Complete Guide to EAA vs BCAA

EAA vs BCAA

Amino acid supplements are a staple in many bodybuilders’ nutrition regimens. And there is strong evidence to support using them to promote natural muscle gain.

Two of the most popular amino acid supplements are EAAs and BCAAs. But before you spend any money, it’s important to understand the differences, how they work, and when it’s appropriate to take each supplement.

In this definitive EAA vs BCAA guide, you’ll learn the answers to all those questions and more. So if you choose to use amino acids, you can buy supplements with confidence and get the results you want.

Importance of Amino Acids

Before we get into EAAs and BCAAs, it’s necessary to know a little bit about amino acids. First, there are 21 amino acids common to all forms of life.

Certain types of amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. And proteins are the building blocks of muscle. Therefore, you must have a surplus of amino acids to create the proteins that build muscle.

Amino Acids and Protein

However, in normal conditions, muscle protein breakdown exceeds the rate of building (synthesis)1. And when the balance between synthesis and breakdown is negative, your body will not build new muscle.

Resistance training shifts the net balance by stimulating positive muscle protein synthesis. But you also need the proper nutrients to build muscle.

Weightlifting combined with ingestion of amino acids has an additive effect on muscle protein synthesis. In other words, it creates the anabolic response that leads to muscle growth.

EAA vs BCAA Anabolism

What Are EAAs and BCAAs?

Now that you know the basics of amino acids and muscle building let’s get into the different types. In this section, I’ll define BCAAs and EAAs.

What Are EAAs?

An essential amino acid (EAA) is an amino acid your body can’t make fast enough to provide the amount you need. Therefore, you must get essential amino acids in your diet.

There are nine EAAs called leucine, isoleucine, valine, phenylalanine, methionine, histidine, lysine, threonine, and tryptophan.

Protein sources like meat, dairy, and eggs contain all nine EAAs and are considered complete proteins. In contrast, plant protein sources are usually lacking in one or more EAA and are considered incomplete protein sources.

What Are BCAAs?

A branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) is a specific type of essential amino acid with a branched molecular structure. These amino acids are leucine, isoleucine, and valine.

BCAAs are the primary amino acids found in skeletal muscle, so they are considered the most important for muscle building. However, BCAAs on their own are not a complete protein.

In other words, EAAs contain all the BCAAs, but BCAAs do not contain all the EAAs.

EAA vs BCAA Venn

Difference Between EAA & BCAA

The main difference between EAAs and BCAAs is that EAAs contain all nine amino acids found in whole protein sources like meat. While BCAAs are a subset of three amino acids considered most important for anabolic signaling.

Still, BCAAs can affect your body differently from EAAs and whole-food proteins. So it’s crucial to understand how your body responds to amino acid supplements before buying and taking them.

EAA & BCAA Absorption

Free form amino acids like EAAs and BCAAs enter your bloodstream right away and peak about 30 minutes after ingestion2. In contrast, protein powder and whole foods gradually release amino acids over 1-3 hours.

Compared to whey protein powders and whole foods, EAAs and BCAAs are like aminos on demand. Essentially, you get muscle-building amino acids in your bloodstream exactly when you need them.

Furthermore, the concentration of amino acids in your blood is a primary trigger for protein synthesis. So it makes sense to flood your bloodstream with amino acids at critical times like after a workout.

EAA vs BCAA vs Whey Absorption

EAA vs BCAA Protein Synthesis

Both BCAAs and EAAs activate the anabolic pathways that initiate protein synthesis. However, BCAAs do little else besides triggering those pathways.

The reason is that protein synthesis requires adequate availability of all amino acids together. As such, BCAAs on their own don’t result in a drastic change in protein synthesis compared to resistance training with a placebo2.

By comparison, 3-4 gram doses of EAAs significantly increased protein synthesis, similar to 25 grams of whey protein3.

EAA vs BCAA Protein Synthesis

EAA vs BCAA Muscle Growth

Multiple studies show that, despite signaling protein synthesis, BCAAs on their own do not result in sustained protein synthesis or muscle growth4. So taking BCAAs is like turning on the ignition but leaving the car in park.

On the other hand, EAAs represent a complete protein and result in sustained protein synthesis that can lead to muscle growth5. Not only do EAAs turn the ignition, but they also put the car in drive and take you to your destination!

EAA vs BCAA Cost

On average, BCAA supplements cost $0.45 per 5 grams, while EAA supplements cost $0.55 per 5 grams. So EAA is about 20% more expensive than BCAA.

You could argue that the added cost is worth it since EAAs get better results than BCAAs on their own. But what about when you compare the cost of EAAs to whey protein powder?

When normalized for 10 grams of EAA, whey protein powder costs $0.88, while EAA powder costs $1.09. That means EAA costs about 20% more than whey.

BCAA vs EAA cost
Whey vs EAA cost

Taking EAA vs BCAA

At this point, the higher cost of EAA supplements may be enough to give you pause. And the fact that BCAAs don’t directly build muscle probably has you putting your wallet away.

Still, there are some situations when taking BCAAs or EAAs can help give you an edge. So let’s walk through when it makes sense to take these supplements.

When to Use BCAA

Taking BCAAs before or during your workout results in less muscle protein breakdown6. And that can potentially help you achieve a more positive net protein balance after your workout2.

In addition, studies suggest that taking BCAAs specifically before a workout helps reduce muscle soreness later on7,8. So you could benefit from mixing BCAAs with your pre-workout supplement.

Just remember that BCAAs on their own will not help you build muscle. And adding BCAAs to your protein shake does not make it more anabolic because other essential amino acids limit the rate of protein synthesis.

BCAA Before Workout

When to Use EAA

Studies suggest a direct positive correlation between the concentration of EAAs in the blood and muscle protein synthesis9. In short, the rapid absorption of free-form EAAs may boost anabolism more than other protein sources.

