To BCAA Or Not To BCAA………Leangains (Berkhan) v. Eat Stop Eat (Pilon)

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***This article highlights my personal experiment with BCAA usage.

Spoiler alert:  BCAA’s led to better results and strength gains. It’s a no-brainer.

The BEST tasting product out there is Amino X BCAA, watermelon flavor.

Enjoy!  -Jason

If you’re interested in the Leangains protocol and you wish to have it set up for you, send me a note [HERE], and be sure to put “Leangains” in the comment section.

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Unless you are  a complete noob when it comes to intermittent fasting, you’ve heard of Martin Berkhan and Brad Pilon.

Martin Berkhan is the founder of Leangains, the 16/8 intermittent fasting scheme which has gained so much traction and completely turned the myth of “small meals every 3 hours” upside down.

He is the undisputed king of the fasting protocols, and has slowly grown his following to near demi-god status.

Brad Pilon is the founder and author of Eat Stop Eat, the 24-hour fasting scheme which has been employed by vast numbers of people as a true, viable weight loss strategy as well.

He also runs the blog Eat Stop Blog, and if Berkhan is Batman, Pilon is Robin.  Or maybe it’s the other way around.  You decide.

Now, as previously stated, if you’re interested in intermittent fasting, you’ve probably run across these two men in your Google searches.

Their names are widely respected and their opinions valued.

For the most part, they seem amicable to each other.  They openly respect each other’s opinions, with favorable views of each other’s expertise as well as solid reviews of each other’s work.  They both seem to agree with each other over most topics.

One of their biggest points of contention is in pre-workout nutrition for fasted training protocols.

While Leangains and Eat Stop Eat both massacred the idea that protein must be steadily consumed throughout the day, one problem still remains:  If you are training in the fasted state, will the body have enough protein and amino acids flowing through the blood to prevent catabolism?

Berkhan famously prescribes an amino acid mixture of BCAAs, generally in powder form (and tasting quite delicious) to his fasted-training clients.

He has them consume 10 grams of aminos at the start of their first workout with 10 more grams every two hours until the post-workout meal is consumed.

Brad Pilon, on the other hand, has questioned this practice, claiming BCAA usage stunts growth hormone production and autophagic processes.  His opinion is that BCAA usage during a fast will negate many positive effects the fast creates.

So who’s right?   I have no clue.

When I began experimenting with intermittent fasting, I took Martin Berkhan’s every suggestion as the gospel.

And there’s no reason not to.  It gave me fantastic results and changed my body composition.

The advice was simple, straightforward, and easy to implement.  Even though I’ve practically memorized his site, I often return and re-read articles for motivation.

And the man recommends BCAA usage.  

 

So, last summer, my first summer on IF, I complied.  I saw good results from it.  I was also eating like a horse.  And any weight lifter will tell you when your calories go through the roof, so do your gains.

After the summer of 2012, I employed various cutting schemes in an attempt to finally get down to 10% body fat.  After a 16-week dieting stint in winter/spring, I was there.

And I needed to begin to work on filling out the frame.  

Being a teacher, I was going to shift from working out after the school day to working out at 7 am.  So, naturally, I had some thoughts about the BCAA supplementation.  Was it worth it?  Did it truly help?  Would I have better gains from just a cup (or gallon) of coffee?  Was the supplementation a placebo effect?  Was Berkhan right or was Pilon right?

Again, no clue.

But I wanted to find out.  

 

So, I guess there’s only one way to do it.  The old fashioned way.  With empirical evidence.

I had ten weeks.  After those ten weeks of what I like to call my “72 day weekend” of summer vacation, I would be back to the 8-3 school gig, putting my workouts after a meal had already been consumed.

It’s time to point out some limitations of my experiment……..

The first:  Time.

This isn’t a very big time frame to work with.  Especially when I’m going to try to test out both protocols.

This gives me 5 weeks of BCAA-less fasted training and 5 weeks of BCAA-fueled fasted training.

Unless a very large combination of powerful, muscle inducing anabolic steroids is present, not much muscle can possibly be built in 5 weeks.  Even in untrained amateurs.

The second:  Measurement of results.

A DEXA scan is the only accurate measure of muscle growth as.

And if you read my blog, you know my quest to secure one fell woefully short.

I’m going to need to rely on less accurate ways to measure progress and growth.  Strength increases.  Body measurements.  Pictures.  Scale weight.  That sort of thing.

