Does Leucine Trigger Muscle Growth?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Exercise, Issues, Supplements and Health

What Does The Perfect Post-Workout Protein Shake Look Like?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 Post-Workout Protein ShakeIf you work out on a regular basis and read any of the “muscle magazines”, you’ve seen the ads. “Explode Your Muscles.” “Double Your Gains.” They all claim to have the perfect post-workout protein shake, backed by science. They all sound so tempting, but you know that some of them have to be scams.

I told you about some of the sports supplements to avoid in a previous “Health Tips From the Professor”. In this issue, I’m going to ask “What does the perfect post-workout protein shake look like?”

For years athletes have been using protein beverages containing branched chain amino acids after their workouts to maximize muscle gain and recovery. There was some science behind that practice, but the major questions were unanswered. Nobody really knew:

  • How much protein is optimal?
  • What kind of protein is optimal?
  • What amount of branched chain amino acids is optimal?
  • Are some branched chain amino acids more important than others?
  • Does the optimal amount of branched chain amino acids depend on the amount of protein?

As a consequence, after workout protein supplements were all over the map in terms of protein source, protein amount, branched amino acid amount and type of branched chain amino acids. Fortunately, recent research has clarified many of these questions.

How Much And What Kind Of Protein Do You Need?

  • Recent research has shown that the optimal protein intake for maximizing muscle gain post workout is 15-20 gm for young adults (Katsanos et al, Am J Clin Nutr 82: 1065-1073, 2005; Moore et al, Am J Clin Nutr, 89: 161-168, 2009) and 20-25 gm for older adults (Symons et al, Am J Clin Nutr 86: 451-456, 2007).
  • More protein isn’t necessarily better. The effect of protein intake on post workout muscle gain maxes out at around 25 gm for young adults and 30 gm for older adults (Symons et al, J Am Diet Assoc 109: 1582-1586, 2009).
  • Whey protein is the best choice for enhancing muscle gain immediately after a workout. Other protein sources (soy, casein, chicken) are better choices for sustaining muscle gain over the next few hours.

Does Leucine Trigger Muscle Growth?

  • It turns out that leucine is the only branched chain amino acid that actually stimulates muscle protein synthesis (Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 291: E381-E387, 2006). And protein is what gives muscles their strength and their bulk.
  • Recent research has shown that 2-3 gm of leucine (2 gm for young adults; 3 gm for older adults) is sufficient to maximize post workout muscle gain if protein levels are adequate (Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 291: E381-E387, 2006).

Unanswered Questions About Optimizing Muscle Gain Post-Workout

  •  Do the other branched chain amino acids play a supporting role, or is leucine alone sufficient to drive post-workout muscle gain?
  • Can leucine still help maximize post-workout muscle gain if protein intake is inadequate? If so, how much leucine is needed?

Does Leucine Enhancement Improve Low Protein Shakes?

Lrg Extension ExercisesA recent study (Churchward-Venne et al, Am J Clin Nutr, 99: 276-286, 2014) seems to answer those two questions. The authors compared the effect of 5 protein-amino acid combinations on muscle protein synthesis in 40 young men (~21 years old) following unilateral knee-extensor resistance exercise. The protein shakes contained:

  • 25 gm of whey protein, which naturally contains 3 gm of leucine (high protein)
  • 6.25 gm of whey protein, which naturally contains 0.76 gm of leucine (low protein)
  • 6.25 gm of whey protein with 3 gm of leucine (low protein, low leucine)
  • 6.25 gm of whey protein with 5 gm of leucine (low protein, high leucine)
  • 6.25 gm of whey protein with 5 gm of leucine + added isoleucine and valine (the other branched chain amino acids). (low protein, branched chain amino acids).

The results were clear cut:

  • The high protein shake (25 gm of protein) was far superior to the low protein shake (6.25 gm of protein) at enhancing post workout protein synthesis. This is consistent with numerous other published clinical reports.
  • Adding 3 gm of leucine to the low protein shake had no effect on post-workout protein synthesis, but 5 gm of added leucine made the low protein shake just as effective as the high protein shake at supporting post-workout protein synthesis.

