BCAAs vs. Pre-Workout: Which is Better to Take?

UK Fitness Pro
UK Fitness Pro
· 6 min read
A man working out outside

Dietary supplements have gained significant attention for their important role in enhancing exercise performance and achieving fitness goals. 

Among the most common supplements, Branched-Chain Amino Acid (BCAA) supplements and pre-workout formulas stand out. BCAAs, comprising essential amino acids, are vital for muscle growth and recovery. Pre-workout supplements, on the other hand, are designed to boost energy levels and improve mental focus during training sessions. 

This article compares BCAA supplementation with pre-workouts in terms of their composition, benefits, and suitability for different fitness goals.

BCAAs: Building Blocks of Protein

BCAAs are a group of amino acids, specifically leucine, isoleucine, and valine. 

They play a critical role in muscle protein synthesis, acting as building blocks for muscle tissue. Unlike other amino acids, BCAAs are metabolized in the muscle, directly impacting muscle growth and recovery. They are known for reducing muscle breakdown during exercise, thus serving as important muscle fuel. 

A woman pushing a sled in the gym.

This reduction in muscle protein breakdown and the facilitation of muscle recovery are key benefits of BCAAs, making them a popular supplement for those looking to increase lean muscle mass and improve recovery time.

If you'd like to learn more about the chemical structure of BCAAs, you'll find images and more information here

You might also like this article on how BCAAs can benefit different types of athletes

Pre-Workout Supplements: Boosting Energy and Physical Performance

Pre-workout supplements are a combination of ingredients designed to enhance athletic performance. The most common ingredients include caffeine, beta-alanine, citrulline malate, and sometimes proprietary blends. These ingredients work synergistically to provide a boost of energy, improve blood flow and blood sugar levels, and enhance endurance during a training session. Caffeine, a primary ingredient in many pre-workouts, is known for its ability to increase energy levels and improve mental focus, while citrulline malate aids in blood flow to the muscles, enhancing muscle oxygenation during intense workouts.

Comparative Analysis

Main Ingredients

The main difference between BCAAs and pre-workouts lies in their primary ingredients. BCAAs contain essential amino acids crucial for muscle protein synthesis, while pre-workouts typically feature a blend of caffeine, amino acids, and other active ingredients for an immediate energy boost. The abstract of this article in the journal Nutrients provides an overview of the most common ingredients in pre-workouts (e.g., caffeine, creatinetaurinebeta-alanine)

Muscle Growth and Recovery

According to research published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, BCAAs directly support muscle growth and recovery by facilitating muscle protein synthesis and reducing muscle fatigue. Pre-workout supplements, while not directly involved in muscle protein synthesis, help in sustaining longer and more intense workout sessions, indirectly contributing to muscle growth.

Energy Levels and Performance

Pre-workouts primarily target immediate energy levels and performance. The caffeine and other stimulants provide a rapid energy boost, enhancing exercise performance and mental focus. BCAAs, in contrast, offer more sustained muscle fuel, aiding in endurance and recovery over time.

A man exercising with a kettlebell.

Training Types Suitability

Amino acid supplementation (e.g., BCAA supplementation) is particularly beneficial for endurance athletes and those engaged in resistance training, as it aids in muscle recovery and reduces the onset of muscle soreness. Pre-workout supplements are often favoured by those seeking an immediate energy surge for high-intensity training sessions, such as weight training or short bursts of cardio.

Potential Side Effects

Both supplements have potential side effects. High doses of caffeine in pre-workouts can lead to jitteriness and disrupted sleep patterns. Excessive consumption of BCAAs may lead to an imbalance in amino acid levels and potential digestive issues.

Recommended Doses

Typically, 5–10 grams of BCAAs per serving is suggested, ideally consumed before or after a workout to aid muscle recovery and reduce muscle damage. However, there is evidence that BCAAs should be used as a post-workout supplement rather than as a pre-workout supplement if your goal is to minimise post-exercise soreness. 

For pre-workout supplements, the recommended dose varies, though is often around 150–300 mg of caffeine per serving. 

