I am always getting asked about creatine and BCAA. So when I started the research for this blog, I noticed that every single one of the posts on this topic are written by a supplement company.
A little biased if you ask me…
So here, I am a registered dietitian nutritionist (not a supplement company) and I am not going to sell you creatine or BCAA.
Instead, I am going to break down both BCAA and creatine we will look at:
What are BCAA and any research we should pay attention to?
What is creatine, how does it work, and any research that we should be paying attention to.
Side by side comparison looking at:
- Muscle mass/Lean body tissue
Followed up by a frequently asked questions section.
Which is better BCAA or creatine?
Both creatine and BCAA (Branch-chain amino acids) are groups of 3-to-4 different amino acids. Both of which we can get through diet alone. (1)
(PSST: There are few selected cases where it is actually recommended to supplement with either.)
As a dietitian, any supplement recommendation should come with a cation. The supplement industry is like the wild wild west meaning there are very few regulations that require standard protocols…. like for SAFETY!
Consider yourself warned.
So which is better? BCAA, or branched-chain amino acids, are a type of protein that can be found in foods like meat and eggs.
Creatine, on the other hand, is a substance that is produced naturally by the body and stored in the muscles.
Although BCAA supplements are sometimes promoted as a way to build muscle, there is actually very little scientific evidence to support this claim.
Creatine, on the other hand, has been extensively studied in humans and has been shown to increase muscle size and strength.
For this reason, creatine is generally considered to be more effective than BCAA for athletes who are looking to gain muscle.
With that being said, BCAA does seem to outperform creatine in terms of endurance. BCAA can help delay fatigue during exercise and improve recovery after exercise.
So if you’re an athlete who is looking to improve their endurance performance, BCAA supplements may be a good option for you.
Read more for the rationale.
A little refresher on amino acids, amino acids are the build blocks of protein and a “complete” protein is simply a combination of specific amino acids.
This “complete protein” is made up of 21 different amino acids which are the building blocks to new gains or muscle tissue.
Taking this one step further, These 21 amino acids can be categorized into two groups essential amino acids (EAA) and Non-essential amino acids.
Essential amino acids (EAA)
Essential amino acids cannot be synthesized by the body and must be obtained from diet or supplements.
The Graph below is a list of essential amino acids with the quantity of each per gram of protein, per 100 grams of protein, and the amino found in BCAA and creatine.
|Essential Amino Acid
|Amount Per 1 Gram
|Amount Per 100 Gram
Non-essential amino acids (NEAA)
Non-essential amino acids can be synthesized by the body from other amino acids or from the breakdown of proteins.
The goal of eating enough protein is to provide you with enough building blocks to support your muscle tissue in addition to many other functions but for the purpose of today’s topic.
Want to learn about all things protein and macros be sure to check out Counting Macros for Beginners post.
What Amino Acids are in BCAA’s and creatine?
Although Creatine and BCAA are similar in that they are both amino acids, there are some key differences between the two.
Creatine is made up of three amino acids: glycine, arginine, and methionine. (2)
BCAA, on the other hand, is made up of leucine, isoleucine, and valine. (2)
BCAA falls under the EAA amino group. Therefore if you are eating enough protein then you are probably going to be getting sufficient BCAA’s.
Unlike BCAA all of which are considered essential amino acids creatine only requires one essential amino acid, methionine.
The way I think about it is your body can make about 2/3 of creatine. So again you can make and get plenty through your diet.
|Isolucien, Lucien , Valine
How do branched-chain amino acids work?
Unlike other amino acids, BCAA’s can be metabolized by the muscle directly, making them a valuable energy source during exercise.
BCAA supplementation has been shown to help to reduce fatigue during exercise, allowing you to train harder and longer. (3)
How does creatine work?
Creatine works by increasing the availability of ATP in the muscle. ATP is the energy molecule that powers muscle contraction.
By increasing the availability of ATP, creatine allows you to train harder and longer. (4)
Read more about how creatine works on the Creatine Monohydrate vs HCL post.
Side-by-side comparison of BCAA and creatine
BCAA and Creatine are both amino acids that play important roles in the body.
