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Analysing Studies on BCAA Supplements

BCAA supplements seem to be a topic of contention amongst some of the less experienced voices on the net, but today I’ve been moved to write a very small bit of opinion. I tend to steer clear of writing too much about supplements in general because I think as a subject they are massively overplayed.

Good, natural food will always beat supplements when it comes to the goals, be it health or body composition, of 99% of people. I caveat this statement by leaving a 1% gap just in case of the odd anomaly who can’t derive the right nutrition from their diet due to underlying health problems.

You also need to remember that I am writing this as someone who sells supplements, personally uses more than my fair share of supplements, and who even gives his children two or three supplements, so I am a big believer in what some (high quality – not cheap) products can bring to the table. And yet for me the bottom line here is that a first class diet and zero supplements can see you make tremendous progress in terms of health, body composition and performance. In contrast, a poor diet and an expensive supplement regime will yield substandard, if any, results. So do not be that person who thinks he can’t start a program/can’t make progress just because he can’t afford the latest “whizz bang zip” product. It may be a great product, but nothing can replace a good diet and it will not be as wise an investment as picking up some good quality red meat for example.

Get this into your head, supplements are by their very definition “supplementary”. They are a tertiary consideration that come way behind nutrition, exercise, and optimal rest and recovery. Once you have got all those bases covered then you have my permission to address supplements!

There is one other reason why I don’t like to talk too much about supplements. And that is this whole area of nutritional science. A real scientist, which I hasten to add I am not – I originally trained as a lawyer, would laugh at the idea that nutrition is a controllable science in the real meaning of the word and that nutritional science, as the term is understood by the layman and promoted by internet “nutritionists”, is a real science. The thing that we need to understand is that nutrients can be studied individually but that this can rarely applied as such in the real world. Take for example: – this study concludes that BCAAs don’t alter protein balance in skeletal muscle. But the conclusion completely ignores the fact that 50 grams of carbs were added to the drink of each the participants!! Thus the conclusion is completely irrelevant to our real world recommended use of BCAAs during workouts.

There are simply too many variables for any human study to be properly controlled, and the cognitive bias tends to be out of control. The internet is now full of argumentative idiots all claiming to know best and citing studies to back up their own personal bias. I believe that one needs to be properly trained to read scientific studies in order to get the full benefit. Do you think that most people in the fitness industry are educated in rigourous scientific analysis? Of course not – and this applies to trainers like myself and all the loud mouthed “nutritionists” who want to start fights in empty rooms (please note that I don’t think all nutritionists are jokers by any means, but I do think it’s an industry in danger of being hijacked by the clowns – pretend Ph.Ds, online degrees, or no University education at all do not make a modern-day scientist). Don’t misunderstand my words, however, there is genuine and authentic nutritional science being conducted by proper scientists. The bad bit is when an academically weak nutritionist gets hold of it and extrapolates.

Indeed, there is so much conflict out there on so many aspects of nutrition/supplementation that I feel very sorry for the general public. The way I approach all these things now is to read everything, be open minded on all subjects because there usually is no such thing as “the perfect method”, consult with those who are more knowledgeable than me, and then try things out on myself and/or my team, and if we like the results then we work them into client protocols and that way we really see what happens in a real world setting.

After all, what really counts are results –

3 month male transformation - UP

My second favourite UP transformation of 2013 so far! Alan really looks like a completely different man. A busy and stressed 40 year old achieves the impossible in 3 months with just 3 times a week weight training. Under the tutelage of UP Personal Trainer Mentor Justin Maguire Alan not only trained intelligently, but cycled through a range of dietary modalities including periods of very low carbohydrate/high protein intake, carb cycling, aggressive UP modified low calorie/high nutrient days (that included high levels of BCAA supplementation), and refeeds. We did what works… and it doesn’t come from a textbook.

Are You A Trainer Or A Scientist?

What I am seeing a lot of right now is lay people who aren’t trained in scientific thinking or analysis who are reading abstracts from papers and misinterpreting the word “significant”. It is happening with our own personal training clients, and it is very much our job to be on the ball enough to help them see the wood for the trees, and it is happening with social media wannabe Gurus who want to push their own agenda.

“Significant” in the context of a research article just means “statistically significant”. For example, if doing 20 sets of squats increase blood testosterone by exactly 0.5% in 100 test subjects it would be highly significant in terms of statistics but not at all in terms of real world significance. Of course, most people will read significant to mean “it makes a difference”, not “we can measure a difference”.