The third:  Subject number.
Or lack thereof.  I’m conducting an n=1 experiment.  

Even if I have a reasonable, logical, and definitive conclusion at the end of my summer, it’s still just me.  

My results would need to be consistently achieved by many before they ever became seen as conclusive.

But curiosity has its grip on me.  I still want to know.  If nothing else, after my summer, I’ll have an answer.  For me.  And I’ll know what to do when the summer of 2014 comes knocking at my door.

If one thing really gets under my skin, it’s when I read a really bad health-related article.

In order to prove the case for or against BCAA usage when training in a fasted state, the BCAA usage must be the only variable manipulated for each 5 week segment.  Everything else needed to be the same.  It was time to start naming some constants.  Getting variables under control.

Time to create my game plan.

1.  Macros.

After my 16 week dieting stint, I had what I considered to be my TDEE, or total daily energy expenditure.

I estimated I needed around 2,500 calories daily in order to maintain my current weight.  I couldn’t eat significantly over this number.

As previously stated, I needed to be sure the BCAA usage was what was helping the growth.

If I ate substantially above my TDEE, I would gain strength and muscle weight, guaranteed.  But the excess calories would result in confounding variables.  Can’t have that.

Since I’ve been cycling calories as part of my daily IF scheme for a long time now, I set myself up with a +20%/-20% scheme.

My macro numbers for the experiment were 230P/375C/70F for training days and 230P/0C/110F for rest days.

This put my caloric intake at 3,050 for training days and 1,910 for rest days.

I would have to track more diligently than I ever had for ten weeks.  No slip ups.  No binges.  No cheat days.

The increased calories would ensure I would still have enough wiggle room to enjoy some damn good food.

I would still be able to slip an adult beverage into the diet from time to time.

But for the most part, I would need to be on point, day in and day out, for 70 days.  Food needed to be closely monitored and controlled.

If I gained strength and muscle, it had to be from the BCAA, not from the three cheesecakes I had consumed over the weekend.  

And if I lost strength, it had to be from the lack of BCAA, not from the bottle of scotch I had slammed.
2.  Training.

I needed to be sure I maintained the same training regimen throughout the duration of the experiment.

And I also needed to be sure I kept it consistent with what my body was used to.

There is often an overcompensation during the adaptation period of any training program.

There’s a saying which goes:  “The best program is the one you’re not on.”

Translation:  Anybody will get results in the first few weeks of a new program.  I needed to make sure the gains were from the supplementation and not the programming.

My program for the summer:

Monday:

Sumo deadlifts.  2 sets.  5 at max weight, 7 at 90% max weight.

Weighted pull ups.  3 sets.  8 at max weight, 10 at 90% max weight, 12 at 80% max weight.

Back squats.  5 sets of 10 with 1 minute rest in between.  Start at 135, increase by 5 pounds each time completed.

Barbell bench press.  5 sets of 10 with 1 minute rest in between.  Start at 135, increase by 5 pounds each time completed.

Barbell bicep curls.  5 sets of 10 with 1 minute rest in between.  Start at 65, increase by 5 pounds each time completed.

Wednesday:

Barbell bench press.  3 sets.  8 at max weight, 10 at 90% max weight, 12 at 80% max weight.

Barbell incline bench press.  3 sets.  8 at max weight, 10 at 90% max weight, 12 at 80% max weight.

Back squats.  5 sets of 10 with 1 minute rest in between.  Start at 135, increase by 5 pounds each time completed.

Sumo deadlifts.   5 sets of 8 with 1 minute rest in between.  Start at 225, increase by 10 pounds each time completed.

Barbell bicep curls.  5 sets of 10 with 1 minute rest in between.  Start at 65, increase by 5 pounds each time completed.

Friday:

Front squats.  3 sets.  5 at max weight, 7 at 90% max weight, 10 at 80% max weight.

Weighted dips.  3 sets.  8 at max weight, 10 at 90% max weight, 12 at 80% max weight.

Bodyweight pull ups.  5 sets to failure with 1 minute rest in between.

Barbell bench press.  5 sets of 10 with 1 minute rest in between.  Start at 135, increase by 5 pounds each time completed.

Barbell bicep curls.  5 sets of 10 with 1 minute rest in between.  Start at 65, increase by 5 pounds each time completed.

3.  Others.

Obviously, there’s lots of other variables at play.  I try to eat clean for the most part.  But I also give myself “dirty” foods as treats quite regularly.  Especially after training.

