Whey Protein vs. BCAA: Which is Better? [Updated 2021]

Key Points:

  • Whey is a complete protein that contains the three BCAAs, along with many other amino acids.
  • Whey boosts your overall protein intake, helps you build muscle and strength, and can be used as a meal replacement.
  • Don’t expect BCAA supplements to help your muscle growth. There is no scientific evidence supporting such claims.
  • BCAAs can reduce your feelings of fatigue during training and maybe allow you to do more work before exhaustion. BCAA supplements also reduce muscle soreness.
  • If you’re looking to build muscle, BCAAs aren’t even an option. Whey is the way to go.

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If you’re reading this, you’re probably wondering which is the best option for you: BCAAs or whey protein?

It’s a legitimate question. If you go by the information you get from supplement manufacturers, all their products are worth their weight in gold. And reading scientific reports can be complicated and make you more confused, not less.

We have done the research for you, and if you keep on reading, I’ll break it down into easy-to-understand chapters.

To better choose between whey protein and BCAAs, let’s begin by taking a look at protein.

Protein Basics for Gaining Muscle

You use protein to build and repair all the tissues in your body, including your muscles. It is an essential nutrient, and if you eat too little of it, your body and muscles don’t function properly.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

If you lift weights to build muscle and get stronger, you need more protein than the average person. Both US and EU authorities recommend a protein intake of 0.8 to 0.83 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass.1 2

You should not expect to gain a lot of muscle if that’s all you eat.

To build muscle, you should aim for at least 1.6–1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body mass per day.3 4

At least.

A little more won’t hurt, and if anything, it’ll give you peace of mind knowing you have provided your muscles with more than enough building blocks to grow. On a diet, you might benefit from even more protein, up to 2.7 grams per kilogram of body mass per day.5

Read more: Protein Calculator: How Much Protein Do You Need?

Proteins Build Your Body – Amino Acids Build The Proteins

Amino acids are organic compounds that join together in chains to form proteins.

Free amino acids vs protein
Amino acids form different proteins.

There are twenty amino acids, nine of which are essential. These are often called EAAs: Essential Amino Acids.

In alphabetical order, these nine essential amino acids are:

  • Histidine
  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Valine

Your body can’t make them, so you need to get them from food or supplements.

Your body can, however, make the eleven non-essential amino acids when it needs them. You don’t have to get them from food, but all the protein you eat contains enough non-essential amino acids anyway.

The list of non-essential amino acids looks like this:

  • Alanine
  • Arginine
  • Asparagine
  • Aspartic acid
  • Cysteine
  • Glutamic acid
  • Glutamine
  • Glycine
  • Proline
  • Serine
  • Tyrosine

What Are BCAAs?

BCAA stands for Branched-Chain Amino Acids, and they are three of the essential amino acids mentioned above: leucine, isoleucine, and valine.

Their chemical structure makes them look like little trees with branches.

L-leucine
L-Leucine
L-Isoleucine
L-Isoleucine
L-Valine
L-Valine

The BCAAs stand out from the other amino acids because you don’t break them down in the liver. Instead, you store them directly in your muscles, where they repair them and help them grow bigger and stronger.6

Supplementing with BCAAs might offer benefits like reducing your feelings of fatigue during exercise and making you feel less sore after a workout.

What is Whey Protein?

Simply put, whey is one of the two proteins you find in regular milk.7 Whey protein is absorbed rapidly and stimulates your muscle protein synthesis (the rate at which your body builds muscle) within minutes. The other milk protein is casein, which you absorb over a much longer time.

Types of Whey Protein

Common whey protein supplements are whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, and whey protein hydrolysate.

  • Whey concentrate is the least processed type of whey on the market. That means you get more naturally occurring sugar and fat from cow’s milk, too. It’s the least expensive option, and probably the most common one as well.
  • Whey isolate has gone through more filtering processes, removing much of the milk sugar and fats. Even if you’re lactose intolerant, you can often use whey isolate.
  • Whey hydrolysates are treated with enzymes that break down the protein even before you drink and digest it. You absorb hydrolysate very rapidly. It often tastes unpleasant because process of breaking the protein down liberates the amino acids. It’s hard to mask the raw taste of sulfurous amino acids.

