If you regularly go to the gym or are serious about your training, chances are you've heard of BCAAs. We answer all your questions about BCAAs so you can decide if they're right for you.
What is BCAA and what does it do?
BCAA stands for Branched Chain Amino Acid and is a compound found in protein. All protein is made up on amino acids and there are essential amino acids and non-essential amino acids.
Essential amino acids are named as such because the human body cannot make them, so we need to get them from food. The 9 essential amino acids are: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
There are 11 non-essential amino acids, which are amino acids that the human body can make itself. There are 11 non-essential amino acids: alanine, arginine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, a substance that plays a crucial role in many biological processes and functions. We need protein to build and repair muscle, and if you workout hard and often get DOMS, protein is what will help you recover and stop feeling so achy.
Related: Can You Exercise When You Are Sore
Is BCAA good for weight loss?
Taking a BCAA supplement won't facilitate weight loss specifically. The only healthy way to achieve weight loss is to eat in a calorie deficit, meaning you are eating fewer calories than you are burning in a day. What BCAAs do is help your body recover quicker and better after tough workouts, as they supplement your amino acid intake which are building blocks of protein.
If you eat a rich and varied diet, you may well not need to take BCAA supplements because you will be getting all the essential amino acids from food. However, if you eat quite a restrictive diet and do a lot of weight/strength training, you may find that a BCAA supplement can help you take on all 20 amino acids, both essential and non-essential.
Do I take BCAA before or after a workout?
You can consume a BCAA supplement either 30-45 minutes before a workout or immediately afterwards. It's ideal to take on a hit of protein within 30 minutes of finishing a strength workout so that your body can absorb the protein and use it to help build and repair your muscles.
Try this upper body arm workout for women to blast your arms and get results! Including exercises for biceps, triceps, and shoulders. Perfect for toning and sculpting your arms and bingo wings.
Cable Tricep Pull Downs
This exercise is for isolating the triceps.
How to perform the tricep pull down
Using either a straight bar or rope attachment, attach to a cable machine in the high position. Standing with your feet shoulder width apart, pull the bar down and keep your elbows tucked in. Push the bar down, fully extending your arms, then slowly raise the bar up back to the start position. Keep the movement control and feel the burn in the back of your arms!
Key exercise tips:
- Keep the elbows tucked in
- Fully extend the arms
- Exhale as you press down and inhale on the way up
- Too much movement of the arms – taking the elbows away from the body
- Shrugging the shoulders and using the trap muscles
- Going too heavy and using momentum
This is a great cardiovascular exercise that will trim and tone the arms whilst simultaneously working the core and blasting the shoulders.
How to use the battle ropes
Hold the ends of the rope at arm's length in front of your hips with your hands shoulder-width apart. Brace your core, soften your knees, and begin alternately raising and lowering each arm explosively. Keep alternating arms for 30 seconds. After 30 seconds, instead of making waves, start slamming the rope into the ground. Make sure to keep breathing and don't hold your breath!
Key exercise tips:
- Tense your abs tightly during performance
- Concentrate on keeping your speed fast
- Don't hold your breath
- Sacrificing technique with fatigue
- Performing the exercise for too long
Dumbbell Bicep Curls
This is an isolation exercise for the biceps using a pair of dumbbells.
How to perform the dumbbell curl
In a standing position, holding a dumbbell in your hand and keeping your elbow pinned to your waist, curl your arm up to your chest, flexing your elbow then slowly extend it back down again. Repeat on each arm for 10-12 reps.
Key exercise tips:
- Keep your elbow in a fixed position
- Fully extend your arm at the bottom of the movement
- Moving the elbow out of alignment
- Going too heavy and sacrificing technique
- Swinging the body with the movement
Tricep Bench Dips
This is a body weight exercise that you can do virtually anywhere. It’s a compound exercise, which means it will hit all three of your tricep muscles as well as your shoulders and chest muscles.
How to perform the tricep bench dip
Position your hands at shoulder width apart on a bench with your hands facing forward. Extend your legs out, taking your bum off the bench balancing on your hands.
Lower your body down towards the floor taking your arms into a 90 degrees bend. Press your body upwards, extending out your arms back into the start position.
