BCAAs are a simple but essential nutrient. These three amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) are key building blocks for muscle. For that reason, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that BCAAs are great both for building strength and repairing muscle damage after a tough workout.
However, BCAAs can do more: they’re useful for weight loss as well, because they exert both thermogenic and satiety-inducing effects.
Thanks to their powerful effects in a low-calorie package, BCAAs are very popular with women, both among serious athletes and women just looking to shed some excess body fat. Here are the key benefits you can gain by incorporating BCAAs into your supplementation routine.
BCAA benefits for women
1. BCAAs can help women get stronger, drop fat mass, and recover better after a tough workout
Though BCAA supplements are usually something that’s associated with weight-lifting enthusiasts, they have benefits that extend across to all categories of fitness.
Of the nine , three have a special type of structure which gives them the designation of “branched chain amino acids,” or BCAAs. These three amino (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) have solid scientific evidence supporting their use for everything from mental performance to liver disease to recovery from surgery.
2. BCAAs can boost cardio performance
A 1991 article in the European Journal of Applied Physiology details how BCAAs can improve performance during long cardio sessions (1).
In two different experiments, the researchers showed that runners in an 18-mile cross country race and runners in a marathon improved both their physical performance and mental acuity after completing the race while taking BCAAs.
The branched chain amino acid supplement enabling the runners to function better both physically and mentally during high-demand exercise.
3. BCAAs might help improve your strength too
Other research shows that branched chain amino acids are a key component for triggering your body to synthesize greater amounts of muscle proteins–the building blocks of greater muscular strength (2).
The authors demonstrate that the presence of leucine, just one of the three branched chain amino acids, is not sufficient–all three need to be present for optimal muscular strength gain benefits.
4. BCAAs can prevent muscle damage and boost muscle recovery
The findings of this study also suggest that BCAAs might help improve muscle recovery and prevent muscle damage during a tough workout.
This was exactly the finding of a 2012 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (3).
The study used twelve men who were randomly assigned either a BCAA supplement or a placebo and were tasked with completing a set of 100 drop-jumps to induce soreness.
The researchers found that, in the days following the soreness-inducing protocol, those who were taking the branched chain amino acid supplement maintained a greater proportion of their initial strength and reported less delayed-onset muscle soreness.
5. BCAAs could even help with weight loss
According to a study by researchers at the University of Illinois, insulin regulation is modulated by the BCAA leucine.
Since your insulin levels dictate how well your body burns sugars and carbohydrates for energy, the researchers suggest that increased levels of leucine could decrease insulin resistance and stabilize blood glucose levels during periods where your carbohydrate intake is low (as it probably will be if you are losing weight) (4).
While direct experimental trials on BCAAs as a weight loss supplement haven’t been conducted, it might prove to be a useful adjunct to your weight loss routine, especially in conjunction with exercise.
6. BCAAs might help boost your immune system
Research published in the Journal of Nutrition detailed several pieces of evidence supporting the idea that higher branched chain amino acid levels are good for immune function (5).
The paper notes that immune cells use BCAAs as a part of their cellular structure, and also cites studies on post-surgical patients which connect BCAA supplementation with improved immune function.
Could a BCAA supplement help you stay healthy? It looks like a very real possibility.
7. BCAAs help your body adapt to high altitudes
If you’re an avid hiker, backpacker, or mountain climber, you know that exposure to high altitudes can take a real toll on your body.
Periods of several days at high altitude, particularly when accompanied by the kind of physical exertion that you get when you are hiking, backpacking, or climbing, can spur your body to absorb muscle tissue, leading to decreases in muscle strength.
A study published by researchers in Italy and Switzerland showed that BCAA supplementation could help prevent some of these changes (6).
The researchers found that a group of hikers taking BCAAs experienced a smaller loss in muscle strength and muscular cross-sectional area compared to subjects taking a placebo. Thanks to these results, you might want to pack a BCAA supplement for your next hiking, skiing, or backpacking trip, if it’s going to take you to high elevations.
BCAA side effects
BCAAs have a great safety profile. Since they are a natural component of many different foods, branched chain amino acids have an excellent safety profile.
You’re no more likely to suffer negative effects from branched chain amino acid intake than you are from chicken, egg, or fish intake (given that these foods are high in BCAA content).
Watch out for other ingredients that are sometimes included in BCAA supplements. The only thing you should watch out for is your intake of any other ingredients in your BCAA supplement.
Some contain other supplements, like beta alanine, which can cause side effects like tingling and flushing when their dosage exceeds a certain threshold.
In this case, you’ll have to check your ingredients list closely, and if you are having trouble with side effects, opt for a branched chain amino acid supplement that has a cleaner and simpler design.