In short, leucine can improve the effectiveness of a low protein shake, but you need more leucine than if you chose the high protein shake to begin with.

  • Adding extra branched chain amino acids actually suppressed the effectiveness of leucine at enhancing post-workout protein synthesis. These data suggest:
    • Leucine probably is the major amino acid responsible for the muscle gain reported in many of the previous studies with branched chain amino acids.
    • If the other branched chain amino acids play a supporting role in the muscle gain, the quantities that occur naturally in the protein are probably enough. Adding more may actually reduce the effectiveness of leucine at stimulating muscle gain.

While this is a single study, it is consist with numerous other recent clinical studies. It simply helps clarify whether leucine can increase the effectiveness of a low protein supplement. It also clarifies the role of branched chain amino acids.

Also, while this study focused on protein synthesis, numerous other studies have shown that optimizing post-workout protein and leucine intake results in greater muscle gain (for example, Westcott et al., Fitness Management, May 2008)

The Bottom Line

Research on post-workout nutrition to optimize muscle gain from the workouts has come a long way in recent years. It is now actually possible to make rational choices about the best protein supplements and foods to support your workouts.

  • If you are a young adult (17-30), you should aim for 15-20 gm of protein and about 2 gm of leucine after your workout.
  • If you are an older adult (50+), you should aim for 20-25 gm of protein and 3 gm of leucine after your workout.
  • If you are in between you are on your own. Studies haven’t yet been done in your age group, but it’s reasonable to assume that you should aim for somewhere between the extremes.
  • If you are getting the recommended amounts of whey protein, the leucine level will also be optimal. If you are using other protein sources you may want to choose ones with added leucine.
  • The research cited above shows that you can make a low protein supplement effective by adding lots of leucine, but that’s going to require artificial flavors and sweeteners to cover up the taste of that much leucine. I would recommend choosing one that provided adequate protein to begin with.
  • While the research in this area is still somewhat fluid, I would avoid protein supplements with added branched chain amino acids other than leucine. If the paper I cited above is correct you probably get all of the other branched chain amino acids you need from your protein and adding more may actually interfere with the effect of leucine on muscle gain.
  • I’d pretty much forget all the other “magic ingredients” in post-workout supplements. If you’re a novice there is some evidence that arginine and HMB may be of benefit, but if you have been working out for more than 6 months, the evidence is mixed at best. As for the rest, the clinical studies are all over the map. There’s no convincing evidence that they work.
  • Whey protein is the best choice for enhancing muscle gain immediately after your workout. Soy and casein are better choices for sustaining muscle gain over the next few hours. If you’re looking at meat protein, chicken is a particularly good choice. Four ounces of chicken will provide the protein and leucine you need to sustain muscle gain for several hours.
  • Even if you are not working out, recent research on dietary protein and leucine has important implications for your health. In a recent “Health Tips From the Professor” I shared research showing that optimizing protein and leucine intake helps to increase muscle retention and maximize fat loss when you are losing weight.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Trackback from your site.

Comments (8)

  • Mikell Fuhrmann

    |

    Hi I am confused but I just listened to the State of the Union speech & I’m
    old. I have taken ESP Shaklee protein for 20 yrs. not over weight, exercise off/on still have biceps but wrinkles on my upper arms. Is this just
    another part of aging? I am 76 yo. Like your tips. Thanks

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Mikell,
      At 76 biceps are good. The wrinkles are more likely due to sun exposure and age than to protein deficiency.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • Pam McDonald

    |

    Great article. Correct me if I’m wrong, but why doesn’t Shaklee’s Physique include leucine in their ingredients? Thanks

