Amino Acid Powder: The Top 10 Benefits

Learn about the difference between BCAAs and EAAs, plus the top 10 health benefits of amino acid powders and when it’s best to take them for optimal workout performance. 

Amino acid powders are supplements taken much the same way as protein powders like creatine and whey protein. They are important to muscle building for a very simple reason: they are the bricks and mortar of your muscles, and without them your body cannot synthesize new muscle for repair or growth.

Many people are familiar with branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), used by bodybuilders and the fitness-minded alike, but BCAAs are only three of the nine essential amino acids (EAAs) required for muscle creation. For more on the difference between BCAA and EAA supplements, plus the benefits you can expect from supplementing with amino acids, read on.

Top 10 benefits of amino acid powders.

BCAAs vs. EAAs

The three BCAAs are valine, leucine, and isoleucine, and they make up about 35% of our muscle protein. They are isolated for supplementation because they reduce the amount of protein breakdown that occurs due to vigorous workouts, and they help preserve the muscle’s stores of glycogen, which is the muscles’ quickest energy source. Leucine is the big player among the three, and it’s also one of the main components of whey protein.

However, the reason people sometimes consume BCAAs instead of whey protein is because when these amino acids aren’t bound up with other components, they can digest and absorb faster, giving them a bigger impact as a workout supplement. The reason some people take complete EAA supplements over BCAAs is similar: you can’t increase your muscle mass without all nine of them, meaning that a full court of EAAs has an even greater positive impact on your fitness goals.

The essential amino acids include:

  • Phenylanine
  • Valine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Methionine
  • Histidine
  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine

If you ever need a mnemonic device to remember them (taking a biology quiz maybe?), notice that in this order, the first letter of each essential amino acid spells out Pvt. T.M. Hill: good old private T.M. Hill can help you remember your EAAs, just as Roy G. Biv can help you remember the order of the colors in the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet).

Essential amino acids are so called because they’re needed in your body, but your body can’t create them itself, so it’s essential that you gain them by ingesting them.

Essential amino acids are indispensable, and there are six more amino acids that are considered conditionally essential—arginine, cysteine, glycine, glutamine, proline, and tyrosine. Their creation in the body isn’t always possible (like when we are infants). The rest of the amino acids are made in-house by your body.

The Top 10 Benefits of Amino Acid Powder

When your goal is to build lean muscle with your workouts, protein is key, and you can’t have protein without amino acids. Here are the best benefits you can expect from taking amino acid powder as a workout supplement.

1. Balanced Dosages

The great thing about getting your amino acids in powdered supplement form is the same perk you get when using meal replacement shakes for weight loss: it comes pre-measured, guaranteeing that you receive the proper ratio of amino acids every time. Even high-quality protein supplements don’t always take into account the ideal ratio of amino acids that are scientifically required for building new muscles, so when shopping for the right workout aid, be sure to purchase a comprehensive and balanced amino acid powder, one that has exactly what you need in precisely the right amounts.

2. Improved Muscle Growth

Leucine especially shines here, as it has been clinically shown to boost muscle protein synthesis after physical exercise. That window of post-workout recovery is when your muscles are wide open for material to rebuild the cells that were damaged during exercise, and create even more muscle in preparation for the next workout. For more on the best time to take amino acid powder, read (or skip!) to the end of this article.

3. Increased Endurance

Amino acid supplements alter the way your body uses fuel, namely by changing the way you burn carbs and fat. Athletes like sprinters who require short bursts of strong energy have to deal often with glycogen depletion from their muscles. There’s only so much glycogen your muscles can hold, and if you use it up too quickly, you’ll run into fatigue or exhaustion and will have to cut your workout short. With amino acid supplementation, however, glycogen stores are better protected, as was seen in this 2011 study involving 7 men who were put through a workout designed to sap their glycogen supply. Those given amino acids instead of a placebo had a 17.2% increase in how long it took them to hit the wall of exhaustion.

4. Better Fat Burning

Amino acids protect glycogen stores by burning fat instead of glycogen for fuel. Amino acids help to retrain your body’s metabolic processes. For instance, the amino acid L-carnitine has been shown to increase fat loss without any other changes being made to your diet or exercise routine. If you’re on a low-carb diet like the ketogenic diet, even better: your body will learn to access your fat stores for energy as much as possible, because it can’t get the quick energy from carbohydrate intake.

5. Reduced Fatigue

Piggybacking off the above-mentioned benefits, amino acids have the ability to prevent the mental fatigue that can accompany really long workouts. When your amino acids are low, such as during a grueling workout, your body works to produce more, specifically tryptophan. And when the amino acid tryptophan gets too low, its production leads to feelings of mental fatigue and tiredness (it’s why turkey is considered sleep-inducing—the tryptophan in the meat!). If you’re supplementing with the proper amount of amino acids, this process never has to begin, and thus there is no extra tryptophan running around making you feel depleted and tired.

6. Increased Focus

Without extra tryptophan making you soporific, your mental focus is able to sharpen. Amino acid supplements have been shown to boost your short-term memory and mental processing abilities, and so are particularly valuable in competitive sports or contests, when fast strategizing can help you win.

7. Muscle Sparing

When you workout, you’re causing little micro-tears in your muscles. It’s necessary damage, sort of like how you need to be exposed to viruses to develop an immunity to them (it’s the reasoning behind vaccines, which contain deactivated viral cells).

