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5 Benefits of BCAAs for Strength and Recovery

5 Benefits of BCAAs for Strength and Recovery

Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are now one of the most popular supplements around, earning a place in millions of homes and gyms, worldwide. Numerous studies show a direct link between BCAA intake and improved strength and recovery, fuelling sales growth which shows no sign of slowing.

Whether you are a keen runner, professional tennis player, amateur weightlifter or an Olympic gold medallist, you could certainly benefit from adding more BCAAs to your diet.

Evidence supports the use of BCAA supplementation for strength and recovery during exercise but also recognizes their role in some diseases, such as cancer. Other studies have also linked bloodstream levels of BCAAs to insulin resistance and type-2 diabetes.

In this article, we’ll go over the main benefits of BCAAs for strength and recovery and why you should consider adding them to your diet.

What are BCAAs?

When we talk about protein, we are referring to amino acid residue – which is what protein is made from. BCAAs are essential amino acids because the body is unable to synthesize them on its own, therefore, they must be consumed in our diet. Of the nine essential amino acids, three of them fall into the BCAA category. They are:

  • Leucine – boosts protein synthesis, helping build and repair muscle. It also assists with insulin to regulate blood sugars and is one of only two amino acids which cannot be converted into sugar.
  • Isoleucine – enables energy to be stored in muscle cells rather than fat cells by regulating glucose uptake.
  • Valine – improves mental functioning, reduces fatigue and prevents muscle breakdown.

Other essential amino acids are oxidized (broken down to release energy) in the liver, however, BCAAs are unique in that they can be metabolized in muscle. Why is this important? Well, the body needs BCAAs in the bloodstream to maintain normal bodily functions. If none are available, the body will break down muscle cells to release them. [1] [1]

Food Sources

The supplement industry does a great job convincing us to invest in BCAA supplements to get optimal results. However, for the most part, you will get all you need from everyday foods.

The recommended intake of BCAAs is around 15-20 grams per day, so getting enough from your diet is not all that difficult. You should aim for around five grams per meal (assuming three square meals per day).

Here are some common foods with examples of their BCAA content, per 3oz serving, cooked.

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  • Cheddar Cheese – 4.7g
  • Ground turkey – 4.2g
  • Ground Beef (95% lean) – 4.0g
  • Peanuts – 3.1g
  • Cashew Nuts – 2.8g
  • Whole eggs – 2.2g
  • Chicken breast – 2.1g
  • Lentils – 1.3g
  • Black Beans – 1.3g

Lentils, black beans and kidney beans contain all three branched-chain amino acids; however, some plant-based foods are not “complete” proteins. For a food to be a complete protein source, it must contain all nine essential amino acids. While kidney beans and black beans are complete, lentils lack enough methionine.

You can overcome this problem by combining lentils with other foods high in methionine (such as rice) to form complete proteins. Peanuts suffer a similar problem because they lack the essential amino acid, lysine. To make it complete, simply spread it on bread or toast.

If you’re unsure what foods contain complete proteins, head over to nutritiondata.self.com. This fantastic site lists the protein and nutritional profiles of thousands of foods. If a protein is not complete, simply click the “find foods with complementary profile” link to find sources containing the missing essential amino acids.

The 2:1:1 Ratio

When you look at BCAA supplement packaging, you will nearly always find reference to the BCAA ratio. The most common is 2:1:1, made up of two-parts leucine, one-part isoleucine, and one-part valine. While 2:1:1 is the most common, you will sometimes see products with ratios of 4:1:1, 8:1:1 and even 10:1:1.

These higher ratio BCAA supplements all contain more leucine. If you take time to read the packaging or the manufacturer’s marketing materials, they usually reference the muscle-building power of leucine. In reality, they are just cheaper to produce, so you will rarely find them citing existing research to back up their claims.

Scientists have used the 2:1:1 ratio in studies based on the levels found in natural food sources. Historically, there has been little need to investigate other ratios. Nevertheless, the role of leucine in protein synthesis has caught some interest. While current evidence is limited, a ratio of 4:1:1 has shown promise in one study, where results found it to increase protein synthesis by over 30%.

