Choosing the right supplement is a pain in the butt.
Information is often unclear or contradictory due to lack of regulation, and misinformation. Often by design, and driven by money.
That said, the right supplement can be an important part of a workout routine. Though only after addressing your regular diet.
BCAA vs whey protein powder is a common debate. For good reason. As some form of protein supplementation is a part of any good nutrition plan for an active person.
But you’ve come to the right place for all the answers.
Takeaways That Won’t Fail You
- If you are already eating enough quality protein you gain no advantage by taking BCAA.
- BCAA are easier and faster absorbed than most other amino acids. Yet, whole protein (like whey) is still absorbed faster.
- Most BCAA end up in one of five places: muscle tissue, brain, heart, liver, and kidneys. But the majority end up in muscle tissue. Hence, the big stink over taking excess BCAA for muscle synthesis.
- More is not better when taking individual amino acids. This may cause potential imbalances due to competitive absorption (leading to imbalance). The excess becomes fatty acids, ketones or glucose anyway.
- I looked at over a dozen different brands of whey protein. The average percentage of BCAA was 20% which equaled out to about 5.5 grams. That’s plenty to achieve your goals. So, taking BCAA and using whey protein is pointless and a waste of money.
The Value of Protein Supplements
There is more than the science behind branched-chain amino acids and whey protein as a whole. There is also a difference in the value of the two.
I’m a stickler for NOT having someone overspend on anything, especially supplements. It has to be a good bang for the buck or I’m not interested. But, I’ve watched the supplement industry evolve. From its infancy decades ago, until now, we’ve made real progress.
So we’ll take a look at:
- The benefits of taking BCAA and whey protein alone
- Taking a combination of the two
- We’ll look at the return on investment (money spent vs. results) for BCAA vs whey protein shakes
What is Whey Protein and Where Does it Come From?
This is an easy one… cow’s milk. Milk is predominantly made up of two types of protein:
- Whey protein
- Casein protein
Whey protein has been in use for centuries. At one point it (a long time ago) fed livestock, was used as fertilizer, or even thrown away.
Eventually, we began using it as a food additive for many of the household food products which we grew up with. Before the chemical technology improved.
Since then, whey protein has come such a long way as a supplement.
This was driven by fitness enthusiasts. They were excited by how fast whey protein was absorbed and its abundant quantities.
With that, the manufacturing of whey protein concentrates improved significantly. In both the chemical and functional properties. It led to the much better product we have today.
What Does Whey Protein Do?
Thanks to its long reign, there is A LOT of research on what whey protein does. It is absorbed faster than casein and stimulates better muscle protein synthesis (growth).
To build muscle mass, 20 grams of whey protein should ingested post workout. This is generally accepted as the standard for an average 176-pound male.
Based on those numbers we can adjust for sex and body composition for any individual. Read more about the science of protein digestion.
What are BCAA?
BCAA is short for branched-chain amino acids.
More specifically, the three particular BCAA are Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine. They are three of the nine essential amino acids (the ones you need to get in your diet and cannot produce on your own).
So why are they called branched-chain amino acids?
All you need to know is that their chemical structure has a side chain with extra carbons.
Lastly, leucine seems to be the most important BCAA for building muscle.
How BCAA are Absorbed
BCAA use insulin to enter the muscle cell. They elicit a small short lasting insulin release. This is a little different than the insulin response to carbohydrates.
BCAA absorb easier and faster than most other amino acids. But bear in mind that whole protein absorbs even faster than the individual amino acids. In fact, it’s a different transport system for amino acids vs whole protein.
Thus, if you’re eating enough quality proteins, there’s no advantage to taking BCAA.
What Do BCAA Do?
BCAA will do the same thing regardless of the source.
The three branched-chain amino acids are released from the liver after digestion. They primarily end up in one of five places:
- Muscle tissue
That said, the majority end up being utilized in muscle tissue. Hence, the big stink over taking excess BCAA for muscle growth.
