• Once reserved for bodybuilders, performance-enhancing supplements are gaining traction among "normal" people.
  • Branch Chain Amino Acids, or BCAAs, are fiercely popular in the fitness industry.
  • A personal trainer told Business Insider you're better off spending your time and money on improving your diet with whole and unprocessed foods.

As hardcore workouts like high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and bootcamp classes have been on the rise, sports performance supplements have become more popular among ordinary people, creating a booming multi-million rand industry.

Most people are familiar with protein shakes, but another fiercely popular so-called performance enhancer is Branch Chain Amino Acids, or BCAAs as they are known. In South Africa, fitness freaks fork out up to R540 for a 266g tin of BCAAs.  

Whereas protein shakes are often consumed post-workout, BCAAs mixed with water are most often sipped before and during a workout.

Here's what the drink typically looks like:

BCAAs are a group of three essential amino acids — Isoleucine, Leucine, and Valine. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. There are nine essential amino acids in total — essential meaning they cannot be made by the body and need to be sourced from food.

As the "strong not skinny" movement continues to gain traction, gym bunnies are increasingly looking to supplements to help them sculpt the lean and muscular physiques they see on Instagram.

However, the photo sharing platorm also happens to be where many fitness influencers are earning money from sponsorship deals with nutritional supplement brands.

We asked personal trainer and former competitive sprinter Max Lowery — who previously told us he would never touch a protein shake — for his verdict on BCAAs.

"Branch Chain Amino Acids have gained attention because they allegedly increase muscle protein synthesis," Lowery told Business Insider. "MPS is the rebuilding of muscle tissue, which occurs as a result of stresses on the body, such as injury or exercise.

"A BCAA powder can contain Isoleucine, Leucine and/or Valine," he said. However, he added that the powders also frequently contain artificial sweeteners, flavourings, and colourings, and that they're often highly synthetic in appearance.

Lowery said that while there are many fitness influencers promoting BCAAs all over social media, when he experimented with them while sprinting, he saw no effect on performance or recovery.

According to Lowery, the idea that BCAA supplements alone produce an anabolic or muscle-building response driven by MPS — from which, he points out, a multi-million pound industry has grown — is untrue. And he said there are studies to prove it.

"Current research suggests that you need complete forms of protein — that include BCAAs — in order to create muscle growth and repair," he said, adding: "In other words – eat real food!"

By this he said he means filling your diet with whole, unprocessed foods, and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. 

However, BCAAs are still popular with other high profile trainers, particularly for use while training on a fasted stomach.

Sandy Macaskill, the founder of Barry's Bootcamp London, told Business Insider if he's training fasted in the morning he'll always drink some BCAAs mixed with water before and during his workout.

But Lowery argues that taking BCAAs before a workout means you're not technically training fasted.

"A lot of people think that you can use them during fasted training because they don’t take you out of the fasted state. This is untrue. BCAAs create an insulin response which, by definition, takes you out of the fasted state."

Overall, Lowery said that in his opinion BCAAs are probably a waste of time.

"Rather than spend the time, effort, and money buying and consuming components of nutrients isolated into a highly profitable and marketable product thinking it’s going to be the difference in their body composition or performance, people should focus on improving their diet and training regime," he said.

"That's going to make the difference, not some magic powder."

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