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Pam,
      If I had my way every company would list the amino acid composition of their products. However, it is not required. And whey protein is considered a complete protein, so amino acid composition information may not be necessary. As I said in my article, whey protein supplements that provide enough protein generally provide enough leucine as well.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • nick

    |

    Well done. Although I agree with most of your post, I disagree on the added BCAA’s having a negative impact on the Leucine Trigger. Yes some research suggest otherwise, but most good studies do not. That being said, All whey proteins are not the same. We know from the human genome project and subsequent human proteome project that “quality’ of protein, and in this case Whey, has a tremendous impact on genomic response. Most mass produced whey comes from inferior or lesser quality bovine–CAFO raised. Over 80% of the market carries this inferior whey. Most are also denatured, where the bonds are broken between the amino acid link thus distorting that proteins unique finger print or key like structure, if you will. Proteins are the environmental signal for genes to encode or make the 350k or so proteins that make up all the tissues of our body. If you denature the Whey, as with most Mass market Whey, it can’t unlock the genes encoding potentiality. Then you have to consider all the supporting cast necessary for the highest absorption and utilization possibility, such as: Prebiotic’s, Probiotics, enzymes, minerals and trace minerals. The particular transport system in the gut requires this combination in fairly exact quantities.

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Nick,

      I agree that it is premature to declare that BCAA’S have a negative effect on the leucine trigger based on a single study. However, it is pretty clear from multiple studies at this point that most of the benefits attributed to BCAA’s in general are due to leucine alone. We need adequate amounts of the other BCAA’s, but it is not clear that we gain any extra benefit from higher levels of any BCAA except leucine.

      The rest of your argument is misguided. It appears to be based on the assumption that proteins can be absorbed from the intestine intact. In fact, all proteins need to be broken down to individual amino acids to be absorbed by the intestine. When that does not occur and proteins or portions of proteins are absorbed into the bloodstream intact, such as in “leaky gut” syndrome, they are recognized as foreign antigens by our immune system and can trigger inflammation and a number of serious diseases.

      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • Jay Goodman

    |

    Dr Chaney, it was awesome to meet you this last weekend! So can you provide any updated studies on Leucine? I would love to read it!

    Reply

Leave a comment

Recent Videos From Dr. Steve Chaney

READ THE ARTICLE
READ THE ARTICLE

Latest Article

Calf Cramps Remedy

Posted February 20, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Don’t Let A Leg Cramp Stop You Short

Author: Julie Donnelly, LMT – The Pain Relief Expert

Editor: Dr. Steve Chaney

 

calf cramps remedyGetting a leg cramp while you are running can be the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”  If you don’t treat it properly and quickly when it is happening, you may limp to the finish line, and you can suffer from its effects for days afterward.  I will show you the best calf cramps remedy below.  First, let’s go over spasms and muscle cramps.

A spasm and a cramp are similar because it’s a shortening in the muscle fiber, but that’s where the similarity ends. A spasm is a slow-forming shortening of a group of fibers that tie up into a knot in the muscle. You can feel a spasm with your fingertips, it feels like a bump as you slide along the full length of the muscle. With a spasm, as you press down and slide, it doesn’t hurt until you get to the spasm, and then it can really hurt. But then it stops hurting as you slide off the spasm. A spasm refers pain to the insertion points of the muscle and frequently doesn’t hurt where the spasm has formed (that is, until you press on it).

Why Do Your Muscles Cramp?

calf cramps remedy muscle crampsA cramp (Charlie horse) is when all the fibers of the entire muscle suddenly and violently contract. The muscle will quickly shorten and can go into a huge knot, or it will just totally shorten.

Usually a cramp happens in your calf muscle, although it can happen to any muscle in the body.  Your calf is comprised of two major muscles, the gastrocnemius and soleus. The gastrocnemius, which is shown in this graphic, originates behind your knee and inserts into your Achilles tendon.

Visualize the muscle suddenly shortening, pulling up on your Achilles tendon, and becoming a mass of tight knots through the entire muscle.

Muscles have an “all or nothing” response.  This means that when a muscle fiber contracts, it will shorten 100% of its length.  It never starts to shorten and then make a U-turn and lengthen.  A cramp is seriously painful, and if you try to stretch it out as it’s happening, you can tear the muscle fibers. In fact, that’s the reason it hurts for sometimes days after the cramp.

