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Training ‘Fasted’? Take Whey Protein, Not BCAAs

Is it better to take Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) or whey protein when training fasted? Though the difference in outcome is likely small, it is exactly this kind of question that clients pay me to know and advise them on.

If you do your weight training fasted (in the morning without having eaten anything prior), it is advisable to take either a scoop of whey protein or BCAAs prior to training to minimize muscle breakdown.

Up until the end of last year, I recommended BCAA supplementation to clients who trained fasted. However, after a conversation with sports nutritionist and researcher Alan Aragon, I decided to change the recommendations I give to clients to favor whey instead.

This article explains my reasoning for this and the protocols I recommend for both the whey and BCAA supplementation.


Whey Protein May be Better Than BCAAs When Training Fasted

Where the ‘Drink BCAAs When Training Fasted’ Recommendation Comes From

Many of my clients are high achievers with demanding jobs. The majority choose to train early in the morning before the working day zaps their energy and motivation to train. They do not have any time to consume (and start to digest) a meal before training.

This leaves them, potentially, without any amino acids (the building blocks of protein) in circulation in their bloodstream from digested food earlier in the day, when they train. Without the necessary amino acids in the bloodstream to start the repair process, the body is forced to break down muscle into amino acids, which is not what we want.

This is where BCAA supplementation comes in as a recommendation. As the most important amino acids for muscle building, a BCAA powder can be consumed easily before training and absorbed quickly.

Typically, people who choose to train fasted in the morning will consume a 20 g dose of BCAAs split before and after their workout, with those that train very early in the morning consuming an additional 10 g due to the longer time until their lunch. This part of Martin Berkhan’s ‘Leangains’ protocol for his clients that train in the morning which I chose to adopt for my clients myself in the past.

As you can see from the client results, this has worked well. Very well. So, this is not a question of whether this ‘works,’ it is merely a matter of whether whey consumption may be slightly more optimal.

Why Whey May Be Better Than BCAAs: Comparing by Caloric Values

Contrary to what many products have on their labels, the free-form BCAA powders that we buy are not calorie free. They have a caloric value of 4.65 kcal/g, which means the typical 10 g serving has 46.5 calories.

Geeky details: Leucine and isoleucine each have a gross energy of 6.52 kcal/g; valine has 5.96 kcal/g when protein bound. The metabolizable energy is slightly lower, 6.18 kcal/g and 5.55 kcal/g respectively.

However, the free-form energy values in the BCAA powders we buy are 4.65 kcal/g, 4.65 kcal/g and 4.64 kcal/g for each of the three BCAAs respectively. Here’s the paper from where these numbers are derived.

So, why can manufacturers get away with not listing this on the packet you ask?

Because of a loophole in the FDA regulations. One states that supplement manufacturers can’t declare the protein content of a product when this only contains individual amino acids. Another allows supplement manufacturers to calculate the caloric content of their products using a number of methods, including the Atwater method, which involves adding up the calories from protein (4 kcal/g), carbs (4 kcal/g) and fats (9 kcal/g). Therefore, they aren’t required to list the calories. Shady shit, but to be expected from supplement manufacturers.

Though products vary, a standard commercial mix of whey concentrate and isolate (Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Whey) has 120 kcal listed with 24 g protein per scoop.

Comparing the average BCAA formula with the average whey protein, we get the following:

10 g BCAA = 46.5 kcal = 0.37 scoop of whey = 9.3 g protein

20 g BCAA = 93 kcal = 0.77 scoop of whey = 18.6 g protein

30 g BCAA = 139.5 kcal = 1.16 scoop of whey = 27.9 g protein

Why Whey May Be Better Than BCAAs: Other Anabolic Properties

The key difference is that with whey, we get the rest of the essential amino acids (EAAs) plus other anabolic/anti-catabolic co-factors that are missing in isolated BCAA, such as lactoferrin, beta-lactoglobulin, alpha-lactalbumin, glycomacropeptide, and immunoglobulins (hence its ability to support immune function). Whey also has antioxidant, antihypertensive, anti-tumor, hypolipidemic, antiviral, and antibacterial properties. You’d also be hitting the acute dosing ceiling for muscle protein synthesis with a full scoop.

In summary, taking whey protein costs less and you will get a marginally stronger anabolic response.


Fasted Training Supplementation Protocol Recommendations

Best option: Whey protein

Take a 25 g scoop of whey around 30 minutes prior to working out. Then take another 25 g scoop every 3 hours after that until your first meal of the day.

Count this against your protein targets for the day.

