If you’ve been going to the gym for a while, you’ve probably heard someone talking about the amino acids they take. They probably told you about the extra gains they’ve made on them and how their recovery has been quicker. They might have even mentioned feeling more focused and energised during their workouts.
Maybe you’ve looked at some amino acid products yourself. From other supplements with amino in them to specialised amino acid products, there’s no shortage of options. But with the complicated names and even more complicated explanations of how they work, it’s hard to know what they’re all about.
Don’t worry, though. We are here to help. In this piece, we’re going to look at what amino acids are and what they do. We’ll also consider whether they’re worth adding to your supplement stack and the best ways to do that.
What are amino acids?
Amino acids are organic compounds that form the building blocks of protein. As such, they are a critical component of every part of the human body. From skin and hair to organs and muscle, amino acids make up most of our physical form.
Amino acids also play a critical role in most metabolic processes. Some act as hormones, stimulating and regulating the production of important biochemicals. Others support the body’s overall health, improving immunity and fighting inflammation.
While there are over 500 known naturally occurring amino acids, there’s a small subset that is of particular interest. These 20 amino acids – known as standard amino acids – are the ones that keep our body running.
The body produces most of these standard amino acids. However, nine of them – known as the essential amino acids – are not. As such, these need to be taken in through dietary sources.
The good news is, a good diet should give you all the essential amino acids you need for good health. However, if you have specific goals (like adding muscle mass), you will need to increase your intake of certain amino acids. This should create an oversupply, allowing the ‘free form’ amino (those not used in normal biological processes) to be put toward your goal.
Of the nine essential amino acids, there’s a further subset of three, which are referred to as branched-chain amino acids (or BCAAs). This name refers to their chemical structure, which includes a branched side-chain. The three BCAAs are Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine.
The three BCAAs have been shown to have a significant impact on muscle growth. As such, they are among the most popular amino acids to be supplemented.
How do amino acids help with muscle growth?
Amino acids are a key component of protein, and the body breaks them down to produce energy. If there aren’t enough amino acids in your system, your body will switch to breaking down muscle tissue. When this happens, your body holds onto fat as it cannibalises your lean muscle mass.
This is a particular risk when you are in a caloric deficit. As such, if you’re trying to burn fat, it’s important to keep your volume of free form amino acids high. If you don’t, your diet and exercise regime could actually work against you.
What’s more, the three BCAAs have been shown to help stimulate muscle growth. Leucine, in particular, has been proven to play a crucial role in muscle development. It does this by ‘turning on’ the muscle’s ability to break down and absorb much needed protein.
It’s important to note here that just increasing your leucine intake will not be enough to stimulate muscle growth. In fact, studies have found that all three BCAAs are required to increase protein synthesis. Obviously, this is in addition to increasing your total protein intake and focusing on resistance-based training.
With all of this in mind, getting enough amino acids is clearly critical to developing and maintaining muscle mass. For more information on how this all works, check out our piece on why you should be taking branched-chain amino acids for muscle growth.
What are the other health benefits of amino acids?
While most people take amino acids for muscle growth, they actually provide a range of other important benefits.
Most significantly, some studies suggest they can aid rest and recovery. For example, the three BCAAs have been shown to help reduce delayed onset muscle soreness and potentially combat fatigue during exercise. Other amino acids are also believed to have an anti-inflammatory effect and can help protect your immune system.
Individual amino acids have also been shown to have specific positive effects on the body. For example:
- L-Lysine is used by the body for calcium absorption and helps the body maintain a positive nitrogen balance. As such, it’s critical to protecting your lean muscle mass and can aid in muscle and bone growth. It has also been shown to help fight fatigue and increase energy levels.
- Methionine helps the body break down and use fats. This, in turn, can increase the body’s testosterone rate. Add to this its antioxidant properties and it’s easy to see why this is such an important compound.
- Isoleucine helps the body form haemoglobin. As such, it’s critical to wound healing and plays a critical role in clotting. This is in addition to its crucial role in muscle development and maintenance.
- Threonine is used by the body to create elastin and collagen. These are two of the body’s most important binding substances and crucial to overall health. Threonine also helps increase protein absorption and can boost the immune system.
- L-Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid, making up as much as 60% of the body’s total amino acid pool. It’s one of the main building blocks of our genetic code and has been linked to improved memory and brain function. It has also been found to assist with everything from balancing pH levels to controlling cravings.
- L-Arginine is often added to other supplements because it helps the body retain nitrogen. As such, it can help improve protein synthesis. It also stimulates the natural production of growth hormone and has been linked to sexual health and performance.
What are the best sources of amino acids for muscle growth?
Generally speaking, you should be able to meet most of your amino acid requirements by eating right. It’s always recommended that you get most of your nutrients and minerals from high-quality dietary sources, and amino acids are no different. This means you should make sure your diet is built around high-protein foods like meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, nuts, and whole grains.
For more information on getting your diet in tip-top shape, have a look at our Ultimate Nutrition Guide. In addition to helping you understand what you should – and shouldn’t – be eating, this explains how to structure your diet. It also includes suggested nutrition programs tailored to your specific goals and fitness level.
If you’re looking to maximise your muscle growth or just want to improve your overall health, supplementation could be a good option. However, this will need to be carefully considered and tailored to your specific requirements and goals. For more information on optimising your supplementation, check out our article on supplements for bodybuilding and muscle growth.
BCAA supplements are particularly popular with those looking to increase the gains. Generally speaking, these products feature all three branched-chain amino acids and provide all of the associated benefits. However, if your goal is serious lean muscle growth, a high leucine product, like our BCAA 10:1:1, would be best.
If you have a specific benefit you’d like to target, a specialised amino acid supplement could help. For example, if you want to speed up your recovery, taking an L-Glutamine complex could reduce soreness and boost your immune system. Similarly, if you’re looking to get lean, Acetyl-L Carnitine should help you burn more fat.
We also want to note that one of the best supplements for increasing your amino acid intake is actually whey protein. While all complete proteins contain all the essential amino acids, whey protein has been found to provide the optimal levels. It’s also one of the easiest proteins for the body to digest, meaning you get the maximum benefit.
If you want to step things up even further, a specialised whey protein blend could be a great choice. For example, our MAX’s Super Shred is an advanced fat burning protein powder. It combines whey protein with amino acid thermogenic compounds to help you really torch that unwanted fat.
It’s also important to remember that you need to put the work in for serious muscle growth. The right diet and supplementation will help, but you still need to get into the gym and lift those weights.
The right weight training program will overload your muscles. This causes the microscopic tears your muscles need to build and grow. Without this, all of the extra protein and amino acids will have nothing to do.
If you need help structuring your workouts or are just looking for a little inspiration, check out MAX’s Ultimate Training Guide. This explains every part of developing a program, from setting goals to planning workouts. It also provides example programs tailored to different goals and experience levels.