Comparing ZMA with BCAAs (Branched Chain Amino Acids) is a bit like comparing ZMA with casein protein: They’re very different, one isn’t necessarily better than the other, and both can be used to enhance recovery.
ZMA is a specific formulation of magnesium, zinc, and vitamin B6, originally formulated to promote athletic recovery. (My favorite version, the one by True Athlete, incorporates the calming amino acid l-theanine as an added bonus.) While there’s mixed evidence ZMA boost muscular and athletic recovery, it is well known and documented (and documented anecdotally by yours truly) to improve sleep quality. And since better, deeper sleep makes for better athletic recovery, the original intent still stands in a big way. ZMA is one of the supplements I reach for first to wind down and get a good night’s rest after a tough workout.
BCAAs (branched chain amino acids) refer to leucine, isoleucine, and valine, three amino acids that can promote protein synthesis and muscle growth. They can provide energy for new or novice athletes during exercise, and people who practice intermittent fasting often use them to help prevent muscle loss while in a fasted state. However, if you’re active and eat a diet rich in protein, you probably don’t need to supplement BCAAs — the amino acids in BCAAs are found in most complete protein sources, so whey protein or casein is often a better bet.
So in a nutshell, it isn’t necessarily one or the other when it comes to ZMA and BCAAs; they’re different supplements with different uses. Because leucine has a somewhat bitter taste, I prefer taking standalone BCAA supplements in pill form; Optimum Nutrition’s version has been my go-to in the past.
Some people have reported difficulty sleeping right after taking BCAAs, and it’s something two of my gym friends have reported to me before. I’ve never had trouble with it, and I’ve also stacked ZMA with Theanine and BCAA supplements before bed. I do eat a diet pretty rich in protein, though, and these days I prefer stacking ZMA with casein or whey protein instead. For those looking to promote protein synthesis/muscle growth AND take something that helps with nighttime rest, Iron Dream by MusclePharm includes both a robust sleep stack and several amino acid blends, including BCAAs. I’ve enjoyed it in the past for nighttime recovery — for what it’s worth, my favorite flavor is fruit punch.