For years, many people have flocked to branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) to help them improve their recovery. Recent research has shown that although BCAAs are helpful, the benefits of including all nine essential amino acids (free form EAAs) are even better.
As a quick overview, amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Their role is to help with the synthesis of lean muscle tissue growth and the prevention of muscle loss (catabolism) – which is also helpful when dieting and going into a caloric deficit getting ready for a show or competition.
When looking at EAAs specifically, there are nine in total which includes–
As the name would imply, essential amino acids are essential because the body cannot make them when compared to other amino acids.
EAAs have come on strong since being available in a powder form to purchase. Those who exercise regularly can benefit through its use and find they are better able to not only recover but also build muscle. Newer research has been conducted that found to effectively build quality lean muscle mass you need to include all nine EAAs – not just the BCAAs like what was first thought.
While we can get amino acids from our diet, sometimes that’s not enough to truly stimulate protein synthesis and therefore we need an exogenous source (such as essential amino acid supplements). Think you can get away with using the same old BCAA supplement? Think again. A study using EAAs had a 50% increase in muscle protein synthesis when compared to BCAAs alone. That means a greater ability to pack on some serious muscle without the need to add a ton of calories to your diet.
What’s even better is the versatility of EAAs. You can use them pre-workout, intra-workout, and even post-workout – it’s completely up to you and your preference.
Let’s get down to the topic at hand now that we broke down what exactly EAAs are, how they are used, and their importance. So, what exactly can free form EAAs do for physique athletes? Below are three benefits all physique athletes (and even those who work out to improve their appearance) should get excited about.
1. Help Build Muscle
As a physique athlete, adding lean muscle mass while still maintaining your symmetry and aesthetics is important. Conditioning wins shows but you at least want to build upon your physique and add some quality mass so that when you diet down, you’re not standing next to all the other competitors and look like a little boy. EAAs can help you see the progress you wish to achieve. After all, what’s the use of going to the gym and trying to destroy yourself just to see zero gains in lean muscle? That would be a disappointment.
BCAAs (specifically Leucine) can help stimulate mTOR to kickstart protein synthesis, but not as effectively as EAAs. That being said, as mentioned earlier, the real power lies in EAAs' ability to improve muscle protein synthesis around 50% better than BCAAs. What this essentially means is that you have a greater potential to add quality lean muscle mass when supplementing with EAAs – creating a stronger anabolic response.
Surprisingly enough, it has been said that consuming a post-workout drink of just EAAs (and not a protein shake) can be just as effective for building quality lean muscle tissue and improving recovery time.
2. Aid in Preserving Muscle
For many, the thought of losing your hard-earned lean muscle mass is just about as devastating as coming home from work to find out your dog ran away. You spent all of that time in the gym building your foundation and the last thing you want to see when you look in the mirror is a smaller version of yourself – especially when everyone else who steps up on stage is constantly getting bigger and bigger while maintaining their classic lines.
That’s where the help of EAAs can come into play. EAAs help you stay anabolic and prevent your body from breaking down valuable muscle tissue to get the amino acids it needs. When you diet and put yourself in a caloric deficit, it’s not uncommon to see individuals lose some muscle – most likely because they haven’t fully understood the benefits of EAAs and are more focused on getting in their protein instead.
Now, protein isn’t bad, but EAAs have been shown to have a greater muscle protein synthesis response as well as an increase in IGF-1 levels which better allow you to not only build lean muscle mass but also maintain it better.
Something else to take into consideration is the fact that supplementing with EAAs can help reduce cortisol levels as well as help increase natural testosterone levels. Both of these play a major role in preserving lean muscle tissue and preventing the body from turning catabolic. And it’s commonly known that the more muscle mass you have and can keep, the faster your basal metabolic rate (BMR) will be. This means that you’ll be able to naturally burn more muscle throughout the day – even while sleeping.
3. Supports Mood and Better Sleep
Let’s be honest, we aren’t in a good mood 100% of the time. It could be due to lack of sleep, lack of calories – a plethora of reasons. Supplementing with EAAs can help support your mood while also helping you sleep better each night. One of the EAAs, tryptophan, is used to help create the neurotransmitter serotonin which aids in putting you into a “feel-good” state. Serotonin can then help produce melatonin which plays a vital role in our ability to fall asleep as well as our circadian rhythm. This is important as sleep is where your body can rest, recover, repair, and rebuild torn down muscle fibers. Getting a minimum of seven hours of sleep each night is incredibly important to achieving the results you desire.
EAAs are also able to help reduce our appetite while increasing our energy to help counterbalance the downside of being in a caloric deficit. The use of EAAs can also support proper brain function as they can serve as precursors and critical neurotransmitters.
- Jackman SR, Witard OC, Philp A, Wallis GA, Baar K, Tipton KD. “Branched-Chain Amino Acid Ingestion Stimulates Muscle Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis following Resistance Exercise in Humans.” Frontiers in Physiology. 2017;8:390
- Moberg M, Apró W, Ekblom B, Hall G Van, Holmberg H, Blomstrand E; “Activation of mTORC1 by leucine is potentiated by branched-chain amino acids and even more so by essential amino acids following resistance exercise”; Am J Physiol Cell Physiol; 2018:874-884