But what does the research say about, muscle mass/Lean body tissue, endurance performance, and recovery? Let’s Dive in.
To help you organize the information, I’ve included a table that looks at the benefits of BCAA and creatine side by side.
|Increase muscle mass
|Improve recovery time
Muscle mass/Lean body tissue
Both Creatine and BCAA have been advertised as a way to help build muscle mass.
However, while creatine has been shown to be effective in humans, there is actually very little scientific evidence to support the claim that BCAA can help to build muscle.
Do Branch chain amino acids increase muscle mass
BCAA’s Claim to fame has been protein synthesis which has been associated with maintaining muscle mass, however, that may not be the case.
In fact, one study found that BCAA supplementation had no effect on maintaining muscle mass.
In a study looking at the odds of developing sarcopenia (age-related muscle wasting) in 300 individuals 55 and older,
“In this cross-sectional study, no significant association was observed between dietary intakes of total and individual BCAAs and odds of sarcopenia and its components.” (5)
According to the journal of the international society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), “ We conclude that the claim that consumption of dietary BCAAs stimulates muscle protein synthesis or produces an anabolic response in human subjects is unwarranted.” (6)
Does Creatine increase muscle mass
Creatine in addition to strength training has been found to help increase lean muscle mass.
In a systematic review and meta-analysis of 22 studies involving 721 participants, it was concluded that “Creatine supplementation during resistance training is associated with greater increases in lean tissue mass (LTM).”
It has been pretty well established that creatine can help with improvements in lean body tissue. (7)
Performance improvements are harder to tease out with BCAA’s vs creatine.
Because there are different measurements for performance for example if you are weight training and trying to increase the amount of weight you can lift for one rep vs running a marathon.
Do branch chain amino acids improve performance?
In a systematic review of BCAA supplementation and exercise performance, it was found that BCAA played a favorable role in energy metabolism.
Specifically, increasing the amount of glucose uptake by the muscle.
The research stated, “the study confirmed that glucose is used as an. energy source during exercise.” For workouts lasting more than an hour, “which in turn can improve exercise performance and plays an effective role in preventing muscle damage.”
Does creatine improve performance?
Yes and no, in a study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, “The data on a single sprint or first-bout sprint of any kind are inconsistent.”
They stated that
“ergogenic effects on mass-dependent activities, such as running and swimming, are not convincing, perhaps because of the side effect of weight gain from water retention.”
Juhn, Mark S. D.O.*; Tarnopolsky, Maek M.D. Ph.D.† Oral Creatine Supplementation and Athletic Performance, Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine: October 1998 – Volume 8 – Issue 4 – p 286-297
With that being said, studies on strength training suggest that creatine increase overall strength.
Having the ability to recover can be the difference between you winning or losing.
If there is clinical evidence that creatine or BCAAs can help you recover, this is a significant incentive to use them.
Do BCAAs improve recovery after exercise?
In a meta-analysis looking at the effects of BCAA on muscle recovery, BCAA was found to have a significant effect on muscle soreness or recovery from exercise.
The research started, “The current evidence-based information indicates that use of BCAAs is better than passive recovery or rest after various forms of exhaustive and damaging exercise.” (9)
Although this was a meta-analysis on BCAA, it’s important to note that more research is still needed.
Does creatine improve recovery after exercise?
In a systematic review and meta-analysis of creatine monohydrate supplementation, it was found that creatine supplementation may help to reduce exercise-induced muscle damage.
The study went on to say, “Creatine supplementation appears to be effective in reducing exercise-induced muscle damage and may help to accelerate recovery from damaging exercise.” (10)
Based on the current body of literature the ISSN published a review looking at the safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine.
“participants supplemented with creatine had significantly greater isokinetic (+10%) and isometric (+21%) knee extension strength during recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage.” Kreider, R.B., Kalman, D.S., Antonio, J. et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 14, 18 (2017).
There is a lot of evidence to support the use of creatine for exercise recovery. With that being said, more research is needed especially on long-term safety.
Do Branch Chain Amino Acids improve endurance?
