Pushing through the sweat and pain of a tough workout is not only one of the best feelings, but it’s essential if you want to experience the kind of gains that most gym-goers crave. But when you break it down, the physical act of training is just one part of seeing results.
Diet and supplementation also play a key part in how you perform and the gains you’ll see. And although the ingredient efficacy of various fitness supplements varies quite dramatically, selecting the right ones and the right combinations for your fitness goals can make a huge impact on your ROI.
And the use of all sorts of supplements at every stage in the workout is nothing new—pre-, intra- and post—creates what we call the ultimate fitness supplement stack. But within that stack, we also need to be mindful of what we combine and what we take on its own.
So, we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty of two of the most commonly consumed supplements—pre-workout and BCAAs—and if you can stack them together.
Let’s get to it.
What Are BCAAs?
Leucine, isoleucine, and valine make up the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). On their own, they’re a multi-million dollar class in the fitness supplements industry due to their ability to produce an anabolic response driven by stimulation of muscle protein synthesis (MPS) 1.
Their popularity has skyrocketed over the last decade and there’s an abundance of research backing the reason why. Let’s take a look.
There are 20 amino acids that make up a muscle protein, 9 of which are essential, meaning they cannot be produced in the body and must be obtained exogenously.
Muscle protein is in a constant state of turnover, meaning new muscle proteins are being produced as old proteins are being broken down. But in order for MPS to happen, all 9 of the essential amino acids must be present, along with the 11 non-essentials that can be produced from precursor amino acids.
Of the 9 essentials, the BCAAs, specifically leucine, play a major role in MPS but also as a regulator of intracellular signaling pathways involved in the process of protein synthesis 2.
The overriding goal of supplementing with BCAAs is to maximize the anabolic state by stimulating muscle protein synthesis. If there’s a shortage in any of the essential amino acids, MPS is limited, whereas a shortage of the non-essentials is compensated by increased de novo synthesis of the deficient ones 3.
Taken pre- or intra-workout, the BCAAs have been shown to 4:
- Increase endurance
- Boost strength
- Improve recovery and reduce muscle soreness
- Mitigate central fatigue and increase time to exhaustion
- Stimulate muscle growth
The BCAAs generally work as a large unit in that they stimulate MPS, but they also have their own independent actions in terms of performance:
- Leucine triggers MPS to enhance muscle growth
- Isoleucine is broken down to produce fuel for muscle cells
- Valine may reduce exercise-induced fatigue by minimizing tryptophan uptake in the brain
The Difference Between BCAAs And Pre-Workout
When it comes down to why you take pre-workout and BCAAs, the *ultimate* goal of the two supplements is completely different. While there is some overlap, a pre-workout focuses mainly on the periods before and during training, whereby the BCAAs focus on the intra- and post-workout periods.
Here’s what we mean.
Pre-workouts are developed primarily to increase energy and focus and give you a bigger and better pump during your workout. They’re a power-punch of stimulants, energy boosters, nitric oxide enhancers, fatigue-busters, and other ingredients designed to elevate your overall performance.
Some of the most common ingredients you’ll find in pre-workout supplements are:
- Amino acids
- Nitric oxide agents
Together, they combine to provide laser focus and attention, increase drive, maximize intensity, open up blood vessels for greater oxygen and nutrient delivery, and clear waste and metabolic byproducts to improve muscle contraction and prevent fatigue. And if you get lucky, they can also accelerate recovery.
BCAAs, on the other hand, are your gold for intra- or post-workout due to their role in stimulating muscle protein synthesis, preventing muscle protein breakdown, and reducing fatigue compounds that can cause muscle soreness.
Although there is some research suggesting that BCAAs can be as potent as a pre-workout supplement, amino acids work much better intra- and post-workout. Thanks to their muscle building and muscle-sparing effects, you can kick-start an essential process and maximize the gains you see from your training.
And as part of your post-recovery stack, it’s pretty clear why’d they be appealing. After all, the purpose of them post-workout is to fuel bigger and better muscle growth while streamlining the repair and recovery process.
Can You Mix Pre-Workout With BCAAs?
What you put into your workout stack is of course, important, but when you actually use a particular supplement can be just as important.
Most fitness supplements reach their peak efficacy at a certain point during a training session, so the first thing you need to make sure of when adding in a new product is where in your training timeline the supplement fits. Is it pre-workout, intra-, or post-workout?
With pre-workouts, it’s a pretty straightforward answer—you take them 30-60 minutes before you hit the gym. It gives the ingredients enough time to boost plasma concentrations to ensure you’re getting the most out of them during your workout.
But with BCAAs, however, you’re not getting anything that enhances nitric oxide production, boosts focus, or increases strength and power. You’re getting a supplement that operates on a different pathway—muscle protein synthesis.
BCAAs make an awesome addition to your training stack, but in terms of when to take them, post-workout is generally the most optimal time. They’re rapidly absorbed into muscle tissues and provide a range of athletic performance-enhancing benefits:
- Maintain energy by refueling depleted muscle glycogen stores to sustain intense workouts
- Extend muscle endurance by blocking fatigue-inducing brain chemicals
- Stimulate insulin to enhance uptake of amino acids into muscle tissue cells
- Activate enzymes that stimulate growth hormone and accelerate muscle protein synthesis
- Preserve lean mass while reducing muscle soreness
Essentially, when you take both pre-workout and BCAAs, your dressing every part of your training routine—pre-, intra-, and post. You’re coming it from all angles to help you max out what you get from training.
With all of that said, the answer to if you can take BCAAs and pre-workout together is a resounding yes. They’re two supplements designed to work towards different goals.
Pre-workouts help to maximize energy, focus, and intensity during workouts, while the BCAAs are one of the absolute best ways to build muscle, maintain lean mass, and increase metabolism.
Whether you take them in one formula or separate them out, having them both in your stack is a wise idea if you’re looking for performance enhancement and maximal gains.
- RR Wolfe. Branched-chain amino acids and muscle protein synthesis in humans: myth or reality? J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017;14:30.
- E Blomstrand, J Eliasson, HK Karlsson, R Köhnke. Branched-chain amino acids activate key enzymes in protein synthesis after physical exercise. J Nutr. 2006;136(1 Suppl):269S-73S.
- E Volpi, H Kobayashi, M Sheffield-Moore, B Mittendorfer, RR Wolfe. Essential amino acids are primarily responsible for the amino acid stimulation of muscle protein anabolism in healthy elderly adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;78(2):250-258.
- E Blomstrand. A role for branched-chain amino acids in reducing central fatigue. J Nutr. 2006;136(2):544S-547S.