For many years in the world of performance, there has been a dichotomy between research oriented sports science and the application by the practitioners of strength and conditioning. One of the primary reasons for this is that lab or research work often does not occur in the right kind of setting to map back to actual performance on the field or in the weight room. The skilled practitioner has been able to utilize research and lab findings to establish best practices, but understanding individual muscular or physiological differences in real time for athletes has been a challenge. Recent developments in technology are changing that landscape, making many such research and lab tools more accessible to coaches. Surface Electromyography (sEMG)has been an example of a useful tool in the lab that has limited application in day to day training because of the complexity of using it in performance settings and the difficulty with which the data is presented. sEMG has traditionally been a research tool that has been used for many years in the research and laboratory setting to measure the electrical signal or motor unit activation in a muscle. This provides incredibly useful data on the way muscles are used by athletes in different training motions and modalities, especially if it can be measured in performance settings.
The Importance of sEMG and How It’s Applied
Whenever we perform a movement in sport, whether that is a back squat in the weight room or a jump in a game, a chain reaction is initiated so the muscles take appropriate action. The brain and central nervous system (CNS) coordinate on what movement the body is about to do, and what muscles (and how much) are going to be needed to complete the movement. The CNS then sends an electrical signal to the appropriate muscles to recruit muscle fibers. Generally speaking, the more intense, stressful or explosive a movement is, the more muscle fibers will need to be recruited. This is the essence of sEMG and where its application lies. sEMG essentially measures the amount of electricity being transmitted into a muscle group and the corresponding muscle tension, which provides insight into which muscles are most recruited in any exercise. As a very basic example, the corresponding sEMG reading would tell someone how much the gluteus maximus muscle is used in back squats or the pectoralis major is used in bench press.
This has been an extremely important research tool in controlled settings to evaluate which exercises can generate the most muscle fiber recruitment, and very general patterns of muscle recruitment in an exercise. However, the downside of sEMG as an applicable tool for coaches in the trenches has always been its lack of practical use. Traditionally, an sEMG reading required a laboratory and expert to interpret the data, which meant an athlete did not use it in their actual setting of the weight room or sport. Moreover, it was nearly impossible to screen for individual differences in a team as it was not practical or time efficient. Finally, without the ability to measure sEMG in real-time, it was impossible to measure it in actual game-play and correlate the data to interpret what training programs would best ensure athlete readiness throughout the competitive season.
Accessibility of sEMG has changed in recent years with the advent of new technologies. What used to require a full laboratory can now be done using wearable tech pieces during training that utilize new tools such as Bluetooth or wireless transmission of data enabling real-time data and feedback for coaches on an athlete’s performance. Companies such as Athos and mBody have been pioneering a new frontier of training and performance with the ability to gather sEMG data to improve its applicability to training. This is a vital new tool that is available to performance teams, and will help the training professional remove much of the guesswork that goes into training programs.
If You’re Not Assessing, You’re Just Guessing: Using sEMG Data to Make Informed Training Decisions
Strength and conditioning, and performance training are scientifically based fields. However, without the technologic capabilities necessary, for years it has relied on the trained eyes or intuition of skilled practitioners to create and implement effective training programs. It was also up to experience and intuition to understand how to make adjustments as variables or circumstances change. This has unfortunately created many instances where trial and error must be used to find the right protocol for each athlete. With the advent of wearable sEMG tech that can send back data in real time, coaches and trainers can now make the needed training interventions with greater accuracy and ensure readiness.
As an example, an sEMG reading can give insight into one of the key variables of proper training ratios, that being a quad to hamstring strength or engagement ratio. In the weight room, an athlete overly reliant on their quadriceps strength built on the field often will compensate in their squat movement pattern rather than engage the posterior chain of hamstrings and glutes, thus missing a key component of their training. sEMG real-time feedback that both coach and player can see now make it easier to either use an alternate exercise or load to teach the athlete to engage their hamstrings more effectively, or can create a more clear and effective dialogue between the coach and player on how to perform the given exercise more effectively. Another application of this, perhaps even more relevant, is using real-time wearable tech to understand if an athlete effectively uses their hamstrings to aid in deceleration in changes of direction during practice and games or if they are too reliant on their quads and at risk of a potential knee injury. The wearable sEMG tech now gives the coach an opportunity to coordinate an athletes training program with the exact components needed on the field, in this example improving hamstring engagement in a deceleration motion to improve both tri-phasic muscle reaction but also reduce the chances of injury.
Creating the Dialogue: Using sEMG as a Tool to Improve Sport Coach to Strength Coach to Athlete communication
sEMG’s effectiveness as a wearable technology and real-time data on muscle engagement is critical for assessment, program design and adjustment. Yet it’s most important contribution to the performance training process may be its ability to provide objective clarity to important training discussions. In athletic performance and sport, performance is often dependent solid communication between the sport coaches, strength and conditioning or performance coaches, athletic trainers, and the athletes themselves. One of the most contentious points has often been coordinating practice loads with training loads and the health needs or injury issues for athletes, not to mention the athlete’s mental capacity to train at high levels and make technical adjustments necessary to facilitate better performance. However, with muscular stress data on how athletes are performing in practice, games and training, coaches can coordinate with trainers and communicate with athletes based on evidence rather than educated guesswork. Using this methodology based on muscular endurance and/or engagement, a team approach based on data and evidence can be applied to issues such as return to play protocols for injured athletes, appropriate in-season training based on local muscular performance or fatigue, and finding the correct balance of practice volume as compared to training needs. These are often difficult conversations to have as they based primarily on opinion, however with evidence and data on muscular usage during practice, training, and rehab, these conversations can be much more productive.
Integrating sEMG Into Your Training Program:
In summary, sEMG training is an incredibly useful tool for helping coaches at all levels of performance, and athletes, create and implement better training programs. Having real-time data on muscle imbalances, recruitment patterns and other key performance indicators can take much of the guesswork out of the training process. In addition, it is an invaluable tool for creating a well-informed dialogue between all parties to find the best training solutions possible.
In order to integrate sEMG into your training program, the first step would be to do your own research on sEMG, how it best applies to your particular program, and which product is best. Athos has wearable technology with real-time data as an example, which is ideal as the tech can detect any muscular issues, imbalances, or otherwise and get readable data to the coach quickly so an intervention can be taken as needed. Bottom line, any tool that allows coaches and athletes make more informed decisions when training, especially in regard to muscular recruitment and development, is a game-changer and one of the best tools available!