In recent years, there’s been an ongoing debate about whether branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) or essential amino acids (EAAs) are the better supplement when it comes to muscle growth, performance, and recovery.    

While BCAAs have been around for some time now, EAAs have only recently emerged as a popular dietary supplement, which begs the obvious question, “What’s the difference between the two and which one should you take if you want the best results?” 

In order to weigh in on the BCAA vs EAA debate, we’re going over all of the main things that set each supplement apart, however, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s first discuss what amino acids are and why your body needs them.  

The Importance of Amino Acids

Amino acids play a number of different roles in the human body.  In addition to functioning as cell signaling molecules and gene expression regulators, they also serve as important precursors in the synthesis of a number of different hormones (and other substances) which help to maintain balance and stability across all of the body’s major systems.(1)

What amino acids are perhaps best known for, however, is their role in the maintenance of muscle tissue.  Amino acids are known as the building blocks of protein because they form the structural foundation upon which proteins are built. 

At the cellular level, all of the muscles throughout your entire body are made up of proteins, which are going through a constant state of flux.  Numerous environmental factors cause break downs in some of these proteins, which your body must ultimately replace with fresh, new ones in order to maintain your muscle tissues — that’s where amino acids come into the picture.(2)  

Altogether, there are 20 different amino acids that cumulatively serve as the build blocks of protein and it’s with these amino acids that your body ultimately produces the various types of proteins that are needed to support and maintain your muscle tissues. (3) 

EAAs vs BCAAs: What’s The Difference?

While the body can synthesize some amino acids all on its own — these are known as non-essential amino acids — many cannot be produced solely within the body.  

EAAs 

These kinds of amino acids are known as essential amino acids (EAAs) and they can ultimately only be obtained from your diet — our bodies lack the metabolic pathways to synthesize them on their own.

There are 9 different EAAs and they’re predominantly found in dietary protein sources — a protein that contains all 9 is known as a complete protein, while those lacking one or more EAA are known as incomplete proteins.(4)

You ultimately need an adequate supply of all 9 EAAs in your diet not only to support your muscle tissues but also your overall health — again, in addition to playing a central role in the replenishment of muscle proteins, EAAs also aid in everything from gene regulation to hormone production.  

List of Essential Amino Acids (EAAs)

  • Histidine
  • Isoleucine *
  • Leucine *
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Valine *

BCAAs

Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are a subset of essential amino acids characterized by their unique chemical structure — they have a chain of 3 hydrogen atoms and 1 carbon atoms.(5)  Like the other EAAs, your body cannot produce them on its own, and therefore, must obtain them through your diet. 

There are 3 different BCAAs, leucine, isoleucine, and valine and while each does have its own unique functions within the body, what they do share in common, is that they’re not predominantly metabolized in the liver — unlike the other essential amino acids.(6)   

EAA vs BCAA Benefits: Which Supplement Should You Choose?

While the average diet may provide you with a moderate amount of EAAs and BCAAs, research shows that supplementing your diet with a combination of amino acids may be beneficial for everything from muscle growth and exercise performance to weight loss and even disease prevention.(7)

But what kind of amino acid supplement should you take if you want to experience the maximum benefits, EAAs or BCAAs? 

BCAA Benefits

1. Promote Muscle Protein Synthesis

Numerous studies have demonstrated that in combination with a regular training routine and a balanced diet, BCAA supplementation can lead to significantly more muscle growth compared to diet and training alone.  

BCAAs play an integral part in muscle protein synthesis (MPS), which is the actual process through which the body replaces old broken-down proteins with fresh, new ones.(8) 

They’ve been shown to actually increase the body’s levels of MPS, helping to create the necessary conditions for muscle growth to occur.  

Leucine, in particular, appears to be the most important BCAA when it comes to MPS.  It’s been shown to activate the mTOR cascade, an important signaling pathway that helps to coordinate the transportation of proteins (and other nutrients) to damaged muscle tissues.(9)  

Although leucine may be especially crucial when it comes to muscle growth, research suggests that it’s most effective in combination with isoleucine and valine.  Ultimately, a supplement containing all three BCAAs will spike MPS to a greater degree than leucine on its own.  More specifically, research shows that a 2:1:1 ratio of leucine to isoleucine and valine is the optimal combination for maximal MPS.  

