Amino Acids in Bodybuilding
Why do so
many bodybuilders know so little about amino acids and protein, the differences
in their form and the best times to ingest them? With nothing less that optimal
muscle growth at stake, time invested in a little research can pay big
dividends – both in terms of physical size and dollars saved.
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and muscle tissue. All types of
physiological processes relating to sport – energy, recovery, muscle / strength
gains and fat loss, as well as mood and brain function – are intimately and
critically linked to amino acids. It’s no wonder amino acids have become major
players in athletes’ supplementation, especially among bodybuilders.
The 23 or so amino acids are the molecular building blocks of proteins.
According to one accepted classification, 9 are termed indispensable amino
acids (IAA, sometimes called essential), meaning that they must be supplied
from some food or supplement source; the others, which used to be classified
simply as nonessential, are now more correctly termed dispensable amino acids
(DAA) or conditionally indispensable, based on the body’s ability to synthesize
them from other amino acids.
You may not give it much thought when you sink your teeth into a chicken breast
(or lentil stew), but the content and balance of amino acids, particularly the
ratio of IAA to DAA, is what determines the body and health building value of a
protein food or supplement. But that isn’t all that matters.
In addition to being influenced by the carbohydrates, fats and total calories
associated with it, protein quality is related to the amount of the specific
aminos within both the IAA and DAA categories (for example, the amount of
glutamine and branched chain amino acids, or BCAAs – leucine, isoleucine and
valine). While the amount of IAAs are generally of greater importance, the DAAs
are also significant because they’re synthesized too slowly to support maximum
growth. Even if a source has a perfect amino acid profile for a given
individual and lifestyle, another important factor – to what extent these acids
are actually delivered to the tissues when needed – must be considered. That,
in turn, raises the issues of digestion, absorption, actual bioavailability and
the potential value of supplementation.
What is Bioavailability?
Eating quality food is the most common way to get amino acids into the diet,
especially high protein foods like lean meats and nonfat dairy products. Even
some vegetables and legumes can offer high levels of most amino acids. For
serious athletes and those on the run, protein powders and pure free form amino
acids provide a convenient and effective means to supplement dietary needs.
Why would people pay relatively large sums of money for only a few grams of
pure cheaply? Because of bioavailability.
Bioavailability gauges the extent to which an administered substance reaches
its site of action or utilization in the body. Bioavailability is thus a
measure of the efficiency of delivery – how much of what is ingested is
actually used for its intended purpose.
Conceivably, two diets could contain exactly the same amount of particular
amino acids (the same amino acid profile) but have significant differences in
their absorption. A number of factors affect amino acid bioavailability (see
Factors Affecting Amino Acid Bioavailability.
The most reliable way to deliver specific amino acids is to administer the
particular amino acids themselves. The most bioavailable source for oral use is
powdered free form amino acids.
A singular (unbonded) amino acids can specifically elevate its level in the
general circulation within 15 minutes, making it readily available for
metabolism at the site where it’s needed. Hence, for example, the
recommendation to use BCAAs before, during and after training both to prevent
central / mental fatigue, as well as to provide a source of energy to help
prevent muscle protein catabolism and to speed recuperation.
Applications to Bodybuilding
Muscle tissue will grow in the presence of a number of factors, including
exercise, hormones (growth hormone, insulin, testosterone and thyroid) and
nutrients. Nutrition science has advanced to the point where athletes who
supplement with free form amino acids can get IAAs, high in BCAA content, to
the muscles much more effectively.
The key is the window of opportunity that occurs immediately after exercise,
when the muscle is especially receptive to nutrients and the blood flow to the
exercised muscles remains high. The solution to optimizing recovery and growth
in this case could include eating a small meal composed of protein with both
simple and complex carbohydrates.
This isn’t the current high tech approach, however. For one, if you trained
hard, chances are – even if a convenient and light, nutritious meal was readily
available – you wouldn’t feel like eating. More important, a high protein meal
won’t put significant levels of amino acids into your bloodstream until a
couple of hours after you eat it, especially if blood flow to the gastrointestinal
tract has been diminished by a hard training session. The bottom line: Even if
you eat the right foods soon after training, the nutrients will arrive at the
muscle too late to take full advantage of the window of opportunity.