Usually the muscle damage is minimal, just enough to stimulate your body into sending resources to repair and then rebuild bigger, better, and stronger muscles than ever before. Sometimes, however, muscles are broken down out of desperation for energy. This is catabolism, a destructive form of metabolism, and those who work out hard, especially bodybuilders, know to guard against it.

During the day you can feed your body energy, but what is your body eating while you sleep? In some instances it resorts to cannibalizing itself in a sense, breaking down the muscle you’ve worked so hard to build. Amino acids can help prevent catabolism by protecting your muscle fibers from taking too much damage in the first place; plus you can supplement right before going to bed (but more on when to take amino acid powders below).

8. Improved Post-Workout Recovery

Free amino acids in an amino acid powder are quickly absorbed, which helps increase your muscle protein synthesis rate and shorten your post-workout recovery time. The muscle soreness that used to linger can be dispatched much quicker with proper amino acid supplementation. Quicker recoveries mean you can work out again sooner, putting you in a virtuous cycle (the opposite of a vicious cycle), where workout and recovery revolve around one another in beneficial harmony.

9. Reduced Muscle Soreness

Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can be a real hinderance to your fitness goals, but because amino acids help protect your muscles better and rebuild them quicker, they’ve been scientifically shown to reduce muscle soreness.

10. Improved Athletic Performance

When you count up all the ways amino acid supplements aid you and your muscles, the finally tally shows that they improve your overall athletic performance in more ways than one. Smarter, better, faster, stronger: amino acid powders can help you be all of these things with just a few scoops a day.

When to Take Amino Acid Powder

The fourth edition of Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning states that our muscles are particularly receptive to amino acid supplements within the first 48 hours after a workout. Likewise a study published in Frontiers in Physiology asserts that 5.6 grams of just BCAAs ingested after strength training exercise leads to a 22% increase in muscle protein synthesis. Similarly the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition reminds us that you need a healthy supply of all the essential amino acids to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, which is why we recommend a comprehensive EAA blend when seeking to build muscle tissue.

A number of studies have shown that all nine EAAs play important roles in muscle growth and repair, and when it comes to the timing of when you should consume your essential amino acid powder supplement, you almost can’t go wrong: pre-workout, intra-workout, and post-workout, plus another helping before bed if you’re concerned about catabolism. While some forms of workout will require more or less supplementation regarding dosage amounts, pairing amino acid supplementation with a high-protein diet will have you covered.

The Amino Advantage

In your quest to build lean muscle mass through working out and eating right, consider adding a high-quality, gluten free, non-GMO amino acid powder like the one we offer here at Amino Co. Amino acid powders give you an extra advantage in all your workout and sporting goals.

What Are the Best Muscle Recovery Foods?

Wondering what muscle recovery foods are good for prevention and relief of delayed onset muscle soreness? This comprehensive list of foods full of healthy fats, amino acids, and natural sugars will support your workout and recovery goals.

After starting a new workout, you’re in for some growing pains. Delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS can affect anyone, from those new to working out to elite athletes incorporating different exercises into their routines. Whenever you push your muscles, either with unfamiliar exercises or longer durations, you’re creating microscopic tears to the muscles, which then cause stiffness, soreness, and pain. Are sore muscles a good sign? Yes, in a sense, because it means you’re using your muscles in new ways that will eventually lead to a better fitness profile. But don’t fret! Eating muscle recovery foods can help ease the discomfort and may even help decrease muscle soreness in the first place.

Using food as your method of recovery and prevention may truly be the best road to take. The other suggestions to help muscle recovery either take extra time or come with other risks, and none of them can get in front of DOMS before it starts. Getting a massage after every workout would be great, but do you have the time, the money? Rest and ice packs are perfectly reasonable options too, but it’s the rest that might bother you if you’re really excited about a new workout and seeing results. Do you really want to take a couple of days off after every workout to let your muscles recover? It might not be a bad idea, but with the right foods pre- and post-workout, it might not be necessary either.

The last refuge to treat the ache and pain of muscle soreness is to use painkillers. Whether it’s over the counter fare you’d take for any pains (a wincing headache for example, or to relieve menstrual cramps), or prescription painkillers meant for more serious pains (a wrenched back or dental surgery). And these pain killers come with health-compromising side effects that are best avoided.

So what can you eat that will make a difference? Here are some foods you might want to include on the menu on gym days.

 Muscle recovery foods for prevention and relief.

Muscle Recovery Foods

Whether for their protein content, iron content, anti-inflammatory properties, or amino acids, these foods can help your muscles heal faster.

Cottage Cheese

Cottage cheese has around 27 grams of protein per cup, and is often a regular food in the fitness community for those without any dietary restrictions surrounding milk products. In fact, the casein protein found in cottage cheese curds (as opposed to the whey protein found in watery milk) are often isolated and used as a workout protein supplement. As a slow-digesting protein, casein can help build and rebuild muscle while you sleep if it’s your last snack before bed.

The essential amino acid leucine is also present in cottage cheese, and comprises around 23% of the essential amino acids in muscle protein (the most abundant percentage of them all). Foods with leucine can help you build muscle by activating protein synthesis, and the faster you rebuild your muscle, the faster your muscle repair and workout recovery!

Eat it plain, or combine cottage cheese with some of the other recovery foods on this list to stack the benefits. Cottage cheese can even be used in baked goods and pancakes or included in protein shakes—don’t be afraid to get creative.

