The Killer App.

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For Advanced Supplementation; Branch Chain Amino Acids Have Come of Age.

If you follow the high performance nutrition and sports supplement news, you know the parade of breakthrough diets, pills, potions, and powders stretch as far as the eye can see. Driven by our compulsive appetite for “what’s next,” nearly all consumer markets are flooded with products with little difference. As witness to giant leaps in technology our expectation is to believe the latest product will be better in some way than what preceded?

Experience reminds us this isn’t possible.

No, not all marketers are liars, but noticeable improvement in product features, benefits or value usually evolves over time. Innovation is a derivative process. Breakthrough products aren’t often birthed, yet over time key technologies often emerge that become integral to the next product design. When it comes to sports nutrition, several compounds have risen to elite status, and in this piece we’ll discuss what happens when the technology is so integral to a main fitness aim that it becomes what marketers call the Killer App.

Arrival of “High Tech” Sports Supplements

The recent and gross proliferation of so-called breakthrough products coming on the scene isn't new, it's just getting worse. Bold claims made by marketing daredevils have been around since the dawn of product trade. Yet, just three decades ago sports nutrition was still in its infancy, and so was the use of medical jargon and misquoted scientific references, which further confuses the market. 

Simpler times for sure, but in 1984, the sports supplement market entered a new era. That year, three amino acids specifically, leucine, valine and isoleucine, commonly called, Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAA’s) came on the scene with some impressive science that caught the eye of advanced bodybuilders and elite performance athletes. The popularity of BCAA products grew quickly, but as the taste of high quality meal supplements and whey protein powders improved, sales of BCAA formulations fell. The value of BCAA’s wasn’t the problem, it was the massive sales and marketing of BCAA rich meals supplements and whey protein powders that made these products unimportant.

Today, BCAA formulations have experienced a massive resurgence in acceptance from athletes as well as researchers. This has given athletes have access to well-studied product formulations, better delivery methods, and further research funded by companies like Scivation. To be clear, I have several colleagues that work for Scivation, and this website does business with them as well. But that doesn’t change the fact that without companies actually willing to invest in research, improving product efficacy will lag. More important, if the leading brand in the category (for BCAA’s it is Scivation - makers of Xtend) doesn’t invest in research for products they sell, surely no other company will. 

Now, let's jump in and review how BCAA supplements actually work, and how they can be worthy supplement to help increase your training for greater results. Remeber, to get the most from any supplement you buy, be sure you're willing to eat properly, rest, and train hard enough to make use of their functionality. Always be honest with yourself. If you're not serious about your program now, don't expect results. Then again, if you want off the sidelines of life, you gotta do the work, and get up and do some more. it's the price we all pay for being in the game. 


BCAA’s––The Basics

As serious athletes and bodybuilders, we realize the importance of consuming enough of high quality animal proteins in the way of beef, chicken, fish, eggs and dairy products. What you may not know is that biologically speaking, our need for protein is a need for amino acids. When you eat protein your body must first break it down into more useable chunks of amino acids, primarily as di and tri-peptides, which are “clusters” of amino acids to be used in the body.

Recent research could identify specific amino acids as “signaling molecules.” These control a whole host of critical metabolic processes, including stimulating muscle growth ––where BCAA’s do their most impressive work. When you eat high quality protein you are getting nonessential and essential amino acids that include the BCAA’s. About 15-25% of our total protein intake are BCAA's, with dairy products, and supplements containing whey and milk proteins contains the highest quantities at roughly 23-25%.

The most important BCAA fact is that they are 35-40% of the essential amino acids in body protein and 14% of the total amino acids in skeletal muscle. The reason we have such concentrated levels of BCAA’s in body protein and skeletal muscle becomes crystal clear when you understand how BCAA’s are metabolized.