Then you have to factor in cognitive bias from the paper’s authors, differences in knowledge, differences in style (e.g. full squats might increase testosterone, half squats might decrease it, but the paper’s authors won’t mention what type of squats, tempo or any other variable that could make a huge difference). And then we need to factor in nutrition, rest, sleep, stress.. the list is impossibly endless.

In this context we have to give the bodybuilding community huge credit, it has always been more practical about these issues than scientists. People who squat properly always get bigger than people who just train their upper body. But is it because of general workout attitude or something else related? Charles Poliquin thinks that heavy spinal loading makes someone grow. Poliquin has got 35 years of experience and is extremely smart – when it comes to matters of strength training I tend to agree with him as a default setting. Something must happen, but no one knows exactly what as we can’t control every variable. Maybe a personal trainer who uses squats with his clients is just better than one who doesn’t and squats have nothing to do with progress at all.

We could probably prove or disprove any statistical relationship if we constructed a study the right (bad) way. Let’s hypothesise that I’ve an old client who always becomes sexually aroused after doing sumo-squats – is it because her testosterone is elevated, or because she’s got more blood flow to her sexual organs, or just because of proprioceptive feedback? Or maybe it just subconsciously reminds her of having sex. Or maybe it is having me watch her! (Joke) We could probably do a study showing that imagining intercourse whilst doing sumo-squats increases testosterone in women. But if a layman (and to be clear on this, as a personal trainer I think trainers are scientific laymen) just read a study saying that squats increase testosterone “˜significantly’ he would definitely put 2+2 together and say she’s aroused because of increased testosterone. In the real world it doesn’t matter and there are far too many variables to ever know absolutely. The fact is that she screws the first guy who responds to her mating call after sumo-squats and we don’t need to speculate why.

Albert Einstein quote - UP

Never discount science but always remember that learning what works in the real world to help real people is far more important than what happens in a test tube.

What Has All This Got To Do With BCAA Supplements?

To be honest this hasn’t got all that much to do with BCAA supplements and I’ve flown off on a bit of a wild tangent. So if you’re still reading allow me to quickly elaborate on my original intent.

BCAA supplements work. Period. No debate in my mind. I have worked with too many people to think that they do not make a difference to both weight training workout endurance (instead of hitting the wall at 20-40 minutes many people can crank out a decent hour in the gym), recovery and soreness. And bear in mind that I am in a relatively unique position of gaining close feedback from serious personal training work on over 500 active clients. There are studies out there that say they exert their benefits only in lower carbohydrate nutritional states, but allow me to refer you to the paragraphs above and highlight my only real concern – (so long as something is safe) does it work?

Let me highlight an example of where things can go wrong when it comes to using studies (and Pub Med, a wonderful resource that maybe needs to be treated by the untrained with a little bit more respect) and BCAA supplementation. UP Personal trainer Chris Richards emailed me the other day saying that a client didn’t want to supplement with BCAAs because he had read up on Pub Med that they are neurotoxic. That’s a big red flag for BCAA supplementation but it doesn’t really make all that much sense to me in a real world setting. But I also know my limits so asked for a second opinion from my UP Personal Training Hong Kong partner Joe Halstead, who read Pharmacology at Cambridge, originally worked in BioTechnology, and has kept an interest in all aspects of the science of human performance for the last 20 years.

What Joe told me makes perfect sense and also underlines the need to treat what we read with caution unless we are properly trained to interpret the data. The study in question ( was with cortical neuron cultures – i.e. it doesn’t take into account the transport of BCAAs and competing amino acids across the blood brain barrier. BCAAs have consistently been shown to be neuroprotective in vivo but not in vitro (see references here – This is likely to be due to competition for uptake across the blood brain barrier with other amino acids that are used to make excitatory neurotransmitters.

Pretty much anything is going to damage cells if you pour it onto a culture, the concentrations achieved can vary so much from actual in vivo concentrations. The scientists who performed the study don’t suggest at all that BCAAs cause any problems in real life, they are merely stating that they can’t rule out any such toxicity “in vivo” – in layman terms this is the essentially the same as saying “hey guys, let’s check this out” rather than “forget about it.”

Wrapping It Up

I’ve written far more on this subject than I intended, but it’s something I feel strongly about. I like to flatter myself into thinking I’m no dummy, but I know that I’m not the best person to interpret scientific papers on BCAA supplementation (or anything else for that matter). However, I do think I’m a very well placed person to advise on what works for real people in real life.

BCAA supplements are one of my favourite products and I think they can be of noticeable assistance for any weight training program. Either that or the placebo effect is unprecedented in all my years of training experience. But if I was on a tight budget would I still invest in them? Hell no. Steak and eggs every time.

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