Like a party where the chips talk to the dip about who’s tastier.
Dancing with the Stars: Creatine vs BCAA Edition
Wishing for a little pep in your workout step? I feel you.
But in the crowded sea of fitness performance supplements, the truth is that only a select few really add any punch to our workout results.
Two supplements that are often getting attention for their roles in enhancing athletic performance are creatine and branched-chain amino acids, more commonly known as BCAA or BCAAs.
They’re not just another trend. For example creatine is the most studied sports performance supplement on the planet. For good reason too: it works.
And BCAA? They’re proven to help us too.
(Though the truth is — many of us get our daily requirement of BCAAs from our diet & protein powder. No need to buy another supplement.)
Many athletes, weightlifters, fitness models, & others have been incorporating creatine & BCAAs into their workout programs for decades, thanks to the potential benefits they can provide.
And we’ll be looking into the details of all that here today.
Notes about this article
The idea behind this BCAA/creatine comparison isn’t to cause a rush to the supplement store.
My goal is to provide you with a clear understanding of:
- what these supplements are made of;
- how they’re similar, how they’re different;
- what sports science has demonstrated about each of them;
- what benefits they offer your fitness routine;
- their proper dosing & safety records;
- & more.
At the end of our time here, I hope you’ll find yourself better equipped to decide whether these supplements have a place in your fitness routine or not.
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science and medical resources, clinical studies, & nutritional data used in this article.
You’ve probably heard of creatine if you’ve ever set foot in a gym or chatted about fitness. But if you’re wondering what exactly it is & how it does it, here’s a little overview for ya.
It’s a natural thing
Creatine is a substance — an amino acid specifically — that’s naturally found in our bodies, particularly in muscles and the brain.
It’s also present in some foods we eat, such as red meat and certain types of seafood. So while it’s a supplement, it’s not an alien substance but something already part of our normal physiology.
Note: The likely reason serious workout types (athletes, weightlifters, bodybuilders, physique models, etc.) supplement more with creatine than with BCAAs is simply because:
- really strenuous workouts demand a much greater amount of creatine than our muscles naturally have;
- even protein-rich foods like meat/chicken/fish/legumes/protein powders, etc., simply do not have enough creatine in them to meet that demand;
- it’s not real hard to get your daily BCAA needs met through diet & extra protein.
How creatine works in the body and its benefits
Here’s where the science gets fascinating—and don’t worry, I’ll keep it simple to help us both out.
Creatine’s primary role is to help produce more ATP (adenosine triphosphate) in our bodies.
ATP is like the energy currency for our cells—it’s what muscles use when they contract.
Our bodies have a limited store of ATP, and when we exercise intensely, our muscles quickly deplete it, and that’s where creatine steps in.
When we supplement with creatine, we increase our muscle’s creatine phosphate stores. This creatine phosphate can then donate its phosphate group to produce more ATP during high-intensity exercise.
What all this does:
* This process allows your muscles to work harder for longer, boosting your performance during short, high-intensity exercises.
* By increasing the water content of muscle cells, it supports muscle growth—a process known as cell volumization.
* And creatine may help reduce inflammation and muscle soreness post-workout, aiding recovery.
CREATINE SUMMARY: In a nutshell, creatine is a versatile & effective supplement that supports both workout performance and recovery.
Diving deeper into BCAAs
Important note before we get into BCAAs: Understand that when I’m referring to BCAAs, I’m not talking about BCAA the supplement, I’m just talking about any branched-chain amino acids that we consume.
It could apply to BCAA supplements, but I’m also thinking of all the BCAAs (& more importantly, the EAAs) that are in protein powder, meats, legumes, etc., for example.
Our bodies make all kinds of amino acids — I think we have 20 or so in us — while hundreds of amino acids exist in nature outside of us.
The branched-chain variety we’ll be looking at comes from out there as well.
Branched-chain amino acids are a group of three essential amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They’re called ‘branched-chain’ due to their unique chemical structure, which looks a bit like a tree branch.
As ‘essential’ amino acids, our bodies can’t produce BCAA on their own—we need to get them from outside ourselves.
Fortunately, taking food-based sources of BCAAs — even plant-based sources if you’re vegan — is easy to do. All it takes is a little awareness, since BCAAs can be found in good quantity in many things:
- meats like beef or pork;
- poultry like chicken or turkey;
- fish like tuna, salmon, tilapia;
- legumes like peanuts, lentils, tofu;
- protein powders made from whey & pea protein.
