Numerous supplements claim to help boost performance, build muscle, burn fat, and hasten recovery. But most consumers wonder if these supplements are really that effective and which ones are worth the money. This article will compare and contrast two of the most popular supplements in the sports nutrition industry – pre-workouts and branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs).
After reading this blog, you will be able to determine which supplement is worth exploring and which is better off left on the shelf.
Table of Contents
Are BCAAs or Pre-Workout Supplements Better?
The main difference between pre-workout supplements and BCAAs is their purpose. Pre-workout supplements normally consist of various ingredients that collectively increase energy, focus, strength, blood flow, and endurance. Some of the most common pre-workout ingredients include caffeine, citrulline, beta-alanine, creatine monohydrate, betaine, tyrosine, and alpha-GPC.
Although most pre-workout supplements contain caffeine, there are several non-stimulant pre-workouts to choose from, which are ideal for evening training. As the name suggests, you should drink pre-workouts 20-30 minutes before training to give your body adequate time to start feeling its effects.
Branched-chain amino acids are usually consumed during training to reduce muscle protein breakdown, sustain performance, and kickstart recovery. BCAAs consist of three amino acids – leucine, valine, and isoleucine. They are considered to be essential amino acids and are crucial for stimulating muscle protein synthesis (MPS), which is the process of building and repairing muscles.
So that begs the question, which one is better?
The answer to that question depends on the person. The main thing to consider when choosing between a pre-workout and BCAA powder is whether or not you consume enough high-quality protein throughout the day.
Branched-chain amino acids are naturally found in protein sources, such as dairy, chicken, fish, beef, and eggs. So if you consume an adequate amount of protein (~0.8-1 gram of protein per pound of lean muscle mass), you’re already getting enough BCAAs from your diet. However, if you’re a vegan or vegetarian, you may benefit from a BCAA supplement since plant protein sources contain a lower amount of BCAAs.
Can BCAAs and Pre-Workout be Taken Together?
Although you can take branched-chain amino acids and pre-workout supplements together, that’s not ideal for most people, and here’s why! A few years ago, supplement companies commonly included BCAAs in their pre-workout formula. They were primarily added to the pre-workout to increase the scoop size. A bigger scoop size would trick the consumer into thinking that they are getting more even though BCAAs were just a cheap filler.
With that said, some people like having BCAAs in their pre-workout because they don’t have to buy separate products. However, not having BCAAs in your pre-workout allows you to take them at the most optimal time during training. Plus, consuming that many ingredients all at once may cause gastrointestinal distress.
What are BCAAs?
BCAAs, also known as branched-chain amino acids, are a group of amino acids that share a similar branched structure. The three amino acids that make up the BCAAs are valine, leucine, and isoleucine. BCAAs are classified as essential because the body cannot produce them. You must get them through diet and/or supplementation.
As we mentioned previously, BCAAs are naturally found in protein sources, including milk, greek yogurt, red meat, seafood, chicken, eggs, and pork. Additionally, they are found in protein powders, most notably whey protein, which are incredibly rich in branched-chain amino acids. You can also supplement with free-form BCAAs; however, that’s not necessary unless you struggle to consume enough through diet alone.
What are the Benefits of BCAAs?
BCAAs are most touted for their ability to assist with:
- Muscle recovery
- Muscle growth
A BCAA supplement is most commonly used to promote muscle recovery and growth. Although, current research indicates that supplementing with BCAAs isn’t enough to maximize the synthetic muscle protein response. It’s recommended to supplement all nine essential amino acids, including the three BCAAs, to optimize muscle growth and muscle recovery.
BCAA supplements on their own may be beneficial for delaying physical and mental fatigue during a long bout of exercise. They may also decrease exercise-induced muscle soreness and damage.
Who Should Take BCAA Supplements?
The types of people that will benefit the most from BCAA supplements are endurance athletes, vegans and vegetarians, and those that want to optimize muscle recovery.
Since endurance athletes, especially marathon runners and triathletes, train for multiple hours at a time, consuming BCAAs may help reduce fatigue build-up, improve recovery, and help retain muscle mass. Many endurance athletes consume liquid carbs, so adding in BCAAs would be an easy way to ensure your body is getting an adequate amount of fuel to prevent excessive muscle protein breakdown.
Since BCAAs are most abundant in animal-based protein sources, supplementing with BCAAs can be very beneficial for vegans and vegetarians. Nearly all plant-protein sources are lacking in BCAAs, so it’s a good idea to drink branched-chain amino acids or essential amino acids alongside your meals to ensure you’re getting enough throughout the day.
What is Pre-Workout?
Pre-workouts are supplements that you take before training to increase energy, performance, focus, and blood flow. The most common types of pre-workout include non-stim, low-stim, moderate-stim, and high stim. What varies between the types of pre-workout is the amount of caffeine. For example, a non-stim formula contains no caffeine. Conversely, a high stim formula may contain over 400 milligrams of caffeine.
Some other common pre-workout ingredients include citrulline, betaine, creatine, beta-alanine, alpha-GPC, tyrosine, sodium, potassium, and nitrates. Every pre-workout is different. It’s a good idea to try out various ones to see what you like the most! Also, tailor your pre-workout to the type of training you do for optimal results.
What are the Benefits of Pre-Workout?
Pre-workouts are not necessary for a good workout, but they enhance your training, which may lead to more progress over time. Every pre-workout is a bit different, so make sure to look at the supplement facts panel to ensure you’re getting the proper dose of each ingredient. The best pre-workout supplement to get is one with a fully disclosed label, so you know exactly how much of each ingredient is in one serving.
The primary benefits of pre-workouts include:
- Increased energy, alertness, and focus
- Enhanced endurance, strength, power, and stamina
- Improved blood flow, nutrient, and oxygen delivery
Who Should Take Pre-Workout?
Even though pre-workouts are most popular in the bodybuilding space, as long as you are at an appropriate age (~16 years or above), nearly anyone can take a pre-workout. As we mentioned, it’s a good idea to research the product and brand beforehand to ensure you’re not buying something that could harm you. There are many “gray area” ingredients out there that have no business being in a pre-workout.
Because there are so many pre-workout options, there is really something for everyone. If you train in the afternoon or evening, opt for low or non-stim pre-workouts to avoid sleep disturbances. If you train in the morning, a moderate to high stim pre-workout will be more up your alley. Experiment with a few different ones to see what you prefer!
Although BCAAs are one of the most popular supplements in the sports nutrition industry, most people don’t gain any benefit from using them apart from consuming more water. On the other hand, if you get a well-formulated pre-workout, you can significantly enhance your performance.
Not to mention, many people don’t always “feel” like working out, but as soon as they take a pre-workout, they are ready to go! A pre-workout may help with consistency, which is key to achieving your health and fitness goals.
Regardless of what sport you participate in or what your goals are – build muscle, lose fat, gain strength — supplements are not necessary. Before buying any supplements, make sure your sleep, hydration, diet, and training program are optimized if you really want to make progress. Still, if you have already optimized these areas and are interested in exploring the potential benefits that BCAAs and pre-workout have to offer, it may be worth your while to introduce some new products into your routine!