Key exercise tips:
- Keep your core tight to maintain an upright position
- Make sure your elbows track in line with your hand
- Breathe in as you lower and breathe out as you press up
- If you find it difficult to perform the tricep dip with straight legs then bend your knees placing your feet flat on the floor
- Rounding/curving back
- Not going low enough
- Hyperextending the elbows
The squat is one of the biggest exercises in fitness. It is a huge compound movement that can help to improve your fitness and strength in a number of ways. But what if you can't squat properly? How can you improve your squat?
Why can't I squat properly?
Squatting is a natural, functional movement that humans have been doing since the dawn of time. When we were young we would squat perfectly and naturally without even thinking about it. Just take a look at a child playing around, they'll drop into a squat and get back up again without a second thought. As we age, we get less and less good at it as we lose mobility and become sedentary in our lifestyle.
If you can't squat properly, it could be due to lifestyle or it could be due to your personal physiology. If you haven't done a squat since you were a child, you can't expect to do one perfectly first time you try. Like everything, exercises take practice, and you should ask an expert or fitness professional to give you guidance the first time you try to squat.
Some people have more reduced mobility than others, which may also affect your squat capabilities. If you have stiff or weak ankles, you will struggle to squat. Again, practice makes perfect, and with the right physio training, you'll be able to do a full, proper squat in no time.
Squats are a compound movement, meaning they use multiple joints and muscles to happen. A simple body weight squat utilises almost every muscle in the body and arguably once weights are added, no muscle gets left behind. It's a good idea to get well acquainted with the body weight squat before you add weight, so that you can be sure you have good form.
How to do a squat
- Begin with feet just outside shoulder width and toes pointing very slightly outward.
- Find a point to focus on looking straight ahead, don’t look down as this will compromise your spine.
- Head up, sink your weight back into your heels and bend your knees.
- Sink your bum down as low as your hips and flexibility allow.
- Your chest should stay upright and your back remains flat, the knees should follow the toes.
- Driving off your heels, straighten back up to the start position.
How to improve your squat
Lack of Range
A lack of range in your squat is usually caused by stiffness, inflexibility or even ankle instability. If your heels lift off the ground towards the bottom of your squat it is likely that you have either tight hamstrings, ankles or both. Stretching the ankles and hamstrings will help to achieve the full squat depth.
Knees collapse inwards
Your knees caving inwards during a squat is a common sign of weak abductors and gluteus medius, although there can be many other reasons as with any imperfection. Exercises which focus on activating these muscles such as lying clamshells, banded squat walks and single leg lunging can help to activate these areas. This being said, there are olympic athletes whose knees collapse inwards as they compete, who clearly don’t suffer from ‘weak’ anything. So it is not the only cause.
Back caves forwards when squatting
A weak posterior chain can lead to bending forward as the lower back attempts to make up for the weakness and ends up pulling you forward. Strengthening the hips, glutes and hamstrings will enable them to engage better and pull your body back to the correct alignment.
An arched back when squatting can be caused by a multitude of problems, a weak chest, poor posture, a weak trunk or even simply too great a weight can cause the shoulders to arch, compromising your squat technique. Trying to establish the cause of this imbalance can often be the most difficult task, but then there are simple steps which can be implemented in order to address the issue. A weak chest can be worked on by focusing on exercises such as flyes and pullovers, whilst fully engaging the pecs by forcing the shoulders back. A weak trunk can be improved by working on core strength using exercises such as the plank and hanging leg raises.
The barbell squat
Olympic squat, weighted squats, whatever you want to call it, this is when the squat becomes a game changer and has the greatest effects not only on strength but on weight loss, fitness and body composition. Weight training has a whole article of benefits of it’s own which you can read under “strength training”.
The first battle, do I use a neck wrap or not? To barbell squat you will need an olympic bar, collars and a rack. You will not need: Chalk, lifting gloves or a neck pad for the bar. If you hold the bar correctly you don’t need to use a pad to support your back, that’s what you’ve got traps for. What’s more - wearing a neck brace can damage your proprioception, you need to be able to feel the bar properly for effective balance. Padding makes the bar thicker, moving it upwards which causes a more forward lean and emphasises lower back stress. As your weight lifting gets serious and your strength increases a bar pad won’t be any help anyway. Heavy weights hurt.
