Last week, we found that BCAA supplements don’t really offer too much value when it comes to recovering from exercise.

This week, we look at the effect of an essential amino acid (EAA) + carbohydrate drink on muscle adaptations to exercise (muscle growth)…i.e. not recovery.

It’s generally recommended that when you eat enough protein in your diet (~2g/kg bodyweight), amino acid supplementation, whether that be EAA or BCAA’s are rendered void as you’ll inevitably be consuming adequate amounts of amino acids through your food.

That being said, a very interesting and very well put together study by Bird et al (2006) got brought to my attention.

In this study, they recruited 32 untrained men, placed them on a supervised twice/week full body programme for 12 weeks and gave them 1 of 4 drinks to consume DURING their sessions. The drinks contained either:

1) ~40g Carbs (CHO)
2) 6g EAA
3) 6g EAA + ~40g CHO
4) Placebo

Over the 12 weeks, they measured body composition, took muscle biopsies, blood samples and analysed their urine to measure muscle breakdown – pretty thorough!

After the 12 weeks:

• The placebo group gained 1.8kg of muscle, where the ‘marker’ for muscle breakdown increased by 52% following a training session.
• The EAA + CHO group gained 2.8kg of muscle, but interestingly the marker for muscle breakdown decreased by 26%.

The face value of this supplement protocol looks really quite amazing…take 6g of EAA plus ~40g CHO during a session and gain more muscle. It is thought that the combo of EAA+CHO has a synergistic effect and reduces muscle breakdown from training, and therefore has a better platform for us to build muscle. I.e it’s seen as an ‘anti-catabolic supplement’.

I do have some science nause questions though:

1) The researchers tested for muscle breakdown (the amount of 3-MH found in urine) on weeks 0 and 12. High meat diets have shown to increased 3-MH excretion, therefore can falsify the results. To counteract this, the participants were place on a meat free diet for 7 days prior to testing…therefore any increases of 3-MH were from muscle breakdown. The issue is that the advised lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets were low(ish) in protein (~105g or 1.3g/kg/bw on average) – therefore supplementing with EAA would potentially improve the overall anabolic effect of the diet, and therefore decrease muscle breakdown…similarly to a normal high protein diet? Plus, we only get a snap shot for 2 different occasions under the same dietary conditions.

2) The researchers didn’t exactly control their food intake throughout the 12 week study. They analysed their 3 day food diary before they started, were told not to change anything during and reanalysed another 3 days after the 12 week supplement period. Protein intake ranged from 113-139g (1.4-1.75g/kg/bw) during the recording period…however we know how terrible food diaries are for analysing nutrition status accurately, simply due to people under-reporting. Therefore it’ll be difficult to say how much the protein and energy content of the diet had an impact here and did they actually stick to this for 12 weeks? I.e. did they eat insufficient amounts of protein throughout?

3) Each group only had 8 participants; therefore it’s really hard to draw strong conclusions from the results of 8 people (i.e. statistical power is weak).

4) Protein/amino acid supplementation is generally most effective in those who have lower strength values (i.e. untrained) and less effective in those who have higher. Therefore, if EAA’s work for the untrained, what about those who have been training for a while? Perhaps still beneficial if muscle breakdown was high enough?

So, where do we go from here?

This protocol does look pretty cool, but the fact they didn’t control their nutrition throughout the 12 weeks leaves us with the big question of how much impact did the diet have vs the supplement….you’re probably not going to know from the averaged results of 8 people.

That being said, this approach has zero negatives and does have the potential to enhance gains. So, if you have a few spare bucks and don’t mind splashing out on some EAA+CHO supplements, be my guest.

Needless to say there’s still a few unanswered questions to this everlasting discussion on amino acid supplements…

For now though, I’d suggest you continue to follow a high protein diet and eat a tonne of carbs

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