They are catabolized (broken down) during exercise. This increases their nutritional requirements if you’re strength training or exercising vigorously.
Other amino acids end up being used for the synthesis of enzymes and hormones.
More is not better when taking individual amino acids.
This is because of potential imbalances due to competitive absorption. The excess is converted to fatty acids, ketones or glucose anyway. This is despite the safe upper limit of BCAA being very high.
Nonetheless, a meta-analysis by Fedewa, showed
The cumulative results of 37 effects gathered from 8 studies published between 2007 and 2017 indicated that BCAA supplementation reduced DOMS following exercise training.”
We know this and it’s great. But again, if you’re already using whey protein, you’re getting what you need to accomplish the same goal.
BCAA Supplements for Training and other Benefits
It has been shown that supplementing BCAA can prolong moderate exercise in the heat. That isn’t very relevant if you’re lifting. However, it is significant if you are training for distance running in a hot environment.
BCAA mostly contributes to building muscle, known as muscle synthesis (particularly leucine).
They will also help reduce muscle soreness post workout.
More recently, Manaf, et al stated “Compared to a non-caloric placebo, acute BCAA supplementation significantly improved performance in cycling time-trial among recreationally active individuals… This improved performance with acute BCAA supplementation was associated with a reduced rating of perceived exertion.”
Are BCAA in Whey Protein?
Absolutely, BCAAs are in whey protein. Some companies even add additional.
I looked at over a dozen different brands. In that sample, the average percentage of BCAA in whey protein was 20% or about 5.5 grams. I even found several brands of vegetable protein to include acceptable amounts of BCAA.
That is plenty of BCAA for building muscle and reducing soreness post workout. Since you’re getting plenty of BCAA in whey protein, whey is a much better bang for your buck. Compared to simply buying BCAA by themselves.
Amino Acids vs Protein
Again, amino acids are the nitrogen-containing building blocks that when combined, form the protein. Since some of the amino acids are essential to life, any protein not containing all essential amino acids is termed an incomplete protein source.
Believe it or not, the whole protein is better absorbed than individual amino acids on their own. Odd, I know! But nonetheless, protein powder with amino acids is just that… a shaker full of amino acids.
What is the Difference Between BCAA vs Whey Protein?
BCAAs are 3 specific essential amino acids. They are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These 3 are believed to increase protein synthesis, lean muscle mass, and athletic performance.
In comparison, whey protein has a full spectrum of amino acids. Including BCAA and all other essential amino acids. Since whey has a full spectrum of amino acids, including BCAA, it is the superior choice of supplement.
To take both would produce no additional benefit.
The Return on Investment From BCAA?
This is an important question. There are two ways to look at this aspect:
- Your best return on investment is if you have a reason to take them by themselves. Such as allergies, or dieting restrictions. Then they’ll definitely help to build muscle. As well as minimize muscle soreness post workout. So, it’s a good return, but…
- The ROI for taking BCAA goes way down if you’re already using whey protein. Your muscles can only use so much. The extra amino acids turn into either ketone bodies, fatty acids, or glucose. So BCAA becomes an unnecessary expense.
The Return on Investment From Whey Protein?
Maybe I’m biased, but I find the ROI for whey protein to be huge. These are the points I consider when discussing the value of whey protein powder:
- Inexpensive compared to meat
- Fast absorption
- Whey is high in essential amino acids
- High in BCAA
- Ridiculously convenient compared to cooking and transporting meat
Here’s the most important point!!!!
So we’ve established that approximately 5g of BCAA a day promotes muscle synthesis. It also lessons post-exercise muscle soreness.
We’ve also noted that taking too much of a particular amino acid creates an imbalance for others. This is because of the absorption competition.
Most whey protein supplement shakes contain approximately 5g of BCAA…
And you’re likely already drinking shakes…
Thus there is no need for the additional expense of BCAA powder or pills. Save your money!