Benefits of BCAAs

1. You’ll Build Major Muscle Mass

When looking to improve strength, or to build muscle (hypertrophy), you need to activate protein synthesis. For this to happen, leucine is the single most important dietary requirement. Chemical signals tell your body to build and repair muscle, and leucine effectively amplifies that signal – especially following resistance exercise. [2]

As leucine is the main amino associated with muscle growth, you might be wondering why this is not recommended as a standalone supplement for muscle growth. As it happens, studies have been conducted to investigate. One such study compared three groups: one took a placebo, the other a leucine supplement, while the third group consumed a regular BCAA drink with a ratio of 2:1:1. While leucine performed better than the placebo, it did not do as well as BCAA group.

The reason for this is simple: all amino acids are required for muscle growth. So, while leucine stimulates the process, other forms of protein are needed to build muscle. Without the other amino acids, leucine is like a motivational building site manager with no workers to do the job. [3]

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2. You’ll Be Far Less Exhausted

Getting tired during a workout can be a real drag. You will be glad to hear that branched-chain amino acids – particularly valine – can help with this.

When you exercise, the level of tryptophan (another essential amino acid) rises. When tryptophan reaches the brain, it is used to make serotonin – a hormone been linked to our feeling of fatigue. All amino acids are transported to the brain on the same bus, yet not all are allowed entry to the brain. With limited accommodation available, valine competes with tryptophan and overpowers it. Less tryptophan in the brain means less serotonin, and less serotonin means lower fatigue. [4]

3. You’ll Recover Way Quicker

The body can take a real beating during intensive exercise. Recovering after such a session can take a few days or more.

One study, looking into the effects of BCAA supplementation in experienced resistance-trained athletes, showed positive results. The rate of recovery improved for strength, countermovement jump height and muscle soreness.[5] BCAAs can also speed up recovery time following endurance sports and intensive cardio sessions.4. No More Muscle Catabolism

Our priority, when exercising – whether it’s to lose weight, tone up, or get healthier in general – is usually to improve our body composition; after all, better body composition makes you look more toned, and the health benefits are well documented.

While exercising, we need more BCAAs to function properly. [11] [6]

When bloodstream levels are too low, the body looks for somewhere to get them. At this stage, it begins breaking down (catabolizing) muscle tissue to access the branched-chain amino acids it needs.

Consuming BCAAs ensures an adequate level is available in the bloodstream, reducing the chances of muscle breakdown. During and following intensive exercise sessions, it is important to consume slightly higher levels. This is the reason why some athletes will sip on a BCAA supplement drink during a workout.

Intermittent fasting has risen in popularity in recent years, with millions of people finding success with this form of dieting. As you can imagine, while in the fasted state, the bloodstream is low on BCAAs. Knocking back a very low-calorie BCAA drink during the fasted helps combat this.

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Following a workout, a meal or meal replacement high in protein is typically consumed to further replenish BCAA levels. If the aim of the workout was to build muscle, this is the best time to give protein synthesis a boost with some muscle-building leucine. Fast acting carbs are also a good idea at this time, as the energy can be stored in the muscles as glycogen.

5. Massive Muscle Energy Storage

When you eat, the energy you consume is either used or stored. You could be forgiven for thinking that excess energy is stored in fat cells, but it’s not.

Once digested, carbohydrates are converted to glucose, which supplies your cells with energy. The hormone, insulin, helps regulate blood sugar. One of the ways it does this is by helping glucose move through cell walls to be stored.

Unused glucose is converted to glycogen and stored in the liver and muscle tissue. Any excess glucose which cannot be deposited as glycogen is finally stored in fat cells.

The fantastic thing about glycogen stored in muscle cells is this: once stored in the muscle, it cannot return to the bloodstream to be used anywhere else. It can be used only by the muscle. For this reason, encouraging glucose to be stored in muscle cells is preferable to it being stored as fat.

Glycogen stored in muscles is a readily available energy source. So, when blood sugars are too low, contracting muscles will use the fuel stored within them to get the job done. This is where the branched-chain amino acid, isoleucine, shines by promoting glucose uptake by muscles. Greater uptake means less energy is stored as fat resulting in quicker energy access for the muscle. [7]

Dangers, Side Effects & Toxicity

Is There a Risk of Toxicity

It is safe to say that consuming high levels of BCAAs is not toxic. Studies looked at toxicity in mice and rats, concluding there to be no observed-adverse-effect level. [8]

However, if you’re looking to maximize your training efforts, research shows that excessive levels of BCAAs can actually hinder performance.[14] [9]

Inclusive Ties to Type-2 Diabetes

Maybe the largest concern for some people is that there is a direct link between high levels of BCAAs in the blood and type-2 diabetes. [15] On initial inspection, this looks to be bad news for branched-chain amino acids. However, further research suggests it is poor insulin sensitivity which drives higher circulating BCAA levels.[10] [11]

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Negative Effects on Insulin Sensitivity in Vegans

During a 2017 study, when supplementing with BCAAs, vegans became more resistant to insulin. [12]

During this study, they consumed an extra 20 grams of branched-chain amino acids per day for three months. Considering the lack of research on the subject, it is difficult to ascertain why this happened. Evidence shows that switching to a plant-based diet lowers the BCAA plasma levels associated with insulin resistance. [13]

The vegan subjects also had much better insulin sensitivity at the start of the study.