Second-best option: BCAAs

Take 10 g of BCAAs, (1 small scoop mixed in a 500 ml water bottle) 10 minutes before your weight lifting workouts. Take 10 g of BCAAs every 2-2.5 hours thereafter until your first meal of the day.

Because they have a caloric value, for every 10 g of BCAAs you consume, reduce your calorie intake by 46.5 kcal, by reducing your fat or carb intake (not your protein intake).

So, let’s say that you take 30 g of BCAAs, that’s ~140 kcal you need to remove from your diet. This can be achieved by reducing your carb intake by 35 g, fats by ~15 g, or a mix of both.

For more useful graphics, check out my Instagram.


Fasted Training and BCAA vs Whey FAQ

This section contains questions I anticipated, with the best I received from social media and email after the article’s publication.

Why should I not count BCAAs towards my protein intake target?

BCAAs are an incomplete protein, not as anabolic as whey alone. Therefore, I would not count the BCAAs against your protein targets for the day, but subtract them from the other macronutrients (carbs and fats).

Should I take whey concentrate, whey isolate, or hydrolyzed whey?

Whey concentrate and isolate will both digest in around 30 minutes. Isolate is a little more expensive but has fewer carbs in the mix, so it is worth consideration, especially when dieting.

Hydrolyzed whey is similar to whey isolate, but the protein has gone through a process called “enzymatic hydrolysis” which makes it faster to digest. It’s significantly more expensive, so unless you have less than 30 minutes between your alarm and the time you’re lifting something heavy, I don’t bother.

Can I take casein protein instead?

Whey and casein are both high-quality protein types (meaning they have an amino acid profile high in BCAAs). The difference is primarily in the rates of absorption, which will be significantly slower for the casein. As we want the amino acids to be in the bloodstream as quickly as possible when training fasted, whey protein is the best option.

Will this not ‘break’ my fast? I take BCAAs to not break my fast.

In both situations, you are no longer training fasted. (Yes, BCAAs have a caloric value but some manufacturers do not list it on the label. – This is something that caught me off guard for a long time also.)

If you want to train truly fasted, then you need to drink only water prior to training, which is simply not optimal. Why? Because what we are seeking to do here is minimize muscle breakdown during workouts (and promote growth, when possible).

Break your fast or break (down) your muscles. Choose wisely.

I am lactose intolerant and cannot consume whey shakes. Is there anything you recommend as an alternative?

A 70:30 mix of pea and rice protein closely mimics the amino acid profile of whey. You can order custom blends from a number of stores, I’ve heard good things about True Nutrition.

Given that the recommendations were originally part of Martin Berkhan’s protocol, what does he think of this?

I asked him to take a look at this before publishing to see if I had missed anything. He said it ‘looks good.’ I’m sure any updated thoughts from his original 2008-2010 articles will be included in his book.

What about BCAA supplementation outside the context of fasted training?

Completely fucking useless. (Excuse my swearing, it’s just this is where most of the supplement marketing goes and I hate to see people ripped off.) This is assuming that you are consuming an adequate amount of protein in your diet daily in the first place. If you are not, the best course of action is to eat more protein as it has more anabolic properties.

Or just keep paying for this expensive, high-calorie, flavored drink that is costing you other food options in your daily caloric budget. It’s your choice, but make the decision an educated one.

It is at this point where I typically hear a rebuttal along the lines of the following: “But I feel so much more energized when I take BCAAs!”

That’s the caffeine in that BCAA product you are using (take another look at the label), some added arginine (or citrulline malate) causing your skin to tingle, or just a placebo effect – which I guess I’ve just killed for you.

What should I do if I have some leftover BCAA powder?

When it runs out, just switch. The difference is likely there, but marginal.

Do I have to supplement with whey or BCAAs for my fasted cardio workouts?

No. Fasted cardio won’t amount to the kind of stimulus where you’ll risk significant muscle breakdown, like with an intense resistance training workout.

What if I don’t want to train fasted?

That’s fine. I’m not telling you to and it’s not likely to give you a better result if all other variables are held constant.

However, if your workouts are currently compromised due to being rushed in the middle of the day, or you lack the energy after work in the evenings to train hard, this could be the answer as it has been for so many of my clients.

*****

Thank you for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments.

– Andy

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Paul Edwards
Paul Edwards

Does the caloric value of 4.65 kcal per 1 gram work for other supplements like creatine hcl, beta alanine, citruliine Malate and glutamine or just bcaa and eaa?

