Creatine vs. BCAA
I don’t want this to sound like dodging the question, but in many ways, creatine and BCAAs really are the apples and oranges of nutrition supplements. Each can contribute to a healthy, lean, muscle-building lifestyle, but they play very different roles and work best in combination.
That being said, if you’ve come to decide between the pair: you’ve come to the right place.
While I hate to break up a happy couple, this post will tell you why you should prefer either Creatine or BCAAs; what they are; how they work; who is more likely to need which; along with a couple of reasons that you might not need to take either.
I’ll also tell you what time is best to take creatine, as well as exploring some research on taking BCAAs before or after a heavy lift.
Let’s start with the most widely tested supplement out there today: Creatine Monohydrate.
What is it? And how does it work?
Creatine is a natural acid produced by the body in small quantities. It’s closely tied into something called ATP production; all you need to know is that ATP is the energy transfer currency of our body, and high creatine stores leads to faster ATP recovery.
Higher creatine stores? The human body has what is called a ‘peak creatine store’, and when we reach that--that’s when we start to see the major benefits of creatine. Think of your body’s creatine levels as if it were a swimming pool. The body only produces enough creatine to keep the pool at about 30% full; a slow drip of natural creatine sources in the diet, but not enough to really go swimming. When we supplement with creatine, we are able to fill this pool up to the top. Why is that important? When the pool is full, we’re able to draw from it to help produce more of those ATP units I was talking about earlier.
What is it good for?
Creatine is arguably the best supplement for increasing muscular output, lean muscle mass, and exercise performance. The supporting studies are seemingly endless, with the overwhelming conclusion being that creatine, when combined with regular resistance training, leads to enhanced athletic performance, reduced fatigue and better workouts.
More readily available ATP means that we have faster recovery speeds and are less likely to fatigue during an intense workout. That’s the big secret to creatine. Some people believe it’s the main reason that people who lift consistently on creatine improve their lifting weight--simply because they are getting better quality workouts. In practice, that might mean lifting 8 reps of your previous 6 rep weight--or it might mean hitting a new 3 rep maximum.
Creatine makes an appearance in almost all disciplines of professional sport. While you may not really be into competitive sports; if the guys at the top are consistently taking creatine, that probably suggests that it works. Like getting enough protein and good nutrition, there are just some things that have been proven time and time again to improve athletic performance, and creatine is a leader in this field.
Who is Creatine for?
If you’re only lifting once a week, or every other week, then creatine probably isn’t going to help much. And while some studies have shown that creatine can increase aerobic capacity (running, cycling, swimming, etc.), creatine supplementation will give you the biggest gains in anaerobic capacity. That’s short-term exercise like lifting weights, sprinting and jumping. Performing some kind of strength or resistance training twice per week will be enough to see considerable improvement.
What time of day should you take Creatine?
Research has shown that there are two best times of day to take creatine:
1) the same time, every day; and
I personally stick with the first option, since that way I know I’ve taken my creatine every morning and don’t need to think about it. However, there are some benefits to taking it directly post-workout, due to your body’s rapid intake of nutrients and fluids after a tough session.
For a more detailed look into the extended benefits of creatine monohydrate, click here.
What are they? And how do they work?
Proteins are made up of amino acids. Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) refer to 3 of those 20 amino acids; namely, leucine, isoleucine and valine. These 3 are special because they are essential amino acids, and therefore need to be acquired through the diet, or by supplementing.
BCAAs, while only consisting of 3 amino acids, make up roughly ⅓ of skeletal muscle protein. They’re also fast-acting; skipping the liver and entering the bloodstream more effectively than other proteins or amino acids.
What is BCAA supplementation good for?
BCAA supplements are often sold as a ‘pre-workout’, combined with many energy boosting nutrients and additives like vitamin B-12 (and even caffeine in some cases). While this is fine, taking BCAAs before a workout is actually a good idea, I wouldn’t really classify BCAAs in the ‘pre-workout’ group.
#1 - Less Pain, Same Gains
That’s because most of the benefits associated with BCAAs come after the workout is finished. One of the most widely found benefits of BCAA supplementing is its ability to reduce muscle soreness the following day. Delayed Onset Muscle Syndrome (DOMS) is the technical term for sore muscles after a heavy lift, and the strange thing is: researchers aren’t exactly sure what’s going on there. The best current guess is that we are feeling the pain of microtears in our muscles after intense exercise. Whatever the case, BCAAs have been found to reduce the intensity of DOMS, by minimizing the amount of damage done to muscle fibers during exercise.
#2 - Reduces ‘mental’ fatigue
Another reason to supplement with BCAAs is that they’ve been found to keep us more focused during exercise. Our muscles will always fatigue with exercise (although perhaps less so with creatine, as discussed above!), but our minds don’t necessarily need to. It gets a little complex, but basically: when we exercise, BCAA levels in our blood go down, which leads to an increase of another amino acid, tryptophan, in the brain. Tryptophan is converted into serotonin, a brain chemical that is involved in the mental experience of fatigue.
