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When I first started getting into serious training and lifting weights, I didn’t know which supplements I needed and which ones were just a waste of money.
I was especially confused about the differences between the BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids) in whey protein powder and the BCAA supplements sold separately and wasn’t sure if I needed both.
So, do you need BCAAs if you take whey protein? Yes, you can get even better results from your training when taking both BCAAs and whey protein, allowing you to train harder and recover faster, building more muscle than if you only took one alone. Building muscle is an important part of both bulking and losing body fat, so these products are helpful for both goals.
In this article, I’ll cover:
- The difference between whey protein and BCAAs
- The benefits of taking BCAAs along with whey protein
- My recommendations for taking BCAAs and whey protein
- The other factors to consider when taking BCAAs
What Are Amino Acids?
Before getting into the differences between whey protein and BCAAs and why you need both, it’s important to understand what amino acids are, as these are the main components of both whey protein and BCAAs.
There are two types of amino acids: nonessential and essential. Within the essential amino acids, there are specific types called branched-chain amino acids.
What’s a Nonessential Amino Acid?
A nonessential amino acid is one that our bodies can produce, even if we don’t get it from the foods we eat. There are eleven nonessential amino acids out of the twenty-three amino acids in total.
The eleven nonessential amino acids are alanine, arginine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glycine, glutamine, proline, serine and tyrosine.
What’s An “Essential” Amino Acid?
An “essential” amino acid is one that is not made by your body and needs to come from the foods you eat or supplements you take. There are nine essential amino acids.
The nine essential amino acids are phenylalanine, valine, tryptophan, threonine, isoleucine, methionine, histidine, leucine, and lysine.
Foods that contain all nine essential amino acids are called “complete proteins.” These foods include:
Foods that contain only some of the essential amino acids but not all are incomplete protein sources. These include nuts, seeds, beans, and some grains.
What’s a Branched Chain Amino Acid?
Branched-chain amino acids are a subset of the essential amino acids. A branched-chain amino acid gets its name from the shape of its chemical structure, with a “branch” off to the side. There are three branched-chain amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
BCAAs are available on their own as a supplement or as part of a protein supplement like whey protein powder. They also occur naturally in whole food sources of protein like turkey or beef.
- Related Article: Mixing Protein Powders Together: Avoid These 3 Things
Whey Protein vs. BCAAs: What Are the Differences?
The main difference between whey protein and BCAA supplements is that whey protein is a complete protein, while BCAAs are not a form of protein, only the individual amino acids that make up a protein.
Whey protein contains all nine essential amino acids, including the branched-chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine. The BCAAs in whey protein are bonded to other amino acids.
On the other hand, a BCAA supplement contains only leucine, isoleucine, and valine, without other amino acids.
Beyond the protein content, there are several other differences between whey protein powder and BCAA supplements:
Digestion of Whey Protein vs. BCAA
BCAAs are unique in that they get metabolized directly in muscle tissue, providing instant energy to the muscle rather than being metabolized in the liver like other amino acids. The digestion of whey protein happens in the intestines and not directly in the muscles, meaning amino acids have to travel to the muscles.
Along with the essential amino acids, the process of making whey protein powder also leaves behind some carbohydrates in the form of lactose, the naturally occurring form of sugar found in milk, and a small amount of fat.
The small amount of carbs and fat means that while whey protein gets digested quickly, it is still slower than the metabolism of BCAAs.
Calorie Content of Whey Protein vs. BCAA
The average scoop of whey protein powder (30g) has about 120 calories. A typical serving of BCAAs is 5-10g, with 23-46 calories.
It’s important to note that supplement labels often show zero calories for BCAAs because FDA regulations state that protein content and related calorie count cannot be shown when a product contains only individual amino acids.
Amount of BCAAs Per Serving
BCAA supplements usually contain more BCAAs than whey protein. However, the amount of BCAAs in whey is rarely shown on the label, and the amount per serving is not standardized.
- Check out our BCAA Dosage Calculator
Labeling inconsistencies also mean that you won’t always see the BCAA content of a whey protein powder on the Nutrition Facts label, even though the protein powder will advertise BCAAs included.
For example, Dymatize Elite 100% Whey Protein Powder advertises 5.5g of BCAAs (including 2.7g of leucine) per 34g scoop, but this is not shown on the main nutrition facts label
Other brands of whey protein average 5-5.5g of BCAAs per 30-33g scoop (one serving), which is consistent with this study that pointed out that most quality protein powders contain approximately 25% BCAAs.
