Two supplements that are used by a huge percentage of people who train in the gym are BCAA's or Branched Chain Amino Acids and Pre Workouts. Both of these supplements can help improve strength and focus, but they work differently in the body.
In this guide, we break down the key components of both BCAAs and pre-workouts to find out what they are and when you should take them. Find out which one is best for you in this head-to-head comparison of BCAA vs pre workout!
Table of Contents
- BCAAs vs Pre-Workouts: Compared For Gym Users
- BCAA's Overview (Pros & Cons + When You Should Take It)
- Pre-Workouts Overview: Benefits & Recommended Dosage
- Similarities between Pre-Workouts & BCAA's
- Differences between Pre-Workouts & BCAA's
- Effective Ingredients found in Workout Supplements
- Ingredients to Avoid in a Workout Supplement
- Dangerous or Banned Ingredients found in Pre-Workouts
- Which is Better: BCAAs or Pre-Workouts?
- Common BCAA & Pre-Workout Questions
BCAAs vs Pre-Workouts: Compared For Gym Users
Improving Muscle Growth
1. Improving Strength
For improving your strength in the gym, Pre-Workouts definitely give you the edge. With pump-inducing ingredients and a boost of stimulants, you will be able to lift heavier weights and with more endurance than if you were just taking BCAA's, which are better for recovery and slow results over a long period.
Most pre-workouts contain creatine, which is a naturally occurring substance in muscle cells. It provides more energy to your muscles during heavy training sessions. Many people believe it's bad for your health, but these claims are unsupported by scientific research.
Learn More - Stimulant Vs Non-Stimulant Pre-Workout (Key Differences Explained)
2. Improving Focus + Motivation
Again, with the stimulants usually added to Pre-Workouts, you are going to get an immediate boost in both your levels of focus and your motivation. Drinking BCAAS will not give you this immediate boost.
Pre-workouts often contain caffeine and beta-alanine, which is known to improve mental focus. Be careful on how much you are taking as focus can quickly turn into an uncomfortable feeling once your blood is flowing during your workout.
3. Improving Muscle Growth
Pre-workouts might make you work out harder, but they are designed to help you while you are in the gym, not so much afterward. BCAA's are the building blocks of protein synthesis, and by drinking them regularly, you will see an improvement in the rate at which your muscles rebuild and grow.
While amino acids are found in our body naturally, BCAAs help to replenish this supply much faster. This allows your body to soak up as much as possible post-workout to rebuild those chains.
4. Side Effects
BCAA's are naturally found inside the body, and this means there is a very low chance that your body will have a bad reaction to them. On the other hand, pre-workouts come in thousands of different brands and have thousands of different formulas.
This means your chances of a nasty side effect are much higher if you take pre-workouts, especially if they contain a "Proprietary Blend," which basically means the company does not have to tell you what is inside.
Learn More - The Side Effects Of Taking Pre-Workout Supplement
Pre-Workouts come with stimulants inside. These compounds only last for several hours before your body metabolizes them. At this point, you are going to come down from your stimulant peak. This is called the crash, and depending on how much stimulant you take, it could range from slight tiredness to severe lethargy and inability to focus.
BCAA's don't contain any stimulants, so you won't get any sort of crash from taking them. This can be a huge pro if you workout in the morning before heading to work.
Learn More - Pre-Workout (Why Does It Makes Me Tired?)
BCAA's Overview (Pros & Cons + When You Should Take It)
Branched Chain Amino Acids contain precursors for creating protein and boost levels of protein synthesis, increase strength and size and even allow you to work out with more endurance. They can be taken before, during, or even after your workout.
The three amino acids that are used are Leucine, isoleucine, and valine and are crucial compounds used in your body for muscle growth and recovery as well as an energy source.
In particular, Leucine, one of the amino acids found in BCAAS, stimulates chemical signals in your brain to activate protein synthesis. It also helps you transport essential glucose to your muscles through insulin resistance and increases the energy stores your muscles can draw upon.