Directed Amino Acids
Supplement manufacturers recognized the potential value of free-form amino use
was limited by their expense and a relative lack of convincing supportive
research for a number of years, their popularity has recently increased
dramatically. Prepackaged workout and recovery drinks containing hydrolyzed
(predigested) proteins and often some free-form amino acids now fill gym
refrigerators. Capsules and powdered free-form amino acids, although still
somewhat expensive, are likewise being used by increasing numbers of top
amateur and professional athletes.
The value of free-form amino acids is first and foremost that they don’t
require digestion. The term ‘free-form’ means exactly that: They are free of
chemical bonds to other molecules and so move quickly through the stomach and
into the small intestine, where they’re rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream.
Upon absorption, amino acids are processed by the liver. When you eat a steak,
for example, only relatively few amino acids escape the metabolic actions of
the liver. Yet the liver can process only so many at one time, and taking a
dose of 3-4 grams of rapidly absorbed amino acids exceeds the liver’s capacity,
resulting in the aminos being directed to the tissues that require them, such
as muscle in the case of bodybuilder recovering from training. Thus, the
concept of ‘directed amino acids’.
While sound in theory, does it work in practice? As early as 1990, the
Bulgarian national weightlifting team began trials to determine if free-form
amino acids were a boost to muscular growth. The work was so successful that
part of the study was replicated on the Colorado Springs Olympic Training
Center. Since then, top bodybuilders and powerlifters around the world today -
including Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates, and ‘Mr. Powerlifting’ Ed Coan – have
benefited from this new research.
Amino Acids for Energy
Many misconceptions exist about the muscle contraction and the use of energy
substrates during heavy during heavy, high-intensity weight training. When
you’re engaged in a repetitive power workout, a substantial portion of your
energy comes from noncarbohydrate sources. When muscle contracts, it uses its
stores of adenosine triphosphate (ATP, a substance vital to the energy
processes of all living cells) for the first few seconds. The compound used to
immediately replenish these stores is creatine phosphate (CP). The recent
explosion of creatine supplements in the market attests to its value to hard
training bodybuilders and other strength / power athletes.
CP is made from three amino acids: arginine, methionine and glycine. To keep CP
and ATP levels high, these amino acids must be elevated in the bloodstream.
Traditionally, these proteins have been supplied by foods in the diet.
Elevating levels of these amino acids or of CP with conventional foods takes a
great deal of time (for digestion) and isn’t specific, typically providing
levels of fats and carbohydrates that may or may not be desired. The use of
free-form amino acids, alone and in combination with creatine supplements, can
provide directed source of energy for power and growth.
Amino Acids & Fat Loss
In fat loss, two major processes must occur: 1) the mobilization and
circulation of stored fats in the body must increase; and 2) fats must be
transported and converted to energy at the powerhouse site of cells, the
mitochondria. Several nutrients can assist in the conversion of fat to energy,
including lipotropic agents such as choline, inositol and the IAA methionine
which, in sufficient quantities, can help improve the transport and metabolism
Supplementation with complete IAA mixtures, BCAAs and glutamine can also help
keep calorie and food volume down while providing targeted support directly to
the muscles, liver and immune systems so critical to optimizing body
Reducing Muscle Catabolism
The human body has the innate ability to break down muscle tissue for use as an
energy source during heavy exercise. This muscle catabolism can cause muscle
soreness, shrinkage of muscle tissue and may even lead to injury.
This enemy to bodybuilders is part of a process known as gluconeogenosis, which
means producing or generating glucose from noncarbohydrate sources. The part of
this reaction that of importance to bodybuilders is known as the glucose -
alanine cycle, in which BCAAs are stripped from the muscle tissue and parts of
them are converted to the amino acid alanine, which is transported to the liver
and converted into glucose.
If you consume supplemental BCAA’s. the body does not have to break down muscle
tissue to derive extra energy. A study conducted recently at the School of
Human Biology, University of Guelph, Onterio, Canada, confirmed that the use of
BCAA’s (up to 4 grams) during and after exercise can result in a significant
reduction of muscle breakdown during exercise.