I would have to hit my macros as closely as possible and not worry about the possible effects of my food choices.

I do my best to maintain a constant sleeping schedule.  I kinda have to with two living, breathing alarm clocks sleeping down the hall from me.  If my girls sleep past 6 am, I’m lucky.

I also take the following micronutrients on a daily basis:

multivitamin,
2 grams vitamin C,
2.4 grams calcium,
2,000 IU vitamin D,
50 mg zinc,
2 grams cinnamon extract,
2.4 grams EPA (fish oil),
and 1.8 grams DHA (fish oil).

I would need to be sure this supplementation continued.

So, I was ready.  Time to stop the talking and do the walking.  Here’s what happened.

BCAA-LESS, FASTED, AM TRAINING

Lifting statistics:

Sumo deadlifts:    345×3 —-> 355×4  (+10 lbs)
Weighted pullups:    290×6 —-> 285×7 (no change)
Barbell bench press:     225×6 —-> 225×6 (no change)
Barbell incline bench press:  195×7 —-> 200×7 (+5 lbs)
Front squat:     190×5 —->200×3  (+ 10 lbs)
Weighted dips:     285×8 —-> 285×6 (-2 reps)

Body measurements:

Weight:  214.8 lbs —–>  212 lbs   (-2.8 lbs)
Right bicep:  16″ —–> 16″  (no change)
Left bicep:  15.5″ —–> 15.5″ (no change)
Chest:   42.5″ —–>43.25″  (+.75″)
Two inches above belly button:  34″ —–> 33.75″ (-.25″)
Belly button:  34.5″ —–> 33.5″  (-1″)
Two inches below belly button:  34.75″ —–> 34″  (-.75″)
Hips:  35″ —–> 33.75″    (-1.25″)
Right quad:  24.25″ —–> 24″  (-.25″)
Left quad:  24″ —–> 24″  (no change)

Anecdotal evidence:

It took a few days to get back into the swing of working out in the AM.

When working out after my day is done, I’m often rearing to get into the weight room and smash some iron.  Especially after dealing with pubescent teenagers all day long.  

The sound is blaring in the gym and the equipment is packed full of people.  It’s a perfect environment to get your mind right quickly.

This is not the case at all at 7 AM.  In the early morning hours, the weight room is often empty.  Grogginess abounds.  The sound is muted.  The cardio-queen soccer moms are all doing their thing.

For the first week, I felt weaker.  A bit lethargic.  My deads took a hit.  

I had set a new PR a few weeks back and pulled 430.  And when I put 345 on the bar my first day, I could barely eek out 3 reps.  And of course, the thought instantly crossed my mind that I should have consumed some of those damn BCAAs.

But after adjusting to the new time frame, my body sprang back nicely.

While my raw strength numbers didn’t increase much, if at all, the increased hypertrophic emphasis began to fill me out nicely.

Extra veins started popping out.  

Definition improved nicely.  

All of those 5×10 sets became much easier over time, with the corresponding weights increasing as well.  My conditioning surely improved.  Overall, I was happy with the BCAA-less results.  

I would need some true, concrete evidence over the remaining 5 weeks in order to justify spending part of my hard-earned teacher’s salary on BCAA powder in order to fully hop on board with Mr. Berkhan.

I was starting to think maybe Brad Pilon was onto something.

There was one piece of evidence which stuck out to me like a sore thumb.  My weight.  

I was still losing ~1 pound per week over time.  I had underestimated my TDEE.  I attribute this to a few things.

First off, I was on point day in and day out with my macros.  There was no more guessing.  Every rest day was nailed.  As was every training day.

It became quite evident rather quickly that I had underestimated my fat consumption before the experiment started.

In the past, I had “ballparked” this macro.  And now, I was hitting my fat number on the button.  

There were no cheat days or buffet-style binges.  And since my “surplus” wasn’t much of a surplus at all, it would remain rather difficult to put on very much muscle weight over the remaining time of the experiment.

Can’t change those macros now, though.  

Gotta keep going with the macros remaining constant, or the numbers become rather meaningless.  My new, adjusted TDEE for future reference clocked in at 2,800 calories.

When it’s time to up the macros once more,
I’m gonna get to eat some serious food.

Here’s a before and after pic after 5 weeks of training:

photo (9)

I chose the side view as I thought it showed the results more profoundly.  Certainly not striking results, but it was only five weeks.