BCAA’s––On-Board Muscle Preservation

What first got athletes, bodybuilders (and the sports science community) excited about BCAA’s, was how elegantly the body metabolized these three amino acids. You see, unlike whole proteins or amino acids, BCAA’s bypass the liver and to be used by the body as fuel in tissues other than the liver. More important, research, done primarily and originally by Scivation (Shimomura, 2004), showed that during exercise BCAA’s are an alternate fuel source, sparing other muscle proteins from being broken down for energy. In essence, this truncated delivery allows BCAA’s to quickly become involved in critical aspects of muscle metabolism, and the first order of business seems to be replacing BCAA’s burned during exercise, or as a direct fuel source during exercise. These findings are why Scivation created the specific 2:1:1 blend of BCAA’s (Leucine: Isoleucine: Valine) called Xtend.

The unique metabolic fate of BCAA’s catapulted them to superstar status as an anti-catabolic agent, which simply means, the ability to reduce muscle protein breakdown. This is no small feat, because in many ways, the anti-catabolic mechanism is how anabolic steroids help you maintain greater levels of muscle mass. This revelation caused athletes and bodybuilders to start popping BCAA’s like tic-tacs® (me included) especially pre-contest. The thinking was, in the face of energy restriction your body doesn’t just burn bodyfat, it looks to make glucose by any means possible, and taking carbon from muscle protein is a prime target. We now know the ability to offset muscle protein breakdown is further protected by BCAA’s through a rare ability to generate glucose with just a few simple steps.

BCAA’s –Auxiliary Energy Source

Many athletes and bodybuilders think your body has “calorie sensors” that determine how many calories your body needs just to, maintain the same body composition, reduce bodyfat, add muscle, or add muscle and lose fat simultaneously.

The reality is your brain runs a much simpler show.

This is not to say that the proteins, carbs and fats you eat each day don’t matter, but what it does mean is your body’s energy requirements use a system that insures your brain never runs out of its preferred energy source, which is glucose. And it doesn’t matter if you eat simple or complex carbs, fiber rich or no fiber at all, what finally winds up coursing through your veins in pure glucose. 50% of every molecule of glucose in your bloodstream goes to brain function. That’s because if your brain gets “unplugged,” nothing else matters.

We are all hardwired with the same fail-safe energy system that is always on and can create glucose whenever needed. This system, gluconeogenesis, which is a metabolic pathway that results in the creation of glucose from non-carbohydrate carbon substrates such as lactate, glycerol, and glucogenic amino acids? As you might expect, gluconeogenesis goes into overdrive to help provide glucose when you are doing high volume weight training, high intensity cardio, or, restricting calories. When you are training at peak levels you outrun available glucose, which otherwise preserves your muscle mass, gluconeogenesis, otherwise known as your alternative energy system, must go into high gear.

This is when having BCAA levels in blood, and muscle becomes extremely important. You see under the strain of exercise, and a diet induced glucose insufficiency your body will take BCAA’s directly from muscle tissue to make the extra energy it needs. Remember, your body needs to create glucose not only to cover the extra energy requirements caused by increased exercise, but more important, to keep your brain switched-on. Research has shown just how critical BCAA’s are to gluconeogenesis because they are intimately involved in the glucose - alanine cycle. BCAA's get taken from the muscle tissue where parts get converted to the amino acid alanine, which get transported to the liver and converted into glucose. 

Because gluconeogenosis relies on non-carbohydrate substrates such as amino acids from muscle tissue to make glucose, supplementing with BCAA’s may hold the key to increasing muscle mass––especially while dieting. In theory, this means that by consuming supplemental BCAA's the body will not have to break down muscle tissue to get any extra energy demands. This theory, confirmed in a study that showed that the use of BCAA's (up to 4 grams) during and after exercise can lead to a meaningful reduction of muscle breakdown during exercise (MacLean 1994).