In addition to BCAAs, arginine is another amino acid that may benefit
bodybuilders. Though it did not live up to its early hype, which touted the
amino acid’s ability to raise growth hormone level, new data indicate that
arginine – in large but safe and affordable doses – may be able to raise GH
levels by up to 1,000%.
Free-Form vs. Di & Tripeptides
The form an amino acid takes has been a confusing subject for a number of
years, partly because of research that demonstrated superior absorption of
purified di- and tripeptides fragments. Di- and tripeptides are simply two and
three amino acid molecules bound together, respectively, as opposed to the
single molecules of free-form amino acids.
The fact is, pure, powdered free-form amino acids are absorbed from the small
intestine into the bloodstream and are available to the tissues very quickly.
The problem with pure di- and tripeptides isn’t their bioavailability but ?3Ü
available to consumers. Moreover, hydrolyzed proteins such as whey and
lactalbumin are not necessarily good sources of di- and tripeptides. They
generally contain very few of these amino acid combinations, and what few they
have may get lost in the general wash of longer chain peptides contained in
So while pure di- and tripeptides are efficient in their ability to be absorbed
into the bloodstream, pure free-form amino acids are equal or superior for
bodybuilders and other athletes and more important, are as close as your
nearest health food store.
Factors Affecting Amino Acid Bioavailability
How fat you eat a protein source and the length of time it takes for the
digested amino acids to be available for use by the body are determined by a
number of factors, which include:
Cooking – Amino acids are more or less sensitive to heat. For example, arginine
is extremely stable and will decompose only if exposed to sustained
temperatures about 470 degrees F. Carnitine decomposes at temperatures of 284
F. Cooking, in addition to killing micro-organisms, makes the long spiral
polypeptide chains unwind, causing the amino acid to become more exposed when
it reaches the digestive system.
Physical nature of the food, whether solid, liquid, powder or tablet; whether
and to what extent chemically predigested and the type and amounts of binders,
fillers and other nutritive and non-nutritive materials.
Status of the digestive system – Genetics, age, overall health and specific
diseases and illnesses.
Metabolism or utilization by the intestine before absorption – such as occurs
Metabolism or utilization in the liver before transfer to the general
circulation – For maximal directed effects, amino acids should be taken on an
empty stomach and in a dosage that enables significant quantities to reach the
Amino Acid Form Comparison & Usage Guide
Form Function/Value Pros Cons Recommended Usage
Free-Form Does not require digestion; small amounts quickly absorbed into
bloodstream. Nutrients absorbed into bloodstream quickly, available to muscle
or other tissues; helps prevent muscle catabolism. Relatively expensive. For
example, glutamine: 3-5 grams, 1-5 times per day before or between meals; same
for mixture of IAAs.
Hydrolyzed Predigestion speeds entry into digestive system, but often contains
longer chains that must be broken down. Whey and lactalbumin are examples.
Predigestion speeds absorption Contains longer chains, which must be broken
before being absorbed into bloodstream. For maximum mass . strength gains or
during periods of high stress or gastrointestinal problems: 20-30 grams, 1-3
times per day; for optimal health maintenance: 20 grams once per day.
Branched Chain Aids in the formation of alanine from glucose during exercise as
well as glutamine from glucose and alphaketo glutarate. Can be converted into
energy to prevent muscle catabolism. Relatively expensive form of energy for
muscle action. During hard training: 4-5 grams 2-5 times per day, especially
before and after training. Optimal ratio for normal use is 2:1:1 (leucine :
isoleucine : valine), although higher leucine content immediately before and
after exercise is okay.
Di-Tripeptides Two or three molecule amino acids that are quickly digested.
Depending on conditions, may significantly increase nitrogen retention. Short
chains for moderately fast digestion and absorption. Cost, availability, taste,
osmolality. Usually found in highest quality hydrolyzed protein supplements
(see doses above).
The Amino Acid Guide
There are three types of amino acids; the indispensable amino acids, the
conditionally dispensable amino acids, and the dispensable amino acids.
