Branched chain amino acids, or BCAAs, are well known to bodybuilders and others intent on finding ways to optimize their workouts. They help speed up the recovery process and provide the building blocks of new muscle.
But while BCAAs are essential to muscle recovery and growth they are not produced by the body itself. You need to obtain them from outside sources. For most people that means consuming chicken, fish, beans, nuts and soy. Those looking to build muscle mass, however, will need more than they can typically get from these sources. That’s where BCAA supplements come in.
We’ve sifted through dozens of brands to compile this list of the 10 best BCAA supplements currently on the market.
1. BPI Sports Best BCAA
BPI Sports Best BCAA helps you recover from strenuous workouts and build large, lean muscles in the process. Each serving provides 5 grams of BCAAs with a 2:1:1 ratio of leucine, isoleucine and valine. BPI also includes omega-6 fatty acids, which help you achieve and maintain heart health. And while there is no sugar there is sucralose and some artificial flavorings to make it more palatable.
BPI Sports Best BCAA has a well-deserved reputation for being an effective muscle-building supplement. Provided of course that you do the necessary work. It’s available in 5 different flavors and is one of the more affordable BCAA supplements.
2. Optimum Nutrition Pro BCAA Powder
A typical serving of Pro BCAA Powder from Optimum Nutrition contains 8 grams of BCAAs as well as 5 grams of glutamine (1) and a healthy dose of vitamin C. There is the typical 2:1:1 ratio of the essential amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine. Glutamine itself is not an essential amino acid, in that the body produces it internally. But, since it also plays an important role in muscle formation it can’t hurt to have a bit extra on hand.
Especially if you’re a workout fiend. What we really appreciate about ON Pro BCAA is the complete lack of artificial ingredients along with the lack of sugar or other sweeteners. Its focus is right where it should be: on delivering amino acids to your tired muscles.
3. BSN Amino X Powder
If you can get past the marketing mumbo jumbo (Efforsorb Endura Composites indeed) you’ll find plenty to like in this BCAA Amino X Powder from BSN. It provides a robust dose of 10 grams of BCAAs per serving, it doesn’t turn into a mass of wet clay at the bottom of your glass and some of the 9 flavors aren’t half bad.
It’s also free of caffeine, free of sugar and relatively low in sodium. On the downside they have to pay all those marketers to come up with that spiffy sounding mumbo jumbo so Amino X costs a bit more than most other powders on our list. If you’re on a budget you might want to consider that.
4. BulkSupplements Pure BCAA
BulkSupplements has been around for years and almost always manages to deliver high-quality supplements at affordable prices. Unlike BSN they eschew expensive marketing and simply provide their Pure BCAA in their standard resealable, no-frills pouch. And that’s fine. Each serving provides 750 mg of leucine and 375 of isoleucine and valine.
There’s no sugar, soy, dairy, yeast, gluten or caffeine added and you get 166 servings per container. As is the case with all of their supplements BulkSupplements Pure BCAA is produced in a Best Manufacturing Practices facility in the US under the supervision of the FDA.
5. XTEND Energy BCAA Powder
XTEND is produced in the US by Scivation. While they’re not exactly a household name they have been around for some time and have a solid reputation for producing quality supplements. Their BCAA Powder has a 2:1:1 ratio of leucine, isoleucine and valine (the 3 branched chain amino acids). The company adds potassium and vitamin B6 to help metabolize proteins.
There is no sugar – although there is sucralose (2) – and no carbs. Although there is caffeine and they do use artificial colors and flavors, so be aware of that. From a strictly performance standpoint XTEND does a good job providing the the BCAAs you need to recover quickly from your workouts. While the caffeine will actually help give your workout efforts a bit of a jump start.
6. MP Essentials Amino Energy
If you’re looking for an affordable way to get your branched chain amino acids try MP Essentials Amino Energy. This powder mixes easily with water or other non-carbonated beverages, provides a 3:2:1 leucine, valine, isoleucine dose of BCAAs and contains only 5 calories per serving.
Be mindful though that it is clearly intended to be used right before your workout as it contains a significant amount of caffeine. The flavor is passable and underpinned by sucralose. And for the record, it is processed in a facility that also processes dairy, soybean, shellfish, nuts and other potential food allergens.
7. Evlution Nutrition BCAA5000
Evlution Nutrition BCA5000 is a highly pure BCAA supplement with no artificial additives or sweeteners, no superfluous vitamins or minerals and no caffeine. Each 5 gram serving provides 2,500 mg of leucine and 1,250 of both valine and isoleucine. And while that all sounds pretty much par for the course when it comes to the better BCAA supplements there’s one big difference here: these are tablets, not powder.
A lot of people tired of choking down chalky shakes are going to appreciate the convenient tablet form. But there’s always a tradeoff when it comes to different delivery methods. And in this case it’s that the tabs aren’t going to go to work as fast as a shake will.
