Next up in our sports performance supplement series: Creatine and BCAAs!
If you’ve ventured into the world of strength training, chances are you’ve started to hear about the wonders of supplementation in your diet. Two popular contenders for your supplement dollars are Creatine and Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs).
Both claim to improve performance, whether through fatigue-busting, quicker recovery, or strength increases. But do they work, and how can you use them to your advantage?
What it is: Creatine is a substance that occurs naturally in the body, and can be found in protein-rich foods like meat and fish. Once it’s in your body, it turns into creatine phosphate which helps to make adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is the fuel for muscular contraction, so it’s pretty important.
It’s often used by bodybuilders in bulking phases to help with muscle building, allowing them to work harder and longer when training.
What it claims:
- Improved strength and power output
- Increased lean muscle mass
- Quicker muscle recovery
- Improved athletic performance in high-intensity activity
- improved alertness
Does it work?
The science on creatine is a mixed bag. It hasn’t been studied long-term, but there have been a fair number of reputable studies conducted. Studies have found that quick bursts of strength (think explosive, heavy lifting) are improved when creatine has been supplemented, but there is no credible evidence that it improves endurance. Also, not everyone who uses it sees a benefit from use.
Logically, having more available stored energy in your muscles is a good thing – but our muscles cells have a threshold of how much creatine they can hold. Especially if you already eat a lot of red meat, supplementation might just result in really expensive pee, as you’ll excrete the creatine you don’t need.
Some studies have also shown that women hold less creatine in their muscle cells, so if you’re getting a lot from your diet, supplementation may not make a big performance difference.
Side effects can include: water retention, stomach cramping (if not enough water is taken with creatine) and diarrhea (if too much creatine is taken).
So, should I take it?
Maybe. It’s not harmful to try, and it may improve your short-burst performance.
If you are going to take it, the most popular route is to follow a loading protocol – generally 20g creatine for 5 days (or a more gentle 10g for 10-14 days), then 2-5g for maintenance, depending on how much creatine you’re getting naturally from your diet (more red meat=less supplementation). 5g creatine is roughly a teaspoon and micronized creatine is the cheapest and most effective form to supplement with. It’s best to take creatine during an insulin spike, so that it gets to your muscle cells more quickly, so take it post-workout with juice or a shake with protein and carbs.
Creatine is a supplement that you need to take on an ongoing basis for efficacy, so once you start, be prepared to keep it up.
Next up, Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs):
What they are: You’ve already heard about Amino Acids, which are the building blocks of protein. Nine amino acids are essential, are you can’t live without them. Up to 33% of our muscle tissue is made up of three of these essential amino acids – leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
It’s important to ingest BCAAs every day, and that’s why many protein sources in your diet already contain them (like meat and eggs).
What they claim:
- Reduction in fatigue and increased endurance
- Improved immune function
- Quicker recovery and decreased muscle soreness
- improved use of fat for energy
- Promotes muscle protein synthesis and increased muscle growth
Do they work:
There have been a fair number of studies conducted on BCAA supplementation and, like creatine, the results are both positive and inconclusive. Many studies suggest that fatigue might be reduced in beginner or untrained athletes when supplementing BCAAs, but there has been little proof of carry-over into higher level training.
Where the science is overwhelmingly supportive, is in muscle recovery. BCAAs are metabolized in your muscle tissue, as opposed to your liver like other amino acids. Research found that supplementing BCAAs can result in an anabolic hormone profile following resistance training (which is what you want when it comes to muscle repair and recovery). Many studies have subjects self-reporting decreased muscle soreness when using the supplement. BCAAs have also been used post-operatively to help prevent muscle catabolism. It’s plausible that this can also be achieved through adequate dietary protein.
So, should I take them?
If you feel like you’re getting a positive effect from them, go right ahead. If you’re coming back from an injury, they might help. If you have a well-balanced diet with plenty of protein already (1-1.5g/kg bodyweight), then maybe not. Even a high-level athlete can get enough from diet with the right balance of nutrients.
if you want to try them, make sure you’re not over-supplementing – it’s just a waste of your money. From Examine.com:
BCAA dosages are based on goals. The standard dosage for isoleucine is 48-72mg/kg (assuming a non-obese person). The standard leucine dosage is between 2-10g. A combination dose is 20g of combined BCAAs, with a balanced ratio of leucine and isoleucine.
You can also look into Whole Amino Acids (aka Essential Amino Acids) which are better absorbed and used by the body, but are WAY more expensive.
Supplements can definitely aid in performance, but you need to be a savvy consumer. When considering any supplement, first think about what you want to accomplish with it, make sure you’re shopping with a reliable company, and evaluate your results with an objective eye.
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