In recent years, other options like native whey and clear whey have popped up on the market. Clear whey has the consistency of lemonade rather than a milkshake, but your muscles won’t know the difference.

Which Whey Protein is the Best for You?

Nothing suggests that either one of these whey protein powders is better than the others for building muscle. A 2016 meta-analysis of studies with a total of 192 participants concluded that whey protein, both concentrate and isolate, improves strength and muscle mass.8

If you’re lactose intolerant, using isolate or hydrolysate is the safer option. Other than that, there is likely no benefit in spending more money on anything but whey concentrate. Also, whey concentrate is the only type of whey associated with fat loss.9

The most important function of whey protein supplementation is to boost your overall protein intake. There is nothing magical about drinking a whey protein shake with X grams of protein compared to getting the same amount of protein from regular food.

Whey Protein vs. BCAA: Muscle Protein Synthesis

Muscle protein synthesis is the rate at which your body creates new muscle protein. You stimulate muscle protein synthesis when you exercise, especially with strength training, and by eating protein.

You need around 3 grams of the amino acid leucine per meal to stimulate muscle protein synthesis maximally.10 11 This translates to 20 to 30 grams of whey protein.12 After a full-body workout, you can boost muscle protein synthesis even more by consuming 40 grams of protein, although the difference compared to 20 grams isn’t very large.13

Muscle protein synthesis from 20 or 40 g of whey protein

Whey protein increases muscle protein synthesis a lot, more than any other protein. This increase only lasts 90 minutes to two hours, though.14 Whey is a “fast” protein, meaning you absorb it quickly. The effect of whey on your muscle protein synthesis is powerful but doesn’t last very long.

BCAAs, in particular leucine, are the amino acids that stimulate muscle protein synthesis.15 However, BCAAs on their own are not enough to build muscle effectively. Without the other six essential amino acids, you only get the signals for muscle protein synthesis.16

Your actual muscle protein synthesis is only elevated about half as much by a BCAA shot as by a whey shake when you match the leucine content of the drinks.17

Whey protein vs bcaa muscle protein synthesis

Whey protein is the winner. BCAAs only stimulate muscle protein synthesis 20 % more than tap water and are about half as effective as whey protein.

Whey Protein vs. BCAA: Muscle Protein Breakdown

Muscle growth results from a positive muscle protein balance, meaning your muscle protein synthesis needs to exceed your muscle protein breakdown over time. The key phrase here is over time. If you break down more muscle protein than you build now and then during the day is irrelevant. That’s unavoidable and probably not something you even should try to avoid.

Insulin and Muscle Breakdown

Contrary to popular belief, protein does not reduce muscle breakdown.18 Not directly. Insulin does.19 When you eat protein, your pancreas releases insulin. So, protein indirectly reduces muscle breakdown, just like carbohydrates, but not because of the protein itself. 

Only moderate increases in insulin levels are required to halt muscle breakdown. 20–25 grams of protein, like whey, reduce muscle protein breakdown maximally. If you increase your insulin concentrations even more by adding carbs, you don’t reduce muscle breakdown further.20

Whey creates a powerful insulin spike.21 In other words, drinking a whey protein shake reduces your muscle breakdown as much as possible. It doesn’t last for long, though, whey being a rapidly absorbed protein. 

If you want a more sustained effect, you should go for the other milk protein, casein, which you absorb over many hours. 

BCAAs, especially leucine, also make your pancreas release insulin.22 Combining leucine with sugar creates a real insulin spike, but if you take just BCAAs or leucine alone, you only get a moderate rise in insulin levels.23

No studies to date confirm that BCAA supplements reduce muscle protein breakdown after exercise, contrary to what supplement companies tell you. It’s just speculation based on studies on whole-body protein breakdown, including your organs like the liver and your skin, not muscle protein specifically.

Muscle Breakdown: Good or Bad?

In addition to the above, we don’t know if reduced muscle protein breakdown following a workout is desirable. That might sound strange. Let us elaborate.

We often assume that reduced muscle breakdown leads to a better muscle protein balance, and therefore, more significant muscle growth. That would be true if the increased muscle breakdown after a workout comes from undamaged muscle fibers. We don’t know if that’s the case.

