Many people take branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) before and after workouts because they can help with building muscle and muscle recovery.
BCAAs have become a “staple” for athletes and weight trainers for putting on muscle.
Women can check out our BCAA for women rankings, too.
This guide is two parts: Part 1 ranks the top 10 BCAA supplements and part 2 dives deeper into the science.
1. Performance Lab SPORT BCAA
Performance Lab SPORT BCAA delivers branched-chain amino acids in a clean and natural package.
Coming in a 2:1:1 mix, Performance Labs uses the most well-researched ratio which has been shown to activate muscle protein synthesis. With 3g of total BCAAs per serving, their recommended two servings a day provides a solid 6g of BCAAs.
That means that Performance Lab BCAA is more than enough to boost performance, initiate muscle growth, and help you fight fatigue.
Not only that, thanks to its Plantcaps® capsules, there are no artificial colors, flavorings, stimulants or synthetically produced ingredients in this product. It’s 100% natural.
Performance Lab BCAA is also vegan-friendly, GMO, and gluten-free.
The BCAAs are fermented from sunflower lecithin making them easier for your body to absorb than other sources of BCAA. Performance Lab makes sure that all of their products are 3rd party tested by sources such as UL, so it’s guaranteed to be as clean as you can get.
2. BulkSupplements Pure BCAA 2:1:1
The BCAA offering from BulkSupplements is about as simple and straightforward as they come.
There are only three ingredients: leucine, isoleucine, and valine, the three branched chain amino acids that we use to build muscle.
There’s no sugar, flavoring, preservatives, or stabilizers to worry about it. The supplement comes with 750 mg of leucine, 375 mg of isoleucine, and 375 mg of valine per serving, for a branched chain amino acid ratio of 2:1:1.
It’s a best-seller at Amazon, and rightfully so.
The actual values of the amino acid contents as determined by laboratory testing differ only slightly—there’s an excess of about 50mg of leucine and a deficit of about 100 mg of isoleucine. These differences are trifling, and probably vary a bit from batch to batch.
According to lab testing, Bulk Supplements Pure BCAA contains 96% amino acids, and is not contaminated with any significant amounts of heavy metals or prohibited ingredients.
The absence of any fillers, stabilizers, emulsifiers, sweeteners, or flavoring agents make Bulk Supplements BCAA a great choice if you want absolute control over what you’re putting in your body.
3. Battle Ready Fuel BCAA Powder
This BCAA Insta-Workout Supplement from Battle Ready Fuel comes in a fantastic cherry burst flavor and is packed with premium quality ingredients. It helps fuel your muscles with double the Leucine for truly EXPLOSIVE muscle growth!
The secret behind their formula is the perfect dosage of BCAAs.
BRF packs 3 different types of BCAAs into their supplement… Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine. These are placed in the supplement at a 4:1:1 ratio, delivering 5g of BCAAs per serving.
The only other ingredients to be found in the mix is the flavoring, citric acid, coloring, and sucralose.
Basically, the entire formulation is designed to help keep the body in growth mode. Their unique 4:1:1 ratio will keep your muscles prepared for gains for longer stretches of time… which is very important.
The formulation is also vegan-friendly, naturally flavored, and designed to directly support the biological processes of muscle gain. If you are looking to boost your recovery or build up new muscle tissue, BCAAs are an essential part of the process… and BRF has you covered with this intense, yet easy-to-use, blend of healthy, natural ingredients.
4. Optimum Nutrition BCAA powder
One of the flagship products of the internet’s most well-known resources on strength training, Optimum Nutrition’s branched chain amino acid supplement boasts a 2:1:1 ratio of leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
The amino acid content is very high, with over 98% of the product containing BCAAs by weight.
The only other ingredients, aside from leucine, isoleucine, and valine, are a blend of soybean oil and lecithin, as well as silicon dioxide. The oil and lecithin blend helps to emulsify the solution when mixed into a protein shake.
As with other supplements, this can be very useful if you hate gritty sludge at the bottom of your protein shaker, but can also prove to be a problem if you’re not supposed to be consuming soy products as a part of your diet (1).
The silicon dioxide helps prevent the powder from clumping together.
Clumps aren’t typically a huge issue if you use a wire ball in your protein shaker, but it can be a pain to measure out the right amount of a supplement if your container is full of two-inch lumps of powder stuck together.
