Everyone loves discussing supplements when getting into fitness. They’re like the “pick n mix” of the fitness world, theres only a few worth having. To optimise our muscles when training, they need nourishment from essential Amino Acids. Which comes from both whey and bcaas. This leads to the question between bcaa vs whey, which is better?
Supplements are a rite of passage for beginners in fitness. I remember my little stack I’d have. It would include; whey powder, casein powder, bcaa’s, pre-workout, multivitamins. Holland and Barret must have made a small fortune out of me.
I wasted a lot of time and money, thinking those supplements would help. To be honest I probably only bought them to make myself feel like I was a gym bro.
When it comes to getting in shape, having a solid nutrition strategy is key.
Anyway lets get into it.
When it comes to bulking up, leaning out, toning up, weight loss, whatever you want to do. Building or sustaining you muscles is key.
We know protein is essential for our muscles. But is it worth getting the complete protein from a protein powder? Or is it worth getting the essential amino acids from a bcaa powder?
Let’s see when it comes to bcaa vs whey, which one would be worth getting if you could only buy one.
Why is protein important for muscles?
After lifting weights or any form of strength training. Muscles undergo this process called muscle protein synthesis. (1)
It’s a process where protein is produced in the body to repair and build muscle tissue.
For this to happen, you need protein. (An ideal protein intake is at-least 1.6g of protein per kg of lean body mass per day. Ideally splitting it between 3-6 servings a day) (2)
But that is not all. These proteins need to be the right ones.
You see protein is made from 20 different amino acids. (3)
Our body can produce 11 and the other 9 we can only get from food.
Some foods have all the essential amino acids (animal foods). Whilst others will have some but not others (plant foods). Soy is an exception, as it contains all 20 amino acids. (3)
The ones with all the essentials we call complete protein sources. The foods which don’t produce all the amino acids, we call incomplete proteins.
These are the essential amino acids:
These are the non essential amino acids:
- Tyrosine (3)
All these different amino acids play different roles within the body.
The way I describe them, is that each amino acid is like the component of a car.
A car has wheels, an engine, a cooling system and breaks etc.
Just like the components of a car. Amino acids each have a slightly different role in producing muscle protein.
What are Bcaa’s?
Bcaa’s are known as branched chain amino acids. Or as I would have said back when I started uni, fruity gym water.
They are comprised of 3 of the essential amino acids.
- Iso leucine
- Valine (4)
These amino acids are known for their anabolic properties. In essence these are the amino acids which trigger muscle protein synthesis. (4)
Leucine is seen to be the main amino acid.
You could say it’s the car key to the engine. Without it, muscle protein synthesis would not occur. It lights the spark in the ignition, to get the engine running. Which I suppose you could say the other two amino acids are.
Here’s the thing. A lot of incomplete proteins foods, don’t have enough branched chain amino acids. Thus can’t trigger muscle protein synthesis.
What supplement companies have taken these amino acids, put them into powder form. Gave them bright colours and made them into fruity drinks.
But when it comes to bcaa vs whey, are they better then the good old fashioned whey protein supplement?
What is whey protein powder?
Whey protein powder is the byproduct of making cheese.
When cheese is made the solids (curds) get separated from whey, the liquid. (5)
That liquid whey just happens to contain a boat load of protein, so instead of dumping it down a drain. Some genius thought it’d be better to powder it and sell it as a protein supplement. And I couldn’t agree more.
I’ve gone into more detail about the whole process in this article, what whey powder is. If you want to know more I suggest you read that after this.
Unlike bcaa’s whey has a few differences, other than it being milkier.
Whey protein is a complete protein. Remember when I said animal products are complete sources of protein. Well, whey is a derivative of dairy.
Therefore when you consume whey, you are consuming all 20 amino acids. (6)
In car talk, unlike bcaa’s where you are only getting the keys, engine and ignition. You are now consuming the whole car.
When it comes to bcaa vs whey, which should I choose?
There’s an argument consuming bcaa powders are better, because they are less wasteful. You only get the amino acids needed to trigger muscle protein synthesis.
Now I understand, thats fair enough. But there’s one major flaw in that argument.
If I was to give you a set of car keys (leucine) and a car engine and ignition (Isolecuine and Valine). How far or where would you end up?
You’re not going anywhere. That’s what a bcaa supplement is.
On the other hand, you have whey protein powder. It has all 20 amino acids, essential and non essential. Here you have your car. Engine, wheel, windows, seats, the lot. It’s all here.
Now you can go wherever you want.
Long story short, car keys without the car are pretty useless. If you’re looking for a supplement to optimise your muscle building, whey protein is the best. It has everything you need and in the right amounts.
In fact data bluntly shows bcaa’s do not help in the process of muscle protein synthesis at all. (4)
If you’re lactose intolerant, I’d suggest a whey isolate or vegan blend.
If you’re looking for a slower digesting protein, for the night, I’d recommend casein protein. (7)
But then again, it’s a small detail, it’s not something I’d ever worry about.
But does this mean I think bcaa’s are completely useless?
Well it depends…
A small case for consuming bcaa’s
So when it comes to building muscle, they are a marketing gimmick. Really not worth your money.
There’s been some emerging evidence that consuming bcaa’s can help preventing that burning sensation of DOMS.
It wasn’t a placebo effect either. Those who took the placebo felt more DOMS compared to those who took the bcaa’s. (8)
DOMS is delayed onset muscle soreness. That feeling when your muscles ache the day after a solid workout.
Funnily enough I kinda enjoy the feeling.
Now if you’re into competitive sports, there might be a case for taking them.
Il be honest, I don’t know how effective they are for prevening DOMS.
But if you’re competing where that 1 or 2% more could make the difference between winning and losing, why wouldn’t you?
If being a little less sore means, you’re able to move that little bit faster, to me its a no brainer.
This has me thinking. Bcaa’s might not directly improve muscle protein synthesis, but indirectly might help if you feel less sore training, thus being able to push yourself harder.
But that’s just a thought, id be happy top be proved wrong on that. Maybe il self experiment in the future and write a blog on that.
But remember for muscles and muscle growth, whey is the way.
Final thoughts on bcaa vs whey
For most of you and especially those I work with, whos main intent is to look better. Which usually means building more muscle and getting as lean as healthily possible. Whey protein is going to be way better than any bcaa powder.
But if you’re looking to reduce muscle soreness, bcaa powder might make a difference.
I hope that answered your question, if you have any more questions please ask, I’m always happy to answer.
Josh is a Registered Associate Nutritionist, with the Association for Nutrition (AFN). He completed his degree in Nutrition at the University of Roehampton in 2021. He passed with a First Class with Honours.
Josh is also a tutor for up-and-coming Personal Trainers, where he teaches a Level 4 Advanced Nutrition course. This is for Personal Trainers looking to upskill their nutrition knowledge. This is done at Norfolk Health & Fitness.