Sweet Potatoes

Adding sweet potatoes to your post-workout meal can help replenish your glycogen stores after a tough workout. Sweet potatoes are a great source of vitamin C and beta-carotene as well, and are loaded with fiber which helps to control appetite and maintain healthy digestion and build muscle.

Sweet potatoes can be baked whole in the oven or on a grill, cut into fries, spiced with cinnamon, or made savory with garlic powder and pepper. Enjoy them at the dinner table or on the go: a baked potato wrapped in foil can join you just about anywhere.

Baking Spices

Speaking of what you can put on sweet potatoes, it turns out some baking spices are good for post-workout recovery as well. Not so much in the form of gingerbread cookies or cinnamon rolls, but a study showed that cinnamon or ginger given to 60 trained young women (between the ages of 13 and 25) significantly reduced their muscle soreness post-exercise. If you’re already having a sweet potato, make it a little sweeter with some cinnamon, add it to oatmeal, or put some in your coffee for the extra boost.

Coffee

Did we just mention coffee? Good news: coffee’s on the list too. Research suggests that about 2 cups of caffeinated coffee can reduce post-workout pain by 48%, and another study showed that pairing caffeine with painkilling pharmaceuticals resulted in a 40% reduction of the drugs taken. If you do need pharmaceutical pain relief, maybe coffee can help you minimize just how much you take—caffeine is a much less dangerous stimulant than pain pills.

Turmeric

Another spice on the list, turmeric contains the compound curcumin, which is an anti-inflammatory and an antioxidant, and has been shown to be a proven and reliable pain reliever. Whether it’s helping you with delayed onset muscle soreness or pain from an injury (workout-related or otherwise), turmeric eases both pain and swelling by blocking chemical pain messengers and pro-inflammatory enzymes.

As with the other spices, it can be easily added to baked goods, to coffee, and to oatmeal. With its beautiful golden color, you can even make what’s called “golden milk” or a turmeric latte by combining 2 cups of warm cow’s or almond milk with 1 teaspoon of turmeric and another teaspoon of ginger, and then sip your muscle soreness away.

Oatmeal

Speaking of oatmeal (and isn’t it nice that so many of these ingredients can be easily combined?), it, too, can help relieve muscle soreness. This complex carb gives you a slow and steady release of sugar, along with iron needed to carry oxygen through your blood, and vitamin B1 (thiamin), which can reduce stress and improve alertness. This is why oatmeal is a great way to start the day, but since it also includes selenium, a mineral that protects cells from free-radical damage and lowers the potential for joint inflammation, it’s a great food for those in high-intensity workout training as well (like, up to Olympic level training).

Use oatmeal as a daily vehicle for other healthy ingredients, including the spices on this list, and enjoy its reliable benefits.

Bananas

Easily sliced into oatmeal, included in smoothies, or eaten alone, not only are bananas a healthy way to replace sweets (frozen and blended they can even make a delicious ice cream alternative), bananas are also a great way to get much-needed potassium. Research suggests potassium helps reduce muscle soreness and muscle cramps like the dreaded “Charley horse” spasm that contracts your muscle against your will and might not let up until it causes enough damage to last for days. A banana a day could keep the Charley horse away, and is particularly delicious (and helpful) when paired with its classic mate: peanut butter.

Peanut Butter

The healthy fats and protein found in nut butters like peanut or almond butter can help repair sore muscles. A reliable source of protein for muscle building, with fiber for blood pressure aid, vitamin E for antioxidant properties, and phytosterols for heart health, peanut butter offers up a ton of benefit and is easy to eat anywhere. Make a sandwich, use it to help bind together portable protein balls filled with other ingredients, add it into smoothies, or just eat it from the jar with a spoon (no one’s judging).

Nuts and Seeds

If you’re a fan of protein balls, then you’re well acquainted with nuts and seeds, which are great additions to these protein-rich foods. While providing essential omega-3 fatty acids to fight inflammation, various nuts and seeds can provide you protein for muscle protein synthesis, electrolytes for hydration, and zinc for an immune system boost. Something as simple as a baggie full of almonds, walnuts, pumpkin, and cashews can help maximize your muscles. Mixing in seeds (sunflower, chia, pumpkin) adds a healthy density that can curb your hunger and satisfy your appetite for longer. They’re small but powerful assets in quick muscle recovery.

Manuka Honey

This is not your grocery store honey in its little bear- or hive-shaped bottle. Manuka honey comes from the Manuka bush in New Zealand, with a milder flavor than that of bee honey and a much thicker texture. It’s anti-inflammatory and rich in the carbs needed to replenish glycogen stores and deliver protein to your muscles. Drizzle it over yogurt or stir it into tea to gain its benefits.

Green Tea

Green tea is particularly helpful for muscle recovery purposes. With anti-inflammatory antioxidants, it makes an excellent pre- or post-workout drink to prevent muscle damage related to exercise, and also helps you stay hydrated.

Cacao

Cacao has high levels of magnesium, antioxidants, and B-vitamins, which reduce exercise stress, balance electrolytes, and boost immunity and energy levels. The antioxidant flavanols in cacao also help up the production of nitric oxide in your body, which allows your blood vessel walls to relax, lowering blood pressure and promoting healthy blood flow. Adding cacao powder to your high-quality protein shakes or a glass of cow/almond/coconut milk post-workout will bring you its benefits.

