All of us have seen these EMG studies that have come out over the years and I think there are some things that need to be clarified when we’re talking about EMG studies because it’s not as accurate as you might think. Quite the opposite actually.
EMG studies are done by basically hooking up electrodes to different heads of your muscles and having those people do different lifts to see the amount of (neural) muscle activation going on that we can read with a computer.
The problem with this type of study is that we cannot verify the accuracy of it.
For example, we do studies where we put different electrodes on all three heads of our deltoids and traps, and start doing shoulder exercises.
Because of the possible inaccuracies of the way studies are done, the exercise that might show up as number 1 for the most activation of the side delt, might in reality be number 4 on the list of exercises. We have no way of actually knowing that because there is a very large margin for error.
The reason that it isn’t accurate is because these electrodes just give surface readings on the skin off of a single point.
How To Perform An Accurate EMG Study
You need to be sure of a few things if you want to take one of these EMG studies and get a truly accurate reading as to which of these different lifts activates the most muscle fibers and gives you the best neural-muscular recruitment with a given weight during a given lift.
The two things you have to take into account are:
- Relatively Equal Loads. We would need to sure that the lifts are performed with relatively equals loads. For example, perform every single lift with your 5 rep max (5RM). If there is a 10% difference in their intensity then obviously they are going to get that large of a difference on a lift and you can actually mix up the order of the lifts during the reading of which one is the most effective.
- Electrodes Positioning. Because these are surface readings off of a single point, it doesn’t make it them very usefull. The electrode only reads the muscle fiber recruitment on that location, near the surface. The recruitment would be totally different if you moved the electrode an inch to either side or if it was inside the muscle. If you wanted to get truly accurate, we would have ethical issues performing the study correctly. The accurate way would be to take a biopsy needle and insert it an inch or two into the muscle that you hook the electodes to. On top of that you can’t just put one in. For your deltoid, you’re going to need as many as 10 to 15 inserted into the muscle that are left in there while the person is performing the lifts. So when he is doing a lateral raise, he has 10 to 15 needles with electrodes stuck into his delts an inch or two deep. It’s also important to leave all the needles in throughout all the lifts and the whole study because if you move a needle you can mess up a reading between different lifts. These studies can last as long as 30 minutes.
So we can run into ethical issues or even the issue of finding a volunteer willing to do this and risking muscular damage. Lifting with these needle left in for that long can actually cause trauma to the muscle, tearing and scar tissue.
Neural Muscular Efficiency
Another reason why EMG studies aren’t accurate is because neural efficiency varries between people.
If you have someone that has been doing the decline dumbell press and not the flat barbell bench press very often, they’re going to have better neural muscular efficiency through training that motor pattern of the decline dumbell press.
With better neural muscular efficiency they are going to lift more weight easier for the EMG and they’re going to see more muscle activation.
So if you were to have an accurate reading on them, that person is going to recruit more muscle fibers while doing that exercises versus another person. Purely from doing the exercise more often and getting efficient in it.
Whatever exercise the person does most often in their routine for a given muscle group is probably the one that is going to give superior EMG readings, IF the EMG study was actually accurate which it isn’t.
Accurate To a Degree
So we can’t really do these types of studies accurately. Keep that in mind whenever you see an EMG study coming along.
Yes, EMG studies are nice to have an estimate if a muscle has good activation or poor activation on a certain lift, but they cannot pin it down to the degree that they are showing on the studies. You can’t say ”It’s getting 50% activation”. You absolutely cannot get anywhere near that percise.
All we can look at and answer is:
- Is this muscle activated?
- Is this muscle activated quite a bit or minimally
- EMG studies can show you if a muscle has good activation or poor activation on a certain lift.
- You cannot pin the activation down to the degree in percentages that they are showing on the studies.
- Another reason why EMG studies aren’t accurate is because neural muscular efficiency varries between people.
- Performing the EMG study correctly would be an ethical issue.
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