Just when I thought I was done with the BCAA series after exhausting the scientific literature, I came across some more research that put a spanner in the works. Many of you reading this know I’m not a fan of Poliquin in general, but if he turns out to be right and I’m wrong, I’m willing to change by position, as that is what every good scientist should do. As far as I’m concerned, I’m not interested in being right, but having the right answers. So if I am wrong, I consider it a learning opportunity.
What is this research?
The research in question is two papers by Bul & Chitè published in an obscure Soviet (now known as Russia) journal in 1941 and 1942, respectively. The reason I missed this research during the time of writing my initial articles, is due to the fact that they can’t be accessed online, and therefore can’t be linked to, unfortunately. However, I was lucky enough to receive an email last week from a subscriber to my blog who kindly emailed me the two articles in full. Since they can’t be accessed online, I’d be happy to send them to whoever wants them, just drop me an email.
What was found?
Because the papers were published in a Soviet journal, they were written in Russian. Luckily, one of these papers (the 1942 one) has been translated to English so I can only comment on the details of that particular study. In it, Bul & Chitè compared the effects of a BCAA-saline solution (0.2g/kg/h) with a placebo (saline solution), delivered intravenously every hour, for four hours, following a series of intense training drills, on measures of body composition and performance in a cohort of Soviet Special Operatives. Given the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 by the Germans, this type of study seems rather timely. After the 12-week trial, the authors observed an increase in muscle mass of 6.3kg and decrease in fat mass of 1.7kg in the experimental group, compared to values of 0.9 and 0.6kg, respectively, in the placebo-control group. To top things off, the experimental group gained an average of 28kg on their back squat and 37kg on their deadlifts, compared to 6 and 8kg, respectively, in the control group. Though I’ve highlighted limitations of such studies before, what makes this study unique is that subjects were consuming a maintenance calorie diet with already sufficient amounts of protein (2.6g/kg of protein). This is significantly more protein that that observed in other investigations, making things very interesting indeed!
Though this study is limited by the method of BCAA delivery (infusion vs. oral ingestion), as BCAA are rapidly digested and appear in the blood stream soon after ingestion, oral ingestion probably would’ve produced similar results. As such, if we take a 75kg individual as an example, it would be the equivalent of ingesting 15g of BCAAs straight after a workout, and an additional 15g every hour, for the next three hours (60g total). Coincidentally, this arrives at a value remarkably similar to that advised by Poliquin. Is this a fluke on Poliquin’s part? Nobody knows, and I’ve never heard of him speak of this research. It would seem however, that with his years of experience in the field, he is able to notice subtle trends regarding the efficacy of various supplementation protocols, which future research would be needed to verify. Because of this, it begs the question: if Poliquin might be right about the BCAAs, what else might he be right about?
Though the authors of the study were unable to explain the mechanism behind their findings, based on advances in the understanding of protein metabolism in the past decade, there seems to be some plausible explanations. Firstly, as BCAAs aren’t bound to the matrix of a whole food protein source, they are rapidly absorbed and create a huge spike in levels of leucine in the blood. During normal situations (i.e. between-meal doing of 6g BCAA as advised by Layne Norton) levels of plasma leucine would quickly return to baseline. However, with the aforementioned higher doses, supraphysiological levels of plasma leuince concentration would be extended for a much longer duration, resulting in a much higher rate of MPS, thus leading to greater muscle growth over time. This is something that is not achievable with a normal protein source given its relatively slower rate of digestion.
Other lines of evidence supporting these findings
The knowledge that the Soviets possessed regarding the effects of mega-dosing BCAAs may have translates to other uses, most notably, their domination of the summer Olympic games following WWII. The Olympics were suspended in 1940 and 1944 due to the war, and the Soviet Union didn’t compete in the 1948 games. However, from 1952-2000 (with the exception of 1984 when the Soviet Union boycotted the Los Angeles games), the Soviet Union/Russia have either placed 1st (1956, 1960, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988 & 1992) or 2nd (1952, 1964, 1968, 1996 & 2000) in the medal table; that includes topping the medals table in six consecutive games!
Though anabolic steroids certainly played a large part of their success, virtually every developed country would have had access to the same drugs, nullifying any potential advantage to be gained from them. As such, it may well have been the inside knowledge of the benefits of BCAAs that were responsible for their Olympic domination.
Further support comes in the form of BCAA supplements. The popularity of BCAAs as a supplement didn’t really being until the early 2000s, so by the time the Athens games were held in 2004 (when athletes from all countries were using them), Russia didn’t have the advantage of BCAA supplementation. So what happened in Athens? Well, Russia placed below 2nd for the first time in over half a century; this can hardly be written off as coincidence.
Having only been aware of these studies for the past week or so, I though I’d implement BCAA mega-dosing in my current diet and training setup. Though I’ve only been using a protocol that I devised based on the above findings (20g immediately before, 20g during and 20g immediately after training) for just a week (four sessions in total), I’ve already put 25kg on my deadlift and 15kg on my squat. I’ve also gained 2kg in weight with no change in skinfold thickness, indicating it is pretty much all from muscle. For the record, my diet has remained exactly the same, ruling out the possibility of dietary influences.
Additionally, by scouring the fitness/nutrition online forums, I began to notice a trend, in that people who take upwards of 40g BCAA per day seem to benefit in the presence of already sufficient protein. Those who consume more modest amounts tend not to experience such ‘steroid-like’ gains in strength and size unless their protein is lacking.
As a final piece of evidence supporting the validity of the above study, Charles Poliquin and Nick Mitchell (dubbed by Men’s Fitness as “one of the world’s leading body composition experts” and by Time Out as “London’s best personal trainer”) – who both advocate high doses of BCAAs – are very well muscled, as well as having got their clients results following such protocols. One day, with continued use of BCAAs, I'll hopefully reach a similar size as these guys.
In summary, if you believed a word of what was said in this post then April fools’! If not, then I wasn’t subtle enough (maybe next time). For those that were fooled by the article, it is an important demonstration of how logical sounding arguments can be taken as fact. To give you an idea of how to spot such deceptions in other work, what follows is a list of common logical fallacies that I deliberately committed in order to strengthen my fabricated position:
- I made up research – this one is common, always look out for references linked to PubMed.
- I appealed to coincidence – there are numerous explanations for the success of the Soviets during the summer Olympics.
- I appealed to authority – I backed up this fictitious study with Poliquin’s practise. Since he is held in high esteem (I’m not sure why), people are more likely to believe it. I also put Nick Mitchell’s name in there too for a laugh. Speaking of Mitchell, credentials like “London’s best personal trainer” are at best, comical, and at worst, meaningless.
- I appealed to popularity – stating that everyone on message boards gets results make it seem like it is really popular and really works. Everyone is convinced when “real” people get results, right? (As if humans in controlled trials aren’t “real people”).
- I appealed to personal observation and experience. It must be remembered that the placebo effect is extremely powerful, and if I know what I’m taking, the self-experiment is flawed from the very start due to an expectation bias. Not to mention completely ignoring all the research highlighted in parts 1-3 of my BCAA series.
- In using my personal experience, I also appealed to aesthetics. Saying I got bigger by doing something, or that BCAAs must work because Poloquin and Mitchell use them suggests that only BCAAs are responsible for their physiques as opposed to other 'special supplements'.
- Finally, I also made up physiology in the part about extending supraphysiological rates of MPS and provided no scientific references to support such claims, just links to less than scientific sites such as cutandjacked.com, mensfitness.com and charlespoloquin.com.