Are amino acid supplements or whey protein enough to boost your workout performance?
The use of different types of intra-workout drinks is quite popular these days. For example, intra-workout drinks often contain branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) and or essential amino acids (EAAs). But are there any benefits to using training drinks? Or is it sensible to use amino acid supplements, or is whey protein sufficient?
What is protein?
Energy nutrients are the components of food from which the body derives energy. Fats are sources of essential fatty acids, and proteins are sources of essential amino acids. Essential nutrients must be obtained from food daily, as the body cannot produce them on its own.1 One gram of protein provides about 4 kcal of energy. Proteins are composed of 20 amino acids, nine essential for the body. Therefore, protein sources rich in all 9 essential amino acids are considered the highest quality.2 These include meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, and whey protein.
BCAAs and EAAs are amino acid supplements sold to consumers as stand-alone products or found in various pre-workout drinks. BCAAs consist of the amino acids isoleucine, leucine and valine. EAA contains the same three amino acids: histidine, tryptophan, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, and threonine.
Shape your body composition.
The stimulus that leads to protein synthesis should be triggered when the goal is to gain muscle mass or maintain muscle mass, for example, through dieting. Muscle protein synthesis is an anabolic state, and conversely, the breakdown of muscle proteins is a catabolic state. Muscle protein synthesis can be influenced by strength training, but the quantity, quality, and time of protein intake can also impact it. If your goal is to gain lean mass or lose weight, you will benefit from a higher-than-normal protein intake. Studies show that simply adding protein to your diet has a beneficial effect on body composition.
The general recommendation for people trying to maintain lean mass while losing weight is 2.3-3.1 g/kg/day of protein intake. Protein intake should be distributed throughout the day so that each meal contains sufficient protein, and meal intervals should not exceed 3-4 hours.2
Too much is too little when it comes to protein intake!
While protein intake has clear benefits for those who are gaining muscle mass or losing weight, it is not advisable to rush the amount of protein intake. A protein-rich diet can increase satiety and energy expenditure6 and reduce muscle mass loss during energy restriction. In turn, excessive protein intake can be harmful, although Antonio et al (2016) reported that eating 2.6-3.3 g protein per kg body weight per day has no adverse effect on blood lipid levels or kidney and liver function. However, excessive protein intake may limit the intake of other essential energy nutrients due to their high satiety-enhancing effect. Furthermore, when you have too much protein in your diet, it can be challenging to eat enough carbohydrates, for example, when you feel full.
Are amino acid supplements beneficial?
Taking amino acids such as branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) or essential amino acids (EAAs) during exercise is quite popular. When considering the use of amino acid supplements during training, the timing of protein intake and its effect on body composition is discussed.
Research suggests that EAAs are a better option than BCAAs for several reasons. First, ingestion of BCAA alone does not provide as significant a muscle growth stimulus as EAA. Second, studies have shown that EAA produces better recovery responses when ingested during exercise than BCAA alone. Third, the superiority of EAA over BCAA is probably explained by muscle protein synthesis being greater when the body has all the essential amino acids available. And EAA contains the same amino acids as BCAA but with an additional six essential amino acids. So EAA is always a better option than BCAA alone.
Is whey protein better than amino acid supplements?
It is known that strength training and protein intake induce a strong muscle protein synthesis response in the body. This is why protein intake around training is vital if the aim is to modify body composition. Protein ingested around exercise maximizes muscle growth responses as long as the protein consumed is good quality and contains sufficient essential amino acids. The most studied protein supplement for body composition modification is whey protein. There is strong research evidence for whey protein in muscle protein synthesis and muscle mass gain after strength training. However, whey protein contains all 20 amino acids, whereas EAA contains only the essential 9 amino acids. So why would you replace whey protein with EAA?