BCAA dosage for women
For most women, 5-10 grams per day is ideal. In research studies, the typical dose of a branched chain amino acid supplement ranges from five grams per day to ten grams per day.
Sometimes, studies will scale this according to body weight, so that heavier participants in a study will receive a greater amount of BCAAs to account for their greater mass.
2:1:1 ratio for leucine:isoleucine:valine. As far as the optimal ratio of the three branched chain amino acids relative to each other, the best evidence supports a 2:1:1 ratio of leucine to isoleucine to valine. This was derived mostly from clinical experience treating patients with liver disease, and was later tested in bodybuilders (7).
Still, it’s an extremely difficult topic to research, and small deviations from this ratio (e.g. 3:2:1) are not likely to make a big difference as long as your overall intake of BCAAs is high enough.
The real key is to ensure your overall dosage is high, and to make sure you are getting a reasonable amount of each of the three BCAAs: leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
BCAAs for women benefits FAQ
Q: Should women who want to tone up and lose weight take BCAAs?
A: Yes, BCAAs are great for both toning up and losing weight. Supplementation with branched chain amino acids is a great way to decrease your appetite and increase your energy expenditure, which provides a two-pronged approach for losing weight.
At the same time, branched chain amino acids are great for toning up, as they have been proven to help repair muscle and increase muscular strength.
The lower total protein content and the focus on only branched chain amino acids, versus protein overall, will help make sure that you don’t bulk up too much, as you might if you were taking a standard protein powder for women or a mass gainer.
Q: Should you drink your BCAAs before or after a workout?
A: The precise timing of BCAA supplementation depends on your goals.
Do you want to reduce muscular damage and soreness during your workout? In this case, research suggests that you should take a BCAA supplement before working out—anywhere from an hour before to right before.
On the flip side, if your goal is to optimize your strength gains, some muscle damage during the workout is desirable. If that’s your goal, take your BCAA supplement within 30 minutes after finishing your workout.
This will allow your muscles to get the stimulus they need during your workout, but also supply them with the building blocks they need to repair themselves afterwards.
Q: How much BCAAs is too much for women?
A: Since BCAA supplements have been repeatedly demonstrated to be safe, even in fairly high doses, the issue of taking “too much” of a BCAA supplement is less about safety and more about diminishing returns in terms of efficacy.
On the scientific research front, there aren’t any studies that support doses of more than ten grams of BCAAs per day.
Beyond that threshold, you’ve quite likely ventured into diminishing or nonexistent return territory. This means that you are just going through your BCAA supplement supply faster, without any additional benefits. Most of the research points to a dose more along the lines of five to ten grams of BCAAs per day, whether they come in pill or capsule form.
Q: How should women use BCAA pills?
A: Dosing with BCAA is pretty straightforward: for optimal performance results, you should shoot for enough BCAA pills for five to ten grams per day.
In capsule form, you don’t need to worry much about delivery; you can just take the capsules with a glass of water.
Spreading your dosage out for the day tends to deliver a more even dosage, but if you are looking for workout benefits, you should be taking your BCAAs right before, or right after your workout.
This is in contrast with taking BCAAs for weight loss, where you want to take a solid dosage in the morning, afternoon, and evening to best leverage the appetite suppressant and thermogenic effects of BCAA pills for women.
Q: Are BCAAs safe for women?
A: BCAAs are found naturally in foods like milk, beef, eggs, chicken, and lima beans, so a BCAA supplement poses no more risk than any of these foods.
BCAAs have been successfully used in health, performance, and medical research without any reports of adverse effects attributed to BCAA supplementation.
Q: How do BCAAs work?
A: Branched chain amino acids promote thermogenesis through energy that needs to be expended to break down the chemical bonds that keep them together.
Additionally, BCAAs promote better control of insulin levels, because leucine, isoleucine, and valine are uniquely involved in the regulation of blood sugar levels in your body.
BCAAs also play an important role in muscle tissue synthesis and repair, which is why there is a large amount of research focused on using BCAAs to promote athletic gains following a workout.
Q: Can BCAAs for women give you more energy?
A: BCAAs are common ingredients in energy drinks, but their direct energy benefits when taken alone are less well-studied.
Amino acids aren’t usually the first choice when it comes to providing energy, because they don’t have a direct stimulus effect on your body like caffeine does.
Nevertheless, BCAAs can be a good add-on for women who want to stabilize their energy levels, on top of a shake or smoothie with more traditional energizing ingredients like matcha or ginseng.
Related: Our best picks for BCAAs for women
BCAAs are a simple but effective way to get a broad range of benefits: better cardio workouts, improved muscle strength and recovery, and even better immunity and metabolic function.
They’ve got an excellent safety profile, so they’re a solid addition to your pre or post-workout supplementation routine.