Current scientific research suggests that muscle protein breakdown is an essential part of muscle growth. It removes damaged proteins, creating optimal conditions for the muscle fibers to grow. Excessively reducing muscle protein breakdown might impair muscle growth, not enhance it. Some experts even go so far as to say actively trying to minimize muscle protein breakdown as much as possible could be a mistake if you want to gain muscle.24 25 26

A recent review concluded that there are no known benefits of reducing muscle protein breakdown after a training session through nutritional interventions.27 Instead, you should focus on increasing muscle protein synthesis. How do you go about that? Easy, you eat or drink protein when you’re done lifting. Whey protein is a well-researched and effective option.

Whey protein is the winner. A recommended serving of whey stimulates a more robust insulin release than a recommended serving of BCAAs, thus decreasing muscle protein breakdown. Keep in mind that the role of post-exercise muscle protein breakdown in muscle growth is currently speculative, at best.

Whey Protein vs. BCAA: Muscle Growth

Most studies only look at a short window of time when measuring muscle protein synthesis or evaluating muscle protein breakdown—a few hours at most.

The results can be valuable, but you can’t translate them into measures of muscle growth over time. You elevate your muscle protein synthesis for a few hours after drinking a protein shake. That’s great but doesn’t necessarily translate into more muscle mass a month down the line.

Protein Shakes (Including Whey Protein) for Muscle Growth

A 2017 meta-analysis looked at the effects of protein supplementation on muscle mass and strength in healthy adults.28 The researchers gathered data from 49 randomized controlled studies. One group of strength-training men and women drank a protein shake a day, and a control group received a placebo drink without any protein. The most common protein used in these studies was whey protein. 

In total, 1,863 men and women participated in the studies, which lasted up to 52 weeks. In other words, we have plenty of data on the effects of protein shakes on muscle growth.

The participants in the protein groups increased their daily protein intake from 1.4 grams per kilogram of body mass to 1.8 grams per kilogram, on average. 

The analysis results showed that strength training alone resulted in a 1.1-kilogram average increase in fat-free mass. Participants who added a protein shake per day to their usual diet also added an extra 300 grams of fat-free mass to their bodies, compared to placebo. Untrained lifters gained less fat-free mass from the extra protein, but trained lifters added, on average, a whopping 750 grams of fat-free mass compared to placebo.

Those numbers mean that a daily protein shake can add more than 30 % more muscle mass during a strength training program.

Of course, you have to put these numbers into context. Most likely, you would get the same positive results by adding the same amount of protein from regular foods. But a protein shake is a convenient and cost-effective way to boost your muscle growth, as long as it increases your total daily protein intake.

A 2019 review chimed in with the observation that whey protein, as part of your diet, seems to be an effective way to maximize gains in muscle mass.29

BCAAs for Muscle Growth

When it comes to BCAA supplements and long-term muscle growth, there is almost no research and very little evidence for any benefits. Manufacturers of BCAAs would have you thinking otherwise, but they base all claims of muscle growth on studies lasting a few hours. And as we mentioned earlier, BCAAs fall short there, too.

In a 2021 study, 30 postmenopausal women supplemented their diet with either 9 grams of BCAAs per day or placebo while strength-training three times per week.30 Both groups gained muscle mass and strength by lifting weights, as expected, but the BCAA supplement had no benefits at all.

Even more recently, a review of all scientific research to date concludes that there are no apparent benefits from consuming additional BCAAs in addition to your regular diet.31 Building muscle requires all the essential amino acids. Common protein sources already provide all of them, and BCAAs alone have little effect.

Whey protein is the winner. Adding whey protein to your diet is a scientifically proven way to boost muscle growth, as long as it also adds to your total daily protein intake and you’re not already eating enough protein to max your gains. It’s not necessarily better than the same amount of protein from any other complete source of protein, but it is a convenient and cost-effective choice.

Science does not support BCAAs for muscle growth.32

Whey Protein vs. BCAA: Performance and Fatigue During Exercise

Research shows that taking BCAAs before training can reduce fatigue during exercise and even help you exercise for longer before reaching exhaustion. That is especially relevant during endurance training and when exercising in the heat.33 34 35 36

Not all of these studies show an increase in physical performance, despite a lower perceived effort.