It's essential to consider the presence of various ingredients like beta-alanine and citrulline malate, as well as proprietary blends, in determining the right amount. Most pre-workouts come with a "suggested use" description on the packing or on the website where they're sold. 

For example, the suggested use for this pre-workout blend is one scoop (the scoop is provided with the supplement). 

Choosing the Right Supplement for Your Goals

The choice between BCAAs and pre-workout supplements should align with individual fitness goals and dietary needs. For muscle growth and enhanced recovery, BCAAs are a superior choice. Those seeking an immediate energy boost and wanting to reach peak performance in high-intensity workouts may benefit more from pre-workout supplements. 

A BCAA supplement

It is essential to consider factors such as existing diet, workout routine, and specific goals, such as weight loss or building muscle, when selecting a supplement. For instance, for someone completing resistance training in a caloric deficit with the goal of maintaining muscle mass while losing fat, BCAAs could be ideal. Whether or not pre-workouts would also be beneficial, however, depends on whether you feel that you can train with sufficient intensity without them—perhaps a good expresso would suffice? 

Specific Pre-Workout and BCAA Supplements 

Myprotein offers some of the best pre-workouts, each featuring key ingredients for enhancing physical activity. 

Products like 'THE Pre-Workout' and their BCAA drink blend caffeine, B vitamins, and other nutrients to boost metabolic rate, improve blood flow to muscles, and support muscular endurance. These supplements serve different purposes, from increasing overall performance to enhancing energy levels for workouts. As well as these products, Myprotein offers a range of other energy drinks ideal for those seeking to optimize their training outcomes, whether for endurance or high-intensity exercises. 

A woman doing squats

If you want something to consume very quickly, you could consider a pre-workout shot. As with most of the best pre-workout supplements, the main ingredient in Myprotein's Pre-Workout Shot is caffeine, derived from natural ingredients. According to Myprotein, the best time to take this pre-workout supplement is 1 hour before engaging in physical activity. 

If price is your main concern, taking a pre-workout in powder form is probably one of the best ways of ensuring that you feel ready for an intense workout without breaking the bank. 

Looking at the ingredient list for each of the flavours of the pre-workout powders, you may wonder why a common pre-workout ingredient is vitamin B. This is often included in such supplements due to its role in energy production

Other Supplements and Dietary Considerations

If, like Arnold, you think there's literally nothing better than a pump, you could also try out a pump enhancer, which helps to fill up the blood vessels in your muscles.

Of course, there's little point engaging in a high-intensity workout if we're not also providing our bodies with what they need to recover. 

Therefore, if you're considering using a pre-workout, it's worth also thinking about using protein powders (e.g., whey protein) to speed up the recovery process. As well as protein supplements, it's a good idea to eat high-protein foods

For example, eggs are full of complete proteins (they're well-balanced in terms of their amino acid profiles), so are ideal for assisting with muscle recovery and for minimising muscle loss and delayed onset muscle soreness (i.e., DOMs). If you need to avoid meats and dairy products, you could check out these high-protein vegetarian and vegan products

Conclusion

In conclusion, both BCAAs and pre-workout supplements offer unique benefits. 

BCAAs are essential for muscle protein synthesis, recovery, and reducing muscle fatigue, making them ideal for those focused on building lean muscle mass and enhancing muscle recovery. Pre-workout supplements are designed to provide an immediate energy boost, improved blood flow, and enhanced athletic performance, catering to those looking to maximize their energy and performance during a training session. Ultimately, the choice between these supplements should be based on individual fitness goals, dietary preferences, and the type of exercise routine followed. 

Consulting a healthcare provider or a nutrition expert is advisable before incorporating any new supplement into your regimen to ensure that you reap the maximum benefits while aligning with your fitness journey.

If you're interested in how BCAA pills vs. BCAA powder compare, you might like this article on how BCAAs are implicated in muscle growth and other processes. We also have articles on how BCAAs compare to creatine, beta-alanine, and glutamine and on how such supplements are used by the strongest men in the world, like Mark FelixMartins Licis, and Mitchell Hooper. You might also like this article comparing BCAAs and whey protein.