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What is muscle maturity?

“Muscle maturity” is often mentioned when comparing bodybuilders competing on stage. Typically, the term is used to explain why a young bodybuilder has a harder time reaching the hard and grainy look of someone older, or otherwise much more experienced. Preaching the possibility of gaining muscle maturity is often an effort to reassure a new bodybuilder of future potential. However, actually defining muscle maturity is quite debatable – exactly what it is depends on whom you ask.

Many fitness publications, even accredited medical journals outlining the principles of animal growth and development, construe muscle maturity as a maximization of muscle fiber size. Strength athletes frequently – often erroneously – interpret a stubbornness to build muscle and strength as reaching peak genetic potential. Everyone begins weight training at various degrees of genetic endowment, but truly maximizing one’s potential for muscle growth is at least as hard to define as muscle maturity itself. Muscle gains usually stop due to insufficient nutritional habits or poorly designed exercise programs – both parameters must evolve with the athlete. Furthermore, failing to train the body’s muscular systems symmetrically can stall results; such as favoring upper-body training while ignoring the lower extremities. Symptoms of overtraining syndrome result in chronic fatigue and drops in limit strength. Also, administering anabolic-androgenic steroids increases blood androgen levels to supra physiological values. Exogenous hormone use supports muscle acquisition beyond genetic predispositions. If muscle maturity is synonymous with reaching genetic limits, administering AAS for an ergogenic effect would blur this defining moment.

Some fitness enthusiasts connect muscle maturity to changes in neuromuscular coordination. When beginners first start bodybuilding, muscles quiver under loads due to a lack of properly developed motor control. In time, consistent rehearsal using proper form leads to less involvement from antagonist and supportive muscles. After years of resistance training, muscular bodybuilders develop a capacity to execute movements with maximum intensity; while less conditioned individuals have a harder time focusing efforts. Consistent and progressive training results in more efficient agonist muscle activation, stronger contractions and greater pumps. This adaptation to exercise eventually allows sudden and dramatic increases in muscle strength, size and definition. However, this pivotal change in a bodybuilder’s athletic progression more accurately explains the process of muscle memory – not maturity.

Muscle hardness seems to vary amongst individuals, based on age and exposure to strain. The basic make up of muscle tissue is consistent amongst all mammals; it’s composed of tiny tube-like fibers with the ability to contract, either voluntarily or involuntarily. Young and generally inactive muscle is soft; as illustrated at the local butcher shop by comparing veal to meats obtained from matured cattle. Veal is known for its tender texture and originates from inactive and young calves. To potentiate this softening affect prior to slaughter, some farms keep calves in small containers to restrict their movements. It seems reasonable to associate muscle maturity with a threshold where muscle loses tenderness.

In April 2007, the Department of Animal and Food Science conducted a study examining the tenderness and oxidative stability of post-mortem muscles from cows of various ages. The researchers confirmed meat is most tender in young animals and muscle fibers become tough and hard when subject to a lot of muscular action; according to biopsies obtained from necks and leg tissue. Advanced maturation not only intensified cow meat toughness but also lowered its oxidative stability. Collagen, the basic substance of the connective tissue bundling groups of muscle fibers together, is known to breakdown easier in young and tender muscle tissue, when boiled in water. This fibrous protein gets tougher with age due to an increasing number and type of cross-links. In this respect, muscle maturity could refer to a change in the muscle tissue’s architecture; more specifically, a change in collagen solubility.

At low body fat percentages, the thickness of encompassing tissue will have the greatest influence over the outward appearance of underlying muscle. Enlarging muscle fibers with progressive resistance training stretches surrounding fascia and thins out the skin. Stretch marks occur when skin stretches fast enough to rupture elastic fibers. Skin thickness varies greatly between different body sites. The thinnest epidermis lies over the abdominals and thorax. The arms and legs are generally wrapped in the thickest layers of skin – especially over the palms and the soles of feet. Changes in epidermal thickness by age are difficult to measure but varies greatest in older populations. Through all ages, men have thicker skin than women. In clinical studies, men’s skin has demonstrated a gradual thinning with advancing age, whereas women’s skin thickness remains more constant until the post menopausal years, after which it also declines. Hormonal patterns could play a significant role – androgens in particular. Interestingly, both sexes exhibit a linear decrease in skin collagen throughout a lifetime. Collagen contributes to skin’s smooth, plump appearance – beauticians are always on the look for ways to boost collagen levels and repair collagen damage. For bodybuilders trying to obtain a hard and grainy appearance, the natural decrease in skin collagen might not be so bad. Once again, collagen seems to play a role in obtaining a hard and grainy look.