8. Post JYM Active Matrix
Post JYM Active Matrix boasts that it’s the ideal product for optimizing your post workout recovery efforts. Whether it’s any more effective than any of the other products on our list is open for debate. But there’s no debate that it will help you recover faster than if you didn’t use it and that it provides the BCAAs you need to ramp up your muscle building efforts.
Of the add-on ingredients the most likely to provide some real benefit is creatine, which can improve muscle responsiveness and perhaps L-carnitine (3) which aids in energy production. The rest are not likely to do any harm. Though they’re not likely to do much good either. But that doesn’t diminish from the essential effectiveness of the Active Matrix supplement.
9. Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard BCAA
Optimum Nutrition is back for a curtain call with their outstanding Gold Standard BCAA supplement. Like JYM Active Matrix it includes several ingredients that don’t actually bring much to the table (other than 220 mg of electrolytes). But at the same time it boasts the preferred 2:1:1 ratio of leucine, isoleucine and valine and is completely sugar-free, low in sodium and contains no caffeine.
So you can safely take it at any time of the day. It’s also available in 4 flavors. And while none of them knocked our socks off none were objectionable either. And that’s really the most you can ask from this type of powdered supplement. It’s about building muscle after all, not winning Michelin stars.
10. NOW Branched Chain Amino Acid Powder
The last of our best BCAA supplements comes from supplement stalwart NOW Foods. Their BCAA powder mixes well with most non-carbonated beverages, provides the expected dose ratio of 2:1:1 and contains no caffeine or superfluous ingredients. In fact, the only active ingredient is the BCAAs. That’s it. The company produces all their supplements in a Good Manufacturing Practices facility in the US and never used genetically modified organisms at any stage of the production process.
What are BCAAs?
As we mentioned at the outset BCAA stands for ‘branched chain amino acids’ (4). These are an essential amino acid. Meaning the body needs them to repair and build muscle tissue but does not produce them internally. Therefore, people need to obtain them from outside sources such as chicken, fish and nuts.
BCAAs serve as the building blocks of protein. And without significant amounts of protein any notions of constructing a truly muscular physique are likely to go unrealized (5). If you are intent on building muscle mass, however, you will need to consume more BCAAs than you can typically get from normal dietary sources alone. In other words, you’ll need a good BCAA supplement.
What are the benefits of BCAAs?
BCAAs provide a range of benefits, many of which transcend simple desires to become bigger and stronger. These benefits include:
Increased endurance – If you provide your muscles with a ready source of BCAAs you will protect them from breaking down as easily during intense workouts. You’ll enjoy greater endurance and push through performance ceilings that used to hold you back (6). Just remember though, that BCAAs themselves are not like caffeine. They’re not going to drive your workout. It’s your new, bigger, more resilient muscles that will do that.
Increased metabolism – Did you know that muscle tissue actually burns calories even while you’re watching TV or talking on the phone? It does. Muscle tissue draws blood into it which has the effect of speeding up the metabolism (7). A faster metabolism is one that burns calories more effectively and prevents the formation of fatty deposits.
Lower risk of type II diabetes – Studies have shown that increased muscle mass can reduce a person’s risk of developing type II diabetes (8). But you don’t have to become the next Arnold to enjoy this lower risk. Vigorous exercise alone will also result in a lower risk of type II diabetes. And that is true for both adults and children (9).
Faster post workout recovery – BCAAs are the building blocks of protein. And proteins are the building blocks of muscle tissue. During a strenuous workout muscles are typically pushed to failure. At this point they develop tiny tears (10). BCAAs move in soon after and repair this damaged tissue. If you don’t supply your body with an adequate amount of BCAAs recovery will be a slow, painful experience. By taking a BCAA supplement you speed up the process and reduce the associated soreness.
Enhanced liver health – Recent studies suggest that BCAAs may play a beneficial role for people who suffer from various liver conditions (11). Researchers discovered that patients with certain types of liver disease and dysfunction exhibited smaller than normal amounts of BCAAs. As a result they were given BCAA supplements and a significant number responded positively. More study is needed, but these first indicators are encouraging.
Reduced muscle loss – As we age our bodies naturally shed muscle. This process is known as sarcopenia (12). It’s estimated that those who are physically inactive lose as much as 5% of their muscle mass per decade after the age of 30. The good news, however, is that this slide into physical weakness is not inevitable. Regular exercise and BCAA supplementation can slow or stop the process of muscle loss. While strength training and BCAA supplementation can actually add muscle mass, even in older adults (13).
Enhanced overall health – Your leaner, stronger body is one that will fend off the development of type II diabetes. It’s a body that will burn fat while you sleep. It’s a body that will digest food more effectively. You’ll be more alert, sleep better and have better sex. These health benefits will send positive ripples through every aspect of your life and in all likelihood, you’ll live longer than your non-exercising friends (14).