The only time they may be relevant is if you decide to prepare for a bodybuilding competition. In that case, whey protein is often cut from the diet. This is so few of us, it’s not relevant.
When should I take whey protein – Pre-Workout, Post-Workout, or Other?
This is a mixed question that could and should make up an entire article.
Based on research and experience I recommend using whey protein either:
- Post-workout: Immediately after a strength training workout or endurance event. This will help if you’re either trying to spare muscle or add muscle. It also helps with recovery, minimizing muscle soreness.
- Pre-workout: Thirty minutes before a strength training workout or endurance event. This help to spare muscle.
Don’t use whey protein for pre-workout if you’ve eaten a heavy protein-based meal within 2-3 hours before exercising. This becomes overkill and unnecessary.
Choose one or the other. There is little value in taking whey protein both pre-workout AND post-workout. During exercise, digestion, and absorption slow down. So, there will already be enough in your system to reap the benefits. The best scenario is to use it immediately after a workout.
Here are a few other times that make good use of whey protein.
- Pre-bed if you’re trying to add muscle. This is where casein protein is superior to whey.
- As a meal replacement during times when you can’t consume whole food. I can’t think of a more convenient and cost-effective meal when you’re on the run.
- Athletes often use whey protein products to prepare for competition because it’s an inexpensive way to make sure they’re feeding their muscles the necessary protein to sustain their strength throughout an event. It works and it’s easy!
When Should I Use Just BCAA?
You already know there is no point to take them together. But there may be times you would use BCAA instead of whey protein.
If you’re allergic to whey or really don’t like it, BCAA is a great alternative. Also, strict dieting may cut the use of whey protein. Negating the fact that the two would overlap.
This generally is limited to individuals preparing for a bodybuilding or bikini competition.
When to Take BCAA: Pre-workout, Post-workout, or Other?
If you’re on a strict diet where BCAA makes sense then you should also be aware of the best times to take BCAA.
Research shows you should take BCAA at the following times:
Take BCAA Pre-workout
This includes taking BCAA immediately before you start strength training. By taking BCAA before a workout you help preserve muscle.
Take BCAA Post-workout
This is taking BCAA immediately after you have a strength training session. By taking BCAA post-workout you help your body in muscle recovery.
Taking BCAA Pre-bed
By taking BCAA before bed you will help your body maintain muscle mass.
All of these methods only apply if you are dieting strictly for competition.
Taking BCAA at all three times if you have a lot of muscle mass is not unheard of at all.
But note that you cannot take BCAA as a meal replacement. Yet another advantage of using whey.
Whey Protein, BCAA and Aging Adults
As we age, we lose muscle tissue. This process is called sarcopenia. It’s inevitable, but we can do several things to combat this change. It’s well researched that strength training during later years of life can help offset these changes.
But supplementing with whey protein, which has enough BCAA to induce muscle protein synthesis is also helpful.
It’s shown that the practice of ingesting additional whey with BCAA immediately after strength training helps significantly to minimize sarcopenia.
Elderly need more protein post-workout than younger adults due to the reduced metabolic rate.
All in all, just know that as you age, whey protein can really help hold on to your hard-earned muscle.
Whey Protein And The Vascular System
A recent review by Price, et al in 2022 looked at the effects of the specific amino acids in whey protein in relation to the vascular system.
They’ve concluded there’s increasing evidence the peptides in whey protein contribute positively to vascular health. Specifically, blood pressure and arterial stiffness.
This is just an additional bang for the buck with using whole whey protein vs BCAA’s only.
Saving Money on Supplements
Choosing to use whey instead of BCAA is an easy way to save money on supplements.
Just make sure you use whey protein with at least 5.5 grams of BCAA added to the product.
To save further check out “the best bang for the buck” whey protein. Which I reviewed in July of 2018 (4 Best Whey Protein Powders to Boost Your Workout Results).
