This article explores why you may need to take amino acid supplements, the difference between branched-chain amino acids and essential amino acids, plus the pros and cons of amino acid pills vs. powder supplements so you'll know which one to choose for overall convenience and effectiveness.
Why Do You Need Amino Acids?
If you're trying to lose weight or build muscle, amino acids could be the boost you're waiting for. Why is that? Because while both can be accomplished with increased muscle mass, you cannot build muscle without all nine essential amino acids.
Your amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and protein is what you need for muscle growth. Essential amino acids (EAAs) are so-called because it's essential that you ingest them—your body cannot make these amino acids on its own.
Your nine essential amino acids include: histidine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine, methionine, valine, phenylalanine, threonine, and tryptophan. Without the proper amount of each of one, you won't get protein synthesis for new muscle no matter how hard you work out, because your body simply doesn't have the ingredients. It's sort of like trying to make a cake with everything but flour, or trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle with the corner and side pieces missing. You can try, but you won't get the desired result no matter how much time and effort you put in.
The Difference Between EAAs, Branched-Chain Amino Acids and Other Protein Supplements
Many protein powders and amino acid supplements contain handfuls of amino acids, often the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which are valine, leucine, and isoleucine. For example, creatine is a type of protein found in dietary protein (animal meats) and produced by some of your nonessential amino acids, while whey protein contains all EAAs in one amount or another (though not always the optimal amount of each).
Taking these products as dietary supplements pre-, during, or post-workouts can help prevent muscle soreness, boost muscle protein synthesis, and aid in muscle recovery. They can even help prevent muscle tissue loss while you sleep. The fitness-minded often use casein protein supplements for just that, due to its slow digestion rate (though amino acid supplementation prevents catabolism while you sleep just as well, if not better).
Amino Acid Pills or Powder: Which Works Best?
So much of sports nutrition is counting, measuring, weighing, and timing: wouldn't a pill or capsule be so much easier? Think about it: pre-workout, just take a pill; post-workout, just take another pill! It sounds almost too good to be true, and by the end of this in-depth explanation, you may agree that is indeed the case.
Let's talk about the difference between powdered and pill forms of these essential nutrients, and which one works better for athletic performance, weight loss, and muscle building.
The Pros and Cons of Pre-Workout Amino Acid Pills
When deciding between amino acid pills and powders, use this pros and cons cheatsheet.
The upsides to pill or capsule EAA supplements are easy to imagine: they're as simple to transport as vitamins, can be taken with minimal (if any) water requirements, and involve zero mixing. They're time-savers, they're convenient, and they come pre-measured. What could go wrong?
One of the biggest cons: proper dosages. The amount of capsules, soft gels, or pills you would have to take pre-workout to meet the amounts of amino acids used in clinical studies might not be as convenient as you think, especially if you're supplementing as a professional athlete or bodybuilder. You just can't fit 25 grams of protein into a half-gram pill.
Another con: the digestion time. A capsule or tablet has be to be digested once consumed, and not only does that require time and energy, but it also means that whatever fillers or gelatin that's keeping the pill together is also getting ingested, when all you really want are your essential amino acids.
During particularly high-intensity workouts, it's helpful to take EAAs before, during, and after workouts in different amounts, and it's hard to get the timing right if you're ingesting pills instead of powder. Not only that, all the time spent measuring powder isn't avoided if you have to keep doing math on the dosage amounts of pills.
Long story short: some substances work well in pill form, like caffeine, but not so much a full host of essential amino acids.
The Pros and Cons of Pre-Workout Amino Acid Powder
Amino acid powders, whether you're using a complete EAA supplement or a medley of different protein supplements, are faster acting, longer lasting, and don't involve swallowing large, hard objects. Amino acid powder products can give you anywhere from 10-30 grams of active ingredients in one serving, and puts them to work ASAP as soon as you ingest them.
Those supplement powder containers can be awfully big sometimes, so much so that there have actually been multiple class-action lawsuits filed against some companies based on the size of their containers being too big for the product itself, with consumers finding them half or even a third full. You can't be carting a container big enough to be a drum to the gym and back every day, nor is it always convenient to blend up a shake just before leaving the office to go work out. It would be nice to get the EAAs that can step up your lean muscle mass in pill form, but...the pros and cons weigh more heavily in the direction of choosing powdered supplements over pills.
Take A Powder...Literally
At the end of the day, creatine, whey, weight-gain, EAA, and BCAA supplements simply don't work well in pill form; you just need so much more than a pill or capsule can deliver in the right window of time. It's less a question of personal preference than it is a basic math equation. The powdered forms of these amino acid supplements are superior when it comes to all the key points of effectiveness, though it is fun to dream of a day when you can get perfectly enhanced exercise performance from one little pill.