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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.

Mary Jane, meet Willie Workout

A creative mind is a horrible thing to waste, so long as good judgment supersedes inventive initiatives. Certain lifestyle choices can enhance intellectual creativity in people – by altering environmental perceptions and allowing for more open-minded attitudes. When reaching for the mountainous peak of innovative design, it’s important to know when you just fell off the summit. This concept is important in bodybuilding.

Mary Jane is a creative genius. Her habit of smoking marijuana is coupled with unique, often resourceful, cleverness. Anyone submerged in a pot-smoking social atmosphere has seen examples of this in action. According to Mary, smoking devices can be constructed from almost anything – soda cans, tool sets, spare parts, housewares – water bongs further extend the range of possibilities. Mary once constructed a bong that incorporated a 12-foot PVC pipe and a 55-gallon fish tank. She hosted some great parties with it. Unfortunately, the school of Clownfish eventually gave in to the chemical shift in their salt water habitat.

Creative mindsets are most certainly seen in bodybuilders, individuals with a relentless desire to build their muscles to skin-splitting dimensions. Occasionally trainees end up performing some pretty obscure movements in an attempt to shape their bodies into superhero proportions. In all their extreme efforts, underlying principles tend to get lost in the wind – progressive overloads, intensity versus volume, specific adaptations to imposed demands and the law of diminishing returns.

Willie Workout was in the gym yesterday. To train legs, he balanced himself on top of a Swiss ball. He stood in a position that seemed to command the hands of God for support. Nonetheless, he repeatedly attempted full-range squats on the inflatable sphere – while using elastic bands wrapped around an adjacent power rack for resistance. Everyone’s curiosity peaked, staring in awe as if a bull-riding rodeo was unfolding in the gym. Unfortunately for Willie, the only growth stimulated were bruises, from falling on the rack and getting slapped by flying rubber.

Like always, he breezed past the owner’s brand new t-bar row. Willie prefers to pivot a barbell in the corner of the gymnasium walls. After loading one side with two 45-pound plates, he straddled the bar and started pulling. Meanwhile, the bar’s opposing end wiggled against the wood work – each repetition threatened Willie’s manhood. Some sounds are hard to replicate. Willie getting his nuts suddenly slammed by an iron bar is one of them.

Next, Willie stood facing a wall-mounted mirror with a Kettlebell in his hands. Like a demolition wrecking crew, he repeatedly swung the iron ball. He finally stopped once the associated tenderness in his neck seared in like a hot cattle brand.

His final routine on the Smith machine is not easy to explain. In Willie’s case, pain is intelligence leaving his body.

“What about basic compound lifts, like barbell bench presses?” I asked.

“I don’t bench, it hurts my shoulders,” he replied.

If muscles grew from creativity alone, Willie would be an enormous bodybuilding success.

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.