BCAA’s ––Legitimate Muscle Growth Signaling Agent

The effect BCAA’s can have on preserving lean muscle tissue and providing substrates to make glucose on need can make or break your ability to build a phenomenal physique. That is if you’re training hard enough, and keeping tabs on your general nutrition plan; i.e., not eating a bunch of garbage. Nonetheless, these stellar attributes pale in comparison with the more recent science that has shown one of the BCAA’s, Leucine, is actually the silver bullet that triggers muscle protein synthesis, and in turn muscle growth.

Years ago sports scientists’ studying muscle metabolism discovered that the metabolic pathway that is primarily responsible for the size and duration of any up-regulation in protein synthesis is the mammalian target of rapamycin or mTOR. This is a key finding because everything from rebuilding worn out tissues to recovering from injury, to increasing muscle size, and maintaining resting metabolic rate, is dependent on protein synthesis.

The big news for athletes and bodybuilders are that we now know how Leucine intersects with this key pathway to begin the growth response. In short, this pathway gets triggered nutritionally with proteins high in leucine or by adding BCAA’s or free leucine to any high protein meal to introduce protein synthesis of greater size. No doubt, this BCAA is pro-anabolic. Which brings us to the last, but not least effective benefit BCAA’s can bring to your muscle building and performance game.

BCAA’s ––Non-Carbohydrate Insulinotropic

Most athletes and bodybuilders are familiar with the hormone insulin, its effect on muscle tissue, glucose disposal, and fat storage. In truth, insulin is a double-edged sword, because it can greatly increase muscle protein synthesis, and fat storage. The principal driver of insulin is carbohydrate, which in turn becomes glucose in the bloodstream. The contemporary approach to changing body composition is to reduce carbohydrate levels in the diet to minimize fat storage through the output of insulin.

Enduring a nutritional plan that “mutes” the insulin response can become counterproductive for athletes and bodybuilders who want to build, or preserve muscle mass, especially while shedding or maintaining their current level of bodyfat. That’s because under slightly elevated insulin levels whole body protein retention increases. Ironically, this net increase happens by of a reduction is muscle protein degradation via circulating insulin, and not through insulin mediated protein synthesis. So, it appears that Leucine can provide a missing link with tremendous potentialities for athletes and bodybuilders.

The BCAA Leucine, has been shown to interact with the insulin signaling pathway to stimulate protein synthesis, resulting in maintenance of muscle protein during periods of restricted energy intake. It also appears that Leucine can regulate insulin signaling and glucose use by skeletal muscle. Pretty cool considering Leucine is not a carbohydrate. As we learned, muscle proteins and BCAA’s are in high demand when gluconeogenesis is ramped up. However, leucine appears to also regulate the use of glucose in skeletal muscle by stimulating glucose recycling via the glucose-alanine cycle. If that sounds confusing don’t worry, all you need to know is that Leucine plays a key role in making your muscles bigger, stronger, and fuller, without adding unwanted bodyfat.

Editors Notes

The science and our understanding of BCAA’s have continued to shine from their market inception in 1984. Presently, for value, and effectiveness, these three amino acids should be on the top of any serious athlete or bodybuilders supplement list. Thanks to the research funding and creation of Scivation Xtend, and the continuing innovations to the product (being the first to add more and advantageous components such as citrulline, glutamine, and eventually electrolytes), Scivation Xtend lead the peri-workout supplementation category. They also can be credited for developing BCAA’s into a drinkable powdered form, increasing the ease in consumption of higher amounts. BCAA’s are truly one of the few supplements with staying-power in the supplement world, and for a very good reason at that: they work!

MacLean DA, Graham TE, Saltin B. Branched-chain amino acids augment ammonia metabolism while attenuating protein breakdown during exercise. Am J Physiol? 1994 Dec;267(6 Pt 1):E1010-22
Shimomura, Y. et al., 2004. Exercise promotes BCAA catabolism: effects of BCAA supplementation on skeletal muscle during exercise. The Journal of nutrition, 134(6 Suppl), p.1583S–1587S. Available at: http:// [Accessed November 29, 2013].