BCAA supplements are often 6-7g for one serving, so slightly bigger than the serving of BCAAs that comes in one serving of whey protein powder.
- Related Article: Dymatize Iso 100 Protein Powder Review: Tried & Tested
Are There Benefits To Taking BCAAs If You Take Whey Protein?
Yes, there are several benefits to taking BCAAs if you take whey protein:
BCAAs Provide Energy More Quickly
BCAAs are helpful as a pre-or intra-workout supplement to reduce fatigue and decrease muscle protein breakdown during exercise.
Because they are metabolized directly in the muscle, they provide energy more quickly than whey protein.
BCAAs Are Less Likely to Cause Digestive Distress During Your Workout
Some people find it hard to drink a protein shake in the middle of a workout.
Personally, I find that trying to drink a protein shake during an intense workout upsets my stomach and it is not appetizing. If you’re like me, drinking BCAAs during your workout shouldn’t bother your stomach but will give you the energy to get through a tough training session.
BCAAs Can Be More Convenient Than Whey Protein
In some gyms, protein drinks are not allowed on the gym floor.
Because of this, it can be helpful to drink BCAAs during your workout for the taste and energy and save your whey protein shake for afterward.
Taking BCAAs Can Help You Reach the Daily Recommended Values of Amino Acid Intake
Not many people track their intake of specific amino acids compared to overall daily protein intake (hitting your overall protein target makes it likely that you are getting enough of each individual amino acid).
But just in case, the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is a minimum of 45mg per kg of body weight per day for leucine and half that for each of isoleucine and valine. Active individuals require even higher levels.
This means that a person who weighs 150lbs (68kg) would need at least 3g of leucine and 1.5g each of valine and isoleucine.
One serving of whey protein and/or one serving of BCAAs (plus whole food sources of protein consumed throughout the day) would more than cover the recommended BCAA intake.
Taking BCAAs & Whey Protein: My Recommendation
My recommendation is to supplement with both BCAAs and whey protein powder to maximize your results. However, I recommend taking them separately rather than mixing them. Take 5g of BCAAs with water during your workout and a scoop (30g) of whey protein as part of a post-workout shake.
This allows you to get the benefits of BCAAs I described above during your training session, along with the benefits of whey protein powder for recovery after your training session.
On rest days, you can mix a scoop (5g) of BCAAs into your water for sipping over the course of the day.
- Related Article: Should You Eat More Protein On Rest Days? (Science-Backed)
For Weight Loss, Should You Take BCAAs or Whey Protein?
If your goal is weight loss and you want to prioritize one supplement over the other, I would recommend taking BCAAs and not whey protein powder. This is because BCAAs have much fewer calories, which will help with managing an overall calorie deficit. They are also shown to help minimize muscle loss while losing weight.
My recommendation for taking BCAAs for weight loss is the same as my general recommendation: take 5g of water during your workouts, and 5g of water over the course of the day for non-training days.
Also, as I mentioned earlier, BCAAs do contain calories even though the labels often say they don’t. So be sure to log calories for your BCAAs if you’re tracking your daily calorie intake.
- Related Article: What Is Amino Acid Spiking and Should You Be Worried About It?
Other Factors To Consider When Taking BCAAs
Ratio of BCAAs
Look for BCAA supplements that have a 2:1:1 ratio for grams of leucine compared to grams of isoleucine and valine. This means 2 grams of leucine for every 1 gram of isoleucine and valine. This matches the ideal ratio found in nature for whole food sources of BCAAs.
BCAA 2:1:1 ratio L-Leucine to L-Isoleucine to L-Valine
Keep an eye on the label to be sure that you are only getting the exact ingredients you want in your BCAAs.
For example, some BCAA products contain artificial sweeteners. If you are sensitive to these ingredients, you will want to avoid them.
On the other hand, some BCAA products have beneficial additional ingredients like electrolytes (dissolved salts like potassium that help to regulate fluid balance in the body and transmit the electrical signals that tell your muscles to contract).
You will just want to know that they are there so you don’t unnecessarily pay for a separate electrolyte product if you don’t need it.
If you find that BCAA supplements are expensive for your budget, look for no-frills budget options like Bulk Supplements.com BCAA powder, and only take them during intense training sessions and not on rest days.
About The Author
Lauren Graham is a Precision Nutrition Level 1 certified nutrition coach. She focuses on helping busy professionals balance healthy eating and purposeful movement. Lauren has a background in competitive swimming and is currently competing as a CrossFit athlete. She has a passion for training, teaching, and writing.