What is muscle maturity? Bodybuilders tend to associate muscle maturity with achieving a tough and serrated appearance at low body fat percentages. This visual effect is likely to occur only after proper motor skills are developed and muscle adapts to intense training demands. Some trainees obtain the look faster than others, but genetic anomalies set aside, the phenomenon is most often realized after many years of conditioning muscles to progressive overloads. Subsequent changes in collagen, within muscle and skin, may play major roles.

Concurrent training conditions

Strength and endurance training compliment each other for superior athletic performance. Resistance training increases strength limits, muscle mass, bone density and neuromuscular coordination. Cardiorespiratory exercise improves endurance capacity and blood circulation, while making it easier to maintain a healthy body weight. The two training methods draw from different energy pathways, and have few overlapping effects in the body. Problems can arise with concurrent training programs – especially in maximizing strength development.

Strength training recruits anaerobic energy systems, wherein creatine phosphate and lactic acid provide the main sources for fuel in the absence of oxygen. Programs using progressive overloads train a person above their lactate threshold, a level at which lactic acid is produced faster than it is removed. This byproduct of anaerobic exercise causes muscles to temporarily lose their ability to contract against resistance. Anaerobic metabolism is not sufficient for sustained activities – it’s best for short burst of force – but it can be improved through resistance training for increases in limit strength and muscle mass. This energy pathway is essential in sprinting, gymnastics and weight lifting.

Endurance training draws heavily on aerobic metabolism, an energy system that requires the presence of oxygen. Activities lasting longer than 30 seconds start to pull from aerobic energy pathways. This oxidative system has a low rate of energy output, but it can sustain activity much longer than the more powerful anaerobic pathways. Maximal oxygen uptake, or VO2 max, is highly trainable through regular exercise. Strong aerobic fitness is a requirement for long-distance running and swimming.

Strength and endurance training produce widely diversified adaptations in the body; as such, they require significantly different approaches to exercise prescription. Robert C. Hickson first revealed the concurrent training phenomenon in 1980, which opened the flood doors of interest for further investigations. Subsequently, many early studies were against any concurrent training. Linear periodization routines, alternating training cycles from one element to the other, became exceedingly popular.

In December 1999, researchers from the Centre for Sports and Exercise Science in New Zealand published a study demonstrating that endurance training inhibits strength development when compared to strength training alone. They hypothesized that skeletal muscle cannot adapt metabolically or morphologically to both strength and endurance training simultaneously.

In March 2000, continued research was published by the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation at the University of Alberta, Canada. Their findings supported the contention that combined strength and endurance training can suppress positive adaptations to strength training. This effect is largely influenced by increased secretion of cortisol, the body’s natural stress-fighting and anti-inflammatory hormone. Elevated cortisol levels put the brakes on muscular development by promoting protein breakdown.

Two years later, a study published in March 2002 contradicted recent reports. Researchers from the Department of Orthopedics, University of Wisconsin-Madison, demonstrated that concurrent performance of both strength and endurance training does not impair adaptations in strength, muscle hypertrophy and neural activation. However, their research was based on 30 sedentary male subjects. Concurrent training’s negative impact is less obvious in individuals unaccustomed to regular exercise. This is likely due to a greater potential for improvement.

In March 2003, research was published by the Neuromuscular Research Center in Finland. It was demonstrated that even low-frequency strength and endurance training leads to interference in explosive strength development in conditioned muscles. This was mediated in part by the limitations of rapid voluntary neural activation.