Indispensable amino acids, also called essential amino acids, must be supplied
to the body from food or supplements. Conditionally dispensable amino acids are
based on the body’s ability to actually synthesize them from other amino acids.
Dispensable amino acids, also called nonessential amino acids, can be
synthesized by the body from other amino acids. Here is the amino acid guide
and their benefits.
The Indispensable Amino acids
A branched chain amino acid readily taken up and used for energy by muscle
Used to prevent muscle wasting in debilitated individuals
Essential in the formation of hemoglobin
A branched chain amino acid used as a source of energy
Helps reduce muscle protein breakdown
Modulates uptake of neurotransmitter precursors by the brain as well as the
release of enkephalins, which inhibit the passage of pain signals into the
Promotes healing of skin and broken bones.
A branched chain amino acid
Not processed by the liver; rather actively taken up by muscle
Influences brain uptake of other neurotransmitter precursors (trptophan,
phenylalanine and tryosine).
One of the major ultraviolet absorbing compounds in the skin
Important in the production of red and white blood cells; used in the treatment
Used in the treatment of allergic diseases, rheumatoid arthritis and digestive
Low levels can slow protein synthesis, affecting muscle and connective tissue
Inhibits viruses; used in the treatment of herpes simplex
Lysine and Vitamin C together form L-carnitine, a biochemical that enables
muscle tissue to use oxygen more efficiently, delaying fatigue
Aids bone growth by helping form collagen, the fibrous protein that makes up
bone, cartilage and other connective tissue.
Precursor of cystine and creatine
May increase antioxidant levels (glutathione) and reduce blood cholesterol
Helps remove toxic wastes from the liver and assists in the regeneration of
liver and kidney tissue
The major precursor of tyrosine
Enhances learning, memory, mood and alertness
Used in the treatment of some types of depression
Is a major element in the production of collagen
One of the amino detoxifers
Helps prevent fatty buildup in the liver
Important component of collagen
Generally low in vegetarians
Precursor of key neurotransmitter serotonin, which exerts a calming effect
Stimulates the release of growth hormones
Free form of this amino acid is unavailable in the U.S.
It is only available in natural food sources
Conditionally Dispensable Amino Acids
Can increase secretion of insulin, glucagon, growth hormones
Aids in injury rehabilitation, formation of collagen and immune system
Precursor of creatine, gamma amino butric acid (GABA, a neurotransmitter in the
May increase sperm count and T-lymphocyte response
Detoxifies harmful chemicals in combination with L-aspartic acid and
Helps prevent damage from alcohol and tobacco use
Stimulates white blood cell activity
Precursor of the neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine, as
well as thyroid and growth hormones and melanin (the pigment responsible for
skin and hair color).
Dispensable Amino Acids
Major component of connective tissue
Key intermediate in the glucose alanine cycle, which allows muscles and other
tissues to derive energy from amino acids
Helps build up the immune system
Helps convert carbohydrates into muscle energy
Builds immune system immunoglobulins and antibodies
Reduces ammonia levels after exercises
Contributes to strong connective4e tissue and tissue antioxidant actions
Aids in healing processes, stimulates white blood cell activity and helps
diminish pain from inflammation
Essential for the formation of skin and hair
A major precursor of glutamine, proline, ornothine, arginine, glutathione, and
A potential source of energy
Important in brain metabolism and metabolism of other amino acids.
Most abundant amino acid
Plays a key role in immune system functions
An important source of energy, especially for kidneys and intestines during
A brain fuel that is an aid to memory and a stimulant to intelligence and
Aids in the manufacture of other amino acids and is a part of the structure of
hemoglobin and cytochromes (enzymes involved in energy production)
Has a calming effect and is sometimes used to treat manic depressive and
Produces glucagon, which mobilizes glycogen
Can inhibit sugar cravings
May help increase growth hormone secretion in high doses
Aids in immune and liver function
A major component in the formation of connective tissue and heart muscle
Readily mobilized for muscular energy
Major constituent of collagen
Important in cells’ energy production
Aids memory and nervous system function
Helps builds up immune system by producing immuno-globulins and antibodies
Aids in the absorption and elimination of fats
May act as a neurotransmitter in some areas of the brain and retina