The convenience of silicon dioxide might not be worth it for purists, though—even though it’s present in only a small amount, you’re still basically adding sand to your BCAA powder.
5. MusclePharm 3:1:2
The branched chain amino acid offering from MusclePharm employs a 3:1:2 ratio of leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
MusclePharm’s leucine, isoleucine, and valine content is accurate, and the product contains 95% branched chain amino acids by weight.
One additional ingredient is soy lecithin, which is added as an emulsifier. This makes it easier to blend up into a suspended solution in water. BCAA supplements without an emulsifier might be more prone to “settle out” in your protein shake and leave a gritty residue at the bottom of your bottle.
However, soy lecithin might be a turn-off if you have a soy allergy or are trying to eliminate it from your diet.
This supplement comes in unflavored and flavored varieties. The unflavored version contains only BCAAs and soy lecithin. The flavored versions contain malic acid, artificial flavoring, sucralose, and a colorant. The malic confers a tart, sour taste, while the flavoring makes the supplement go down easier. Sucralose is a non-caloric sugar replacement which sweetens the taste when mixed with water.
For coloring agents, MusclePharm uses natural substances like beet root powder or spirulina powder, which is a nice to see—lots of lesser supplements today will just mix in some red #40 and call it a day.
6. Sheer Strength Labs BCAA
The BCAA capsules sold by Sheer Strength labs are perhaps the best capsule option on the market.
These boast a 2:1:1 leucine:isoleucine:valine ratio, and no extraneous ingredients—other than those three, all that’s in the product is gelatin (which makes up the capsule itself) and magnesium stearate, which binds the branched chain amino acid powder together and prevents it from sticking.
Lab testing shows that it is quite pure, with 97% of its contents being branched chain amino acids. The accuracy of its labeling okay, but not stellar: there’s a 49 mg excess of leucine and a similar excess of valine, but these discrepancies are not large enough to significantly alter the relative ratios of leucine, isoleucine, and valine in the supplement.
All the usual capsule caveats apply: vegetarians and vegans need not apply; the cost is substantially higher per gram of branched chain amino acids, and you give up the flexibility of graduated measurements for the convenience of discrete, integer measurements of capsules.
The purity and simplicity of Sheer Strength Labs BCAA drives up its cost, making it substantially more expensive than an equivalent powder, so it’s definitely not the best budget option if you’re shopping around.
7. Dymatize Nutrition BCAA Complex 5050
A simple powder whose only contents are leucine, isoleucine, and valine, plus a bit of silicon dioxide as an anti-clumping agent, Dymatize Nutrition’s BCAA Complex 5050 is a solid choice for a branched chain amino acid powder. Its 2:1:1 ratio of the three branched chain amino acids is a safe industry standard.
On the analytical side of things, Dymatize is bested by several of its competitors. It contains only 92% branched chain amino acids by weight, and has some substantial variation in the stated amounts of amino acids present.
For example, the label indicates that there ought to be 2,526 mg of leucine per serving, but laboratory analytics by Labdoor show there’s an excess of 154 mg (2).
While this is still only about 6%, it might be an issue if you insist on very high precision—especially if you’re only using a small amount of powder for a custom-mixed recovery drink.
If you measure with a scoop, this won’t be an issue; any uncertainties of this order of magnitude will be far offset by the variation in scoop size.
8. Cellucor Alpha Amino BCAAs
Cellucor Alpha Amino BCAAs is a vetted top-seller, so why isn’t it higher on this list?
It’s a powder that contains leucine, isoleucine, and valine in a 2:1:1 ratio, but has some drawbacks compared to other products on the market. First, it has a lot of extra ingredients, some of them active, and some of them not.
In addition to the three branched chain amino acids, Cellucor BCAA also contains three other amino acids: beta alanine, an amino acid that is supposed to help boost anaerobic performance; citrulline malate, which is supposed to help fight fatigue and boost energy levels; and 2-Hydroxyisocaproic acid or HICA, a metabolized form of leucine (4).
Cellucor claims these are superior to normal BCAA mixtures, but there’s a lack of solid scientific research supporting this claim.