Increased Spread of Cancer & Disease

Inside our cells, a series of chemical reactions are constantly taking place. This series of events, known as a biological pathway, is what we refer to as our metabolism. These interactions produce new molecules such as fat or protein and can trigger changes in our cells.

The mTOR pathway forms part of this process. In simple terms, the mTOR pathway regulates cell growth. The branched-chain amino acid, leucine, stimulates the mTOR pathway, which is great for muscle growth, but not so great for some forms of cancer. Many cancers rely on mTOR activity for the growth and spread of cancerous cells. For this reason, much research is taking place regarding BCAAs and their link with diseases. [14]

Take Home Advice: Take BCAAs

It’s easy to see, given the evidence, why BCAAs are such a popular supplement for people engaging in exercise. Faster recovery, increased muscle growth, and reduced fatigue benefit all kinds of athletes, from beginners through to seasoned Olympians.

For those lifting weights, BCAAs will help you get bigger and stronger; marathon runners might delay hitting the wall, and if you’re playing competitive football week in week out, you can recover faster. In contrast, if you are not exercising regularly, there really is no need: just ensure you’re eating enough complete, plant-based proteins such as lentils, black beans, nuts and grains, some fish and meat a few times per week and you’ll be fine.

However, if you are vegan, your family has a history of diabetes, or have been recently diagnosed with a disease such as cancer, you should certainly consult with your doctor before adding BCAA supplements to your diet.

Featured photo credit: Brad Neathery via unsplash.com

Reference

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Robin Young

Fitness writer, and CEO at Fitness Savvy

5 Benefits of BCAAs for Strength and Recovery

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Published on October 31, 2019

7 Best Lower Back Stretches for Relieving Pain

7 Best Lower Back Stretches for Relieving Pain

Are you one of the many who deal with consistent lower back pain? Back pain is a common widespread issue that many experiences, and it’s bothersome. Whatever the cause, whether childbirth, aging, heavy-duty jobs, or some other underlying condition, there is hope and help–and it may not even be that hard to find relief!

Lower back pain isn’t enjoyed by anyone, but there are a few simple stretching hacks that can help relieve the pain.

Many lower back stretches can help relax the muscles and will make a difference. Here we’re going to go over the best lower back stretches to help turn your life around.

Why Your Tight Hips Could Be to Blame

Tight hip flexors could be a contributing factor to your lower back pain. It may sound strange, but it’s true! What does the hip have to do with the back?

The hip bones are connected to the tailbone, leading to the spine. If there is an issue with your hips, that then puts pressure on the lower back, causing you extreme pain.

It’s important to know that tight hip flexors are common, especially amongst those who regularly participate in certain physical activities. Those exercises including horseback riding, cycling, jogging, or anything that works your legs and not your hips. Prolonged sitting and improper posture while sitting can even cause tight hip flexors!

One way to help reduce lower back pain is by working on improving the flexibility in the hips, which can be done with lower back stretches.

The Importance of Core Stability

Many times, it’s ignorantly stated that the core is strictly the abdominal muscles (abs/stomach area), but that’s not true.

The core consists of those front muscles as well as all the muscles on the side of that area, and the back of that area too. When you strengthen your core, you’re also strengthening your lower back. So, why is this important?

There are many core exercises that cause both your abs to be sore the next day and your lower back. That’s because you generally don’t work one without the other being affected in some way. Basically, this means that if you’re hurting your back, it could be that your core as a whole is weak.

Core stability is important because of the location of the core at the center of the body. If the core is unstable, the rest of the body and limbs have to work that much harder. The part that suffers most? The back!

Core training and strengthening can lead to a stable core and reduces the risks of pain and injuries. A weak core puts more strain on the lower back and causes it to tighten. Tight muscles lead to injured muscles, which is never something we want.

Why Is Stretching Good for You?

