Amino Acids – Supplementation for Building Muscle

In order to have any real success with your muscular development goals, it is essential to understand the process of muscular development to some degree. What’s really happening in my body when I lift weights? Why does everyone say I need protein after I work out? I’ve also heard I need BCAAs, but I don’t even know what they are!….. Do these concerns sound familiar to you? These are the frustrations expressed when most clients come to me for the first time. Supplement companies, magazines, the guys at GNC, and random “bros” keep telling people what they “need”, but never mention the logic behind these recommendations. Today we are going to clear up some of these mystery concepts for you. Once a foundation understanding of the basics is established, intuition should lead you to make more efficient and effective decisions with your training and nutrition. Although I am always available to coach individuals and design programs that are based on their personal goals, schedules, and lifestyles, developing an intuitive understanding of the process will pay dividends for your entire athletic journey.

At the heart of muscular development is the process of protein synthesis. When I get asked “How do I build muscle?” the real question is/should be “How do I promote and maximize protein synthesis?”. In a nutshell, protein synthesis is the process by which the genetic code puts together protein in the cell. When performing resistance training, small micro-tears are created in the muscle fibers at the cellular level. Blood flow increases to these areas and with it brings the necessary elements to facilitate repair through the process of protein synthesis. Once the repair (or recovery) process is complete, the muscle will have grown back larger and/or stronger. The marginal growth and development created by one workout and successful recovery period is incredibly small. So, consistently performing quality resistance style training and facilitating recovery through proper nutritional recovery techniques (discussed in detail in this article) is essential over long periods of time (years). Be patient, and consistent, and as long as your training is performed at optimal intensity with proper form, and the necessary steps are taken to maximize protein synthesis you will see the results you desire. It is only a matter of time and dedication.

The recovery portion of muscular development is the part that is most misunderstood. It’s in the recovery process that your skeletal muscle tissue actually grows. Some people are under the misconception that they are getting bigger/stronger in the gym while training. In reality, your damaging your muscle tissue, becoming weaker, and decreasing protein synthesis while training. It’s after when you refuel and jump start the protein synthesis process that the growth takes place

Resistance training and other forms of physical activities along with post exercise recovery lead to changes in amino acid and protein metabolism in skeletal muscle. The most important of these changes is an increase in the metabolism of the BCAA leucine. When exercising and breaking down the muscle fiber through resistance training protein synthesis decreases together with the increase in muscle protein break down.

For a detailed overview of this concept see the DK Fitness article “Optimizing Muscular Development Though Protein Manipulation”

“After exercise, recovery of muscle protein synthesis requires dietary protein or BCAA to increase tissue levels of leucine in order to release the inhibition if the initiation factor 4 complex through activation of the protein kinase mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR). Leucine’s effect on mTOR is synergistic with insulin via the phosphoinositol 3-kinase signaling pathway. Together, insulin and leucine allow skeletal muscle to coordinate protein synthesis with physiological state and dietary intake.”

So, after working out, you will need to consume leucine increase insulin (there are several ways to do this).

Many think that in order to increase insulin in the bloodstream you need to consume carbohydrates. While this certainly will do the trick, it is not the only way. Consuming either protein or carbohydrates will increase insulin to levels sufficient for promoting protein synthesis. When both insulin and leucine are introduced into the system protein synthesis should increase to a degree great enough to outpace any muscle protein breakdown- which will take you from the catabolic state you entered while training into an anabolic state.

Amino acid metabolism in muscle tissue is limited to six amino acids: glutamine, aspartate, asparagines, and the three BCAAs. The “big daddy” amino acids is Leucine (of the BCAA family). It has the single largest observable impact on several factors related to muscular development, and should definitely be on your radar. Leucine is essentially a “piece” of protein. The human body uses ~21 amino acids to make all the proteins it needs to function and grow. Leucine should be of particular interest to you.

Leucine is a regulator of the translation initiation of protein synthesis- which is a fancy way of saying that it begins the process of protein synthesis. It is also a nitrogen donor for muscle production of alanine and glutamine. Leucine is unique among amino acids for its regulatory roles in metabolism, including translation control of protein synthesis and glycemic regulation. In one study (Gautsch 1998) rats were evaluated after a 2 hour exhaustive treadmill run. One group was given an electrolyte drink containing glucose and sucrose. This drink can be essentially interpreted as Gatorade. The rats who consumed this drink saw an increase in blood glucose (blood sugar) and an increase in insulin and a rise in muscle glycogen content. However, there was no recovery/increase in protein synthesis. Remember, as mentioned above, exercise will reduce protein synthesis while also increasing Muscle Protein Breakdown, typically resulting in a net catabolic effect if left unchecked. Rats in this study who consumed a complete meal including protein (or leucine alone) saw a full recovery of the muscle protein synthesis within an hour. Bringing the net effect out of the catabolic range and creating an anabolic environment. In a nutshell, leucine stimulates protein syntheses.

It is VERY important to note that supplementation of any kind, including that of Leucine and BCAAs should ONLY be of concern after an optimal and comprehensive whole food nutritional protocol has been established and put into action. DK Fitness will be able to create customized programs for anyone interested as well as full supplementation protocols. But, once the food has been perfected, supplementation can be implemented. For many clients (not all, but many concerned with muscular development) I recommend consuming 2-3 grams of Leucine 3 times per day. Dose number one should be immediately in the morning since your body is in a catabolic state from fasting all night. Dose number 2 should be with your post workout meal, and dose number 3 should be sometime before bed to promote as much protein synthesis as possible while sleeping. An individual’s personal goals (either cutting fat or gaining muscle) will determine where all three BCAAs can/should be utilized. Although, I can say with confidence, that the importance of BCAA supplementation is much greater for individuals in a caloric deficit attempting to lose weight as opposed to those in a caloric surplus attempting to gain weight.