BCAAs are not harmful in large quantities, but the recommended dosage is based on your bodyweight. Most reports suggest taking 91 milligrams per pound of bodyweight. For example, if you weigh 175 pounds, you should take 15,925 milligrams of BCAAs. Most brands have more than this in one scoop, so one scoop a day should be enough.
Keep in mind, you should take BCAAs everyday even if you don't get in a workout. After about 10 days, your body should start to feel the effects of BCAAs.
When Should You Take It?
You should take BCAAs after your workout for the best results. Typically, amino acids will take about 30 minutes to fully enter your blood stream. I recommend taking them immediately after or 30 minutes after your workout for the best recovery results.
Pre-Workouts Overview: Benefits & Recommended Dosage
Pre Workouts are a different kettle of fish. These supplements come packed with stims and performance-enhancing compounds that give you bursts of energy, unreal muscle pumps, and a huge boost in oxygenated blood being sent to your muscles.
There are thousands of different pre-workout formulas on the market. Some contain essential B vitamins, some come with caffeine or creatine, and some come with more exotic ingredients like beta-alanine.
Most pre-workouts actually contain a full serving of BCAA's as part of their ingredient list.
Recommendation | Our #1 Pre-Workout
Pre-workout supplements vary greatly in what they contain and how much you should take. Most pre-workouts have directions on the back of the bottle for how much you should take. I recommend starting with the recommended dosage on the container or even dropping this down a few grams until you know if it works for you.
When Should You Take It?
Pre-workout supplements, as the name suggests, should be taken before a heavy workout. The optimum time will depend upon what you have already eaten that day but should be within 45 minutes of you starting your training.
Learn More - Pre-Workout Pros & Cons
Similarities between Pre-Workouts & BCAA's
Differences between Pre-Workouts & BCAA's
Effective Ingredients found in Workout Supplements
While BCAA's always contains the same ingredients, that cannot be said for pre-workouts. Supplement companies are always trying to develop the newest and most effective blend of ingredients to add to their pre-workout formula.
However, a lot of the time, ingredients are added without proper research or scientific proof that they work. They might come with false claims of performance-boosting potential that fall flat when investigated.
Here are some of the ingredients to look for that have a strong level of research behind them and will genuinely boost your performance.
Caffeine is the stimulant that is found naturally occurring in things like coffee and tea. It is also the ingredient that has the most research supporting it. Caffeine works by binding to the chemical adenosine in your body. This chemical is the one that signals to your brain to feel fatigued and tired.
Once bound, it blocks the adenosine receptors in your brain. This prevents you from tiring and allows you to work or work out without tiring.
Caffeine also boosts your body's metabolic rate and increases your body's temperature. This thermogenic effect means your body will burn more calories than it usually does. This is one of the reasons why caffeine is also used in so many weight loss supplements.
By supplementing with caffeine, you will have a clearer head, higher levels of energy, and will be able to work out with more endurance than average.
Caffeine is still a stimulant, however. This means you need to get the dosage right in order to prevent "crashing" as the stimulant wears off. 150-200mg of caffeine seems to be the sweet spot for this.
Learn More - How Much Caffeine In Pre-Workout?
Creatine (5g Daily)
Second only to caffeine, creatine is one of the most well-studied and proven supplements used by gym users. Creatine is a naturally occurring energy source found in all of the muscles in the body.
Every muscle has its own reservoir of creatine that it uses for energy during workouts. Studies have found, however, that our body only ever utilizes around 60-80% of the potential storage it has for creatine.
This means that with correct supplementation, we can "load" creatine, filling these stores to 100% and boosting our performance in the gym.
To load with creatine, there are two methods. The safest method is to simply include 5g of it daily in your supplementation. Another technique that is widely adopted is to load up with 20g for five days before dropping to 5g a day after that point. The studies are mixed on this approach, so we suggest sticking to the 5g daily recommendation.