While mental fatigue hasn’t been shown to have a dramatic influence on athletic performance, it has implications for more practical life scenarios. Going to the gym in your lunch break, for example. If lifting weights is going to contribute to mental fatigue, you’ll return to work exhausted rather than invigorated--supplementing with BCAAs can help to keep you mentally fresh throughout the day.
#3 - Maintain muscle mass while dieting
One more important area we see the effective introduction of BCAAs is in combination with dieting. Calorie-deficient diets are catabolic; this can lead to unwanted muscle loss along with fat loss. BCAAs have been shown to be incredibly effective at maintaining muscle mass, in the presence of low-calorie diets.
Who is BCAA supplementation for?
Following on from the 3 benefits listed above, we find that BCAAs are especially useful for: 1) People who hate going to the gym with sore muscles;
2) People who would like to leave a workout feeling ‘mentally fresh’; and
3) anyone who is looking to slim down without wasting away any muscle mass in the process.
If you’ve just been through a strength-building phase (not too concerned with calorie count or gaining weight) and are looking to cut down, this would be the perfect time to take BCAAs. Lowering your calorie intake can cut out a lot of other important nutrients, but by supplementing with BCAA you’ll make sure that you’re giving your muscles the essential amino acids they need to be maintained.
When should you take BCAAs?
This is interesting, because BCAAs can be taken before, during or after your workout with beneficial effects. Taking it before and during can assist with your immediate workout energy, but this is usually due to other additives in the mix. If you are dieting, taking BCAAs before your workout will be most beneficial.
Then again, you can just as easily take your BCAAs post-workout, much like a protein shake. I personally take them during my lift, but in summary--it doesn’t make such a big difference when you take them.
Creatine Versus BCAA
You may have noticed that there’s some overlap between the benefits of creatine and BCAA supplementation. Both assist in recovery. Both lead to the development of lean muscle mass. Both are backed by significant stacks of research and evidence. So which is better?
The best way to break it down, in my opinion, is to consider two important phases of the natural muscle and strength building cycle. First, we work hard, stimulating the growth cycle (tearing microfibres and telling our muscles to increase cross-sectional muscle tissue). Then, we enter the recovery phase, where our muscles require rest, nutrients and fluids to properly cash in on the gains made during our workout.
Creatine can be applied most readily to the workout phase.
BCAAs have more to do with the recovery phase.
Creatine supplementation increases the quality and intensity of your workout as it is happening. This leads to lifting heavier loads, less in-session fatigue, and a greater motivation to lift. While there are also some benefits in the recovery phase, the big success factor of creatine comes in the workout phase.
BCAAs, on the other hand, facilitate many of the important processes that follow an intense workout. Things like protein synthesis and reducing the catabolic effects of low-calorie diets (so that doesn’t eat away at its own muscles to drop weight). The fact that they reduce DOMS (muscle soreness) is also another post-workout benefit of BCAA supplementation.
By breaking it down like this, you’ll get a better idea of which is more suited to your current workout needs. Are you trying to go heavier and get more out of each lift? Or are you trying to maintain muscle mass, while cutting down on fat and size?
If you’re in a position to use both creatine and BCAAs, you can potentially benefit from both stages of the muscle and strength-building cycles. Since creatine allows for higher-intensity workouts, it also leads to faster breakdown of proteins and muscle fibres. As we’ve seen, BCAAs are especially useful for protein synthesis, muscle recovery and maintenance. In combination, the pair can lead to a better result at each phase of the fitness cycle: better intensity of workouts, and better recovery.
Do you really need BCAAs or creatine?
Depending on your workout behaviors, goals and frequency, you may find that you don’t really need BCAAs, or creatine, or either. For choosing between the pair, the breakdown given above will be most useful.
That being said, anyone who is looking to increase their strength, endurance or physique will likely benefit from either one of these supplements. Combined with regular exercise, creatine and BCAA supplementation can lead to significant muscular output and recovery; if that’s something you’re interested in, then these are two of the best safe and tested supplements available.
Creatine is best for increasing ATP production, which will boost your energy during workouts, reduce fatigue, and ultimately lead to an increased training intensity (which should result in faster, more efficient gains to lean muscle mass).
BCAAs will assist in recovery, reduce muscle soreness and have you feeling more mentally fresh after your workout.
I’ll finish on one final point: generally speaking, it will be more difficult to meet your natural daily peak creatine levels than it will be to get enough amino acids from dietary sources. So if you do need to choose between the pair, you’ll probably see more noticeable gains from creatine in the short-term than BCAA supplementation.