The supplement also contains flavoring and coloring agents, including citric acid, natural and artificial flavors, silicon dioxide, the noncaloric sweetener sucralose, and red #40.
If you know that you are looking for a blend of BCAAs with other ingredients like beta alanine and HICA, you might think about giving Cellucor BCAA a shot, but there are other products on the market that offer better purity, more value, and more stringent quality control.
9. Jarrow Formulas BCAA
Though it’s a more under-the-radar brand, Jarrow Formulas BCAA offering is still a popular and relatively easy to find option.
Unlike most of the other supplements on this list, Jarrow Formulas BCAA comes in capsules only: convenient if you’re tired of measuring scoops or hate the mildly astringent taste of BCAA powder, but also a bit more costly.
Jarrow Formulas adds in 500 mg of glutamine per serving, which is a “regular” amino acid (i.e. not branched chain), as well as 5 mg of vitamin B6 (equivalent to 250% of your recommended daily value for that vitamin).
Glutamine is known to prevent muscle wasting in critically ill patients at hospitals, so some strength gurus recommend taking it for building muscle (3).
Vitamin B6 aids in a number of different metabolic functions in your body, including some which involve amino acid synthesis—this is likely why Jarrow Formulas elected to include it in their supplement. The capsule itself contains gelatin (sorry, vegetarians—gelatin is animal-derived), magnesium stearate, and cellulose, which help bind and stabilize the BCAA powder in the capsule.
The inclusion of “extras” like glutamine and vitamin B6 is controversial. If you were going to be taking those two supplements anyways, it’s great, but if you’re a purist, or just don’t want any unnecessary ingredients in your supplement.
10. Bodytech BCAA
Bodytech offers another no-nonsense branched chain amino acid formulation. Leucine, isoleucine, and valine in a 2:1:1 ratio, with a small amount of soy lecithin added as an emulsifier to prevent sediment in your water bottle. No flavoring, no stabilizers, and no artificial ingredients. Despite, or perhaps because of this, it’s a best-seller.
It does not rank quite as highly on lab purity tests, with only 93% of its contents being pure BCAAs, but further testing shows that its BCAA ratio is very true-to-label: There’s only a 56 mg deficit of leucine (2346 mg per serving when there ought to be 2400) and the isoleucine and valine servings are within 7 mg of their stated amounts.
This is better than many other competitors can manage, so if you’re looking to be very precise with your measurements and BCAA ratios, Bodytech BCAA is a good choice.
This precision does come at a cost, however, since Bodytech BCAA is more costly on a per-serving basis. If precision is what you’re looking for, but there are better options when it comes to value and purity.
Who should buy BCAAs?
Taking a branched chain amino acid supplement can help you get greater benefits from your workouts in multiple ways. First, BCAAs are the building blocks of muscle tissue, so they can help boost your recovery after a workout. BCAAs can lead to greater gains in both muscular strength and muscular size.
Additionally, BCAAs appear to help prevent muscular damage in particularly tough training sessions. Research shows that a BCAA supplement can reduce soreness and the decrements in strength and performance that follow a heavy eccentric lifting protocol.
BCAAs can also be very useful if you are trying to get a concentrated dose of muscle-repairing compounds while keeping your overall caloric intake low.
While a protein shake can be great for bulking up, BCAAs can be a real lifesaver if you are trying to count macros. They’re also great if you are trying to stay in ketosis, because even moderate amounts of protein can get converted back into carbohydrates, which will pull you out of a ketogenic state.
For most people, though, the greatest benefits of BCAAs are their ability to prevent muscle damage, boost muscle recovery, and assist with muscle strength and muscle mass gains. Taking a BCAA supplement before or after your gym session is a great way to take advantage of these benefits.
How we ranked
Our first criteria for our rankings was that a supplement deliver only branched chain amino acids, and not other biologically active ingredients. While you can find BCAAs in many other workout-related supplements, we focused only on supplements that were specifically designed to deliver effective dosages of branched chain amino acids.
Because there is a relatively large amount of scientific research on using BCAAs to improve your workouts, we based our BCAA supplement evaluations on how well a given supplement conformed to the doses and formulations used in scientific research.
Specifically, we were looking for supplements that made it easy to take a dose of three to six grams, two to three times per day.
