Branch-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are an incomplete protein and not as anabolic as whey alone. So, if you’re struggling to meet your daily protein intake needs from real food (see my macro calculator), and wondering whether you should choose to supplement with BCAAs or whey, the answer is definitely whey.
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. 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.
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.
Why Whey Protein IS Better Than BCAAs When Training Fasted
the Origin of The Recommendation To ‘Drink BCAAs When Training Fasted’
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.
bcaa vs whey: 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
bcaa vs whey: 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.
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.