Stretching the lower back results in the lengthening of the back muscles. It’s the lengthening of those back muscles that results in a reduction of pain. With age, muscles naturally get shorter and tend to be tighter.

Building the muscles around the spine results in the lengthening of those back muscles. A neutral spine and proper posture helps in keeping those muscles surrounding the spine strong.

This is great because strong muscles in the back are muscles that are consistently stretched and lengthened; the stronger the muscles in the back and in the overall core, the less injuries and the less pain! Isn’t that what we all hope for?

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How to Stretch out Your Lower Back

There are various ways to stretch out your lower back. When you try to get rid of lower back pain, it’s important to stretch.[1] However, there are also some things you should be mindful of before stretching. You don’t want to hurt your back more, so remember to take it easy!

It’s important to listen to your body and take it slow when necessary; and sometimes, you may need to stop altogether.

Another thing to keep track of is your breathing. Breathing is very important as well. Make sure you’re following proper breathing techniques before attempting these stretches.[2]

When stretching any part of your body, pain can increase. While a slight discomfort is normal in any stretch, if you’re experiencing pain, you should stop. This is your body’s signal saying it’s best to take a break and maybe try again the next day. If the pain persists and doesn’t go away, see a professional to be sure to rule out anything serious.

The great thing about lower back stretches is that they are easy to do. Lower back stretches can be performed one to two times a day. Are you short on time? Looking for help but need to get it done in less than ten minutes? These lower back stretches will help you meet that goal!

7 Best Stretches for Lower Back Pain

Lower back pain stretches vary, and in some cases, can seem redundant. However, when they’re performed properly, they can really strengthen the back and core, which can lead to less pain over time. Working on flexibility and core stability is so important.

No matter how busy, here are some stretches you can begin implementing in your schedule:

1. Transverse Abdominis Stretch

First, let’s talk about stretching your transverse abdominis.[3] This is the deepest layer of your abdominal muscles. This muscle is used whenever limbs are moved. Because core stability is so important, this stretch can really help your pain.

To stretch out your transverse abs, you’ll want to first lay on your back, propping your head up with anything soft–like a pillow. After you’re comfortable in that position, lift your knees so that they are bent, still keeping your feet on the floor.

While keeping the upper body relaxed, tuck your chin. Then, take a deep breath and tighten your core. Think of drawing your belly button down to the ground beneath you. As you release this breath, you’ll want to loosen your muscles. Repeat a minimum of five times. Be sure to breathe in slowly and breathe out slowly as well.

Here’s a demonstration:

This exercise is rather simple, but being sure the breathing, contracting, and releasing are done in the proper order is key. The propping of your head is also important, so make sure to use a pillow!

2. Bird Dog

    Next, here’s an exercise that is more targeted towards your lower back and its mobility. In the fitness world, it’s known as the “Bird Dog” stretch.

    In this stretch, you’ll want to start on your hands and knees with a flat back. Think of your form as a tabletop. The key here is keeping the spine in a neutral position, so be sure to keep your back straight while performing the exercise. Don’t arch your back.

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    Place your hands directly beneath the shoulders. Being sure that your hands start under the shoulders and knees under your hips, breathe in. While breathing out, you want to raise the opposite arm and leg.

    Breathe out while you release those limbs. After holding for a minimum of five seconds, you’ve completed a round. Repeat this exercise eight to ten times being sure to alternate sides.

    3. Bridge

      This next exercise is exactly what it sounds like. You’re making a bridge with your lower body while your arms relax on the floor.[4]

      First, you’ll want to lie down on your back on a towel or an exercise mat. Choose whatever brings more comfort. Then, you want to bend your knees, keeping the distance between your knees no more than hip width apart.

      Breathe in and while you blow that breath out, you want to lift your hips using your arms as a light form of leverage. The key is to lift the hips high enough to line up with the spine and the height of your knees. That brings everything into a straight line, which is when you will feel a light stretch.

      When lowering your hips back to the ground, make sure you’re breathing out. Repeat this stretch eight to ten times.

      4. Pelvic Tilt

        This exercise focuses on the lower back.

        Start on your back with something serving as a small cushion under your head. Same as the other exercises, you’ll want to bend your knees while your legs are slightly apart, no wider than hip distance.[5]

        While keeping your upper body relaxed and chin tucked, draw your lower back into the floor, gently. You should feel your stomach muscles contracting. While your muscles are contracted, shift your pelvis in a forward and up motion, then release. Repeat in a slow and steady rocking motion for a minimum of eight times.