There is little to no research on whey in this area. However, whey is likely less effective, if at all. Branched-chain amino acids in supplement form aren’t metabolized in the liver, meaning your muscles and brain get access to them almost immediately. If you get BCAAs from an intact protein, like whey, your body must first break down the protein into amino acids.

The effects of BCAAs on performance and fatigue are likely related to serotonin.37 By taking BCAAs before a workout, you reduce your serotonin concentrations, which delays fatigue.

Drinking BCAAs during prolonged endurance training spares muscle glycogen, your most important fuel for intense exercise. In theory, this might allow you to perform better during a long training session, but studies fail to see this effect in a practical setting.38

In addition, BCAAs also improve your lactate threshold, allowing you to increase your exercise capacity.39

BCAAs are the winner. Your brain and muscles can use BCAAs almost immediately, while whey takes time to break down. Whey is better for building muscle, but you probably can’t use it as a pre-workout performance booster.

Whey Protein vs. BCAA: Muscle Soreness

The scientific name for sore muscles after exercise is delayed-onset muscle soreness or DOMS. If you work out, you know how DOMS feels. It usually happens when you suddenly increase your amount of training or if you try something new.

BCAAs effectively reduce muscle soreness.40 41 If you take a BCAA supplement after your workouts, you can expect to feel less sore. Note that the studies compare BCAAs to nothing at all, so eating a regular protein-rich meal after your workout might give you the same effect.

The evidence for protein shakes is limited. The available studies are poorly designed and have few participants.42 However, if you drink whey protein after your training session, evidence suggests that you might reduce muscle soreness. Again, a regular protein-rich meal might have the same benefits.

Winner: it’s (probably) a tie! More research back BCAA supplementation, but those studies compare BCAAs to nothing at all. Getting the same amount of BCAAs from food or whey protein likely offers the same benefits.

Whey Protein vs. BCAA: Meal Replacements and Snacks

Sometimes, you don’t have time or opportunity to eat a complete meal. However, drinking a protein shake or some BCAAs takes almost no time or effort and is convenient. Does it benefit your muscles, though?

Whey protein is a complete protein, boosting your muscle protein synthesis for a couple of hours. You can use it as a meal replacement without any issues. A whey protein shake provides you with all the amino acids you need, including the BCAAs. Of course, you won’t get the nutritional variety of a mixed meal, so don’t rely on protein shakes exclusively, but as a meal replacement on the go, it’s okay.

Not so with BCAAs. You only get three of the nine amino acids you need to sustain muscle protein synthesis. At best, you get a minimal boost in muscle protein synthesis compared to a “real” protein. At worst, you’re just wasting money for no good reason.

Whey protein is the clear winner.

Whey Protein vs. BCAA: Convenience

Mixing a protein shake or a BCAA drink only takes seconds and can be done anywhere. You can also bring the powder with you without requiring refrigeration. Drinking either of them is also very convenient compared to sitting down for a regular meal.

Both whey protein and BCAAs are equally convenient, in my opinion. Maybe BCAAs have the edge. A bag or jar of whey protein is much larger than a jar of BCAAs, so you’d need more space to bring it somewhere, or you’d have to split it into portion-sized containers.

Winner: it’s a tie! Convenience without results isn’t worth much, though. If we’re talking about building muscle, a little extra work for something that works might be worth it. 

Whey Protein vs. BCAA: Taste

Your taste buds are yours and yours alone. You might find something that someone else loves to be disgusting. Therefore, a general taste comparison is impossible.

Unflavored whey protein mixed in water tastes something like watered-down milk. You can drink it that way if you want to, or mix it with a flavoring agent of your choice. 

Whey also comes in a myriad of flavors, natural or artificial. No matter your taste preferences, you can probably find a whey protein you enjoy.

BCAAs taste bitter. That’s why you won’t find any unflavored BCAA supplements. 

When you hear someone expressing how great their BCAAs taste, they are saying that they enjoy the taste of the large amounts of flavoring agents and sweeteners masking the actual taste of the amino acids.

