Pre-Workout vs. BCAAs: Which Should You Take?

June 23, 2022

Pre-workouts and BCAAs are common sports supplements marketed to fitness enthusiasts. But if you’re on a tight budget and only looking to choose one, should it be a pre-workout or a BCAA supplement?

The main difference between pre-workout and BCAAs is that pre-workout is a stimulant used to enhance performance. In contrast, BCAAs are three essential amino acids (aka protein) typically used for building muscle or recovery.

However, this doesn't paint the complete picture. In fact, BCAAs are one of the most useless supplements on the market and not worth your hard-earned cash. How and why is this, and does that mean you should take a pre-workout instead?

What Is Pre-Workout?

Pre-workout is a formulation of multiple powdered ingredients designed to provide a performance-enhancing effect for exercise. The most common ingredients within a pre-workout are:

  • Caffeine – the substance found in coffee that provides strength, power, and endurance benefits while enhancing brain function [1].
  • L-Citrulline or Citrulline Malate – an endurance enhancer helping you go for longer. It’s a vasodilator expanding your blood vessels so more blood can be delivered to the working muscles [2].
  • Beta-Alanine – another endurance enhancer but through a different mechanism. It raises carnosine levels to buffer acidic hydrogen ions responsible for acidifying the muscular environment, negatively affecting a muscle's contractile ability. Therefore, extending the time to fatigue [3].
  • Creatine – creatine boosts strength and power but not in acute doses as you would take with a pre-workout. Instead, you'd take creatine daily as a separate supplement [4].
  • BCAAs – some pre-workouts will have BCAAs, which are three essential amino acids to promote muscle building and repair [5]. Except that's not the whole story.

What Are BCAAs?

Branch chain amino acids, or BCAAs for short, are proteins. All amino acids are proteins, and different protein sources have varying ratios of amino acids. BCAAs consist of L-Leucine, L-Isoleucine, and L-Valine.

It was once thought that BCAAs stimulated muscle protein synthesis (building of new muscle) and, therefore, would further enhance muscle growth. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case when ingesting adequate daily protein [6].

If this interests you, you can read more in my article “Are BCAAs Worth It?”

Pre-Workout vs. BCAAs: Which Should You Take Before Working Out?

BCAAs vs Pre Workout

The name gives this one away. Before working out, you should take a pre-workout when you have a choice between pre-workout and BCAAs. However, you don’t need to take a pre-workout if you don’t want to. Lifters have been training for decades before pre-workout was invented.

You don't need to take BCAAs before or after working out. Instead, have a protein and carbohydrate-rich meal 1-2 hours before and another 30-90 minutes after working out. This will ensure you get all of your amino acids (including BCAAs) to stimulate muscle growth.

Can You Take Pre-Workout & BCAAs Together?

You can take pre-workout and BCAAs together. Some pre-workouts have BCAAs in them. I would avoid these pre-workouts where possible, as adding BCAAs means they had to reduce the dose of other ingredients.

Further, BCAAs will do nothing for your exercise performance, so paying for something that won't help you during your workout is pointless.

Should You Take Pre-Workout or BCAAs?

BCAAs provide no benefit to your training or physique. If you are eating adequate daily protein, it makes no difference in ingesting BCAAs. Further, all your meat and protein powder is packed with BCAAs, so you don't need to buy them separately.

Instead, take a pre-workout before working out to boost performance in the gym or for your cardio workout. But taking pre-workout is unnecessary, and you can head to the gym with no stimulants.

Further, there are options to use pre-workouts without stimulants if you are training late in the evening that can provide benefits through other ingredients.

My Recommended Pre-Workout

Crazy Nutrition’s Intensive Pre-Train is my recommend pre-workout for the following reasons:

  • Contains no creatine.
  • Contains no BCAAs.
  • Ingredients dosed adequately for performance enhancing benefits.

That’s all you’re after in a pre-workout. A formulation that has ingredients dosed so they provide you with a performance advantage during your workouts allowing you to lift heavier or go longer.

Crazy Nutrition Intensive Pre-Train

References

1. Astorino, T. A., & Roberson, D. W. (2010). Efficacy of acute caffeine ingestion for short-term high-intensity exercise performance: a systematic review. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(1), 257-265

2. Gonzalez, A. M., & Trexler, E. T. (2020). Effects of citrulline supplementation on exercise performance in humans: A review of the current literature. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 34(5), 1480-1495.

3. Hobson, R. M., Saunders, B., Ball, G., Harris, R. C., & Sale, C. (2012). Effects of β-alanine supplementation on exercise performance: a meta-analysis. Amino acids, 43(1), 25-37.

4. Rawson, E. S., & Volek, J. S. (2003). Effects of creatine supplementation and resistance training on muscle strength and weightlifting performance. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 17(4), 822-831.

5. Wolfe, R. R. (2017). Branched-chain amino acids and muscle protein synthesis in humans: myth or reality?. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14(1), 1-7.

6. Plotkin, D. L., Delcastillo, K., Van Every, D. W., Tipton, K. D., Aragon, A. A., & Schoenfeld, B. J. (2021). Isolated leucine and branched-chain amino acid supplementation for enhancing muscular strength and hypertrophy: A narrative review. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism, 31(3), 292-301.

About the Author

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your training.

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