Head-to-Head Comparison BCAAs vs Whey Protein
|Most bioavailable||whey protein|
|Best bang for the buck||whey protein|
|Biggest return on investment||whey protein|
|Best meal replacement||whey protein|
|Best for muscle gain||whey protein|
|Best for avoiding dairy products||BCAA|
|Best for staying super lean||BCAA|
|Fastest absorbed||whey protein|
|Best for post-workout||whey protein|
|What’s better BCAA or whey protein to build muscle||whey protein|
BCAA vs Whey Protein Which is Better
Whey protein is a better supplement than BCAA for us in most cases and more cost-effective. Whey protein is a complete protein. It contains all essential amino acids you need to build muscle including BCAAs. However, BCAAs are the better supplement in cases where you want to maintain muscle mass while losing weight. Such as preparing for a bodybuilding competition.
My Take on BCAA vs Whey Protein Powder
I’ve been at this business/culture for a long time. Watching supplements originate from their infancy. I also studied them for seven years at the University of Delaware during their evolution. Additionally, I’ve tried copious amounts of different supplements myself.
My opinion is whey protein and creatine are the most worthwhile supplements. I’ve always believed this, and continue to this day.
They are also the “best bang for the buck” for almost everyone trying to better themselves.
Again, if you’re already using whey protein, no need to add BCAA to your arsenal.
BCAA do have a very specific place for individuals with intense workouts. Those include:
- If you have an aversion to whey protein.
- Certainly if you have an allergy to whey protein.
- You may go on a strict diet that requires you to remove whey protein
So if none of those are you, stick to the whey protein shakes.
There’s my take on BCAA vs whey protein shakes.
Wishing you all well!
FAQ on BCAA vs Whey Protein
BCAA vs whey protein for weight loss?
In and of itself, neither BCAA or whey protein stimulates weight loss. Either can be used to help maintain muscle tissue while cutting fat. But neither directly result in weight loss.
When to take BCAA and whey protein?
Again, take either, not both after a workout to maximize the benefits. You’ve set the stage hormonally during your workout to better absorb protein. I’m all for a good bang for the buck!
Can we mix whey protein and BCAA?
There’s no gain for adding additional BCAA’s to your whey protein. Save your money.
BCAA or whey protein for weight loss?
I’m answering this again because there’s another aspect to cover. If you’re on a calorie-restricted diet, but want to maintain muscle tissue, using BCAA’s alone will be your best choice. Not both.
BCAA vs whey protein for post-workout?
You’re better off using just whey protein (has plenty of BCAA’s in it) after a workout. There’s more to muscle building than just the consumption of leucine, isoleucine, or valine.
Can I take amino acids instead of protein?
Because of the competitive nature of the absorption of individual amino acids over whole protein, I don’t recommend this. Not only is it cost-prohibitive, but it also is less productive. When in doubt, the whole protein is better.
Does whey protein have BCAA?
You bet! Approximately 5.5 grams of BCAA per serving of whey protein.
Whey protein and BCAA before bed?
There’s merit to consuming either (not both) before bed to take advantage of your elevated growth hormone levels. But, I would suggest casein protein, which is absorbed more slowly before bed instead. You can read more about casein in my article: The Definitive Guide to the Best Type of Protein Powder.
Take BCAA or whey protein?
Bottom line, if you’re not dieting for a bodybuilding competition just stick to whey protein. You’ll get a better return on your investment and effort.
Amino acids can be either glucogenic or ketogenic (or both). In other words, glucogenic amino acids are glucose precursors. This is because their carbon skeletons can be used to produce glucose. Ketogenic amino acids can be converted to ketone bodies or fatty acids. For more see our article on ketosis).
BCAA happens to be both.
- Leucine is ketogenic
- Valine is glucogenic
- Isoleucine is both ketogenic and glucogenic
Research and Resources on BCAA vs Whey Protein
Bill Campbell, Richard B Kreider, Tim Ziegenfuss, Paul La Bounty, Mike Roberts, Darren Burke, Jamie Landis, Hector Lopez and Jose Antonio, International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise, Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2007 4:8.