Tart Cherries

Tart cherry juice has been shown to minimize post-run muscle pain, reduce muscle damage, and improve recovery time in professional athletes like lifters, according to the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. Enjoy tart cherry juice as a drink, or include the dried fruit as a part of your own muscle-building trail mix with the nuts and seeds discussed above. It’s not the only fruit or fruit juice you might include either. The nutrients in fruits like oranges, pineapples, and raspberries can also help speed up your recovery.

Salmon

Rich with anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, muscle-building protein, and antioxidants, salmon is an extremely efficient post-workout food. Not an option if you are vegan or vegetarian, of course, but for the meat eaters among us, or those on the Paleo diet, salmon can specifically help prevent delayed onset muscle soreness, reduce inflammation, and provide you with an abundance of the protein needed for muscle growth. Eat this protein within 45 minutes after working out for maximum effect, either grilled, cooked up in salmon cakes, or raw in the form of sushi or sashimi. All of the above goes for tuna as well, by the way—reasons you might become a pescatarian.

Eggs

If you are an omnivore or ovo-vegetarian, eggs are great way to gain protein first thing in the morning, and an even more effective food to have immediately post-workout to help prevent DOMS. Like cottage cheese, eggs are a rich provider of leucine, and like salmon, eggs contain vitamin D (in their yolks). For your convenience, eggs can be boiled and brought along for immediate consumption after your training. Boil a dozen at the start of each week during your meal prep, and have an easy protein source in the palm of your hand every other day of the week.

Spinach

Did we really get all the way to the end of the list without a vegetable? So sorry! Let’s fix that with spinach. A powerhouse of antioxidants, not only can spinach help prevent diseases like heart disease and various cancers, but it also helps you recover quickly from intense exercise. Spinach’s nitrates help to strengthen your muscles, and its magnesium content helps maintain nerve function. Spinach helps to regulate your blood sugar (in case you worry about the spikes you might get from the sweeter items on this list), and can be added to many dinners, snuck into smoothies, or eaten on its own either raw or sautéed in olive oil.

Resist Damage and Recovery Quickly

These foods help with recovery from DOMS and reduce the amount of soreness you get in the first place by providing your body with the proteins and nutrients it craves when you’re working out to the best of your ability.

A quick note before you go. In your quest for pain-free muscles, you’ll want to avoid:

  • Refined sugar: Just one sugary soda a day can increase your inflammatory markers, as can white bread and other products with refined sugar. Natural sugars don’t bring that kind of adverse effect, so get your sugar from whole foods instead.
  • Alcohol: The dehydration caused by alcohol requires its own special recovery, and will deplete many of your vitamins (especially B vitamins). Some research suggests that alcohol can interfere with how your body breaks down lactic acid, which would increase muscle soreness. If you’re on a mission to build muscle, it’s best to avoid alcohol.

If you’re eating pretty well and avoiding what you shouldn’t eat, but still find muscle soreness a burden after working out, there is always the option to supplement.

What is the best supplement for muscle recovery? Evidence shows that getting all your body’s essential amino acids in balance will help specifically with muscle sprains and pulls, so when supplementing, just make sure you cover the waterfront (rather than choosing one or two essentials and neglecting the rest). Other than that, a diverse diet can be had in choosing natural preventions and remedies for healthy muscle recovery.

How to Use Amino Acids for Bodybuilding

Amino acids have become some of the most popular types of bodybuilding supplements across multiple disciplines. Both BCAAs and EAAs can be used on their own or in the form of “stacks”—specialized blends of multiple supplements that work together synergistically to provide even greater benefits than when taken on their own.

Bodybuilding usually refers to increasing and sculpting muscle mass for appearance as well as strength. In a more general sense, bodybuilding can refer to increasing muscle mass and function for the purpose of competing in sports such as football or power sports (e.qg., shot putting, discus throwing, etc.). It is a given that bodybuilding requires resistance training. If bodybuilding is for the purpose of improving competitive performance in a specific sport there are likely to be training requirements unique to that sport. This discussion on amino acids for bodybuilding will, therefore, not focus on the specific aspects of training. Regardless of the goal of training, amino acids play a key role in bodybuilding.

The Impact of Nutrition on Bodybuilding

Training tends to be the first factor most consider when seeking to build lean muscle, however, the nutrients we provide our bodies with can be equally influential—or more so—in determining how quickly we progress toward our goals. No matter how intensely you train, you will not be able to achieve the results you desire if you’re lacking certain crucial nutritional elements.

Obtaining all the nutrients you need from your diet alone in the quantities necessary for maximal bodybuilding results can be challenging. That’s where workout supplements come in.

By taking targeted sports nutrition supplements, you can ensure you get all the nutrients you need to build muscle, speed recovery time, decrease muscle soreness, amp up energy levels, and more.

Bodybuilding Supplements Then and Now

Depending on how broadly you interpret the idea of dietary supplementation, the idea of bodybuilding supplements can be traced back to ancient Greece.

According to Professor Andrew Dalby and other experts, Greek and Roman athletes consumed large quantities of meat and wine as well as herbal concoctions and tonics with the goal of increasing their strength and stamina.

In the early 1900s, Eugen Sandow, a pioneering German bodybuilder whose legacy earned him the honorific “father of modern bodybuilding,” advised all who wished to maximize their muscle growth to adhere to the dietary rules he himself followed. Bodybuilder Earle Liederman, who rose to prominence in the 1920s, recommended drinking what he called “beef juice” or “beef extract” (a substance the luminaries of today’s wellness landscape call “bone broth” and chefs simply refer to as “consommé) in order to speed muscle recovery.