However, what really matters is adequate and high-quality total protein intake for body composition modification or strength and muscle mass gain. Protein intake around strength training may have a minor effect on body composition, but whether protein is consumed before, during, or after exercise does not seem to matter. There used to be the talk of an 'anabolic window,' whereby protein requirements were maximized two hours after exercise - if you didn't consume protein within two hours of training, there was no point in expecting progress. Now we know that the increased protein requirement is up to 24 hours after exercise, so there's less of a rush to consume protein.
There is certainly no harm in taking EAAs or BCAAs during exercise. However, if you have to choose, it is preferable to focus on getting enough total daily protein intake and to have a quality whey protein drink after your workout. Of course, you could just as well drink whey protein during exercise, but whey protein drinks may not be as suitable in terms of composition for drinking during exercise. So rather than drinking EAAs during your workout, have a quality whey protein recovery drink after your workout - you'll get all 20 amino acids, and research shows you'll effectively recomposition your body or increase strength. When you get enough quality protein, 20-40 grams per meal every 3-4 hours, and 2-3 grams per kilogram of body weight during the day, you're sure to reach your goals!
- Jäger, R., Kerksick, C. M., Campbell, B. I., Cribb, P. J., Wells, S. D., Skwiat, T. M., Purpura, M., Ziegenfuss, T., Ferrando, A., Arent, S., Smith-Ryan, A., Stout, J., Arciero, P., Ormsbee, M., Taylor, L., Wilborn, C., Kalman, D., Kreider, R., Willoughby, D., Hoffman, J., Krzykowski, J. & Antonio, J. 2017. International society of sports nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14(1), 20.
- Isola, V. (2018) Sport analysis and coaching programming in fitness sports. University of Jyväskylä.
- Hulmi, J., Lockwood, C. & Stout, J. 2010. Effect of protein/essential amino acids and resistance training on skeletal muscle hypertrophy: A case for whey protein. Nutrition & metabolism, 7(1), 51.
- Cermak, N., de Groot, L., Saris, W. & van Loon, L. 2012. Protein supplementation augments the adaptive response of skeletal muscle to resistance-type exercise training: a meta-analysis. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 96(6), 1454-1464.
- Westerterp-Plantega, M., Luscombe-Marsh, N., Lejeune, M., Diepvens, K., Nieuwenhuizen, A., Engelen, M., Deutz, N., Azzout-Marninche, D., Tome, D. & Weterterp K. 2006. Dietary protein, metabolism, and body-weight regulation: dose-response effects. International Journal of Obesity 30, S16-S23.
- Phillips, S. M., & Van Loon, L. J. (2011). Dietary protein for athletes: from requirements to optimum adaptation. Journal of sports sciences, 29(sup1), S29-S38.
- Churchward-Venne, T., Murphy, C., Longland, T & Phillips, S. 2013. Role of protein and amino acids in promoting lean mass accretion with resistance exercise and attenuating lean mass loss during energy deficit in humans. Amino Acids 45 (2), 231-240.
- Antonio, J., Ellerbroek, A., Silver, T., Vargas, L. & Peacock, C. 2016. The effects of a high protein diet on indices of health and body composition-a crossover trial in resistance-trained men. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 13(1), 3.
- Kerksick, C. M., Wilborn, C. D., Roberts, M. D., Smith-Ryan, A., Kleiner, S. M., Jäger, R., ... & Greenwood, M. (2018). ISSN exercise & sports nutrition review update: research & recommendations. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 15(1), 38.
- Moberg, M., Apró, W., Ekblom, B., Van Hall, G., Holmberg, H. C., & Blomstrand, E. (2016). Activation of mTORC1 by leucine is potentiated by branched-chain amino acids and even more so by essential amino acids following resistance exercise. American Journal of Physiology-Cell Physiology, 310(11), C874-C884.
- Phillips, S., Tang, J. & Moore, D. 2009. The role of milk-and soy-based protein in support of muscle protein synthesis and muscle protein accretion in young and elderly persons. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 28(4), 343-354.
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- Schoenfeld, B., Aragon, A. & Krieger, J. 2013. The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10(1), 53.