Learn More - Can You Mix Creatine And Pre-Workout?
Beta-Alanine (2-5g Daily)
Beta-Alanine is an anti-oxidant that works to reduce the burn we feel from hydrogen ions releasing as a result of lactic acid buildup. It works by boosting the body's natural ability to produce carnosine which effectively soaks up these hydrogen ions. The result is a lower pH level and a reduction in the acidic burn we feel.
To get the best effects from beta-alanine, you should build up the levels found in your system for 2-3 weeks. This will allow you to load up your body's stores without having to take enough to get the dreaded tingling sensation that overdoing your dosage of beta-alanine can cause.
When taken daily as part of a pre-workout, you should see an increase in strength and power as well as massively raised levels of anaerobic and aerobic ability. This means you can train for longer, at a higher level.
One thing to keep in mind is that with pre-workouts, you will be training at a level that is higher than your body can train naturally. This means you will need to be on point with diet and your protein intake in order to grow and repair your muscles without injury.
Learn More - What Causes Pre-Workout Tingle?
L-Citrulline (Maximum 15g per day)
For a long time, the buzzword for pre-workouts was arginine. Arginine was once dubbed the "Ultimate Pre-Workout Ingredient." After several years of being included in almost every pre-workout on the market, the studies finally caught up.
These studies showed that arginine was actually terrible in terms of bio-availability. This means that your body has a really hard time absorbing it from food sources and supplements.
In response to this, we have swapped over to using L-Citrulline. L-Citrulline is absorbed by your body much easier. Once absorbed, L-Citrulline converts to arginine inside the body. Arginine is a vasodilator, meaning it relaxes the blood vessels around the body, leading to an increased flow of oxygenated blood to the muscles. This leads to bigger pumps.
It doesn't stop there either. L-Citrulline has another effect. With higher levels of Arginine and L-Citrulline in the body, your body also reduces the rate at which it breaks down essential amino acids. This means there are more amino-acid building blocks in your body for it to utilize in the protein synthesis and muscle repair process.
When you combine citrulline and DL Malate, you get L-Citrulline Malate, a new and improved version of L-Citrulline. This combination unlocks another benefit, a huge increase in energy production.
L-Citrulline Malate is that effective as an ingredient that in one study, participants who had taken the compound were able to perform 53% more repetitions in their sets across a 60-minute workout.
A relatively new discovery, VASO6, is a compound that is extracted from green tea. While not widely used just yet, we expect to see it a lot more in the years to come.
VASO6 as a supplement gives you a massive boost in nitric oxide production. This, in turn, works as a vasodilator, relaxing your body's blood vessels for increased blood flow. This will lead to more energy, higher levels of endurance, and massively improved pumps.
A high-grade pre-workout doesn't just give you an athletic performance increase. It also provides and supports your body with vitamins and minerals necessary for your body to maintain the lifestyle.
One of the most common deficiencies in modern life is vitamin B12. This is due to a decrease in the quality of soil and agriculture where our food is grown and our livestock raised.
A deficiency in B12 can manifest in inadequate energy levels, brain fog, increased retention of body fat, and slower recovery.
With so many people deficient in this crucial vitamin, including it in a pre-workout can lead to better workouts, faster recovery, and higher levels of energy throughout the day.
Ingredients to Avoid in a Workout Supplement
The following ingredients may not be dangerous, they are a waste of money, and any pre-workout that utilizes them as their key ingredients should be avoided.
While Glutamine is an incredibly important amino acid that has vital roles in many of your body's functions, like muscle growth and your immune system, most of us get plenty of it from our diet.
If you are eating a diet with ample amounts of protein, you will not need to supplement with Glutamine.
There are still a lot of products on the market that utilize arginine as their main wonder ingredient. As we have already discussed above, arginine absorbs at a terrible rate inside the body as it is destroyed by stomach acid in your gut.
L-Citrulline is a much better choice as it converts to arginine once inside the body.