Thanks

Kent
Kent

Andy, nice article. Thank you. I try to get a lot of my protein from kidney/pinto beans, quinoa, and veg sources. Do you ever recommend using BCAAs or a scoop of whey, or even just leucine supplementation with a mostly vegetarian meal to increase the leucine amount high enough to get over the threshold to increase muscle protein synthesis? Or if someone is also eating chicken and other stuff throughout the day, should the total amount of leucine be high enough to utilize the less complete proteins from the vegetable sources? Thanks!

Shahryar
Shahryar

Thanks for this great article. You answered some questions earlier about EAAs as the halfway between BCAAs and Whey Protein. Now the reason I had been doing EAAs before a fasted workout on the mornings I do it is that it’s supposed to be pretty close to zero calories – 10g is 4 calories (source: Ben Greenfield’s interview with Dr. David Minkoff: https://open.spotify.com/episode/0Rvlxt2cUQqeWLval3C06n ). Is that calorie count wrong? Because if it’s not, I believe it to allows me to mostly maintain my usual 8ish/16ish hour Intermittent Fasting Window. So what I’ll do is take 10-15g of EAAs, workout for an hour or so, and then get right into my meal.

Shahryar
Shahryar

Thanks for the reply Andy. And yeah, I know the controversies around some of the stuff he says, which is why I do try to get multiple opinions whenever possible. (And in his defense, re: the vaccine stuff, I know he did do a clarification after, but I can respect if anyone wasn’t satisfied with it).

The calorie thing is pretty shocking. Not so much the amount but that it’s def not negligible as had been implied.

One more question re: EAAs, Ben & Dr Minkoff also talked about how EAAs have a 99% muscle utilization rate while whey protein has an 18%. The takeaway being if you’re going to supplement, EAAs are best bang for buck.

Jordi
Jordi

Hi, Andy, and thanks for your work.
I workout at 6 AM, so my window to eat is from 1 to 9PM.
I usually sip on BCAA during my workout and during my fasted time, but I have an important doubt in order not to lose muscle:
Will I be doing any harm by not drinking my protein shake after working out?
Thanks in advanced

Jordi
Jordi

Thanks, Andy!

Dave Berman
Dave Berman

Hi Andy,

Just found your site and am soaking in all the information I can and am certainly thinking I can use a coach so will be in touch.

I go to Crossfit at 6 a.m. 4-5 times per week. If I stop eating at 8 p.m. and want to fast until 12 p.m. would it work to have the Whey around 5:30 a.m., and then at 8:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. before eating at 12 p.m.?

I’ve had lightheadedness at the gym working out fasted in the past so I’ve been having a banana at 5:30 a.m. and then eat right after the workout at 7 (protein shake, eggs, oats). Would the whey prevent the lightheadedness like the banana does and can I then wait to eat until noon if I’m using the whey every 3 hours?

Is there a certain time I should incorporate my 5 g creatine or does it not matter when? Thanks again, I’m learning more on this site than I think I have in the last 5 years.

Caio
Caio

Hi Andy,

I training first thing in the morning for about a year now, I read your translated articles in Brazil, but now I found your website. thank you for the high-quality information.

About the article, I use a blend of protein, they have albumine, whey, and others, so the time release is not fast, do you recommend to still use?

Caio
Caio

Thank you! I can’t wait for the translated versions, I’ll use your books and give to my friends.

Faaiza
Faaiza

Hi Andy,

This was an interesting read! Thank you. Just wanted to ask is 1 hr kick boxing classed as cardio? such that it would not need BCAAs if done fasted or would it elicit muscle breakdown as it’s intense? I don’t have time to eat before kick boxing in the mornings. I try a date or something quick but doubt it’s good enough? I do have a meal within 2 hrs afterwards.

As a petite female at 5foot & 41kg 🙈 I’m trying to gain muscle & wondering if to take BCAAs prior to kickboxing, want to hold on to any muscle I make! Thank you!

Faaiza
Faaiza

Hi,

Thank you SO much for your reply. I understand, so the soreness would indicate muscle breakdown like hypertrophy hence whey before hand would be wise BUT if I’m not really sore with Kboxing then I shouldn’t be bothered about whey/proteins before the session? (I’ve been doing it for 9 months now & not really sore after it unless we’ve done hip strength or intense stretches)

I’ve had issues digesting whey hence thought of trying BCAA pre kick boxing if my body needs it because I’m doing it fasted at present. I’ve never had BCAA before so not sure if it’ll digest ‘okay’ lol (I take a plant protein or eggs/meat/milk after a resistance work out)

Paul
Paul

Hi Andy,

Thanks for the informative article. Maybe a dumb question, but my current BCAA powder is 2:1:1 with 7g BCAA per 13g serving. I assume meeting your 10g recommendation means consuming more (approx 19.5g of powder) to make 10g of BCAA, not less (10g of powder)? Thanks for any clarification on this.

