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Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are supplements that are popular among athletes and those looking to build muscle. Amino acids help the body build protein, which is vital for building and growing new muscle.

BCAAs may help decrease recovery time after intense workouts and provide the body with the tools it needs to build muscle.

However, they may not be right in every situation. BCAAs may not be necessary for everyone, and there are some alternatives to keep in mind when choosing the best BCAA products.

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BCAAs are a group of important amino acids for the body.

There are 20 total amino acids, and the body can make many of them by itself.

However, there are nine essential amino acids that the body cannot produce and that must come from the diet. These nine essential amino acids are:

  • lysine
  • phenylalanine
  • threonine
  • tryptophan
  • methionine
  • histidine
  • leucine
  • isoleucine
  • valine

People who eat a balanced diet will generally get enough of each essential amino acid.

Of the nine amino acids above, three have a chain in their molecular structure that branches off to the side. Experts refer to them as BCAAs. They are:

  • leucine
  • isoleucine
  • valine

BCAAs make up a large part of the body’s amino acids, especially in the muscles. One 2019 review notes that BCAAs make up about 50% of the essential amino acids in muscle protein.

As the body breaks down muscle protein and amino acids, such as by working out, having a ready supply of amino acids may help build or repair muscle faster and ensure that there is no muscle mass loss.

The theory behind the benefits of BCAAs is that having them in the body around the time of working out means that they are readily available for use as the body needs them.

This could help repair the muscle and build muscle quickly, leading to more strength and less muscle loss.

Also, people using BCAAs may experience fewer symptoms after a workout, such as soreness or tiredness while recovering. BCAAs may also help with reducing recovery time between workouts, meaning that a person is ready to train again sooner.

Although many people use BCAAs regularly and may feel these benefits, the results of studies testing BCAAs are mixed.

What does the research say?

The authors of a 2019 review observed that BCAA supplementation reduced delayed onset muscle soreness after exercise.

A 2017 review notes that long-term use of BCAAs may offer some benefit for low to moderate muscle damage from exercise. However, there is little evidence for damage from high-intensity workouts or major muscle damage.

According to a 2019 review, evidence suggests that BCAAs stimulate muscle protein synthesis after exercise but that the other essential amino acids are also important for this process.

The researchers note that BCAA supplementation alone does not appear to enhance muscle protein synthesis more than consuming high-quality protein sources containing all the essential amino acids.

Other essential amino acids are also important in building and repairing muscle. For example, a 2020 study in rodents found that combining BCAAs with another amino acid, L-alanine, helped increase their availability during exercise.

The researchers behind this study also show their support for BCAA use in general for people who follow a regular moderate-intensity exercise program.

Further research will need to expand on the benefits of BCAAs before scientists can make any broad claims.

BCAAs are a natural and essential part of the human diet, and therefore, there is usually little risk of side effects — particularly if an individual follows the manufacturer’s instructions. It is not advisable to exceed the dosage stated on the packaging.

People with medical conditions should consult a doctor before taking BCAA supplements to ensure their safety.

Anyone who experiences serious side effects should stop taking the supplement and seek guidance from a healthcare professional right away.

The exact dosage will vary based on a few factors. For example, some manufacturers will offer dosing guides with their product, which can help give a range for each person based on their body weight and activity levels.

Typically, a person will combine a scoop of BCAA powder with water, mix it, and consume it. Capsules are also available.

For the average person following a regular workout routine, it may be best to take BCAAs around the time of exercising, within 1 hour on either side of the workout.

BCAAs may be best for competitive athletes, people following a restrictive diet, and those who do not get enough essential amino acids from their diet.

Many BCAA supplements are available on the market. Below, we list six products that people may wish to try.

Please note that the writer of this article has not tried these products. All product information is purely research-based.

Cellucor Alpha Amino Performance BCAAs

Best for recovery

This product is a flavorful, low calorie option that contains no carbohydrates. The blend contains electrolyte salts and provides 5 grams (g) of BCAAs per serving.

The supplement is available in watermelon flavor and uses sucralose as a sweetener.

At the time of publication, Cellucor Alpha Amino Performance BCAAs cost $29.50 for 381 g.

Optimum Nutrition BCAA 1000 Capsules

Best for pre-workout

These capsules provide a convenient form of a simple BCAA blend. Each serving delivers 1 g of BCAAs to help keep the body supplied with BCAAs. People should also follow a healthy diet while taking these capsules.

The supplement is available in 60 and 400 counts.

At the time of publication, Optimum Nutrition BCAA 1000 Capsules cost $7.98 for 60 capsules, and $26.84 for 400 capsules.

BPI Sports Best BCAA Powder

Best for post-workout

This BCAA powder comes in a variety of flavors and provides 5 g of BCAA per serving, in addition to conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Some research suggests that CLA may help reduce body fat and increase lean muscle mass.

This supplement is available in grape flavor and uses sucralose as a sweetener.

At the time of publication, BPI Sports Best BCAA Powder costs $21.98.

Naked Nutrition Naked BCAAs

Best for vegans and vegetarians

This is a pure plant-based option suitable for vegans and vegetarians. The product is also free from soy and gluten. Each serving delivers 5 g of BCAAs, and the only other ingredient is sunflower lecithin.

The supplement is unflavored and unsweetened.

At the time of publication, Naked Nutrition Naked BCAAs cost $34.99.

NOW Sports BCAA Powder

Best unflavored powder

This BCAA powder is good manufacturing practice-assured and kosher with dairy. It is also free from soy and genetically modified organisms.

The manufacturers state that a person should take this product before and after exercise. The company also notes that an individual can add it to a protein powder shake.

The supplement is unflavored and contains no sugar or sweeteners.

At the time of publication, NOW Sports BCAA Powder has a list price of around $26.

Thorne Research Amino Complex

Best for different flavors

The manufacturers of this product claim that it contains the purest possible ingredients and that all products have received third-party certification. The company also states that the product is free from major allergens and contains no gluten, soy, dairy, yeast, shellfish, or fish.

The supplement is available in lemon or berry flavor. It does not contain any sweeteners.

At the time of publication, Thorne Research Amino Complex has a list price of around $42.

Although many people choose to use BCAA supplements for their convenience, the amino acids are also present in foods.

Some good food sources of BCAAs include:

  • lean meat
  • fish
  • poultry
  • eggs
  • yogurt
  • grains
  • beans and legumes
  • seeds
  • nuts

Eating a wide variety of natural protein sources such as these may be enough to ensure that the body gets its essential amino acids each day.

BCAA products offer people simple access to some essential amino acids. Although research is still inconclusive, many athletes regularly use BCAAs to reduce their recovery time and decrease symptoms such as muscle soreness.

People can get all the amino acids they need through a healthy diet. BCAAs may be best for those following restrictive diets and individuals who want a convenient supplement.