BCAAs’ role & potential benefits for us
BCAAs have some important jobs to do in our bodies.
They’re significant players in protein synthesis—the process of building new proteins—which is vital for muscle growth and repair.
And specifically leucine, one of the BCAAs, acts as a kind of ‘go’ signal to initiate this process.
Beyond playing a part in our muscle growth process, BCAAs also provide energy during exercise.
They can be broken down in our muscles, not just the liver (which is the case for most other amino acids), providing a direct energy source during a workout.
Some in sports science think that this unique trait may help delay the onset of fatigue during prolonged exercise sessions.
BCAA SUMMARY: Branched-chain amino acids are important for a number of muscle performance reasons, and we have to get them from outside sources. However, a BCAA supplement isn’t a critical need due to the fact that there are plenty of other ways to get our daily requirement of BCAAs.
Creatine vs. BCAA: What’s the difference?
One thing these two have in common is that both are amino acids.
That’s obvious for BCAAs, since the AA stands for amino acids, but I’ve found that a lot of people who talk about creatine or even take it don’t know that it’s an amino acid too.
There are a few clear distinctions between these two famous fitness substances. Here’s a look at the main ones.
While creatine and BCAAs share the common goal of enhancing athletic performance and promoting recovery, they achieve this in slightly different ways.
Creatine focuses more on boosting energy production during high-intensity exercise. By increasing ATP supply in your muscles, creatine helps you push harder in those critical moments of your workout.
So it’s particularly beneficial for strength and power athletes, or anyone engaging in short, high-intensity exercises, like weightlifters, sprinters, recreational bodybuilders, physique competitors, & so on.
BCAAs play a different role. They’re involved in energy production during exercise, especially long-duration workouts.
But their main benefit lies in their role in triggering protein synthesis*, making them essential for muscle growth and repair, so they may be beneficial for anyone looking to build muscle or enhance recovery.
Muscle protein synthesis hype
* – Unfortunately, (in my opinion) BCAAs’ role in this crucial process is overstated, mainly by supplement companies & influencers pushing BCAA products on us.
In truth, there is little science evidence proving that BCAAs can cause muscle growth by themselves; all nine of the EAAs** need to be present as well.
(EAAs** – Essential Amino Acids)
The good news is, it don’t matter as long as we’re consistently taking in a variety of protein-rich foods — we’ll get all of the essential amino acids — including its BCAAs — our muscles need to grow, repair themselves, & get stronger.
Creatine vs BCAA: cost comparison
Creatine’s a LOT cheaper than BCAA supplements, and has been for decades.
This holds true whether the BCAA supplement is in pill form or is a flavored powder you mix with a liquid. Let’s take a look at this (I’m using today’s non-sale prices).
I chose the most popular/best-selling products from both categories, and am going with pure creatine monohydrate on one side vs. a pure BCAA supplement in pill form, plus the most #1 selling drinkable BCAA powder:
Technically the powder also has flavoring to make it drinkable, but it has to: pure BCAAs — especially leucine — taste flat out nasty. In any event, artificial flavorings are dirt cheap and don’t add much to the product cost.
Dosing for muscle boosts
To level the playing field I’m going with the standard doses for both creatine & BCAA that are recommended to someone seeking muscle enhancement. This includes muscle growth, increased muscle strength, & improved muscle recovery.
- Creatine’s dose of 5g/day is the weightlifter’s standard, and has been for quite some time.
- BCAA – According to the National Institute of Health’s Fact Sheet For Professionals titled Dietary Supplements for Exercise and Athletic Performance, up to 20g/day is safe. They mention 14g/day used in studies, so I’ll go with that.
ON Micronized Creatine
Cost: $51 / Daily doses: 120 / Cost per day: 42¢
Xtend Original 7g BCAA
Cost: $64 / Daily doses: 45 / Cost per day: $1.43
ON BCAA 1g CAPS
Cost: $39 / Daily doses: 28 / Cost per day: $1.37
Where do we get creatine and BCAAs from?
Our bodies make some creatine — down in our liver, kidneys, & pancreas — and it’s also found in certain foods like meat and fish.