However, when flavored, many people find BCAAs great-tasting and refreshing. As with whey, you can probably find something suited to your taste buds.

Winner: it’s another tie! No one can tell you that something tastes better or worse than anything else. Just because they like it doesn’t mean you will, and vice versa.

Whey Protein vs. BCAA: FAQ

These questions about supplementing with whey and BCAAs are pretty common. You ask, we answer.

Can I Add BCAAs to My Whey Protein Shake?

Sure you can. You won’t get any benefits from doing so, however.

Whey protein plus leucine or bcaa for muscle growth

You can “rescue” a small amount of whey protein by adding pure leucine to it, but the three BCAAs together don’t have the same effect.43 In addition, eating or drinking 20 to 30 grams of protein provides you with enough BCAAs to stimulate muscle protein synthesis as much as possible. Adding more leucine does nothing except waste your money.44

Are There Calories in BCAAs?

Yes! They contain, on average, 4.65 kcals per gram.45 46 Supplement companies get away with labeling their BCAA products as containing 0 kcals because of a technical loophole. The FDA regulations for nutrition labeling of dietary supplements state, “protein shall not be declared on labels of products that… contain only individual amino acids”.47 That means that they can promote their products as calorie-free even though they aren’t.

Can I Use BCAAs or Whey While Fasting?

Not if you want to keep fasting. Anything that contains energy breaks your fast. Since BCAAs provide you with 4.65 kcals per gram, they will kick you out of the fasted state.

If that’s practically relevant is another question, but technically, you are no longer fasted after drinking BCAAs.

Whey protein is like any other protein in this regard and breaks your fast for sure.

How Much Whey and BCAAs Should I Use?

Twenty grams of whey protein is enough for maximum muscle protein synthesis in young men and women. The elderly need more, maybe twice as much, for the same effect. When you get older, your muscles get less sensitive to protein and amino acids. Also, if you perform a full-body workout, you stimulate muscle protein synthesis a bit more with a 40-gram whey protein post-workout shake, regardless of age.

More whey protein in the same sitting won’t hurt, but it won’t help you build more muscle either. It’s probably better to spread your shakes out a bit over the day if you take more than one.

A typical dose of BCAA provides you with 5 grams of branched-chain amino acids. As long as you get at least 3 grams of leucine per serving, you should be good to go. Of course, since BCAAs can’t build muscle on their own, it is debatable how good to go you really are.

Studies examining the effects of BCAAs on fatigue during exercise use higher doses, up to 20 grams an hour before the test or training session.

Are Whey Protein and BCAAs Safe?

Yes. Whey protein has no known side effects unless you are lactose intolerant or allergic to milk proteins.48 If you are, you probably already know it.

Some scientists speculate that high intakes of BCAAs might increase hunger and lead to obesity.49 Currently, those are just speculations, and there are no official recommendations on BCAA intake. However, one study suggested an upper limit of 35 grams of leucine per day.50 That was a short-term study, though. The long-term effects of high-dose BCAA intake are not known. However, if you don’t exceed the manufacturer’s recommended doses, there are no evidence-based reasons to suspect harmful effects.

Take-Away and Conclusion

Do you need to use a whey protein supplement or BCAAs?

No, you don’t. Both are just supplements. You can get all the protein and amino acids you need to build muscle from a regular protein-rich diet.

It’s all about convenience.

Drinking a protein shake is quick and easy, especially after a workout, when you might not feel like sitting down to a meal. A whey protein shake is a great option. It’s also an inexpensive option compared to getting the same amount of protein from, for example, meat or fish.

Branched-chain amino acids, well, they don’t live up to the hype. Scientific evidence does not support them as muscle-building supplements. 

BCAAs might have some other benefits, like allowing you to work out for a longer time before reaching exhaustion, but they do not build muscle. If you take them by themselves, they do almost nothing and all. Adding even more to a regular protein source also does nothing. You get all the BCAAs you need from regular proteins.

Whey protein comes out of this battle of the supplements as the winner. Whey is an excellent source of muscle-building protein and an inexpensive one to boot. BCAAs might have some uses in specific cases, but in general, you get much more bang for your buck elsewhere.

Read more:

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