In the 1950s, protein powders entered the picture as recreational and competitive bodybuilding became ever more popular with ever-broader audiences in the United States and elsewhere. Irvin P. Johnson, who operated a bodybuilding gym in Chicago, was one of the first to market egg-based protein powder. According to an article he published in Iron Man with the title “Build Bigger Biceps Faster with Food Supplements,” his specialized line of protein powders fueled serious strength gains. According to the article, he went from only being able to leg press 165 pounds for 10 repetitions to 660 pounds for 12 repetitions!

The bodybuilding supplement industry grew at an exponential rate throughout the 1970s and 1980s, fueled both by increased interest in recreational bodybuilding as well as advancements in advertising. Then, in October of 1994, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, a piece of legislation that transferred responsibility for determining the safety of dietary supplements such as protein powders and other mainstays of sports nutrition from the government to the manufacturers of the products. Unless they added a new dietary ingredient, manufacturers were no longer required to provide the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with evidence to substantiate the safety or efficacy of their products. Legal experts believe this opened the door for the supplement industry to sell even more of their products. According to a Consumer Reports publication, annual sales of sports nutrition supplements hit $2.7 billion in 2010. And according to the “Sports Nutrition and High Energy Supplements – Global Market Outlook (2017-2026)” report sports nutrition and high energy supplements made $44.58 billion in 2017 with an outlook of $124.85 billion by 2026.

Defining the Term “Bodybuilding Supplements”

Just as the term bodybuilding can encompass both physique-focused and performance-focused endeavors, so too can the term “bodybuilding supplements” encompass a multitude of dietary supplements utilized by individuals engaged in bodybuilding as well as weight lifting, mixed martial arts, and other athletic pursuits to increase lean body mass as well as bring about other desirable outcomes such as:

  • Decreased body fat
  • Sharper muscle definition
  • Enhanced athletic performance

Amino acids have become some of the most popular types of bodybuilding supplements across multiple disciplines. Both branched-chain amino acid supplements (BCAA supplements) and essential amino acids (EAAs) can be used on their own or in the form of “stacks”—specialized blends of multiple supplements that work together synergistically to provide even greater benefits than when taken on their own.

Making the Most of the Building Blocks of Protein

Amino acids have earned the nickname “the building blocks protein” because of the vital role they play in creating muscle tissue. While it’s certainly possible to obtain all the amino acids you need simply by eating high-protein foods like eggs, lean meats, legumes, vegetables, and pseudo-grains like quinoa, amino acid supplements can be a convenient and efficient way to maximize the benefits of amino acids.

One of the most compelling reasons to use supplements can be captured in a single word: bioavailability. Bioavailability refers to how efficiently a substance can be metabolized and the percentage of what’s ingested that’s utilized for its intended purpose inside the body.

Several factors determine the bioavailability of each amino acid. For example, when taking in amino acids from a food source, the amount of fat contained in that food influences the length of time it takes for amino acids to be put to use. The way you cook food can also impact the amino acids it contains. Some heat-sensitive amino acids can even decompose when cooked. And not all amino acid supplements are metabolized at the same rate. The physical nature of the supplement will have the most significant influence on its bioavailability. A BCAA powder, for instance, will be digested differently than a supplement in pill or liquid form. The extent to which a supplement is pre-digested as well as whether it contains any fillers or binders impact its overall bioavailability.

Understanding Muscle Protein Turnover

Muscle protein turnover is the metabolic basis that powers increased muscle mass, strength, and function.

Muscle protein turnover refers to the constant breakdown of older muscle proteins that are no longer operating at peak efficiency and their replacement with newly synthesized, more efficient muscle protein fibers. The balance between protein synthesis and breakdown determines whether a muscle is growing or shrinking.

Muscle function is accomplished by the contraction of muscle protein fibers. Muscle strength and function are determined by how many muscle protein fibers you have and the efficiency with which they contract. Increasing muscle protein mass and contractile efficiency is accomplished by optimizing muscle protein turnover.

For bodybuilding, the goal is to make the rate of muscle protein synthesis exceed the rate of protein breakdown. Further, the increased balance between muscle protein synthesis and breakdown should optimally be accomplished mainly by stimulating synthesis, not lessening breakdown—protein breakdown gets rid of muscle proteins that are not functioning efficiently, so it is good to keep that process functioning at full speed.

The Mechanics of Muscle Protein Synthesis

Muscle proteins are composed of a series of amino acids hooked together in a specific order determined by the messenger RNA (mRNA) in the cell for each specific muscle protein. The sequence of the mRNA is dictated by the DNA in the cell. There is a specific molecule for each amino acid (tRNA) that delivers it to the mRNA as required for incorporation into the protein that is being produced.

A simple, conceptual way to think about the process of muscle protein synthesis is to compare it to the construction of a building. The DNA is basically the idea for the design of the building. The RNA is the written plan or blueprint, and transcription of the mRNA from the DNA is the process of writing up the plan. The tRNA molecules that bring the amino acids to the mRNA for incorporation into protein are like trucks that bring bricks to the building site, and the hooking of amino acids together in the proper order on the mRNA corresponds to the builder putting the bricks together according to the blueprint. The protein is the final product, or completed building, ready to serve its function.

The details of how muscle protein is made are important only so that it is clear why all the amino acids must be available in abundance. If the mRNA dictates that the next amino acid in the chain making up the protein is a particular amino acid that is deficient, then the process is halted and no muscle protein is produced.

