage of 0.035 g/lb of body weight, which for most people will be between 4 and 8 grams, depending on body size.

I often use Nutricost Unflvored BCAAs with my pre- and post-workout shakes. This brand also has some tasty flavored options for a standalone drink.

BCAA vs Pre Workout Supplements

A Good Pre-Workout Supplement

Finding an excellent pre-workout supplement can be challenging since some manufacturers conceal ingredient quantities in a “proprietary blend” with a fancy name like “intensity matrix” and a milligram amount.

However, if the blend contains 5,000 milligrams, this is equivalent to 5 grams, which is insufficient as you need up to 6 grams of only l-arginine or citrulline. Therefore, these types of secret formulas should raise a red flag.

Instead, opt for pre-workout supplements that accurately display the amount of each ingredient on the label. Look for 150-250 mg of caffeine, approximately 5-6 grams of l-arginine (or l-citrulline), and 2-3 grams of beta-alanine.

My top pick is Nutricost pre-workout because it contains all these ingredients in effective amounts (with 300 mg of caffeine). But another good option is Pre JYM because it has proper dosages and contains BCAAs, so it’s an all-in-one solution!

Pre JYM BCAA Pre-Workout

More Supplement Information

Now you should have a good idea about whether BCAA vs pre-workout is the right supplement for you. Or perhaps you’re going to invest in both to reap multiple benefits simultaneously.

Whatever you decide, I recommend checking out some of these additional supplement articles to answer any remaining questions like:

Can You Get Addicted to Pre-Workout?

Is G Fuel Pre-Workout?

EAA vs BCAA: Which Is Better for Muscle Gain?

Can Pre-Workout Cause Anxiety?

7 Benefits of Putting Salt in Pre-Workout

Does Pre-Workout Cause Acne?

How Long Does It Take Pre-Workout to Kick In

7 Best Cheap Pre-Workout Supplements

If you’ve had enough supplements for one day, feel free to browse my other content below. You’ll find practical information on nutrition, workout tips, and bodybuilding news.

1) Jackman, Sarah R., et al. “Branched-chain amino acid ingestion stimulates muscle myofibrillar protein synthesis following resistance exercise in humans.” Frontiers in physiology 8 (2017): 390.
2) Shimomura, Yoshiharu, et al. “Exercise promotes BCAA catabolism: effects of BCAA supplementation on skeletal muscle during exercise.” The Journal of nutrition 134.6 (2004): 1583S-1587S.
3) MacLean, D. A., T. E. Graham, and B. Saltin. “Branched-chain amino acids augment ammonia metabolism while attenuating protein breakdown during exercise.” American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology And Metabolism 267.6 (1994): E1010-E1022.
4) Ra, Song-Gyu, et al. “Effect of BCAA supplement timing on exercise-induced muscle soreness and damage: a pilot placebo-controlled double-blind study.” The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness 58.11 (2017): 1582-1591.
5) Shimomura, Yoshiharu, et al. “Branched-chain amino acid supplementation before squat exercise and delayed-onset muscle soreness.” International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism 20.3 (2010): 236-244.
6) Dodd, Stephen L., Robert A. Herb, and Scott K. Powers. “Caffeine and exercise performance.” Sports medicine 15.1 (1993): 14-23.
7) Tabrizi, Reza, et al. “The effects of caffeine intake on weight loss: a systematic review and dos-response meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.” Critical reviews in food science and nutrition 59.16 (2019): 2688-2696.
8) Hoffman, Jay, et al. “Effect of creatine and ß-alanine supplementation on performance and endocrine responses in strength/power athletes.” International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism 16.4 (2006): 430-446.
9) Hobson, Ruth M., et al. “Effects of β-alanine supplementation on exercise performance: a meta-analysis.” Amino acids 43.1 (2012): 25-37.
10) Groen, Bart BL, et al. “Post-prandial protein handling: you are what you just ate.” PloS one 10.11 (2015): e0141582.

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