Are BCAAs Worth It? (Hint: Not Really)

Leucine, isoleucine, valine: the holy trinity of hypertrophy-promoting EAAs? Are they truly all you need? In other words: are BCAAs worth it?

Are BCAAs Worth It? (Hint: Not Really)

TBH, despite their *waves hands in the air dramatically* impressive, scientific-sounding claims, most workout supplements aren’t worth spending money on. (Looking at you, creatine hydrochloride 👀) 

But what about branched-chain amino acids?

Are BCAAs worth it? We shall see.

What are BCAAs? 

Branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs, refer to 3 specific essential amino acids (EAAs) you must obtain from your diet: 

  1. Leucine 
  2. Isoleucine
  3. Valine

Now, you may wonder, “But why are lifters so fascinated with these 3 EAAs, in particular?” 

There are 2 reasons. 

First, of all the EAAs, leucine has the largest effect on initiating muscle protein synthesis (i.e., the process of new muscle protein production). 
Second, BCAAs are the only EAAs that can be oxidized in muscle instead of the liver. This theoretically means BCAAs may enhance the energy metabolism and, thus, the performance of working muscles during exercise.

Supposed benefits of BCAAs

So, for those 2 reasons, the supposed benefits of BCAAs are said to be:

  • Increase muscle growth
  • Reduce exercise-induced fatigue
  • Alleviate delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS

What’s with the word “supposed”? 

See, while studies support each of the benefits of BCAAs (from better hypertrophy outcomes to increased time-to-fatigue to reduced post-workout muscle soreness), there’s 1 major concern.

That is, what were BCAAs compared to in these studies? A placebo?

Think about it: how fair is it to compare BCAAs with a placebo if the participants receiving the placebo are likely to consume less muscle-building and performance-enhancing dietary protein (which, reminder, are made up of amino acids) in the first place?

Do the benefits of BCAAs hold up when nitrogen content or protein intake is matched? 

So what would make it fairer would be if:

  • BCAAs were compared against whole protein supplements with the same dietary nitrogen content (i.e., isonitrogenous)t or
  • The 2 groups (BCAAs and placebo) have sufficiently high and matched protein intakes

Only when the benefits of BCAAs still hold after satisfying either (or both) requirements can we conclude that BCAAs exert unique, additional, positive impacts on muscle growth, fatigue, and muscle soreness over whole proteins. 

Or, in other words, that BCAAs are worth it.

But are there any studies that meet either or both requirements? Thankfully, we have a handful:

2016 study published in the American Journal of Physiology, Endocrinology, and Metabolism: The researchers compared drinks containing BCAAs, leucine, or all 9 EAAs, with the leucine content matched between all 3. For most muscle protein synthesis markers, drinks containing:

All 9 EAAs performed similarly or better than BCAAs
All 9 EAAs and BCAAs outperformed leucine-only drinks
2016 study published in the American Journal of Physiology (Cell Physiology): Same design and findings as the 2016 study above.
2018 study published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism: The researchers compared 4 types of beverages containing 1) carbohydrates (CHO), 2) BCAAs, 3) CHO + BCAAs, and 4) placebo. Participants had an adequately high protein intake of 1.6 to 1.7 g/kg of body weight daily. And what did the researchers find? Answer: no differences in performance between conditions.

Finally, let’s use 2 statements from a 2022 systematic review of 21 studies published in Nutrients to help tie everything together:

  1. “Although BCAAs tended to activate anabolic signals, the benefits on performance and body composition were negligible.”
  2. “Most of the studies did not report the total protein intake across the day and, consequently … the potential benefits of isolated BCAA supplementation among athletes to attenuate muscle soreness and delay fatigue need to be interpreted with caution.”

At this point, the answer to “Are BCAAs worth it?” may seem to be a resounding no (provided you’re eating an adequate amount of dietary protein daily). 

But what if you’re trying to justify the existence of a brightly-colored BCAAs bottle in your pantry by saying that it helps with general health, like improving blood glucose control and liver conditions? 


Unfortunately, research suggests you’re grasping at straws.
Maintain healthy blood sugar levels?

BCAAs are known to influence the body’s response to carbohydrates. Isoleucine, in particular, helps induce the uptake of freely available blood glucose into cells. But does that mean BCAAs will help you maintain a flatter glucose curve? 🙅‍♀️Doesn’t look like it; 4 trials have now shown that a 1-time dose of ~7.5 g of BCAAs was not able to lower blood sugar or affect insulin secretion reliably.
Improve liver disease outcomes?

While several meta-analyses have shown that BCAAs could improve clinical outcomes in individuals with liver diseases, it’s unclear whether the positive effects are simply due to an increased amino acid intake. After all, protein deficiency is often associated with liver disease

Bottom line? The health benefits of BCAAs are just as unconvincing as their lifting-related ones. 

BCAAs side effects

Let’s face it. 

Things are looking really bad for BCAAs right now. If they were a celebrity, they’d almost certainly be canceled right now.

But do BCAAs truly have zero redeeming qualities? 

Um, in a pinch, we could say BCAAs aren’t all bad because of their extraordinary A+ safety profile. Studies show that BCAAs intake between 15 to 35 g daily seems generally safe and without side effects for most people. 

So, are BCAAs worth it?

Is that sufficient to change our stance on whether BCAAs are worth it (which, FYI, currently remains a firm no), though? 

Of course not. 

It’s senseless to spend money on a workout supplement that doesn’t give you additional benefits over consuming an adequately high level of protein intake daily just because it’s safe to. 

And even if you struggle to hit your daily protein requirements or have specific dietary and/or textural preferences, you have plenty of better-than-BCAAs alternatives around:

  • In general? Go for a protein shake.
  • Following a plant-based diet? Choose a complete plant-based protein source, such as soy, pea, and hemp. Or go for a blend of plant-based protein sources.
  • Want a lighter consistency in your protein shakes? Consider isolates. 
To conclude … are BCAAs worth it? No.

Save your money for workout supplements that truly work — learn what those are in this article:

Workout Supplements Guide: What’s (Really) Worth Buying?
Discover the 3 workout supplements known to reliably promote muscle growth and/or gym performance, plus how to use them for maximum efficacy.