BCAA vs Pre-Workout

Which supplement is best before the gym?

Taking supplements before exercise is a good way to improve performance and get better results from your training. But what should you be taking before you hit the gym?

Two popular choices are BCAA or pre-workout powders. In this article, I’ll break down the pros and cons of BCAA vs pre-workout. And help you decide which is better for you.

BCAA vs Pre-Workout

What Is BCAA?

Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a group of three amino acids that have a unique branched molecular structure. The three BCAAs are leucine, isoleucine, and valine.

Up to 40% of the proteins that make up muscle tissue are BCAAs. So they are considered the most important amino acids for building muscle.

Many high protein foods contain BCCA’s, such as meat, legumes, nuts, and protein powders. Although it can take hours for the BCAAs to reach your bloodstream.

Whereas BCAA supplements enter your bloodstream almost immediately and peak at about 30 minutes1.

BCAA vs Pre-Workout Amino Acid Absorption Rate

As you can see, taking a supplement is sort of like getting BCAAs on demand. So you can get muscle-building amino acids in your bloodstream exactly when you need them.

What Do BCAAs Do?

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

Moreover, studies show that supplementing with BCAAs before exercise results in less muscle protein breakdown3.

BCAA vs Pre-Workout Muscle Protein Breakdown

In addition, taking BCAAs before a workout has been shown to increase protein synthesis after your workout1. That is the building up of new proteins, including those used in building muscle.

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

How Much BCAA To Take

The studies referenced above used a dosage of 0.035 g/lb of bodyweight. Which for most people will be somewhere between 4 and 8 grams depending on body size.

For comparison, 3.5 oz of chicken breast or 1 scoop of whey protein powder both contain 5-6 grams of BCAA. But again, those BCAAs would take hours to enter your body.

BCAA Pros & Cons

Pros

  • Absorbs almost immediately

  • Reduce muscle protein breakdown during exercise

  • Increase muscle protein synthesis after exercise

  • Reduce delayed muscle soreness after exercise

Cons

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

  • Not a great source of energy

  • Does not directly improve performance

What Is Pre-Workout

Pre-workout is a general category of supplements taken before a workout with the goal of increasing energy and improving performance. Most pre-workouts contain a stimulant as well as specific amino acids for promoting blood flow and delaying fatigue.

Some of the most common ingredients are caffeine, l-arginine (or l-citrulline), and beta-alanine.

Caffeine For Energy

Caffeine works by binding to adenosine receptors in the brain to block signals of fatigue. 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 has a positive effect on metabolic rate which can promote 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 increase in vascularity and muscle volume is 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 good dosage.

L-citrulline works with arginine to extend the pump. Allowing harder training sessions, faster recovery, and potentially greater 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.

In fact, 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 an immediate fuel to be used in ATP production. A standard dosage of creatine is 5 grams per serving.

A lot of pre-workouts will contain an array of other ingredients. But the ones listed here are the heavy lifters in terms of improving your workouts.

Pre-Workout Pros & Cons

Pros

  • Increase energy & boost metabolism

  • Improve blood flow & delivery of nutrients

  • Delay fatigue & train harder

  • Tastes good

Cons

  • 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

How To Pick A Pre-Workout

Picking a good pre-workout can be tricky because some companies hide ingredient amounts inside a proprietary blend. This will have a cool sounding name like “intensity matrix” and an amount in milligrams.

If the blend contains 5,000 milligrams that’s the same as 5 grams. And remember, you need up to 6 grams of just l-arginine or citrulline! This is why those secret formulas are a huge red flag.

For those pre-workout supplements that show the actual amounts of each ingredient on the label, look for 150-250 mg caffeine, about 5 grams l-arginine (or l-citrulline), and 2-3 grams of beta-alanine.

My top pick is Pre JYM because it has all the ingredients listed above in the proper amounts. Plus it contains BCAAs, so it’s really an all-in-one solution!

How To Make Your Own Pre-Workout

If you’re not interested in frivolous flavors or superfluous supplements, then you might be interested in a DYI pre-workout.

With this approach, you can save upwards of $28 per month by buying only the ingredients you need. At the same time, you get 85% more of active ingredients compared to the top brands.

Check out my 5 easy homemade pre-workout recipes to learn how.

BCAA vs Pre-Workout Homemade

Note: the pre-workouts I recommend above are closer to the homemade amounts.

BCAA vs Pre-Workout

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

Which Is Better?

At the end of the day, this doesn’t have to be a question of BCAA vs pre-workout. We don’t have to pit one against the other. Instead, the best solution is a combination of BCAA and pre-workout.

But if you have to choose just one, the better option for you depends on your workouts, your goals, and your nutrition.

For those of you who have a hard time getting motivated and working hard, a pre-workout might give you the boost you need. Just don’t expect a pre-workout to magically burn fat or build muscle. That’s not how it works.

If you’re already crushing your workouts, then BCAAs might be better to help you recover and rebuild. Especially if you’re not eating protein before your workouts.

Again, if you can afford to take both you’ll get the best of both worlds. Or save money by making your own pre-workout and add some BCAAs.

Be sure to check out my related articles below for more information on what supplements to take before, during, and after your workouts!

Homemade Pre-Workout Recipes

Homemade pre-workout saves you up to 70% compared to top brands. And gives you nearly 2X the key ingredients. Try these 5 easy recipes!

References
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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