In a study published in the Journal of Exercise and Nutrition,
“It is presumed that an intake of the BCAA can lower the concentration of serotonin, a central fatigue substance, during endurance exercise.”Kim DH, Kim SH, Jeong WS, Lee HY. Effect of BCAA intake during endurance exercises on fatigue substances, muscle damage substances, and energy metabolism substances. J Exerc Nutrition Biochem. 2013;17(4):169-180.
This then lowers, “the concentrations of muscle damage substances such as CK and LDH and enhance exercise performance.”
This was an interesting finding, in that BCAA lower serotonin – A molecule that promotes fatigue. Which in turn allows you to perform better. (11)
Does creatine improve endurance?
According to a study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, “No ergogenic effects on submaximal or endurance exercise are evident.” (10)
I think that quote states it accurately, but creatine seems to be super useful during short and intestine exercise.
On the other hand, during longer training, creatine does not seem to be that useful.
Side effects of both creatine and BCAA
Both Creatine and BCAA seem to be safe for the general healthy population. (12)
However, research, the FDA, and medical practitioners all agree that more research is still needed.
If you are thinking about taking either BCAA or Creatine, it’s important to talk with your doctor first.
BCAA side effects
According to the FDA, there is no known adverse effect. Stating, “No safety concerns reported for 20 g/day or less for up to 6 weeks” (12)
There have been several self-reported gastrointestinal issues but more research is needed to confirm the long-term use of BCAA.
Creatine side effects
According to the FDA, there are some potential side effects of creatine including, “stomach pain, water weight, diarrhea, and nausea.” (12)
With that being said, more research is needed to confirm the long-term use of creatine and its potential side effects.
Talk to your Doctor
I may be a dietitian but I am not your dietitian. It is important to talk to a medical provider before making any changes to your diet or lifestyle. The advice in this or any other blog post may not be tailored to your individual needs.
While I am committed to providing you with evidence-based information so that you can make informed decisions about your health.
I am also a big advocate for talking to your doctor before making any big changes to your diet or lifestyle.
Frequently Asked Questions
When should you take a BCAA?
You should take your BCAA around your workout. The window of time is around five hours. (13)
Best creatine for runners?
Creatine monohydrate is the most researched and best for runners. (10)
Can I take creatine before bed?
Yes, creatine is a supplement that can be taken at any time of the day.
When should you take creatine?
The research is limited to the benefits of timing creatine intake. Currently, there is no evidence to suggest that taking creatine 30 min before training has future benefits. (14)
Does supplementing with BCAA work?
The FDA states that the potential benefits of supplementing with BCAA’s are “Can be metabolized by mitochondria in skeletal muscle to provide energy during exercise” (12)
What are the side effects of BCAA?
The most common side effect is gastrointestinal discomfort. (Study)
Can you mix BCAA and creatine?
While anecdotally, this seems to be common practice with many gym-goers “stacking” the creatine and BCAA’s. However, there is not a lot of research looking into the side effects or benefits of doing so. (14)
So, what have we learned? BCAA can help improve endurance and recovery from exercise, while creatine may help to improve strength and performance.
Both supplements seem to be safe with the most common side effect being gastrointestinal discomfort.
BCAA and creatine can be taken at any time of the day and can be mixed together, although there is not a lot of research on the side effects or benefits of doing so.
If you’re looking to improve your endurance or recovery from exercise, BCAA may be the supplement for you.
If you’re looking to improve your strength or performance, creatine may be the supplement for you.
However, more research is needed on both supplements, especially on their long-term safety.
Above all else having a solid nutrition plan is a must before starting supplementing.
Remember: this post is for informational purposes only and may not be the best fit for you and your personal situation. It shall not be construed as medical advice. The information and education provided here is not intended or implied to supplement or replace professional medical treatment, advice, and/or diagnosis. Always check with your own physician or medical professional before trying or implementing any information read here.
Noah Quezada is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist located in Denver, Colorado. Over the course of more than a decade, he has gained extensive experience in helping clients manage their weight through in-person sessions. Noah is also the 2023 President of the Colorado Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.