These are the dosing protocols that are most commonly used in scientific research. Moreover, we examined the ratios of leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
While a range of ratios have been used in both research and commercial products, we made sure the ratios were reasonable—anything from 1:1:1 to 4:1:1 was fine, but we cut anything that leaned too heavily towards one of the branched chain amino acids to the exclusion of others.
Next up, we looked at the non-amino acid ingredients. Some products deliver pure BCAAs with no flavors, which is great if you are a purist or if you are mixing your BCAAs into a green superfood drink or a protein shake.
However, if you are just mixing your BCAA powder into water, it can be better to have a sweetener and flavoring agent in the mix—however, you don’t necessarily want too much in the way of sugar. We had a strong preference for BCAA powders that use noncaloric sweeteners as opposed to sugar.
If plain BCAA powder isn’t your thing, another option is to take a capsule. Obviously, flavoring doesn’t apply for capsules. When evaluating capsule-based BCAAs, we rated vegan and vegetarian-friendly capsules based on cellulose slightly higher than standard gelatin-based capsules, but this wasn’t a major factor in determining the overall score of a product.
As always, we applied our usual strict criteria for purity, penalizing products that had too much in the way of binders, stabilizers, and bulking agents.
After considering the dose, purity, flavor (when applicable), and delivery mechanism of each supplement, we sorted by scores and had our final rankings—the best options out there for BCAAs
BCAAs are a key building block for muscle. Amino acids are your body’s basic ingredients for forming all of the proteins in your body. They are the most basic building blocks of life.
Among all amino acids, three of them are special—these are the branched chain amino acids, or BCAAs.
A scientific paper published in 2006 by Eva Blomstrand and others at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden describes how branched chain amino acids boost your body’s muscle-building response to exercise (6).
According to the researchers, consuming BCAAs soon after an endurance or resistance workout (i.e. cardio or weights) causes your body to activate its muscle-building pathways more strongly, increasing protein synthesis and boosting strength.
One study cited by Blomstrand et al. showed that a direct branched chain amino acid infusion after doing quadricep raises on a weight machine had a strong effect on three signaling pathways associated with muscle building.
Additional scientific evidence suggests that branched chain amino acids can reduce the breakdown of muscle fibers during exercise and decrease post-workout soreness, which is why BCAAs are found in pre and post workout drinks.
BCAAs can reduce soreness. A paper published in the Journal of Nutrition by Yoshiharu Shimomura and other researchers in Japan outlines an experiment in which branched chain amino acids had a substantial effect in reducing soreness in the days following a squat workout (7).
In a placebo-controlled trial, the scientists found that a 5 gram BCAA supplement taken before the squatting protocol reduced soreness over the course of four days when compared to a placebo. The critical point here is that the BCAA supplement was taken prior to the exercise.
Though the exact mechanism by which it prevents muscle soreness is unclear, Shimomura et al. hypothesize that branched chain amino acids reduced the actual breakdown of proteins in the muscles, while leucine in particular increases your production of muscle proteins after a workout.
Because leucine (which is itself one of the three branched chain amino acids) does “double duty” as both a stimulant for protein synthesis and a preventative factor against protein breakdown, BCAA supplements tend to supply relatively more leucine than isoleucine or valine, the two other branched chain amino acids.
It’s unclear what the best BCAA ratio is. There are no solid comparative clinical trials on what the optimal ratio is—there are studies that show, for example, that supplements with a 2:1:1 leucine:isoleucine:valine ratio perform better than a placebo (a supplement containing no BCAAs at all), but nothing comparing, say, a 3:1:1 ratio to a 2:1:1 ratio.
The 2:1:1 ratio appears to trace its origins to the work of Dr. Francesco Saverio Dioguardi at the University of Milan, who was among the first to use branched chain amino acids to treat liver disease (8).
After studying the absorption characteristics of the three branched chain amino acids, he developed, ad hoc, the 2:1:1 ratio as his best guess for an optimal ratio.
As these things tend to go, this ratio was quickly enshrined as the optimal one.
It should be pointed out that the 2:1:1 ratio does seem to work pretty well—otherwise there wouldn’t’ be so many studies supporting it—but there isn’t a reason to believe it’s the only ratio that will work.
On the other hand, it’s important to remember that isoleucine and valine are important, too, so if you go too far in one direction (like taking a BCAA supplement that’s loaded up with lots of leucine but very little isoleucine and valine), that is not optimal.