The reason is that free-form EAAs absorb twice as fast as protein powder and up to five times faster than meat. And the peak concentration of EAAs in the bloodstream is much higher.

One study showed that EAAs combined with whey protein increased protein synthesis more than whey protein alone10.

Whey vs Whey+EAA

Also, you may choose to use EAA supplements during a calorie-restricted or cutting diet where every calorie counts. For example, EAAs have 40 calories per 10 grams, while protein powder containing 10 grams of EAAs has around 120 calories.

Admittedly, a savings of 80 calories doesn’t seem like much. But if you replace three scoops of protein powder with three servings of EAAs, that cuts 240 calories per day without compromising lean muscle.

Whey vs EAA Calories

EAA & BCAA FAQ

I understand your head may be spinning after all those numbers and charts. So let me give you some short answers to the most common EAA and BCAA questions.

Do I really need EAA?

If you eat enough protein each day, you don’t really need to take an EAA supplement. Instead, most people should focus on eating high-protein foods and supplementing with whey protein as needed.

However, EAAs can give you a boost if you’re on a low-calorie diet and have trouble hitting a high protein target. Or if you’re looking to maximize your post-workout anabolic response.

Are EAAs a waste of money?

Getting the optimal 15-gram dose of EAAs from whey protein powder costs around $1.32. At the same time, an EAA supplement costs about $1.64 per 15 grams.

So it’s definitely cheaper to get your EAAs from whey protein powder instead of a free-form EAA supplement. But there are situations where the added cost could be worth it.

In addition, not all EAA supplements cost an arm and a leg. Look for brands without flashy marketing or added ingredients.

Best Value EAA Supplement

Personally, I use Nutricost EAA supplement because it is the best value in terms of grams per dollar. It’s 33% less expensive than the average EAA supplement, and cheaper than whey protein when standardized for EAA content.

Should I take EAA and protein?

You could get plenty of EAAs by simply using more whey protein powder. However, a recent study suggests that you get maximum protein synthesis from combining whey and free-form EAAs.

So while you don’t need to add EAA to your protein powder, it may have a synergistic effect due to the rapid absorption of free-form EAAs.

Should I take both BCAA and EAA?

No. EAAs already contain all three BCAAs, so there is no need to take both. Just check the label for leucine, isoleucine, and valine in a 2:1:1 ratio, which is best for muscle gain.

When should you take EAAs?

For muscle building, the best time to take EAAs is immediately after a resistance training workout, along with a whey protein shake. But you can also take EAAs before or during your workout to mitigate muscle breakdown and soreness.

Another option is taking 2-3 doses of EAAs between meals throughout the day. Whichever option you choose, 15 grams of added EAAs per day is recommended.

Is EAA better than creatine?

EAAs are not necessarily better than creatine because each supplement can help you build muscle through entirely different mechanisms.

Creatine supplies cellular energy to fuel resistance training workouts. While EAAs support positive protein synthesis after workouts and throughout the day.

Is EAA or BCAA a pre-workout?

While you can take EAAs or BCAAs before your workout, they do not offer all of the benefits of multi-ingredient pre-workout supplements. For example, EAA and BCAA reduce soreness and mitigate muscle breakdown, while pre-workouts boost energy and enhance performance in the gym.

BCAA vs Pre-Workout: Which Is Better Before The Gym

BCAA vs Pre-Workout

Summary

To conclude this EAA vs BCAA guide, here are the main points:

  • Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and muscle
  • There are 9 EAAs that you must get in your diet
  • BCAAs are 3 of the EAAs most prevalent in muscle tissue
  • BCAAs signal protein synthesis but do not greatly increase it or build muscle
  • EAAs increase protein synthesis and can help you build muscle
  • You don’t need EAAs if you eat enough protein
  • Although EAAs maximize protein synthesis when combined with whey protein

In addition, below is a simple infographic showing the main differences between EAAs and BCAAs. Please share it with your friends to show them how much you know about amino acids!

EAA vs BCAA infographic

Recommended Daily Calorie Intake

Despite trendy diet advice, calories are still king. Learn how to find your recommended daily calorie intake for weight loss or weight gain.

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References
1) Wolfe, Robert R. “Effects of amino acid intake on anabolic processes.” Canadian Journal of Applied PhysiologyS1 (2001): S220-S227.
2) Jackman, Sarah R., et al. “Branched-chain amino acid ingestion stimulates muscle myofibrillar protein synthesis following resistance exercise in humans.” Frontiers in physiology8 (2017): 390.
3) Church, David D., et al. “Essential amino acids and protein synthesis: insights into maximizing the muscle and whole-body response to feeding.” Nutrients12 (2020): 3717.
4) De Andrade, Isabel Thomazi, et al. “Leucine supplementation has no further effect on training-induced muscle adaptations.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise8 (2020): 1809-1814.
5) Dillon, Edgar L., et al. “Amino acid supplementation increases lean body mass, basal muscle protein synthesis, and insulin-like growth factor-I expression in older women.” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism5 (2009): 1630-1637.
6) 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 Metabolism6 (1994): E1010-E1022.
7) 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 fitness11 (2017): 1582-1591.
8) Shimomura, Yoshiharu, et al. “Branched-chain amino acid supplementation before squat exercise and delayed-onset muscle soreness.” International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism3 (2010): 236-244.
9) Bohé, Julien, et al. “Human muscle protein synthesis is modulated by extracellular, not intramuscular amino acid availability: a dose‐response study.” The Journal of physiology1 (2003): 315-324.
10) Park, Sanghee, et al. “Anabolic response to essential amino acid plus whey protein composition is greater than whey protein alone in young healthy adults.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition1 (2020): 1-10.

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