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.

Glynn’s Guide:
Takeaways That Won’t Fail You

  • If you are already eating enough quality protein you gain no advantage by taking BCAAs.
  • BCAAs are easier and faster absorbed than most other amino acids. Yet, whole protein (like whey) is still absorbed faster.
  • Most BCAAs 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 BCAAs 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 BCAAs was 20% which equaled out to about 5.5 grams. That’s plenty to achieve your goals. So, taking BCAAs 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 BCAAs and whey protein alone
  • Taking a combination of the two
  • We’ll look at the return on investment (money spent vs. results) for BCAAs vs whey protein shakes

What is Whey Protein and Where Does it Come From?

Whey Protein Powder Supplements

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 BCAAs?

What Are BCAAs

BCAAs is short for branched chain amino acids.

More specifically, the three particular BCAAs 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.

Leucine Amino Acid Supplement

How BCAAs are Absorbed

BCAAs 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.

BCAAs 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 BCAAs.

What Do BCAAs Do?

BCAAs 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
  • Brain
  • Heart
  • Liver
  • Kidneys

That said, the majority end up being utilized in muscle tissue. Hence, the big stink over taking excess BCAAs 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 BCAAs being very high.

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BCAAs Supplements for Training and other Benefits

It has been shown that supplementing BCAAs 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.

BCAAs mostly contribute to building muscle, known as muscle synthesis (particularly leucine).

They will also help reduce muscle soreness post workout.

Are BCAAs 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 BCAAs in whey protein was 20% or about 5.5 grams. I even found several brands of vegetable protein to include acceptable amounts of BCAAs.

That is plenty of BCAAs for building muscle and reducing soreness post workout. Since you’re getting plenty of BCAAs in whey protein, whey is a much better bang for your buck. Compared to simply buying BCAAs by themselves.

BCAA vs Whey Protein

What is the Difference Between BCAA vs Whey Protein?

BCAA are three specific essential amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine). Most BCAA end up in muscle tissue.

Whey protein is a complex protein derived from cow’s milk. It has a full spectrum of amino acids including BCAA and all other essential amino acids. It is also absorbed very easily.

So the real difference between BCAA vs. whey protein is that whey protein contains ALL the amino acids that our body and muscles use. While BCAAs are only a small group of the specific amino acids that help with muscle growth.

Adding more (such as supplementing both) is like adding more dressing to your salad. A lot ends up at the bottom of the bowl.

What Kind of Return on Investment Will I Get From BCAAs?

This is an important question. There are two ways to look at this aspect:

  1. 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…
  2. The ROI for taking BCAAs goes way down if you’re already using whey protein. Your muscles can only use so much. The extra amino acids turn into to either ketone bodies, fatty acids or glucose. So BCAAs becomes an unnecessary expense.

What kind of return on investment will I get 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:

  1. Inexpensive compared to meat
  2. Fast absorption
  3. Whey is high in essential amino acids
  4. High in BCAAs
  5. Ridiculously convenient compared to cooking and transporting meat

Here’s the most important point!!!!

So we’ve established that approximately 5g of BCAAs 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 BCAAs…

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.

When Should I Use Just BCAAs?

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?

When to take BCAA

If you’re on a strict diet where BCAAs make 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 BCAAs 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 BCAAs 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 BCAAs as a meal replacement. Yet another advantage of using whey.

Saving Money on Supplements

Choosing to use whey instead of BCAAs is an easy way to save money on supplements.

Just make sure you use whey protein with at least 5.5 grams of BCAAs 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).

So, Which is Better? Whey protein or BCAA?

Education and experience tell me whey protein is a better supplement than BCAA. For the following reasons:

  • Whey protein powder already contains enough BCAAs.
  • Whey protein has a high bioavailability (easily absorbed).
  • Taken individually, amino acids have an element of competitive absorption. This is eliminated with whey protein.
  • Whey protein is a very convenient source of whole protein.

Enough said.

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 BCAAs to your arsenal.

BCAAs 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 BCAAs vs protein shakes.

Wishing you all well!

Science Stuff

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).

BCAAs happen to be both.

  • Leucine is ketogenic
  • Valine is glucogenic
  • Isoleucine is both ketogenic and glucogenic

Research and Resources on BCAA vs Whey Protein – (NERD STUFF)

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

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.

Research on BCAAs

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

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

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