BCAAs may help protect your heart. Much of the scientific literature on branched chain amino acids focuses on their ability to protect and repair muscle tissue, but it’s important to remember that your heart is a muscle too.
New research suggests that getting enough BCAAs can help protect your heart as well as your skeletal muscles. A scientific study published in 2016 in the journal Circulation highlighted the role that BCAAs play in repairing and protecting heart tissue (9).
The article notes that most research on heart tissue focuses on the role of fats and carbohydrates, so the role of BCAAs was less well-characterized. This study was able to demonstrate that an adequate supply of BCAAs can protect heart tissue after it is stressed, as occurs in heart failure.
They targeted BCAA levels by knocking out a specific gene, demonstrating that mice with BCAA catabolism suffered an increased amount of oxidative damage in the mitochondria in their heart tissue.
Though it’s not the same level of evidence as a controlled trial of BCAA supplements in humans with heart disease, the mechanism of staving off muscle damage does make sense given what we know about the other effects of BCAA on muscle tissue. Taking a BCAA supplement may well protect your heart as well as your leg and arm muscles.
BCAAs can boost your immune response after a tough exercise session. Difficult workouts are hard on your body—that should come as no surprise. In addition to the soreness and a transient decrease in muscle strength that follows a hard gym session, your immune system takes a beating too.
Fortunately, new research suggests that taking a BCAA supplement can help keep your immune system in good shape even after a hard workout. A study published in 2016 in the journal Amino Acids examined the effects of a ten-week BCAA supplementation on a group of trained cyclists (10).
The supplementation routine, which used a pretty heft twelve-gram per day dosage at a 3:1:2 ratio of leucine, isoleucine, and valine, was given to half of the subjects in the study, while the other half received a placebo. The researchers found that the BCAA supplement improves sprint performance, which would make sense based on what we know about BCAAs and their ability to stimulate muscle growth and repair.
However, the BCAA supplement group also experienced no increase in white blood cells, while the placebo group did. The research team interpreted this finding to mean that the BCAA supplement was boosting the immune function of the cyclists taking the BCAAs, while the cyclists taking the placebo were experiencing the well-documented phenomenon of decreased immune function following intense exercise.
So, BCAAs before, during, or after your workouts could do more than just boost your muscle recovery in the short term. BCAAs may also help keep your immune system strong when you are doing tough training sessions.
BCAAs can be used to improve liver health. While most sports research focuses on using BCAAs for strength gains, there’s an additional branch of research that looks at using BCAAs for treating liver disease.
BCAAs interact with specific cellular signalling pathways to reverse some amounts of damage to the liver, according to a recent paper published in the journal Hepatology (11).
These new results could make BCAAs more than just a strength supplement—they may even find a use as a detox supplement, though more work needs to be done to clarify exactly who can benefit from a BCAA supplement for liver health.
Since branched chain amino acids are found in abundance in natural foods like eggs, fish, and white meat, there is very little in the way of acute side effects.
One report by Marin Manuel and C.J. Heckman raises the possibility of a link between branched chain amino acid supplementation and a neurological disease called ALS.
They noticed a link between the effects of BCAAs on neurons and the symptoms of ALS, and also noted a higher-than-expected incidence of ALS among professional soccer and football players, who report consuming BCAA supplements quite frequently.
However, the authors admit there are a huge number of confounding factors: these athletes also suffer a lot of head injuries, they’re prone to taking illegal steroids and other powerful supplements, and so on. This is an interesting hypothesis that deserves further attention, but the evidence is not nearly strong enough to caution against BCAA use.
Branched chain amino acids are used in medical settings to treat conditions like mania and liver disease, and these doses are far higher than what’s typical for a healthy adult: research on hepatic encephalopathy has used up to 25 grams per day, and research on mania has used up to 60 grams per day (12).
When it comes to dosage of branched chain amino acids for health, fitness, and muscle-building, most scientific research protocols use doses of three to six grams, taken two or three times per day.
If you want to get really technical, you can get a scale and start measuring out your BCAA dosage against your body weight—often, studies will state their dosages as “0.1g/km,” meaning 0.1 grams of BCAA per kilogram of body weight. This takes into account the fact that larger people need more of a supplement to get the same effect.