Setting up to barbell squat
This is another common trait many will miss, despite the fact they’re in the gym, we can still call these people lazy, as they’re the ones who don’t want to faff with moving the rack to fit them properly, which can lead to poor technique. As someone who is 5 ft 2, I physically HAVE to set the bar up every time, as at most people’s height, I’d be trying to lift it over my head! The bar should be set at a height somewhere between your breast and collar bone. It needs to be low enough that when you stand with knees locked, the bar lifts off the rack, without you going on tip toes. It’s a squat not a calf raise.
Once you’ve set the bar up, it’s time to step under it, place the bar across your shoulders and select your grip. This is another vital piece of the puzzle. Follow these steps:
Step up to bar. Duck under bar. Make sure head is central. For a high placement, the bar sits across the neck, resting on your traps, for heavier weights the bar is usually placed slightly further down, so the weight is more central and therefore less likely to cause damage to the lower back. Keep your hands as close as possible without causing strain, which will flex the upper back and provide “cushioning”. Point your elbows down, straighten your wrists and keep your elbows in.
That’s the setup, so this is the moment where you have a stern word with yourself, big yourself up and then go for it. You should be able to straighten and un-wrack in just two steps, if you have to lift the bar any further out you could put yourself at risk.
The squat technique itself is almost identical to a bodyweight squat, except now you’ve got a badass weight on your back. The main factor here is to make sure you keep your head facing forwards rather than looking up, as this will cause compression at the top of your spine.
Once you have the basic squat perfected, the possibilities of where you can take it are endless. In our next post we will look at squat variations, so keep your eyes peeled!
Hitting a plateau and not being able to improve your running speed can be very frustrating, but there are lots of ways to get faster at running. We take a look at how to become a better, faster runner.
How can I improve my running speed?
There are lots of ways to improve your running speed, so trial and error will definitely be a factor in finding what works best for you. We take a look at four of the most tried and tested ways that are proven to improve your running speed.
If you're looking to improve your 5k PB, then a pace run is definitely for you. A pace run is a shorter run (of around 20 minutes) where you run at your threshold, a pace where you can't hold a conversation and it feels difficult the entire time while still being doable. You should feel like you're really pushing yourself for the entire duration of the run and you need to stay focused throughout.
Interval training can take many forms, such as HIIT which is high intensity or Fartlek which means 'speed play'. Speed play interval training mixes up the speeds and inclines of a run randomly so that your body can't get used to the workload. This is a great way to improve your overall fitness as your body can't adapt to the stress and therefore has to keep working to improve. HIIT training can be a little more repetitive, such as run for 30 seconds, walk for 30 seconds, repeat. Intensity training will really help to improve your overall running speed by improving your fitness and aerobic abilities.
This is the one we love to hate, or perhaps hate to love! Running uphill improves leg strength as well as maxing out your aerobic capacity and therefore improving your overall running fitness. It's great for improving your speed and will also mean you're more prepared for runs on different terrains so that you don't have to slow down or walk when you hit a hill in a race.
Tweaking your stride length could be the secret you're missing when it comes to getting faster at running. The longer your stride, the faster you will be, however a very long stride does put extra pressure and strain on your joints. If a very short running stride suits you, there's no reason to increase it. However, if you still want to get faster after exhausting your other options, this could be a good way to speed up your runs.
How can I run longer without getting injured?
There are many things which will impact how often you get injured. Don't ignore the signs that you might be overtrianing and make sure you know how often you should take a complete rest day. Making sure that your muscles, bones, and joints are strong will be a big factor in reducing injury time. The best way to strengthen your muscles and bones is by doing strength training.
Make sure you're comfortable
There's nothing worse than being uncomfortable during a run, having to keep pulling up your running leggings or feeling restricted can be the difference between a great one and a terrible one. You won't be able to run fast and reach your full potential in the wrong leggings. Make sure you find ones with a personalised fit by looking for a drawstring waist, or for women, high-waisted running leggings might be best.