With all that being said, some research does suggest that while BCAAs may help when it comes to building muscle,  supplementing with things like EAAs and whey protein may ultimately stimulate muscle protein synthesis — and therefore muscle growth — to a greater degree than BCAAs.(10)  

2. Hasten Muscle Recovery

On top of helping to stimulate MPS, numerous studies have also demonstrated that BCAA supplementation can hasten muscle recovery as well.(11)  Physical activity, such as exercise, can cause significant damage to your muscle tissues, which can ultimately result in the build-up of recovery-inhibiting fluids.   

However, research shows that taking a BCAA supplement can help to reduce the amount of muscle damage that occurs during a workout, as well as, the amount of creatine kinase and lactate dehydrogenase (both recovery-inhibiting fluids) that can build up afterward.(12)  

Research findings suggest that these combined effects help to protect against delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which is a technical term used to refer to the pain and soreness that can often follow in the hours and even days after an intense workout.  

And indeed a number of well-designed human trials have found that not only does BCAA supplementation reduce self-reported perceptions of pain and soreness following a demanding workout, but it also helps to improve performance in subsequent training session.(13)  

3. Improve Exercise Performance

There’s also evidence that BCAA supplementation can improve your workout performance, especially when it comes to aerobic exercise.  Research shows that low levels of BCAAs in the bloodstream can stimulate serotonin production in the brain — when BCAAs are low, your body releases another amino acid — tryptophan — into the bloodstream, which, in turn, activates the release of serotonin once it crosses the blood-brain barrier.(14)   

Serotonin is a brain chemical that, amongst other things, can cause fatigue at high levels.  However, research shows that consuming BCAAs before and/or during an aerobic training session helps to reduce fatigue by preventing the rise of serotonin production in the brain.  

Numerous studies have demonstrated that regularly taking a BCAA supplement before and/or during training can lead to significant improvements in your maximal oxygen uptake (V02 Max), which is a measure of the amount of oxygen your body is actually able to take in and utilize after all is said and done.(15)  

EAA Benefits

Because BCAAs are, after all, EAAs, you can potentially get all of the same benefits (and more) from taking an EAA supplement, although it is important to point out that ratios matter.  

Research shows that the Master Amino Acid Pattern (MAP) — a patented combination of essential amino acids — in particular, may be just as good as BCAAs when it comes to hastening recovery and improving exercise performance and even better when it comes to promoting muscle growth.  

While BCAAs — and particularly leucine — do help to promote muscle protein synthesis, study findings suggest that taking them in combination with other essential amino acids ultimately leads to greater spikes in MPS in comparison to taking them on their own.(16)(17)

Interestingly, some research shows that supplementing with the Master Amino Acid Pattern’s combination of EAAs can actually lead to muscle growth even in the most challenging of circumstances. 

In one study, where individuals totally eliminated their protein intakes, drastically reduced their calorie consumption, and regularly exercised, those who also supplemented with EAAs (MAP), on average, still managed to achieve significant amounts of muscle growth.(18) 

On top of potentially helping you to build more muscle than taking BCAAs on their own, EAA supplementation — and specifically MAP — has also been shown to lead to greater decreases in body fat and increases in basal metabolic rate, which at the end of the day, equates to greater improvements in body composition when all is said and done.(19) 

Outside of muscle growth and fat loss, the Master Amino Acid Pattern may also offer several other health benefits that BCAAs do not.  On top of helping to support your nervous and immune systems, research suggests that regular EAA supplementation may also help with everything from hair loss to fragile nails.(20)

Wrap Up

Branched-chain amino acids are a particular subset of essential amino acids characterized by their unique chemical structure.  Research shows that BCAA supplementation can help to promote muscle growth and recovery as well as bolster exercise performance.  

However, because BCAAs can also found in EAA supplements, you can potentially get all of the same benefits of BCAAs plus more from supplementing with EAAs.  On top of helping to improve exercise performance and hasten recovery, regularly taking EAAs has also been shown to lead to greeted increases in muscle growth in comparison to taking BCAAs on their own.  

But the ratio of EAAs has to be right in order for those effects to happen.  That’s why we recommend the Master Amino Acid Pattern, which is a patented combination of EAAs that’s been shown to have significant effects on everything from muscle growth and recovery to hair loss and brittle nails syndrome across.  

All in all, while BCAAs certainly aren’t worthless, science does suggest that in order to reap the most benefits both inside and outside of the gym, EAA supplementation may be the better choice.