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It’s generally accepted that the best way to lose weight and improve or maintain fitness is to exercise regularly and cut calories. A growing number of adults are attempting to follow this advice as they find themselves fighting creeping additional pounds and obesity as they get older. However, this formula for success also has a downside, one that is especially on the minds of athletes and active adults: the risk of losing lean muscle and, as a consequence, a decline in physical performance.

One exercise method that promotes significant improvement in muscle strength and tone, cardiovascular health, and metabolic enhancement among both elite and recreational athletes is resistance weight training. This form of exercise also is associated with an increase in muscle endurance and lean muscle mass as well as a decrease in body fat, all benefits that can improve overall quality of life and fight against age-related disease and disability.

There are problems however associated with combining resistance training and a low-calorie, low-carb diet. Basically, you can lose lean muscle mass, experience poorer athletic performance, and be at greater risk of experiencing illness or exercise-related injury. At the same time, men who engage in resistance exercise during a “cut diet” require higher intake of protein so they can avoid experiencing muscle damage and loss of athletic ability.

A cut diet is a technique in which you reduce both your caloric and carbohydrate intake. This in turn causes a reduction in your carb storage, boosts the body’s use of fat as energy, and thus reduces fat mass. This is a common way to take on the encroaching advance of fat accumulation that can occur with aging.

If athletes and physically active men don’t get enough high-quality protein after exercise, the result can be increased protein catabolism, or a breakdown of protein, a loss of muscle mass, and training intolerance. However, intake of protein or amino acid supplements (Branch-Chain Amino Acids), when combined with resistance exercise, can have a synergistic effect on preserving muscle mass during weight loss efforts.

What are Branched-Chain Amino Acids?

One of those amino acid supplements that can help is branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), which include isoleucine, leucine, and valine. Taking these amino acids may increase or stimulate regeneration of skeletal muscle by interfering with the breakdown of protein after exercise, resulting in a greater increase in lean muscle mass.

“…..men who engage in resistance training and who take branched-chain amino acid supplements while on a low-calorie diet can maintain their lean muscle mass and keep skeletal muscle performance while also losing fat…..”

BCAAs are essential nutrients that the body gets from proteins found in various foods, such as meat, dairy, and legumes. Supplements of these amino acids are used to treat a variety of conditions, ranging from Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), tardive dyskinesia (a movement disorder), and muscle wasting, among others. Other individuals use BCAA supplements to help prevent fatigue or muscle breakdown during intense exercise or to improve concentration and exercise performance.

How BCAAs Help with Fat Loss and Lean Muscle

A team of researchers from the College of Charleston found a way trained individuals who are on cut diet can maintain lean muscle tissue and preserve skeletal muscle performance while also dropping unwanted fat. The study involved 17 resistance trained young male adults who were randomly assigned to take either branched-chain amino acids (9 men) or a carbohydrate supplement (8).

Both of the supplements were fat-free and the BCAA supplement did not contain any carbs. All of the men also participated in a resistance training program for eight weeks (4 days/week) and followed a low-calorie diet.

At the end of the eight weeks, here were the findings:

  • Men in the carbohydrate group saw a significant reduction in body mass, but those in the BCAA group did not. However, the loss of body mass was accompanied by a significant loss in lean muscle mass
  • Men in the BCAA did not show a change in lean muscle mass
  • Although men in both groups had a significant increase in lower body strength, those in the BCAA group had a significantly greater improvement
  • Men in the BCAA group also had a significantly greater increase in upper body strength while those in the carbohydrate group showed a reduction in strength

The authors concluded that men who engage in resistance training and who take branched-chain amino acid supplements while on a low-calorie diet can maintain their lean muscle mass and keep skeletal muscle performance while also losing fat. A virtual win-win-win situation!

How Else Can Amino Acids Benefit Men’s Health?

Amino acids offer benefits for men beyond the maintenance of lean muscle mass and muscle performance.

  • A combination of three amino acids—alanine, glutamic acid, and glycine—for example, can help in the treatment of an enlarged prostate (benign prostatic hyperplasia, BPH) when taken daily at 300 mg each.
  • L-arginine is an amino acid that transforms into nitric oxide in the body, which in turn causes blood vessels to widen and improve circulation to the penis. If erectile dysfunction is an issue, then this amino acid may be able to help. One study found that the combination of L-arginine and the herbal supplement pycnogenol can be helpful in younger men (25 to 45) with ED.
  • Carnitine also improves blood flow. When added to the treatment plan of men with ED who were taking sildenafil (Viagra) without success, the amino acid in two forms—propionyl-L-carnitine and acetyl-L-carnitine–prompted positive results. In a study of Peyronie’s disease, the combination of propionyl-L-carnitine and verapamil was effective in treating advanced and resistant disease.
  • Ornithine supplementation may improve exercise performance, as demonstrated by a group of young, healthy adults who participated in a cycling study.
  • L-citrulline, an amino acid found watermelon and supplements, can improve erection hardness in men who are experiencing mild erectile dysfunction.

What’s the takeaway?

I usually fast in some form 3-4 days a week. Anything from full 24 hour fasts through to windowed fasting where I only eat between 2pm and 6pm on a daily basis. I’m super conscious of my protein intake and the effect on lean muscle mass and although I’m not necessarily restricting calories I am eating smaller portions.

I started taking amino acid supplements about 3 months ago. This is the brand I use which I found through Ben Greenfield’s excellent podcast with David Minkoff, M.D. And although it’s only a small test period and a subject audience of 1 (me), I do feel more energy in my workouts even though I’m eating less calories. I’ve also maintained/increased muscle mass.

It’s best to take amino acids on an empty stomach based on what I’ve read, so I usually take an hour or so before meals, and immediately on waking up. To me, the studies are pretty convincing so I am going to keep taking them going forward.