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BCAA Vs. Creatine Supplements — Which to Take and When?


Lifting heavy is a huge part of getting huge. But if you’re a strength athlete looking for an edge on your performance in the gym, you’ve probably stumbled into the realm of supplements at some point. Because even though you train hard, it helps to back up all those loaded barbells with on-point nutrition.

You’ve heard of BCAA and you’ve heard of creatine. But you have no idea which to take, or when. And what’s the difference between BCAA and creatine, anyway? They’re both in the amino acid family, and they’ve both been linked to increased muscle growth, recovery, and training performance.

Credit: Halk-44 / Shutterstock

In the showdown of BCAA versus creatine supplements, it’s tough to wade through the hype and get down to the science. Here, you’ll find everything you didn’t know you needed to know about which supplement to take, when, and why.

What Is BCAA?
What Is Creatine?
Differences Between BCAA and Creatine
BCAA Vs. Creatine for Muscle Growth
BCAA Vs. Creatine for Athletic Performance
BCAA Vs. Creatine for Recovery
When to Take Both BCAA and Creatine
Your Takeaways

Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.

What Is BCAA?

Branched-chain amino acids (commonly known as BCAAs or BCAA) include three essential amino acids — leucine, valine, and isoleucine. (1) Muscle protein is comprised of 20 amino acids. 

Of these 20 muscle-protein-building amino acids, the human body cannot produce nine of them. Therefore, it’s necessary to get these nine amino acids in your diet — hence the term essential amino acids. Since BCAAs have three of these necessary components of muscle-building, they’re considered very useful for aiding hypertrophy through the creation of new muscle proteins. (1)

Sources of BCAA

Many strength athletes take BCAA supplements as an addition to their nutrition regimen. Sometimes, they’ll take these supplements on their own or in supplements that also contain glutamine. Other times, BCAA supplements may be included in pre-workouts or post-workout shakes.

Typically, these supplements will contain a 2:1:1 ratio of leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Research suggests that between two and 10 grams daily after intense strength training is optimal for muscle recovery and overall function. (2)

Credit: nadianb / Shutterstock

But you don’t need supplements to fulfill your BCAA intake needs. Both animal and plant-based proteins contain BCAAs. Some of these BCAA-rich foods are:

Eggs, fish, turkey, beef, chicken
Nuts, beans, lentils, chickpeas, quinoa, tofu
Milk, cheese, soy, and whey protein

What Is Creatine?

Creatine is not the same as BCAAs, but it’s still all about amino acids. A naturally-occurring amino acid formed by three simpler amino acids — glycine, L-arginine, and L-methionine. Creatine is part of your skeletal muscles and is also found in your brain. (3

In your cells, creatine is stored as creatine phosphate (otherwise known as phosphocreatine). When it’s stored in this form, creatine can “donate” a phosphate group — which is high in energy — to an ADP molecule (adenosine diphosphate). With this extra phosphate group, ADP is converted into ATP (adenosine triphosphate).

When your cells need energy, they break down ATP into ADP. When you’re low on ATP — such as during a bout of high-intensity lifting, where you use a lot of ATP very quickly — you run low on energy. (4) When you have more creatine available to help transition ADP back into ATP, you can get an extra boost of available energy.

Sources of Creatine

Just like BCAAs, you can get creatine from supplements. Many athletes take creatine either before or after their workouts, aiming for three to five grams per day. By comparison, your body will generally produce around one gram each day. (5)

To amp up your creatine intake without — or in addition to — your supplements, try these creatine-rich foods:

Herring, salmon, tuna
Beef, pork, lamb, chicken

Differences Between BCAA and Creatine

BCAA and creatine aren’t the same. The former refers to three essential amino acids — leucine, valine, and isoleucine — called “branched chain” because of their chemical structure. Creatine, on the other hand, is made up of three different amino acids.

Besides their basic definitions, here are some crucial differences between the two:

BCAAs are not produced naturally in your body.
Creatine is produced naturally in your body.
BCAAs are widely available in a variety of meat, dairy, and plant-based sources.
Creatine is available in meat, making it inaccessible for vegans and vegetarians to integrate into their diets.

So if you don’t eat meat — and even if you do — you may be more likely to get BCAAs in your diet than creatine. Then again, your body does naturally produce some creatine. Even though your body doesn’t make BCAAs, you can get it in a wider variety of foods.

But is BCAA better than creatine supplements at giving you gains? Here’s what the research suggests.

BCAA Vs. Creatine for Muscle Growth

If you’re training hard and heavy, it’s likely that you’re chasing a certain level of muscle growth. For athletes who dabble in bodybuilding-oriented supplements, you’ll be looking out for the best supplements to optimize muscle growth.

BCAAs put up a good showing here. Science indicates that getting a wide variety of essential amino acids after exercise can help boost muscle protein synthesis. (6)(7) Leucine — a BCAA — seems to be especially useful here. (6

BCAA supplements do indeed seem to help increase muscle mass — great news for athletes searching for bulging biceps peaks and teardrop quads. (8)(7)

But creatine is no slouch in the hypertrophy department. Not only has creatine been shown to help increase strength — but it also seems to help athletes stack on lean muscle mass. (9)(10) Research suggests that cisgender women may store significantly less creatine than cisgender men, but athletes of all genders seem to be able to build more muscle with help from creatine supplements. (11

The Winner

Both creatine and BCAA seem to help with muscle growth — a win-win for strength athletes looking to up their game.

That said, cis women might choose creatine because they may not store as much in their bodies as their cis male peers. Similarly, athletes who don’t eat meat will have a harder time getting creatine into their diets, so creatine might be the way to go.

There’s nothing disadvantageous about choosing BCAA supplements for muscle growth, as science suggests that it also works very well.