Dangerous or Banned Ingredients found in Pre-Workouts
One ingredient you should steer well clear of if you can even find a pre-workout that contains it is DMAA. DMAA was once used in many pre-workouts due to the vast thermogenic energy boost it gives you. Research has shown that it increases your risk of cardiovascular problems pretty dramatically.
Another thing to watch for, which is much more common, is an overload of stimulants. Some people in the bodybuilding and weightlifting worlds look for pre-workouts that are extremely stimmed heavy. This has led to a number of pre-workouts being released specifically with high levels of stimulants.
When you overdo it with stimulants, you face two problems. The first of which is a terrible crash. This means that once you have overexerted yourself and the stimulants have worn off, you will be left in a highly stressed, overworked state. If you work out in the morning before work, this can make it impossible to concentrate. If you work out in the evening, you can say goodbye to your sleep.
The other problem overloading stimulants can cause is the stress it places on your body by raising your heart rate and internal body temperature to such high levels.
Stimulants are awesome and can really help you get through your workouts on bad days. They can also help you push past your limits on your good days. They do, however, come with their risks, so make sure you pick a pre-workout with a reasonable amount of stimulant inside.
Learn More - What Is DMAA? (Is It Dangerous?)
Which is Better: BCAAs or Pre-Workouts?
BCAA's are a great supplement to take to support you during your workouts, but you will not notice a strong effect from taking them. If you are happy with improving your results by 1-10% without any noticeable side effects, then a BCAA is a great way to do so.
If you want to feel like you are having your performance boosted and enhanced, pre-workout supplements are the superior choice. They also come with a lot more versatility than BCAA's.
You can get a strong pre-workout with a good stimulant level for those days that you can't seem to drag yourself from your bed and a weaker one for days you don't need it.
Taking a pre-workout supplement is going to give you an immediate and noticeable boost in performance. You will be able to lift more, lift heavier, and for longer periods. If you are sensitive to stimulants, though, they may be a bad choice.
Most pre-workouts also contain essential amino acids in ample amounts too. This means you are getting the benefits of supplementing with BCAA's when you take a pre-workout supplement.
Common BCAA & Pre-Workout Questions
Can BCAAs be used as a pre-workout supplement?
If you're not interested in a stimulant type of pre-workout, then you can certainly use BCAAs instead of a pre-workout supplement. You won't get the same effects, but BCAAs can be effective for increasing blood flow, preventing protein breakdown, and recovery.
Do all Pre-Workouts have BCAAs in them?
When we look at the huge number of pre-workout products on the market, the 5 most common ingredients are Caffeine, Beta-Alanine, Creatine, L-Citrulline, and BCAA's. This tends to be the foundation formula used to build upon.
These ingredients are found in over 80% of pre-workouts, so while BCAA's are not found in every single pre-workout, they are found in the majority of them.
How do BCAAs compare to whey protein?
BCAA's are used in the synthesis of protein; they are isolated compounds. Whey protein is derived from cow's milk and contains a much broader spectrum of amino acids. With whey protein, BCAA’s that are used in supplements make up around 25% of the total composition.
Whey protein is more anabolic than BCAA’s alone. This is the main reason many people prefer it to take BCAA’s. Some people prefer to take BCAA’s because of the environmental aspect, but there are some great alternative vegan protein powders on the market to chose from too!
Learn More - BCAAs Vs Protein Powders
Both pre-workouts and BCAA's will have a proven positive benefit on your performance. BCAA's are a great place to start for those that have never taken supplements before. The results will be less potent but still noticeable over time.
Pre-workouts are much stronger and will give you a noticeable effect due to the stimulants and stronger compounds used. Some people will love that pre-workout feeling; some will hate it.
For those interested in trying pre-workouts, a good way to start is to consume half a scoop as a test. If you react well to this, move up to one scoop. We strongly advise against dosing higher than one scoop with any pre-workout as the stimulants can have a nasty effect at this level.
Good luck with your training!
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Last Updated on February 22, 2023