A Calf Cramps Remedy You Can Administer Yourself

calf cramps remedy squeezeThe best thing to do is to squeeze the two ends of your calf muscle together, which will help the cramp complete as quickly as possible. This will hurt, but for less time than the normal cramping process.  Hold your calf tightly, as shown in this picture, and continue to press the two ends toward each other.

Hold it until you can breathe normally (about 30-45 seconds), and then release. Breathe for a minute or so, and then push the two ends together again.  This second time won’t hurt, you are only doing it to make sure that all the fibers have completed the contraction.

calf cramps remedy hold sittingOnce you have stopped the cramp, don’t stretch…yet. You need to flush out the hydrogen ions (AKA lactic acid) that rapidly built-up in the muscle during the cramp.

There are many ways to self-treat your calf. If you are out on the road you can either sit on a bench or lie on the ground and put the sore calf onto your opposite knee.  Press down and hold the pressure for 30 seconds. Then deeply press along the muscle going from the back of your knee toward your ankle.

calf cramps remedy opposite footYou can also use your opposite heel and press deeply, straight into your calf.

Start at the top of the muscle and move down toward your ankle. Stop whenever you come to a point that is especially painful. The point should be close to the area shown in this picture.

Hold the pressure for 30-60 seconds, or until it doesn’t hurt anymore.  Release, and then repeat 2-3 times.

Complete this self-treatment by squeezing your calf muscle, like you are wringing out a wet towel.  This will force blood into your muscle and get your circulation moving again.

Proof That My Treatments Work

I once taught this technique at an Ironman Triathlon during a 15-minute session I was giving to the triathletes.  Several days later a triathlete emailed me and told me that he had a cramp as he was running, and he did the treatment I’d taught him.  It cost him a few minutes (he wasn’t in the top three, so the time loss wasn’t a huge issue) but he was able to get up and get back to running, totally without pain.

About a mile later he got a cramp in the other leg, but he automatically started to just stretch it like he’d always done before.  He ended up limping all the way to the finish line, and days later it was still hurting.  He wanted to let me know that my cramp treatment really worked great.  This was especially helpful because I’d always wondered what body chemistry did to the outcome of treating a cramp, and here I found out that chemistry wasn’t involved in the treatment of the muscle fibers.

What To Do After The Calf Cramps Remedy

If the cramp happens during a race or athletic event, knowing how to stop it, and these quick massage techniques, will get you back into the game. But it hasn’t totally resolved the issue. Finally, when you have the time to be detailed (after the race, in the evening, etc.), it is important to work out all the spasms and then stretch properly.

When you are treating the muscles afterward, I suggest you consider getting an analgesic cream that goes way deep into the muscle fibers. Use it when you are massaging the muscle, but don’t put it on before you play, run, or before/after a shower because it will go too deep into the muscle and burn like crazy. After you do the treatments, use ice &/or arnica gel (get it at a good health food store) to heal the bruised muscle fibers and help with pain and swelling. Arnica is fantastic, it’s an amazing homeopathic remedy that has been around for ages and really works.

Naturally you will also want to make sure you hydrate properly and that your diet, vitamins and minerals are all in balance.

calf cramps remedy bookCramping is a common problem athletes face, but with a little bit of effort you can prevent muscle injury and get back in the race quickly!

You can find the full treatments for your muscle cramps by going to my book, Treat Yourself to Pain-Free Living . This book has treatments for your entire body, from your head to your feet.  YOU are your own Best Therapist!  Stop pain quickly and easily with self-treatments you can do anytime, anyplace.

Wishing you well,

Julie Donnelly

julie donnelly

About The Author

Julie Donnelly is a Deep Muscle Massage Therapist with 20 years of experience specializing in the treatment of chronic joint pain and sports injuries. She has worked extensively with elite athletes and patients who have been unsuccessful at finding relief through the more conventional therapies.

She has been widely published, both on – and off – line, in magazines, newsletters, and newspapers around the country. She is also often chosen to speak at national conventions, medical schools, and health facilities nationwide.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

UA-43257393-1