Fadi
Fadi

Thank you for a great article.

I get unflavored bcaa powder. It’s bitter. Is it ok to take the 10 grams in one go instead of diluting it in 500 ml of water and sipping on it? I just find it to swallow it all at once to avoid the bitterness of the water i am consuming while working out.

Thanks again for the great article

Ajgar
Ajgar

Andy,
How optimal(on a scale of 1-10?) are egg whites as a replacement for the pre- and post-workout meals up until lunch? Access to BCAAs and whey protein is too inconvenient and expensive where I am..Any other low-calorie high-protein replacement suggestions?

Thanks Andy

Maz
Maz

Hi Andy. I understand that there is a lot of focus on BCAA/Whey supplement when training fasted. But what do you recommend on the resting days? Is there any point in taking these supplements every 2 hours up until the first meal (lunch), or is it completely pointless?

Tomislav Mifka
Tomislav Mifka

Hi Andy, what if we want to still train fasted or at least a portion of our workout – so we take whey mid-workout or immediately post workout. Wouldn’t that lead to the same results as taking it prior as protein is digested very fast in a fasted state (but now you could train fasted)? Tnx!

Tee
Tee

How about EAAs? They make them in the same powder form as BCAAs, just they are EAAs. Isn’t that the main reason for the Whey?

Thanks Andy!

Tee
Tee

THANK YOU!

Natan
Natan

Andy,
Thanks for the tips! I usually take 5g of creatine, 8g of L-Citrulline, and about 8g of BCAA’s (because the pure powder tastes so stinking bad I cannot add more than that.) Wouldn’t I start a significant digestion process if I take 30g of BCAA or 1 scoop of protein (I train in about 20-30m right after I wake up), which could put blood flow in the gut rather than in the muscles? Thanks!

Suzan Momin
Suzan Momin

Hi, Andy.
Thanks for the great article,I am 33 years old male and doing weight training for past 6 months, Mon to Sat, FASTED (I do not eat but sometimes drink some water if feels thirsty ). I wake at 6:15 am and start exercise around 6:30 am and finish around 8:00 am. and have breakfast around 9:30 am. I am planing to use supplement (Whey Protein) first time in my life. I want to know when should I take whey Protein, immediately after I wake, during workout or after I complete my workout.
Thank you!

PDarla
PDarla

Hi Andy, I’m a 50 year old female. I workout Mon-Fri (mostly strength and a bit of cardio). I do strict IF (16/8, nothing before or during my WO). I’m lean, but can’t seem to get rid of access belly fat and I haven’t been gaining much muscle. What would you recommend? Any tips?

Pascal
Pascal

Thanks for the great article, Andy. I purchased the Muscle and Strength Pyramid textbooks a few years ago (the second editions are even better) as I follow Eric Helms and they brought me to your site.

I have a question regarding ingesting carbs with your recommended 25g of whey pre-workout. Would, say, 25g of oats or a banana slow down the whey absorption? I’m also in the ‘can-only-train-first-thing-in-the-morning’ camp and understand that carbs pre-workout enhance performance. Only thing, I’d be reluctant to wake up even earlier to get the nutrition in if carbs did slow down whey protein absorption.

Julia
Julia

Hey Andy,
I have read a lot of your articles (and comments) and learned so much. I workout at 12:00pm but wake up at 6:30am. I was wondering if I can drink whey&coffee pre workout, but around 8am, and then Whey (with water) again as a post workout drink directly prior workout, and then eat 1st meal 2 hours later. This isn’t fasting, but should keep my body in a fat burning state right? To achieve an optimal anabolic state.
Thank you!

Aman
Aman

Hey Andy! Bit confused about consumption of whey preworkout. Will it not negate the benefits of fasting(fat burning mostly) because obviously it will break the fast. I read where you said break muscle or break the fast. I’m somewhere around 15% as per your guidline I take whey 30 mins prior to workout and train at 8.30 then whey post workout and every 3 hours until I eat solid food around 2. If I don’t use whey pre and post and just break fast at 2pm, am I at risk of loosing too much muscle.
Current goal is get down to around 6-7%. Thanks for all the info Andy

Mike
Mike

Hi, great article. Two questions: why the difference in time window between whey and BCAAs? Anything wrong with following the 2/2.5 hrs for whey?

Also, what about HIIT? It’s very taxing, so I follow the whey protocol even though you said no need for cardio. Thanks!

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