Electromyography (EMG) is a scientific method of testing muscle activity. It is well regarded, some say, in the non-scientific community because of the simplicity of a stronger reading means stronger muscles. However, it is neither popular or as well-studied as it could be so, the question remains as to its effectiveness.
Considering EMG is not a popular choice, the following questions may come to mind:
- Where is the efficacy in applying it to training?
- Should there be a narrower focus on exercises with higher peak or mean EMG performance?
- What risks do we run by narrowing our views to said exercise groups?
The purpose of this article is to supply a brief overview of EMG, its application to exercise, and lastly, should everyone undergo EMG specific training, or will journals/articles suffice in exercise choice?
Neurological EMGs Versus Kinesiological EMGs
Electromyography (EMG) is an experimental technique concerned with the development, recording, and analysis of myoelectric signals. Myoelectric signals are formed by physiological variations in the state of muscle fiber membranes.
This can be further classified into neurological and kinesiological EMG.
This article will discuss kinesiological EMG only as its function most closely relates to training regimes, voluntary neuromuscular activation, and functional movements. Unlike neurological EMG tests, kinesiological EMGs are non-invasive.
In short, we are looking at how muscles fire during movement, and in the case of exercise, what movement innervates the intended muscle group more for the said individual.2
- The setup time for a kinesiological EMG study is minimal as the only objects involved are electrodes, which can be hardwired to a device or sent wirelessly to an accompanying receiver.
- Electrical current does not run through these electrodes. Instead, it measures the output of various muscles during a functional movement.
- However, for each EMG study, the cost associated could be in from the mid-hundred-dollar range to three hundred dollars. By comparison, neurological EMGs, can run into thousands of dollars and require insertion of needles into the muscle and close monitoring.3
The other inherent risk is who conducts the study.
Time can be wasted if the professional does not set up a movement properly or does not understand the output data.
It is best to hire someone trained, such as a physical therapist, sports medicine doctor, or specialist with certification in EMG or even NEUBIE devices. Benefits extend into the competitive sector for bodybuilders and active sports’ athletes.
Lastly, an unintended risk of EMG testing for exercise choice is narrowing one’s variation in exercises.
Take Olympic lifting, for example; the movements tested during competition are the clean and jerk and the snatch.
However, during training, front squats, back squats, overhead press, deadlifts, and pullups (to name a few) are executed during a program.
It will be to the practitioner’s detriment if an EMG result causes a psychological effect.
The foci of exercises orbits around these core exercise ad infinitum, avoiding the ones that improve mobility, plyometric work, and balance.
Integrating EMG into Your Training
The safest way to begin EMG training is to:
- Hire a certified professional.
- Set up days where there are maximal recovery options.
In recovering effectively between sessions, primary muscle groups can fire more effectively, thereby improving the study’s effectiveness.
In the said study, the professional learns to ascertain which movement pattern presents the greatest bang for one’s buck.
It accomplishes this by measuring the mean and peak activation during contraction of the intended muscle group while shifting positions.
For example, in the gluteus maximus muscle group recruitment, one can look at the sumo deadlift, which places the trainee in a static abducted stance versus the glute abduction machine, versus a resistant band fire hydrant movement.
The professional then walk through the data and identify these two values, and compares them per movement.
In discussing with the client, the professional would opt to perform one movement over another to have the maximal effect during a training session alone.
EMG sessions should not be treated as an intense workout session.
Instead, it should be akin to a laboratory test or doctor’s visit where you are liable to spend either a brief time due to the muscle areas in question or a significantly longer time due to optimizing larger muscle groups.
One might ponder if EMG training is right for them.
Follow the Science in Your Quest for Performance
It is understood that Instagram pages are littered with gurus and trainers who have all the answers and are obviously doctors of kinesiology, physical therapists, and orthopedic surgeons.
The authority I am referring to is legitimate coaches in the field with experience and degrees who contribute to science.
Within this body of science, articles generate pearls on EMG studies, illuminating why certain movements are performed in contrast to another.
Nevertheless, in practicality, no one has time to read all those studies, and unfortunately, unless you’re in that niche, no one cares. They want to be given the answers.
So, if you want the answers, pay for them.
Pay for it by a structured process, consistency in the gym, hiring a coach, and reading summarized literature from reputable resources (wink, wink, nudge, nudge).
EMG studies are beautiful, and they take away the guesswork.
Lucy will perform heavy hip thrusts, RDL’s and sumo squats to make her booty pop.
Meanwhile, Andrea modifies her hyperextensions and resistance band glute work.
Is EMG a Luxury for Athletes Only?
Does EMG serve us well across the board, or is this a luxury only to be spent on competitors or athletes?
The questions I would like you to think about are as follows:
- How long have you been training?
- Do you train to stay fit or develop a certain aesthetic?
- How frequently do you train?
- Have you hired a coach and or professional before?
- Do you have disposable income?
- Do you foresee yourself competing?
- What data outside of exercise preference are you trying to collect? I.e., provides the best assistance in a sprint or passing a physical exam.
- Are you injured or returning from injury? I.e., relearning how to activate muscle groups.
- Do you enjoy and are you open to being observed or studied?
- Is maximal hypertrophy your end goal?
- Have you tried to bring up lagging body parts without success?
If you answer the previous questions accordingly, you may want to consider EMG.
1. Konrad, P., “The ABC of EMG. A Practical Introduction to Kinesiological Electromyography,” Version 1.4, Mar 2006, 5-30.
2. Basmajian, J. V., DeLuca, C. J. “Muscles Alive: Their Function Revealed by Electromyography,” Pub, Williams and Wilkins, Baltimore, 1985. 2 – p1.
3. Dr. Arthur Kornblit, MD., “How Much Does an EMG Test Cost?” Spend On Health, accessed January 20, 2021.