In July 2008, researchers from Tunisia and Australia published a study examining the effects of concurrent endurance and circuit resistance training on muscular strength and power development. The aim was to determine the influence of intrasession sequencing. According to the authors, the order for endurance and resistance exercise during a workout did not alter the fact that increases in strength and power are significantly greater in those performing resistance training only. Decreasing workout frequency can improve strength gains but resistance training alone, without concurrent endurance training, seems to be the best option. In other words, goal-orientated training, using periodization techniques, continues to prevail.

As fitness levels increase, more specificity must be injected into exercise prescription. When increased muscle size and strength is most important, avoid a lot of concurrent endurance training. Efforts focused on improving aerobic fitness should only be augmented by attempts to maintain strength levels – in order to preserve muscle mass, avoid sports injuries and improve neuromuscular coordination.

If an athlete is already taxed by heavy training demands, then any additional activity, of any kind, won’t be of benefit. Symptoms of overtraining syndrome can hamper both strength and endurance performance. Ultimately, the way you train should be based on your goals, fitness level, personal abilities and environment.

Chtara M, Chaouachi A, Levin GT, Chaouachi M, Chamari K, Amri M, Laursen PB. Effect of Concurrent Endurance and Circuit Resistance Training Sequence on Muscular Strength and Power Development. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 22(4):1037-1045, July 2008.

Hard and heavy versus slow and steady

Building greater musculature requires an open-minded and problem-solving attitude, one that continuously evolves with the athlete. In the beginning, changes in body composition come easily but continued success is never linear. Bodybuilders and powerlifters who repeatedly attempt a slow and steady pace ultimately hit progression plateaus; in which symptoms of and subsequent degradation of performance emerge. To continue to grow, eventually everyone must learn how to properly an exercise program to inject more training variety. Using these principles, cycles of extreme intensity – bursts of hard and heavy training – can ignite new found gains.

Sudden changes in environmental stressors generate changes in organisms. Supportive patterns can be found in evolutionary models – where rapid adaptations were perceived necessary for the survival of a species. Organisms may perish if stress is too intense; on the other hand, no adaptation occurs if it’s insignificant. Mammals readily thrived after the extinction of dinosaurs. Fossil records reveal millions of years of stability before dramatic changes occurred in the human genome. Quickly increasing environmental demands resulted in sudden changes in physical characteristics, adaptations that ensured the survival of prehistoric humans. These rapid changes in genetic material have resulted in searches for “missing links” by archaeologists, hypothetical organisms identified by scientists to explain gaps in discoveries.

Surges in development are readily identifiable during individual life spans. Childhood is the most prolific period of physical development. Newborns, toddlers and teenagers do not maintain linear rates of development. Growth spurts during puberty are well known experiences during a healthy transition into adulthood. Girls often become taller at alarming rates – seemingly over night for some. Properly virilized boys often realize drastic changes in vocal patterns and muscularity during pubescent stages.

Competitive bodybuilders routinely grasp the concept of growth surges during the training period following a successful fat-loss diet for exhibition. The post-contest training phase is often reported to be a highly rewarding opportunity to increase musculature. Even in recreational bodybuilders, the idea of priming before a growth period is gaining popularity. This preparatory phase can include several weeks of gradual fat loss dieting or a general maintenance routine – depending on individual needs. It’s succeeded by a sudden increase in training intensity with a decrease in workout volume. Frequency must also be adjusted in an attempt to routinely apply a progressive overload. The goal is to retrain at the crest of overcompensation from the previous workout – not too early (over reaching) or too late (detraining).

Drug-assisted bodybuilders can design a pre-cycle priming diet that slowly optimizes body compensation prior to starting a mass-gaining cycle of anabolic-androgenic steroids. The fat-loss period is immediately followed by administering supra physiological amounts of anabolic hormones to maximize anabolism for a potent growth phase. With an adequate priming period, steroid cycle duration can drastically decline. Less time spent on the anabolic hormones results in less unwanted side effects as a result of their use.

The body resists adaptations in hopes of maintaining homeostasis; especially if the demands are deemed insignificant. After graduating from the beginner stages of bodybuilding, plan for training cycles that ramp up training intensity and force the body to break past strength plateaus. They should be brief enough to avoid over reaching, but long enough to optimize muscular development. Individual characteristics, such as physiological and psychological barriers, will determine how long, or often, these bursts in training should occur.