Q: What are BCAAs?
A: BCAA stands for “branched chain amino acid.” There are a total of 20 different amino acids that your body needs to function, but it can manufacture 11 of them on its own.
The other nine are “essential” amino acids, meaning that you must get them from your diet. Three of these essential nine amino acids have a special molecular structure, with a branched, tree-like structure. These three amino acids are called branched-chain amino acids, or BCAAs for short.
The actual names of these three amino acids are leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They play a number of roles in the body, but are particularly important for building and repairing muscle fibers.
Q: What do BCAA supplements do?
A: BCAA supplements are very popular among athletes and bodybuilders because they help your body build and repair muscle tissue, but without adding much in the way of calories to your diet.
They’re a very pure and concentrated way to deliver nutrients to your muscles, and often work in conjunction with other ingredients in a pre-workout, intra-workout, or post-workout supplement.
BCAAs are a little more advanced than a plain protein powder, though many people achieve good success using protein powder alone (since it does contain BCAAs as well as other amino acids).
Q: Are BCAAs bad for you?
A: BCAAs are naturally found in high amounts in foods that are high in protein, like fish, poultry, and beef. So, it should not be too surprising that BCAAs are quite safe.
There are a few theoretical detrimental effects of BCAAs; some studies have suggested that a high-BCAA diet over the course of several decades could expose neurons to abnormally high amino acid levels.
However, these are extrapolations from laboratory research on individual cells, not actual observational data from humans. No strong evidence exists to indicate that BCAAs are bad for you.
Q: When should you take BCAAs?
A: Many research studies concur: the best way to take BCAAs is by splitting up your daily dosage into two or three separate doses, taken throughout the day.
Take one dose in the morning, one dose either before, after, or during your workout, and one dose in the evening or perhaps even before bed. Each dose should be only a few grams.
BCAAs are absorbed pretty quickly by your body, so it’s important to spread out your dosage throughout the day to keep a steady supply of amino acids ready for your body.
Q: How do BCAAs work in your body?
A: Amino acids are the building blocks of protein in your body, and BCAAs in particular are the building blocks of muscle fibers.
So, if you want to add muscle, gain strength, or repair muscular damage, you need a steady supply of branched chain amino acids. BCAAs work by supplying your body with the ingredients it needs to synthesize new muscle and to repair damaged parts of pre-existing muscle.
Q: Are BCAA supplements necessary?
A: If you are just going to the gym to stay healthy and fit, you probably don’t need a BCAA supplement. Like the pre-workout supplements and the post-workout supplements that often incorporate BCAAs, pure BCAA supplements work best for serious athletes.
If your training regimen is very challenging, or if you are training to try to beat your one-rep max, BCAAs can start making a difference. BCAAs assist with recovery, protect your muscles from damage, and can even help keep your immune system functioning at a high level when you are in a block of tough workouts.
If you’re just doing some leisurely walking on the treadmill, or some light lifting on Nautilus-style machines, BCAAs probably are not necessary for you.
Q: Where do BCAAs come from?
A: BCAAs are usually manufactured by isolating the branched chain amino acids from the other proteins in naturally occurring sources of amino acids like casein protein and whey protein.
Once purified, the branched chain amino acids can be powderized or pressed into capsules for use in a BCAA supplement. Often, manufacturers isolate each BCAA–leucine, isoleucine, and valine–independently, then blend them together in a specific ratio (though the precise optimal ratio is controversial).
Once these three amino acids are blended together at the appropriate ratios, you have the final product.
- Whey protein powder
- BCAAs for women
- Post-workout supplement
- Intra-workout supplement
- Whey protein powder
Branched chain amino acids are a great way to boost your workout productivity.
Taking a BCAA supplement before or soon after your workout has two main benefits: first, it reduces the amount of muscle breakdown that occurs during your workout, which will help you avoid soreness after a tough workout, and prevent you from plateauing or losing ground on your fitness goals.
Additionally, it will help your body synthesize protein more effectively after your workout, which will improve your strength and muscle mass gains.
If you hit the gym on a regular basis and you’re aiming to get stronger and more muscular, you should probably add a BCAA supplement to your fitness program.
For BodyNutrition‘s #1 BCAA recommendation, click here.