How Amino Acids Impact Muscle Protein Synthesis

We must derive certain amino acids, as I touched on earlier, from dietary protein. However, the human body can synthesize other amino acids through chemical reactions that occur in the liver and select sites throughout the body.

The amino acids that must be obtained from the diet are called essential amino acids, or EAAs, while the amino acids that can be made in the body are called nonessential amino acids, or NEAAS.

The nine essential amino acids are leucine, isoleucine, valine, phenylalanine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, and tryptophan. Three of the EAAs, leucine, isoleucine, and valine, have been subcategorized as branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), a descriptor which refers to their chemical structure. We typically put the number of nonessential amino acids at 11, as that’s how many NEAAs can be found in human protein, though other NEAAs like citrulline and ornithine can be found elsewhere in the body.

Since your body can produce NEAAS and they are available in abundance, the availability of EAAs serves as the limiting factor for setting the rate of muscle protein synthesis.

Using Essential Amino Acids to Stimulate Muscle Growth

Consuming essential amino acids, either as dietary protein or supplements, is the most potent stimulus of muscle protein synthesis. Consuming nonessential amino acids, either alone or with EAAs, has no impact.

EAA supplements have been shown to trigger muscle protein synthesis and increase muscle mass, strength, and physical function in at least 25 clinical trials. The muscle-building response to EAAs is 2 to 4 times greater than the muscle-building response to the same amount of a whey protein supplement. The muscle-building response to EAAs is even greater than the response to hormonal treatment with testosterone, growth hormone, or insulin.

There is one very big must when it comes to EAA supplementation, however. In order to be effective, all the EAAs are required. That being said, there are varying degrees of importance among the EAAs.

Leucine, which is both an EAA and a BCAA, is particularly important. Leucine is the most abundant EAA in muscle protein, so it should comprise the highest proportion of an EAA supplement. Beyond its role as a component of muscle protein, leucine can signal the molecular mechanisms within the cell to initiate the process of protein synthesis. Important as leucine may be, however, it cannot function alone. All the other EAAs are required as well, roughly in proportion to their relative content in muscle. It is not possible to make muscle protein from leucine alone.

The Role of Essential Amino Acids for Bodybuilding

It is clear from the above discussion that making sure you consume enough essential amino acids is an important part of bodybuilding. Even when using EAA supplements, the main source for your essential amino acids intake will likely be dietary protein. Therefore, the place to start is with your diet.

Protein is the key dietary component of the basic bodybuilding diet. It will increase your muscle mass. You should set a goal of eating approximately 30% of your caloric intake as high-quality protein.

When I say high-quality protein, I mean a protein that contains a high abundance of essential amino acids. High-quality proteins are generally animal-based proteins. These protein food sources also have a significant amount of non-protein calories. Therefore, eating a sufficient amount of high-quality protein to supply all the EAAs you need is difficult through normal diet alone.

You will most likely run into issues with the flexibility of your diet when eating this amount of high-quality protein food sources because of the non-protein calories. Therefore, EAA supplements can play a vital role in helping you meet your dietary goal for EAA intake.

While the focus of your basic diet should be high-quality protein, you must remember that energy substrates (carbohydrates and fat) are important too. As an example, in a tightly controlled study, subjects drank the same amount of protein in the form of milk. In one case, it was skim milk, and in the other case whole milk. The stimulation of muscle protein synthesis was greater with the whole milk. Under these study conditions, the additional calories provided by the fat in the whole milk helped to fuel muscle building.

You must be in a positive energy balance to gain a significant amount of muscle mass. Carbohydrate is of less importance for resistance training than it is for endurance training, but you should eat enough fruit and vegetables to meet the RDAs for micronutrients. Also, carbohydrate intake will stimulate insulin release, and insulin is an anabolic hormone that will increase the amount of muscle protein made from your EAA intake.

Fat intake will also amplify the anabolic effect of EAAs, and therefore you can eat animal-based, high-quality protein foods without worrying about eating too much fat.

What you do want to keep in mind with your bodybuilding diet is that the more you eat, the bigger you will get. If you do eat a lot while lifting heavy weights and consuming EAA supplements as recommended, a significant part of the weight gain will be muscle.

You will also gain fat with this dietary approach, so you need to carefully monitor your body composition to be sure that the extra fat you put on does not counteract the benefits of the muscle gain. In a sport like powerlifting, that is not likely to be the case, but if you are bodybuilding for appearance, you must reach a balance between muscle and fat gains. This can be accomplished by incorporating aerobic exercise into your training program.

How to Use Essential Amino Acids for Optimal Bodybuilding Results

amino acids for bodybuilding

The research documenting the optimal use of amino acids for bodybuilding is extensive. Experts can provide precise guidance on the effects of taking EAAs both pre-workout and post-workout.

Consuming 15 grams of EAAs 30 minutes before starting your workout will elevate blood concentrations of essential amino acids throughout your workout and stop the muscle breakdown that would otherwise occur. A 15-gram dose of EAAs achieves a greater response on muscle protein synthesis than either casein or whey protein can, without creating the fullness that can hinder a workout.

Then immediately after your workout, take another 15 grams of EAAs. One hour later, take another 15-gram dose.

These recommendations stem from the assumption that you will be working out every day. When you do take off days, you should still consume the same amount of EAAs. Instead of using your workouts to determine the timing, however, take your EAAs between meals.