Creatine and BCAA Timing for Muscle Growth

If you’re trying to figure out when to take BCAA and creatine, know that since they’re amino acids, they can technically be taken at any time. Still, that classic 20 to 30-minute pre-workout window may be your best bet here. 

This is especially true if you take a pre-workout supplement anyway — staying consistent with your supps can help you keep on track with your gains. Stacking creatine and BCAAs into your pre-workout (if it doesn’t already include them) can be a way to make supplementation a natural part of your daily routine.

BCAA Vs. Creatine for Athletic Performance

If you’re looking to improve your performance in the gym, BCAAs have your back. Since they’re oxidized in the muscle, BCAAs can help stimulate anabolic signals that may boost performance on the lifting platform. (12

But during your workout itself, creatine is your strength booster. Creatine supplements have helped athletes increase their total body strength, leg press strength, and chest press strength. (13)

Credit: Mego studio / Shutterstock

Creatine isn’t just found in your skeletal muscles, either. It’s also found in your brain, so it’s got mental training benefits, too. Creatine supplementation might be able to help with coordination, reaction time, motor control, and alleviating mental fatigue. (14

That’s great news for any strength athlete, particularly those who need high levels of coordination and mental fortitude under extreme and prolonged stress (think: strongman athletes and CrossFitters).

The Winner

BCAAs may shine after the gym, when they’re helping your muscles stitch themselves back together, stronger. But during your workout itself, it seems that creatine is the victor

From combating mental fatigue to physically making more energy available for you, creatine will go the extra mile while you’re pressing that barbell and making gains in that squat rack.

Creatine and BCAA Timing for Athletic Performance

Since you’ll be looking for energy during your workout, taking creatine beforehand with your pre-workout seems to be your best bet here. There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with taking BCAAs before your workout, either.

Credit: Miljan Zivkovic / Shutterstock

That said, maintaining overall consistency with your amino acid levels can also be helpful — so it doesn’t necessarily matter what your precise timing is. So long as you’re raising your levels consistently with supplements, food choices, or both, you should reap some benefits.

BCAA Vs. Creatine for Recovery

Hate being sore? Nobody blames you. While extreme muscle soreness isn’t necessarily dangerous for strength athletes, it can diminish motivation for some and throw others’ training programs off course if it’s extremely severe.

To help you bounce back stronger between intense training sessions, dial in every aspect of your recovery — from sleep and nutrition to your mobility training. In terms of supplements to help your muscles recover, BCAAs may help alleviate delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). (15)

It’s not only about reducing pain (though that’s a great goal in and of itself). BCAAs can also boost your muscle function after workouts, as well as maintain muscular efficiency when you’re working out with short rest periods. (16)

Not to be outdone, creatine supplements can also help increase post-exercise recovery by helping you restore your glycogen levels. (17)(3) This process is particularly effective when you take creatine with carbohydrates — so make sure your pre-workout has some carbs to maximize this impact. (3)

You’ll also ensure less inflammation and may be able to tolerate higher training volumes when you supplement with creatine. (3)

The Winner

There’s not necessarily a clear winner here — both creatine and BCAAs seem to effectively help with recovery post-workout. The plot twist is that though the recovery begins after your workout, it seems that you’ll want to take your supplements before your workout.

Creatine and BCAA Timing for Recovery

Taking BCAA before your workout seems to be more effective than taking it after your workout to combat the pain of DOMS. (18) Taking creatine in a pre-workout with carbs also seems to be the most efficient way to fuel post-exercise recovery. (17)(3)

Try doling out a serving of one or both of these supplements in your pre-workout about 20 to 30 minutes before training.

When to Take Both BCAA and Creatine

Taking BCAA and creatine together doesn’t seem to have any detrimental impacts. This makes sense, given that your body produces one naturally and needs the other for optimal functionality. That said, they also don’t seem to enhance each other’s effectiveness. (19)

Credit: Milan Ilic Photographer / Shutterstock

As for when to take creatine and BCAA, you can take them at any time. Your body is used to having amino acids around — and needs them to perform crucial functions. As such, your specific timing with creatine and BCAA supplements isn’t as important as one might think.

If you’re looking to take creatine with BCAA for the sake of recovery, there’s a slightly different story. Research suggests that if you’re looking to bolster your recovery specifically, taking both supplements before your workout may yield optimal results. (18)(17)(3)

Your Takeaways

To figure out whether to take BCAA or creatine, ask yourself:

Are you trying to improve muscle growth? Both creatine and BCAA supplements have been shown to help out.
Do you want to improve your athletic performance during your workout? Creatine seems to emerge as the more effective choice here.
Are you looking to enhance your recovery after a workout? Creatine and BCAAs can both be helpful — just make sure to take them before your workout and to have some carbs with your creatine.
If you’re a cisgender woman and/or don’t eat meat, you might want to put a special focus on creatine, since cis women may store less creatine day-to-day and dietary creatine typically comes from meat.

BCAA Vs. Creatine — Who Wins?

Creatine and BCAAs are both well-known, highly sought-after supplements for a reason. They’re both at the top of their class in terms of muscle growth and fueling muscle recovery

If you want to draw a true victor from the BCAA vs. creatine joust, creatine might come away with an advantage. It seems to do a better job of supporting performance during the workout itself, especially in terms of mental focus and sheer energy availability. Creatine supplements also might be more helpful for cis women and athletes of any gender who don’t eat meat.

Whichever supplement you choose — and taking both BCAA and creatine is a viable option — remember to train hard and eat your carbs.


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Featured Image: Halk-44 / Shutterstock

The post BCAA Vs. Creatine Supplements — Which to Take and When? appeared first on BarBend.

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