Research on Whey Protein
C. V. Morr & E. Y. W. Ha, Whey protein concentrates and isolates: Processing and functional properties, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, Volume 33, 1993 – Issue 6
Charles Onwulata, Peter Huth, Whey Processing, Functionality and Health Benefits, 2008 Blackwell Publishing and the Institute of Food Technologists.
Oliver C Witard, Sarah R Jackman, Leigh Breen, Kenneth Smith, Anna Selby, Kevin D Tipton; Myofibrillar muscle protein synthesis rates subsequent to a meal in response to increasing doses of whey protein at rest and after resistance exercise, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 99, Issue 1, 1 January 2014, Pages 86–95k
Jason E. Tang, Daniel R. Moore, Gregory W. Kujbida, Mark A. Tarnopolsky, and Stuart M. Phillips; Ingestion of whey hydrolysate, casein, or soy protein isolate: effects on mixed muscle protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in young men, Journal of Applied Physiology, Vol 107, No. 3, September 2009, Pages 987-992.
Fang-Yu Wu, Mon-Chien Lee, Chi-Chang Huang, Yi-Ju Hsu and Wen-Ching Huang, Effects of Resistance Exercise Training and Protein Supplementation on Muscle Loss in the Elderly, Adaptive Medicine 12(2): 24-29, 2020.
Price, D., Jackson, K.G., Lovegrove, J.A. & Givens, D.I. The effects of whey proteins, their peptides and amino acids on vascular function. Nutrition Bulletin, 47, 2022, Pages 9–26.
Research on BCAA
Eva Blomstrand, Jörgen Eliasson, Haåkan K. R. Karlsson, Rickard Köhnke; Branched-Chain Amino Acids Activate Key Enzymes in Protein Synthesis after Physical Exercise, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 136, Issue 1, 1 January 2006, Pages 269S–273S
Faizal A .Manaf, Jeremiah J. Peiffer, Garth L. Maker, Timothy J. Fairchild, Branched-chain amino acid supplementation improves cycling performance in untrained cyclists, Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport Volume 24, Issue 4, April 2021, Pages 412-417.
Kimball, Scot R & Jefferson, Leonard S.Regulation of protein synthesis by branched-chain amino acids, Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care, January 2001 – Volume 4 – Issue 1 – p 39-43
Michael V. Fedewa R, Steven O. Spencer, et al, Effect of branched-Chain Amino Acid Supplementation on Muscle Soreness following Exercise: A Meta-Analysis, International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research (2019), 89, pp. 348-356.
Mittleman KD , Ricci MR & Bailey SP. Branched-chain amino acids prolong exercise during heat stress in men and women, Controlled Clinical Trial, Clinical Trial, Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov’t, Journal Article. Jan 1998, 30(1):83-91
Robert A. Harris, Mandar Joshi, Nam Ho Jeoung, Mariko Obayashi; Overview of the Molecular and Biochemical Basis of Branched-Chain Amino Acid Catabolism, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 135, Issue 6, 1 June 2005, Pages 1527S–1530S
Yoshiharu Shimomura, Taro Murakami, Naoya Nakai, Masaru Nagasaki, Robert A. Harris; Exercise Promotes BCAA Catabolism: Effects of BCAA Supplementation on Skeletal Muscle during Exercise, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 134, Issue 6, 1 June 2004, Pages 1583S–1587S
Yoshiharu Shimomura, Yuko Yamamoto, Gustavo Bajotto, Juichi Sato, Taro Murakami, Noriko Shimomura, Hisamine Kobayashi, Kazunori Mawatari; Nutraceutical Effects of Branched-Chain Amino Acids on Skeletal Muscle, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 136, Issue 2, 1 February 2006, Pages 529S–532S