Pick up any body building magazine and you’re sure to see big glossy ads featuring hulked out beasts telling you that you need to buy their favorite brand of amino acids. But, just what are amino acids and should you care? Let’s start by explaining exactly what amino acids are and what they do inside the body. Amino acids are the organic compounds that form together in chains to create protein inside the body. Thus, amino acids are basically the building blocks of protein. Proteins, and therefore amino acids, play many important roles inside the body. The most important role, as far as jiu-jitsu and performance is concerned, is protein synthesis. Protein synthesis is necessary for recovery between workouts, increasing muscle mass, strength, power, and endurance. It also prevents loss of muscle mass, strength, power, and endurance during weight cutting. For this reason it is critical for us to stimulate protein synthesis as much as possible. Without amino acids, protein synthesis would be impossible inside the body.
Essential Amino Acids vs BCAAs
There are 22 amino acids found inside the human body, 9 of which are considered “essential.” They’re essential because they’re the 9 amino acids in which the body cannot synthesize on its own, and therefore, we must get them through our diet. Essential amino acids, especially leucine, are thought to be the most important amino acids for stimulating protein synthesis. Research has shown that by ingesting essential amino acids, we can increase blood plasma levels of essential amino acids. The elevated plasma levels will then lead to enhanced delivery of these amino acids to skeletal muscle, thus stimulating muscle building and recovery.
Branched chain amino acids or BCAAs are made up of the 3 essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine. BCAAs have a unique structure and are thought to be some of the most important amino acids inside the body. One of the main reasons for this is that BCAAs play an imperative part in muscle building and recovery. Another reason is that BCAAs can play a part in energy production during long training sessions or weight cutting. Studies have shown that BCAA ingestion effectively stimulates protein synthesis and reduces exercise-induced protein degradation. This decreases damage to your muscles during training sessions and produces faster recovery and greater muscular gains in the long run. Reduced muscle damage also means you will be able to maintain higher intensities for longer durations during training sessions.
Sound pretty similar? Yea, they are almost identical. This is because BCAAs are part of the essential amino acids. In fact, this has led to somewhat of a “chicken or the egg” debate among researchers. Some believe essential amino acids are the most important, since they are in fact “essential.” Others argue that it’s the BCAAs responsible for the results in the essential amino acids.
Best For Grapplers
It’s hard to say definitively which is a better choice for a supplement, BCAAs or essential amino acids. Studies have shown both to be effective. However, the debate on which is more effective for protein synthesis is still not resolved. And since BCAAs are essential amino acids, and therefore are included in essential amino acid supplements, it makes this debate even harder to decipher. But the good news is this – both work! So, you can’t really go wrong. We can call it a tie. Either of these supplements will have a positive effect on protein synthesis. Now, having said that, we know there are no ties in a jiu-jitsu match, so this one will have to go to a referee’s decision, and the referee says, “BCAAs win!” While we can call protein synthesis a tie, I give it to BCAAs based on their role in energy production and reduced protein degradation during long training sessions. This can also be a savior for muscles during weight cutting when there are not enough calories to produce the energy needed. Therefore, BCAAs take gold, with essential amino acids a very close silver.
What To Look For
Like most supplements, it can be very confusing to pick one. There are literally dozens of brands with dozens of products, all claiming to be the best. The supplement industry is a billion dollar industry with very little regulation. This leads to heavy marketing with little research and quality control. So, how can you pick a good a quality supplement? First thing is to ignore all the marketing on the label. Specifically ignore words like “extreme” “crazy” “pump” “intense” “maximum strength,” etc. While these sound good, they don’t really mean anything. Two things to look for are little labels that say, “GMP certified” and “Third party tested.” GMP stands for good manufacturing practice, and basically means that it was made in a real facility the way it was supposed to be made, and not some guy in his garage putting things in a bottle and printing fancy labels. Third party tested means it was sent to a separate company that tested it to ensure what they say is in the product is actually in it and the amount they say is in the product is actually in it. While these two things do not guarantee a good product, it is a great start and usually weeds out most of the really bad ones.
As for BCAAs and amino acid supplements, “pharmaceutical grade” and “peptide bonded” are two big terms to look for. Peptide bonded will help with digestion and absorption, making sure the amino acids get into the blood stream. While I prefer powder form for BCAAs and amino acids, liquids are fine as well. Pills will work, but are not the best choice. Pills can be hard on the stomach for some people and may take longer to digest and absorb. Liquid forms are fine, but tend to be more expensive with no real added benefit. I like powder, as it is easy to measure and can be mixed with almost anything to create the perfect training drink. This gives you the option to create a drink you can drink throughout your training session to ensure your body is getting a steady dose of everything it needs.
When To Take Them
While amino acid supplementation can be beneficial at different times throughout the day, there are some times that are critical. Before and/or during training sessions is the best time to consume amino acid supplements. Studies have demonstrated that consuming amino acids at this time will have a positive impact on stimulating protein synthesis and will help to reduce damage to muscles from the training session. This will also start the recovery process sooner, and thus allow for a faster, more complete recovery. By stimulating protein synthesis before and during training sessions, you will be able to train at higher intensities longer, meaning harder matches later in your session. While there have been studies that show improvement with as little as 2 grams of amino acid supplementation, optimal dosages are 6-9 grams for BCAAs and 10-15 grams of essential amino acids.
Recently in our interview with muli-time World Champion, Michael Langhi we asked him which supplements he took regularly, high on his short list were BCAAs. Given the direct benefits to grapplers, it’s no wonder why he takes them. If you’re looking to build and maintain muscle, along with the other virtues, maybe you should give them a try.