Not in very high amounts though, if you’re someone who works out hard.
As mentioned earlier, BCAAs aren’t naturally made by our bodies. Remember they’re part of the amino acids called essential, and since our bodies don’t make them we have to get them from our diet.
Good news is — If you eat lean meats, fish, chicken, dairy products, beans, & use whey or pea protein-based protein powder, you’re probably getting enough BCAAs from your diet.
Considerations for vegans & vegetarians
For those following a vegan or vegetarian diet, both creatine and BCAAs may require some extra attention. Plant-based diets often lack sufficient amounts of both, especially creatine.
But in the case of BCAAs, it’s not hard to adjust your intake so it provides you with the amount of BCAA your body needs every day.
In any case, supplementation might be a useful consideration — especially regarding creatine** — for individuals following these diets to ensure they’re not missing out on these fitness performance nutrients.
creatine** – FYI, the supplement creatine is vegan, as it involves no animals, & is in fact synthesized by combining two inorganic compounds.
Your BCAA requirements can be met from those plant-based sources I mentioned earlier: legumes including beans, peanuts, lentils, tofu, pea protein powder or protein powder blends based on pea.
(The reason pea protein keeps getting mentioned is because for a vegetable, it has a solid amount of BCAAs in a 1 oz. scoop.)
Obviously it’s essential to choose supplements wisely. In this case, read labels closely if you’re not buying a “one-ingredient” product like creatine monohydrate or a product that’s just plain BCAAs: leucine, isoleucine, valine, & nothing else.
Reasoning: Multi-ingredient ‘fitness performance’ supplements might have animal-derived ingredients or be processed using animal products, so keep an eye out.
Analyzing performance: creatine and BCAA in action
Let’s get the answers to a few questions on the main types of benefits each of these supplements can provide.
How does creatine help with muscle growth?
Creatine helps us build muscle by giving our muscles an energy boost during intense workouts. When you have more energy, you can lift heavier weights or push harder, which can lead to more muscle growth over time.
I’ve always found that creatine gives me the extra rep or two, or gives me the extra few seconds of max effort if I’m doing a HIIT sprint cardio thing.
How does BCAA help with muscle recovery?
BCAA helps with muscle recovery by supporting the process of repairing and building new muscle tissues after workouts. This can lead to less muscle soreness and quicker recovery times, allowing you to train more frequently and effectively.
How do both supplements improve athletic performance?
Both creatine and BCAAs can help improve athletic performance, but in different ways.
Creatine helps improve performance during short, intense activities like weightlifting or sprinting by providing quick energy.
This isn’t a stimulant kind of energy, it’s an energy that is inside of or connected to your muscles, though that’s probably not the best way it’s ever been described.
BCAAs on the other hand, can provide energy during long duration workouts (think of the long distance runner) and aid in improved muscle recovery after workouts.
Creatine & BCAA dosage and timing guidelines
Creatine: when & how to take it, & any side effects?
There’s been a lot of debate & studies done trying to prove for certain when the best time to take creatine is — before workouts, during workouts, after workouts, any ol’ time during the day, etc.
Bottom line: You can’t go wrong taking it within 30-45 minutes on either side of your workout, though taking it soon afterwards has shown a slight advantage compared to any other times that have been studied.
The one time when creatine was least effective for giving you a workout boost is when it’s taken several hours away from the workout.
There are two methods people start up a creatine routine. The obvious one is that they just buy it and start taking their daily 5g dose once a day.
If you go that route, it’ll take about a month for your creatine stores to hit their peak levels & that’s when the max benefits come your way too.
The other ‘accelerated benefit’ method is called the loading phase. This is when you decide you want those creatine benefits to kick in sooner, so you take a much higher daily amount for 5-7 days to quickly increase your body’s creatine stores.
After that, your daily maintenance dose is enough to keep those levels up, which provide you with max creatine benefits starting on day 7 or 8.
Creatine has been studied more than any other supplement — hundreds of studies & counting — and its safety has been vigorously tested along the way too.
It’s a very safe supplement, but if you’re doing the loading phase space your 15-20g/day loading dose over 3 or 4 doses spread throughout the day.
I say that because some people — me included — get upset tummies when we take over 10g of creatine at a time.
BCAAs: when to take them and are there any side effects?