This is your one-stop guide to the infamous Russian kettlebell swing. A fantastic exercise to add to any workout routine, we're here with all the info you need on why you should be doing it, how to do it properly, and top tips for maximising results.
Visit our Kettlebell Training links for progression and other Kettlebell Training exercises
Benefits of the Kettlebell Swing
Kettlebell swings are initiated with a powerful hip thrust using your glutes and hamstring muscles. Each movement is short and powerful and therefore can increase your overall power in performance; great for triathletes and runners.
Strengthen your core without crunches
The abdominal muscles remain engaged throughout this movement to stabilise you, giving them a great workout in a functional way. Crunches are good at strengthening your abs in an isolated way, but kettlebell swings can strength the entire core as part of a full body movement.
Burn a lot of calories
Combining weight training with power training takes your heart rate through the roof and training at this kind of high intensity will have a massive calorie burning effect as well as creating EPOC (excess post exercise oxygen consumption), meaning you continue to burn calories even after the activity has finished.
Develop hip flexibility
Our hips are fragile, so working on movements which develop hip hinge strength can help to prevent injuries and replacements in later life. The kettlebell swing will work your glutes and other muscles surrounding the hips as well as keeping them supple.
Condition your lower back
When performed correctly, the kettlebell swing helps develop strength in the back whilst carrying a load. If the lower back immediately aches when swinging, it’s usually the first signal of poor form, although it could be injury or many other issues. Increasing the strength in your lower back can reduce back ache in everyday life as well as improving your posture, especially if you sit at a desk all day.
Muscle pulls against the bone which not only builds muscle but also strengthens the bone, thereby increasing your bone density which is important for staying healthy as we age. As well as burning more calories than fat, the more muscle you have the better chance you have of having a high metabolism.
Build cardiovascular endurance without a treadmill
The high speed and duration of kettlebell swings elevates your heart rate continuously throughout the exercise like regular cardio, so you can skip the treadmill.
Improve coordination and focus
Swinging a heavy object in front of your face requires considerable coordination and concentration. Working on kettlebell swings will work your mind just as much as your body and will help to develop the areas of the brain that communicate between brain and body.
How to: Russian Kettlebell Swing
For the Russian kettlebell swing, we only swing the bell in line with our shoulders; other variations see the kettlebell swing all the way above the head and this is commonly seen in sports such as CrossFit. When the bell is taken above the head it becomes an American swing.
- Place the kettlebell about 30 cm in front of you on the ground and stand with a wide stance. Feet just outside your shoulders with your knees slightly bent.
- Bend at the hips to reach down for the kettlebell with bot hands, keeping your back straight.
- In one swift movement, lift the kettlebell as you thrust your hips forward, as your hips reach full extension the kettle bell should swing in line with your shoulders.
- As you allow the bell to swing back down return to your start position before firing up for the next swing.
Top Tips For The Kettlebell Swing:
- Keep the motion fluid so you don’t stop between reps.
- Thrust with the hips, do not arch with your back.
- Don’t drag the kettlebell up, it should be the force of your hips causing it to travel, not your arms dragging it upwards.
- Breathe out as you thrust the bell forward.
- Practice makes perfect!
What is the difference between a Russian Kettlebell Swing and an American Kettlebell Swing?
This one is a big debate in the world of Kettlebell training and there are arguments for why either exercise is better.
The Russian swing uses explosive power hinging at the hips to take the bell to shoulder height before swinging back to the start position. The American swing take this one step further, forcing the swing all the way up above your head.
“We don’t do half rep pull-ups, we don’t do half rep squats, and we don’t do half rep push-ups. If there is a natural range of motion to any movement we like to complete it. To do otherwise seems unnatural.” - Greg Glassman, founder of CrossFit
They have gone so far as to call the original Russian Swing a “half rep”. This is a difficult argument to make, as taking the bell over the head can lead to arching the back and has the potential to impinge the shoulder joint as there is the potential for flexion beyond the natural range of movement, at the moment when the bell passes the ears you are at most risk as it would be easy for the bell to continue moving passed the desired angle.