Between the completion of dinner and breakfast the next morning, you may go for 12 hours or more without food. During this post-absorptive time, muscle tissue breakdown transpires in order to supply amino acids to tissues and organs that have no protein reserve. Therefore, to fuel maximal muscle-building response around the clock, you should consume another 15 grams of EAAs before bedtime. If you have wholly committed to maximizing muscle gain, you can even set your alarm for a final dose at about 4 am.

Alternatively, you can take 20 grams of casein protein at bedtime. Because casein coagulates in the stomach, your body digests it at a slower rate, meaning the amino acids it contains are then absorbed over many hours. While the anabolic effect will be less than if you take the EAAs, this approach will save you the trouble of getting up in the middle of the night.

The total amount of supplemental EAAs you ingest should be in the range of 60 grams per day. Consuming this amount of EAAs will stimulate the production of new muscle protein without you having to also take in a significant amount of non-protein calories. The result will be a lean body with increased muscle mass and minimal increase in fat mass. Sixty grams of EAAs in addition to what you eat as part of your bodybuilding diet is needed to drive protein synthesis past what may be your normal genetic limit.

Do EAA Supplements Have Side Effects?

This a reasonable question, because bodybuilding requires a much higher than average EAA intake. An important caveat to state up front is that I am focusing exclusively on side effects from EAA supplements.

When your EAAs come from an unusually high amount of dietary protein intake, that will increase the rate of amino acid oxidation and as a result, burden the kidneys to excrete the ammonia and urea that are natural byproducts of NEAA oxidation.

The great thing about EAA supplements, however, is that there is no such increased oxidation of NEAAs when EAAs are consumed. This is because NEAAs are not also being consumed but are rather being produced in the body. In fact, the oxidation of the NEAAs actually goes down, since they are being incorporated into protein at an increased rate.

Consequently, there is no reason to worry about the side effects of EAA supplements. The FDA has determined EAA supplements to be Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS), while the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Science has determined that there is no upper limit of consumption beyond which would not be safe.

Should I Take Amino Acids Pre-Workout?

The before, during, or after debate on amino acids for working out can leave you utterly confused as to when you should take your amino acid supplement. I’ll cover the details, but the quick and easy answer to the question should I take amino acids pre-workout is yes!

The before, during, or after debate on amino acids for working out can leave you utterly confused as to when you should take your amino acid supplement. I’ll cover the details, but the quick and easy answer to the question should I take amino acids pre-workout is yes! An amino acid pre-workout powder can help support muscle building, reduce the breakdown of muscle, increase blood flow to the muscle during your workout, and help prevent fatigue and boost performance.

Why Amino Acids Make Ideal Pre-Workout Supplements

You’re taking your sports nutrition goals seriously. You load your plate with whole foods and make sure to prioritize quality protein at every meal. Maybe you’re even incorporating protein powder or other dietary supplements into your regimen. You commit to each training session. You should be seeing major muscle growth gains and yet, you seem to be stuck.

The problem may be that you’re ignoring just how essential a role the fittingly named essential amino acids play when it comes to increasing your muscle mass. No matter how much time you put into weight training, if you fail to provide your muscles with the raw materials they need to grow, you won’t see the results you’re craving.

Key Facts About Amino Acids

You may have heard amino acids described as the building blocks of protein. That’s not a bad description, but it doesn’t entirely do justice to the importance of amino acids.

Not only do amino acids provide structural integrity to protein, but they’re also vital to the synthesis and metabolism of proteins, enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters. They regulate the activity of numerous metabolic pathways. They contribute to cognitive function. In short, amino acids are involved in just about everything that occurs inside the human body.

There are 20 amino acids present in the human body. Nine of those are called essential amino acids because unlike the others, your body cannot synthesize them de novo—in plain English, they can’t be made from scratch. Instead, it’s essential that you supply your body with these amino acids via the food you eat or supplements you take.

Researchers have categorized six of the other amino acids as conditionally essential. Under most circumstances, your body can produce these amino acids, but when you’re under extreme duress, that ability becomes compromised.

The remaining four amino acids get grouped together as nonessential. In some instances, you’ll see people refer to 11 nonessential amino acids—when they do so, they’re simply lumping in the 7 conditionally essential amino acids listed above. Your body absolutely needs the nonessential amino acids, but it also has the ability to synthesize them, so it’s nonessential that you get them from your diet.

The easy answer to the question should I take amino acids pre-workout is yes! An amino acid pre-workout powder can help support muscle building and boost performance.

When it comes to using amino acid supplements to facilitate muscle growth and muscle recovery, all the key players can be found on that list of the nine essential amino acids. Here are some key facts about what each of these amino acids does inside your body.

Phenylalanine 

The analgesic (pain-killing) and antidepressant properties of this amino acid typically spark the most excitement. It’s also a precursor to norepinephrine and dopamine, two of the feel-good brain chemicals. When it comes to sports nutrition, the primary benefit of phenylalanine is that due to its ability to raise norepinephrine and dopamine levels in your brain, it may lower your rate of perceived exertion during exercise, helping you stay in a positive headspace through even the most grueling endurance exercise workouts. Our bodies also need phenylalanine to produce metabolism-regulating thyroid hormones.

Valine

A true power player when it comes to muscle synthesis, valine is both an essential amino acid and a branched-chain amino acid (BCAA)—more on these later. One of valine’s main functions is preventing muscle breakdown. That means if you take valine prior to or during an exercise session, it can help decrease muscle damage, allowing you to recover faster. Valine also stimulates your central nervous systems and regulates blood sugar levels.