BCAAs can be taken before, during, or after workouts, it doesn’t really matter. Keep in mind that these are amino acids that are protein’s building blocks, so you’re really just taking a concentrated part of a protein-rich food.
As I mention in a bit, taking protein post-workout has proven its worth, so it makes sense to take BCAA supplements the same way.
I know some people like to drink their BCAAs during their workout, and that’s cool too. It doesn’t matter as long as it’s near the time when you’re stressing your body the most, like weightlifting does.
Like creatine, BCAAs are safe but as with anything, too much can lead to minor side effects. Also with BCAAs, many brands add other things to their BCAA mix, so pay attention to that if you go the BCAA supplement route.
Creatine and BCAA combination: is it effective?
Combining benefits for optimal results
Now you might be wondering if you can combine creatine and BCAAs for even better results. Well, the answer is yes you certainly can, and in fact many weightlifters & fitness enthusiasts swear by this combo.
Even if they’re not taking BCAA supplements.
Top quality protein powders made with whey have a solid dose of BCAAs in every scoop, and fast-absorbing protein post-workout can help you boost your results.
Having a dose of creatine post-exercise has proven itself to be a wise strategy too, so taking both it & a BCAA-rich protein drink after your workout is smart thinking.
By using creatine & BCAA together, you can tap into the unique benefits of each and potentially get the best of both worlds.
For instance, that extra push from creatine could help you complete that last set of squats, while the BCAAs work to reduce muscle soreness and quicken your recovery.
Dosage and timing recommendations when taken together
So how should you take them together? As I mentioned, you can’t go wrong with downing both after your workout.
That strategy has shown a big advantage in sports science studies, compared to people who didn’t bother taking either supplement.
But the edge it provides is small when compared to just taking both faithfully every day, so don’t sweat it if post-workout supping isn’t convenient.
(Though for some of us, every little edge is worth it when we’re grinding away…)
Remember, everyone’s body is different, and what works wonders for one person may not work as well for another.
It’s always a good idea to listen to your body, start with small doses, and adjust as necessary. And of course, consult your healthcare provider if you have any concerns.
Here are answers to a handful of commonly asked questions about BCAA & creatine.
Can I take creatine at night?
Yes, creatine can be taken at any time of the day. It's the total daily intake that matters more. If you want the most creatine workout benefit though, taking it right after lifting is a good way to go.
Can I bring creatine on a plane?
You certainly can. Creatine is not a banned substance, but it's wise to keep it in its original packaging to avoid confusion at security checks.
Can I miss a day of creatine?
Missing a day of creatine won't make a big difference. Its effects build up over time, so consistency is key. One skipped day won't throw off your progress.
Do eggs have creatine?
Eggs do contain some creatine, but the amount is quite small. You'd have to consume a whole lot of eggs to match a standard creatine supplement dosage.
Is loading creatine necessary?
Loading creatine can saturate your muscles with creatine faster, but it's not essential. You'll still experience benefits with a standard dose, it'll just take a few weeks longer for your muscles' benefits to start.
Should I take creatine when cutting?
Yes, creatine can be beneficial during a cut. It can help maintain strength and lean muscle mass, making your cutting phase more effective.
What can I mix creatine with?
Creatine can be mixed with water, juice, or your preferred protein shake. It's about personal preference and convenience.
When does creatine kick in?
If you've done a week long loading phase, you might start noticing the benefits of creatine soon afterwards. If you just start with taking the normal daily dose, it can take up to a month for the full effects to kick in.
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As we close today’s talk, let me take a sec to recap what we’ve learned about creatine and BCAA.
- It’s a natural helper for our muscles during strenuous, high-energy activities like weight training or sprinting.
- It can give your workout program a ‘muscle energy’ boost and help you gain muscle, strength, & improved recovery.
- You don’t have to do a loading phase when you start, though the beneficial effects will take a few more weeks to kick in if you don’t.
- Oh, also — remember to drink plenty of water while taking it — your muscles will be asking you for more than usual.
- These are special building blocks of protein that can help with muscle repair and triggering their growth.
- An ally for your workouts that can improve muscle recovery afterwards.
- IMPORTANT: While BCAA supplements can be helpful, we can get enough of them from our diet if we’re on top of our daily protein intake.
I hope this article is useful to you and I wish you well on your fitness journey.