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.
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
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.