What Is The Best Ratio of BCAAs?
What’s best a 2:1:1 or a 10:1:1 ratio? For those who need a quick primer – the BCAAs include the three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine and valine. They’re called branched-chain aminos due to their structure. Each one has a forked outcropping that resembles a branch. In addition to being special for their structure, they are also special for numerous other reasons. (For more detail on the benefits of BCAAs click on the link below to read my article Branch Out With BCAAs.
BCAAs aid muscle growth, energy, and even fat loss. But the main benefit of BCAAs that garners the most attention is their ability to boost muscle growth. After all that’s the number one goal for most of us. When it comes to building muscle, the BCAAs are definitely the most critical amino acids period. Of the three, leucine is the MVP of muscle growth. This is due to the fact that this amino acid plays one of, if not THE most critical role in muscle growth. Leucine acts much like a key does to an ignition of a car. The car in this case is a muscle cell or fiber. The ignition turns on the process of muscle protein synthesis, which builds up the muscle protein that leads to muscle growth. In more “sciencey” terms, leucine activates a complex called mTOR, which ramps up muscle protein synthesis and therefore muscle growth. Research suggests that those adding extra leucine to their postworkout protein and carbs experienced significantly greater muscle protein synthesis than those just getting protein and carbs.
Because leucine is so critical for muscle growth, you want to make sure that you use a BCAA product that has more leucine than its counterparts, isoleucine and valine. I recommend you go with a BCAA product that uses a 2:1:1 ratio of leucine:isoleucine:valine. Many products bump up the ratio even much higher in favor of leucine, with some coming in at an 8:1:1 ratio, and some even hitting a 10:1:1 ratio. Many people assume that with leucine’s critical role in muscle growth, that a BCAA product with a 10:1:1 ratio is five times better than one with a 2:1:1 ratio. But before you go spending your hard-earned cash on these “supposed” superior BCAA products, hear me out.
The most critical time to take BCAAs is around workouts. Whether you take them before and after, or during, or at all three time points, it’s hard to debate that this time of day is the most critical time to take BCAAs. And yes, that is in addition to the BCAA-rich protein shake you should also be drinking. And yes, one reason for this is due to the fact that you want ample leucine to instigate muscle protein synthesis. And that makes most people assume that the highest leucine:isoleucine:valine ratio is best. Some even suggest to forego the other two BCAAs and just take leucine. That is a big mistake. One study pitted leucine by itself against all three BCAAs at a 2:1:1 ratio. Scientists from Baylor University gave college-age men either a leucine supplement, a 2:1:1 BCAA supplement, or a placebo before and after a leg workout. They discovered that while leucine increased muscle protein synthesis after the workout better than the placebo did, the BCAAs increased protein synthesis even better than leucine and the placebo. That’s one reason for sticking with a 2:1:1 ratio or something close when it comes to BCAA supplements.
Energy & Fatigue
Another reason to use a BCAA product that has a 2:1:1 ratio is energy and fatigue. The BCAAs are used directly by the muscle fibers as a fuel source. This is especially true during intense exercise, such as weight training. And numerous studies confirm that supplementing with BCAAs before exercise promotes muscle endurance and blunts fatigue. More importantly, the BCAAs help to reduce fatigue during workouts. And this comes down to the role that valine plays in the body. During exercise tryptophan is taken up by the brain in large amounts. Tryptophan is converted in the brain to 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT), or what you likely know better as serotonin. Having higher serotonin levels during exercise signals the brain that the body is fatigued. This leads to a reduction in muscle strength and endurance. Valine competes with tryptophan for entry into the brain and it typically wins. This means that when you take the BCAA valine before and/or during workouts less tryptophan gets into the brain and less tryptophan gets converted to serotonin, which allows your muscles to contract with more force for a longer time before getting fatigued. That means you can crank out more reps in the gym, recover quicker between sets, and maintain better strength and endurance into the latter portion of your workouts. All this can be critical for the results you experience from your hard work in the gym. So be sure to shoot for a 2:1:1 ratio when taking BCAAs before or during workouts. Valine can also help you to stay more alert and keep your brain sharper during the day when you are not working out.That means that if you take a BCAA product throughout the day, you should go with one that uses a 2:1:1 ratio.
If you are interested in maximizing fat loss, then there is a third reason why a 2:1:1 ratio is best for BCAAs. And this is due to the BCAA isoleucine. Isoleucine appears to play a major role in providing the BCAAs their fat-burning benefits. Japanese researchers discovered that mice given isoleucine while eating a high-fat diet gained significantly less fat than mice not getting supplemental isoleucine in their diet. This was due to isoleucine’s ability to activate special receptors, known as PPAR, that increase fat burning and inhibit fat storage. PPAR works to increase the activity of genes that encourage greater fat burning in the body, while decreasing activity of genes that normally increase fat storage. This leads to a greater ability to burn fat with less chance of storing fat.
So it turns out that using a BCAA supplement that has a much ratio higher than 2:1:1 can work against you for energy, fat loss, and even muscle growth. Some high ratio BCAA products provide only 500 mg or less of valine and isoleucine. That’s not enough to keep you energized and blunt fatigue during workouts, as well as maximize fat burning, and it may not be enough to maximize muscle protein synthesis and therefore muscle growth.
My advice is to try to stick with BCAA products that use a 2:1:1 ratio providing at least 1 gram of isoleucine and 1 gram of valine per dose.
Your best bet is to be sure to get in at least 3 grams of leucine per dose, which has been suggested to be the minimum amount you need to optimize mTOR activation and maximize muscle protein synthesis. I suggest you take in one dose of at least 5 grams of BCAAs at a 2:1:1 ratio (so you get 3 g leucine, and over 1 g of isoleucine and over 1 g of valine about 30 minutes before workouts to maximize energy levels and blunt fatigue during the workout. Then follow the workout with another dose of at least 5 grams of BCAAs. Here a 2:1:1 ratio is good or even a 3:1:1 ratio will work well, which will give a bit more leucine since leucine will be critical after the workout to turn on protein synthesis. Just be sure that you are getting at least 1 gram of isoleucine and 1 g of valine after workouts along with at least 3 grams of leucine. This is in addition to pre and post workout shakes, or one large protein shake that you sip on before, during and after the workout. This will bump your BCAA content up a bit, but you still need those free BCAA amino acids from a BCAA supplement to truly maximize energy and muscle growth.