Threonine

This amino acid helps keep your connective tissues and muscles strong and elastic, in part because it’s a precursor for two other amino acids: serine and glycine. The benefits of glycine have received a lot of attention from researchers lately. Studies show it can encourage muscle growth as well as decrease muscle loss, among other desirable effects. Threonine can also shorten the time it takes your body to heal wounds and recover from injuries. Plus, it supports healthy fat metabolism and stops fat from building up in the liver.

Tryptophan

Another amino acid that serves as a precursor for a feel-good brain chemical—in this case, serotonin, which can help quell physical sensations of pain. That means boosting your tryptophan can increase your tolerance for pain during challenging workouts. The human body also needs tryptophan to manufacture vitamin B3, which ensures your blood sugar levels stay balanced, forestalls free radical damage, and stymies the accumulation of cholesterol.

Isoleucine

Like valine, isoleucine is both an essential amino acid and a branched-chain amino acid. It’s a crucial component of hemoglobin, the protein in your red blood cells that transports oxygen. Our bodies also use isoleucine for muscle repair, which means upping your isoleucine levels lets you bounce back faster from taxing workout sessions.

Methionine

The principal task of this amino acid is to assist your body with metabolizing fat. Plus, it provides your body with the sulfur it needs to produce glutathione, its most abundant antioxidant compound, as well as cysteine and taurine, two other amino acids that contain sulfur. Thanks to its lipotropic properties, methionine can safeguard your liver function by preventing the buildup of fats.

Histidine

This amino acid, which has some antioxidant properties itself, is a precursor to histamine and helps your body synthesize carnosine. This can directly impact your physical performance because histamine can flush the potentially damaging free radicals generated during exercise from your system, while caronsine keeps lactic acid from accumulating in your muscles.

Leucine

Along with valine and isoleucine, leucine is both an essential amino acid and a branched-chain amino acid. It’s the most abundant amino acid found in human muscle tissue. In addition to enhancing stamina and endurance as well as promoting muscle recovery, leucine initiates the process of protein synthesis and helps to maintain your body’s nitrogen balance and energy supplies.

Lysine

Research indicates that lysine can simulate the release of growth hormone, meaning it can offer vital support to your muscle-building efforts. Lysine also ensures you body properly absorbs calcium. Plus, it demonstrates significant antiviral properties and encourages the production of antibodies, making it a phenomenal immune system booster.

Understanding Branched-Chain Amino Acids

Scientific analysis shows that 35% of your muscle protein is composed of three essential amino acids: valine, isoleucine, and leucine. These are, as you may have noticed if you’ve been paying close attention, the infamous branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). These amino acids get their name from their molecular structures, which have distinctive, branch-like shapes.

The popularity of BCAA supplements with athletes skyrocketed based on studies indicating that they can help to reduce physical fatigue, sharpen mental focus, decrease muscle breakdown, preserve muscle glycogen stores, stimulate muscle protein synthesis, prevent muscle soreness, and more.

Leucine, found in high concentrations in whey protein, is arguably the most important BCAA. But as I mentioned earlier, simply increasing your intake of dietary protein or even adding a whey protein supplement is not the most effective way to benefit from leucine or other amino acids. When taken in supplement form, amino acids can be digested and absorbed more quickly, which maximizes their impact.

As I’ve discussed in previous articles, taking BCAA supplements is also not the most effective way to increase muscle concentrations of these beneficial compounds. There’s no question that BCAAs facilitate muscle growth and optimize athletic performance, but when you take them on their own, they have a minimal impact.

That’s because in order for your body to build complete proteins, it requires all the essential amino acids—and in their appropriate concentrations. Taking a supplement that contains only BCAAs throws off your amino acid balance. Taking an essential amino acid (EAA) supplement that contains the appropriate ratios of all the amino acids needed for protein synthesis is a far better way to amplify your muscle-building results.

When Should I Take My Amino Acids?

Now that you have an increased understanding of how amino acids prevent protein breakdown, facilitate healthy weight loss, improve recovery, and increase energy levels, among other benefits pertinent to those engaged in various physical pursuits, let’s discuss the optimal timing for taking an amino acid supplement.

One of the main reasons to take amino acids for fitness is to build muscle. When you exercise, muscle breaks down in order to release amino acids for the energy the muscles need to contract. Some of the released amino acids are used to rebuild the lost muscle protein. But many of the amino acids are oxidized and cannot be used for muscle protein synthesis. That’s where taking amino acids pre-workout comes in. They help replace the amino acids that are oxidized when your muscle protein breaks down as you exercise.

Taking an amino acid pre-workout powder before resistance exercise is especially important to maintaining and building muscle mass. During resistance exercise blood flows to the muscles at an increased rate. When you ingest amino acids pre-workout, there are more essential amino acids available to strengthen and build muscle.

Taking amino acids before a cardiovascular workout, such as a high-intensity interval training (HIIT class), can help reduce fatigue by balancing the uptake of amino acids that are responsible for the production of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine in the brain.

That said, taking amino acids after a workout (within an hour after exercise) gives your body a boost when it comes to replacing damaged muscle fibers with new muscle protein. Essential amino acids are also important for reducing inflammation, thereby accelerating workout recovery.

To maximize all the beneficial effects of amino acids, it’s best to take a high-quality essential amino acid blend both before and after exercise. If you’re carrying out a resistance-training regimen, you may also see benefits from taking amino acids during your training sessions. This approach to amino acid supplementation is optimal for improving muscle strength as well as accelerating recovery.