        5. Hip Stretch

          Because tight hip flexors often contribute to lower back pain, stretching your hips can reduce the pain that you feel.

          In this stretch, you’ll want to start on the ground kneeling with one knee up. Both knees don’t need to remain on the ground in this stretch. The opposite foot should be in front of the body with knee bent 90 degrees.

          While in the straddling knee position, push/shift your hips forward and always be mindful to keep your back straight. Hold that stretch for a minimum of 20 seconds and release. Repeat a minimum of two times on alternating knees.

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          When performed accurately, this stretch feels very good to the hip flexors.

          6. Spine Stretch

            This stretch is obviously stretching out your spine, and in the case of lower back pain, this exercise is an excellent tool.

            Start out lying on your back and placing some form of cushion under your head.

            Keep your knees bent and firmly together during the entirety of this stretch.

            Place your arms out wide in a T-shape in correlation with the rest of your body. You want to slowly move your knees from one side of the body to the other side.

            Breathe out as you shift from one side to the other, and be sure to keep shoulders intact with the ground. When turning your body, be sure to shift your pelvis to each side. That will give you the full stretch, which will be more beneficial to your lower back.

            Repeat this exercise a minimum of six times, being sure to alternate sides, counting both sides as one repetition.

            7. Gluteal Stretch

              There is a muscle in the buttocks that can cause lower back pain and tightening. The hips and abdominal muscles can play a part in back pain, but the glutes are a very popular offender.

              The piriformis is the name of the gluteal muscle that can cause lower back pain if not stretched, so it’s important to stretch it out!

              For this butt stretch, you simply lie on the ground while crossing one ankle over the opposite knee. It feels like an awkward position, but once you begin the stretch, it will feel really good.

              After you place the ankle across the opposite knee, you want to grab the thigh of the leg the ankle is resting on. While breathing in, you want to grab the thigh. And while breathing out, you want to pull that thigh into your chest as far as you can stretch it.

              Holding this exercise for a minimum of 20 seconds will give you maximum results. Repeat at least two times on each side.

              How to Relieve Your Lower Back Pain

              Relieving a Stiff Lower Back

              For a stiff lower back, it’s likely to happen if you live in a cold climate, or have any form of arthritis that tends to flare up due to aging, or when the weather shifts.

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              Stiffness has many leading factors with one being a cold body. Cold weather can make your back ache, so try to keep inside during the winter.

              Back stiffness can also be caused by spasms in the back, injuries that lead to stiffness, improper lifting, and in some cases, lumbar arthritis.

              However, it’s also important to note that any strain to the spine can result in lower back stiffness.

              Many times, lower back stiffness develops due to a lack of mobility and activity. If you aren’t one to go to the gym or lift weights, then be sure to take advantage of the above lower back stretches as often as you can.

              Alleviating Lower Back Inflammation

              Lower back pain can sometimes be the result of inflammation within the lower back muscles. When there is inflammation, over the counter medications can be taken. Physical therapy and chiropractic care are also options.

              Many people also find that hot and cold compresses can help. Ice packs work best when inflammation occurs after a strain or injury of some sort. When using ice with any injury on any part of the body, always be sure to wrap the ice in something, so that there isn’t direct contact to your body.

              Heat to the lower back to help alleviate pain is beneficial as well. It can not only provide pain relief but can also present certain healing factors to the lower back.[6]

              When your lower back becomes tense, there is generally improper circulation in that area. Therefore, heat plays a part by causing blood vessels to dilate, which results in better circulation.

              Tense muscles become tense due to prolonged standing or sitting, stress, a pulled or strained muscle, or certain injuries.

              Besides, you can also try these five tips:

              • Wear comfortable and supportive shoes.
              • Sit in proper chairs that help keep back properly aligned.
              • Watch your posture while standing, sitting, or exercising.
              • When lifting use your legs and not your back (proper lifting is a must).
              • Be mindful of your stress level, keep it low.

              The Bottom Line

              Lower back pain can often be alleviated or ruled out all together with just a few simple tricks. Start with the seven best lower back stretches and see how you feel. However, if you keep experiencing pain, always remember that it’s important to see a medical professional. Cost is often an issue with people seeing a medical professional, but there are many doctors who work with you if you don’t have insurance.[7]

              Remember, it’s easier to get your back fixed now than later on when you need surgery or something else!

              Featured photo credit: Form via unsplash.com

              Reference

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