My upper arms and shoulders do certainly appear to be thicker.

Maybe I’m just seeing things, but overall I’m pretty happy with my upper body development.

I was cautiously optimistic about the results from the BCAA-fueled, fasted training sessions.

BCAA-FUELED, FASTED, AM TRAINING

Lifting statistics

Sumo deadlifts:   355×5 —–>375×2  (+20 lbs)
Weighted pullups:  285×7 —–> 291×6  (+5 lbs)
Barbell bench press:     225×6 —–>230×6 (+5 lbs)
Barbell incline bench press:  200×8 —–> 210×7 (+10 lbs)
Front squat:     200×5 —–> 210×3  (+10 lbs)
Weighted dips:     285×6 —–> 290×6 (+5 lbs)

Body measurements:

Weight:  212.0 —–>208.0  (-4 lbs)
Right bicep:  15.75″ —–> 15.75″ (no change)
Left bicep:  16″ —–> 16″ (n0 change)
Chest:  43.25″ —–>42.5″  (-.75″)
Two inches above belly button:   33.75″ —–> 33″ (-.75″)
Belly button:  33.5″ —–> 33.5″ (no change)
Two inches below belly button:  34.0″ —–> 33.5″ (-.5″)
Hips:  33.75″ —–> 33.5″  (-.25″)
Right quad:  24″ —–> 24″  (no change)
Left quad: 24″ —–> 24″  (no change)

Here’s a before and after photo from the second five weeks of BCAA-fueled workouts:

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Two things strike me from the picture:  Further definition in rear shoulder/tricep area and definite belly flattening.

Also, there appears to be a general definition increase in the second picture.  Makes sense.

There was a 4 pound weight loss and some good strength increases as well.
Results Analysis:

When looking at the data, there is no denying a major difference between the two sets.  Some of the information is extremely intriguing.

First, the lifting numbers.  In the five weeks of BCAA-less training, the only exercises which showed any improvement whatsoever are the sumo deadlift and front squat.  

Coincidentally, they are my most “untrained” exercises, as I have been doing these lifts for less than two years apiece.

The other lifts, other than incline bench, which made a modest 5 pound increase, stayed the same.
The total aggregate increase for the first 5 weeks:  +25 pounds.
The BCAA-fueled workouts tell a different story altogether.  Every exercise went up.  

Upper body, lower body, total body, every single one.  Even my bench press, which had remained extremely stagnant for around 9 months as I underwent an aggressive cut.
Total aggregate increase for the second five weeks:  +55 pounds.

Even though taking a total aggregate weight increase isn’t the most scientific way of doing this data analysis, when the rate of strength increase is so markedly different, it should be mentioned.

Also, the body measurements were telling as well.

It seems as though every body part remained constant with its measurements except for the abdomen.

The abdomen measurements decreased during both BCAA-less and BCAA-fueled workouts.
But here’s where it gets a little bit contradictory:  More inches were lost without using BCAA powder but more weight was lost (and less inches) using BCAA powder.
Not sure exactly what this means.

Could mean abdomen muscle was lost through catabolism when not using BCAAs.

Could mean using BCAAs caused excess intramuscular fat to be shed (rather than subcutaneous).

It could simply mean I had less belly fat to start with during the last 5 weeks, so the fat loss, while greater, was from other areas.

We’ll never know completely without the DEXA.
Conclusion:

I don’t think there’s a contest at all.

More strength was gained and more weight was lost using BCAA powder during AM, fasted workouts.  

Anecdotally, I simply felt better when taking the powder as well.  More alert.  More awake.  A tad jittery.  Amped.  

It could be placebo.  But a true placebo effect is a very powerful thing.  

I would not hesitate at all to be sure to include BCAA into your pre-workout nutrition, espeically if training fasted.

The only consideration should be price.  If you have a MWF split routine, one scoop per day will last you ten weeks.  The brand I use, Amino X from GNC, runs around $30.  That puts you a shade over $150 for the year.

Do I think one could increase strength without it?  Yes.  

Does it seem optimal?  No.  

At least not for me.   In June 2014, when the summer schedule rolls around once more, I’ll be sure I have enough powder to last me the full ten weeks.  I have my answer.

And I need to just take whatever Berkhan says as gospel, I believe……..

-Jason

Interested in seeing if you’d be a good fit to work with me?

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