Who should use BCAAs?
While bodybuilders are the obvious choice there are actually a wide range of people who can benefit from taking BCAA supplements. Here are some of those people:
Vegans and vegetarians – A common problem with people who do not eat meat or meat byproducts is that they suffer from protein deficiency (15). Yes, there are other foods they can eat that will supply protein. But typically they need to eat larger-than-average amounts of those foods in order to make up the shortfall. BCAA supplements are a great way to fill the gap.
Athletes – Most people know that weight lifters can benefit from BCAAs. So in this case we’re making a distinction between weightlifters and more conventional athletes. Whether you’re a runner, football player, gymnast or bowler you’ll find that supplementing with BCAAs will enhance your workouts and improve your overall performance.
Seniors – As we mentioned a bit earlier if people don’t do anything to counteract it they will lose muscle mass as they age. This can lead to weak bones, a general lack of energy and leave them vulnerable to injuries. One of the most important health discoveries in recent years had to do with the benefits of weight training for older individuals (16). Essentially, we have a choice: we can wither as we age or we can stay strong, remain vital and live longer. BCAAs will help you do the latter.
Women – Women can derive even more benefits from staying strong than men. Mostly because women are more likely to develop osteoporosis than men. But osteoporosis is not inevitable. Staying physically active is one of the best ways to prevent it (17). BCAA supplementation, combined with a vigorous exercise routine will help a woman maintain strong, healthy bones right into old age.
What should I look for in a BCAA product?
There are a lot of BCAA supplements on the market today. So finding one that is truly effective and doesn’t burden you with meaningless or counterproductive ingredients can be a challenge. Here are some of the things we looked for when choosing BCAA supplements for our list.
Ingredients – And by this we don’t mean just BCAAs. We want to know everything that’s in the supplement. Does it include any non-BCAA ingredients? Does it contain sugar and/or lots of sodium? Are there a lot of unnecessary ingredients? We also want to know how much of the three main BCAAs (valine, leucine and isoleucine) are included in a typical serving.
Is it loaded with flavor enhancers? – You don’t buy a BCAA supplement because it’s flavoriffic. You buy it because it’s going to help you build lean muscle mass and enjoy the benefits of better health. Also, in order to try and make BCAA powders more palatable many producers add sugar, salt or artificial flavorings. From our perspective a wee bit of stevia or another natural sweetener is no big deal. But even that is not really necessary.
Value – There isn’t a lot of separation quality-wise between the best BCAA supplements. So it’s kind of hard to justify one being way more expensive than another. We try to populate our list with high-quality products that are also reasonably priced. That’s called value. And we’re big fans of value regardless of the product.
Mixability – Since the vast majority of BCAAs come in powdered form it’s important that they mix well with your beverage of choice. The best ones do. Lesser quality BCAA powders tend to settle quickly to the bottom of the glass and stay there, producing a kind of tasteless clay. Choking that stuff down can be a very unpleasant experience. So we look for products that blend effectively.
When should I take BCAAs and how much should I take?
If you want to enjoy optimal benefits from BCAA supplementation it’s recommended you take them before you workout. This way they can get to work immediately repairing damaged muscle tissue and building stronger replacements.
Some recommend that if you are intent on maximizing muscle gain you should take BCAAs right after waking up. But whether you choose to take them once or twice per day the most important thing is to make sure both your exercise and supplementation efforts are consistent.
As far as dosage is concerned, all the products on our list have a suggested dosage amount and you should adhere to that. However, if you are already receiving high amounts of BCAAs from your normal dietary sources then you may be able to cut back on the recommended daily dosage.
Do BCAAs produce any side effects?
BCAAs are considered perfectly safe for the average healthy man or woman. They are after all an essential nutrient that that body requires for various metabolic processes. There are a few groups of people, however, who may want to avoid taking BCAA supplements. Or at least they should discuss the matter with their doctor before they do. These groups include:
Those about to undergo surgery – Why? Because BCAAs have a tendency to alter blood sugar levels and it’s important to maintain stable blood glucose levels during and after surgery.
Active alcoholics – Alcoholism runs roughshod over a person’s entire physiology. One of the organs most affected is the liver. Taking BCAA supplements while routinely drinking to excess can cause a condition known as hepatic encephalopathy (18).
The Bottom Line
As we have seen branched chain amino acids are a versatile supplement that can help bodybuilders create impressive physiques, help older people remain strong and vital, help women stave off osteoporosis and help vegans and vegetarians avoid protein deficiency.
So whether you just want to recover faster from your workouts, lower the risk of falling and breaking bones as you age or lower your risk of type II diabetes BCAAs supplements have something to offer you.
All of the BCAA supplements chosen for our list are high-quality products that will enable you to reach your overall fitness goals. All are made by reputable manufacturers, have shown themselves to be effective and are competitively priced. So pick the one that’s right for you and start down the road to a healthier future.