EMG (electromyography) is the measurement of the electrical input to “activate” a muscle, and is often used as an indication of how much force the muscle will produce. It can be a useful research tool, and one that I’m very familiar with, having spent my two years of grad school working in the Exercise Neuroscience Lab at UMass Amherst. That said, the results from EMG-based studies, especially surface EMG, are frequently misquoted, misinterpreted and poorly applied.

Today’s Thursday Throwback discusses some of the limitations to EMG, and what you should be on the look out for as someone that is likely to read someone else’s interpretation of these studies. As I always say, if you want better answers, you have to ask better questions. Today’s post (and the linked article) will help you do just that.

Were You Duped by EMG?

Last week I got an email from my friend Rob McLean with the Colorado Avalanche in reference to an exercise that is considered the “best” because it produces higher EMG levels than other exercises. Rob’s question was, simply, “what do you think?”

A couple years ago, I wrote an article for StrengthCoach.com that Coach Boyle was gracious enough to allow me to re-post at my site here: EMG for Strength Coaches

This article identifies and explains a lot of the common myths associated with interpreting EMG-driven research and is a great starting place for people new to EMG altogether. There are additional considerations when interpreting EMG research that I think are relevant to those in training and sports medicine professions and to the general “fitness enthusiast”, as it will allow you to better spot bullshit (and bullshit interpretations) when you see them.

False Assumptions

1) Force Production = Force Expression
People tend to equate EMG activity with instantaneous force production. Because of the time course associated with the electrical input signal stimulating a mechanical action, this is an inherently misguided notion. That said, even with this assumption, force production does not always equate to force expression.

Force production is the mechanical tension developed in the muscle. Force expression is how that force translates into movement or the control of movement. The two differentiate primarily based on activity of synergistic and antagonist muscle groups and structures. As an oversimplification, envision the biceps brachii producing 5 units of force and the triceps brachii producing 0. You can imagine that the elbow would flex at an appropriate speed based on the force production of the biceps. Now envision an identical situation, but with the triceps producing 4 units of force. The elbow would still flex, but now it wouldn’t be 5 units of expressed elbow flexion force, it would be 1. This example removes all syngerists and the concept of connective tissue tensegrity and mechanical force dispersion, but provides a simple illustration of the difference between force production and force expression.

Isolation without integration is never the goal of a hockey training program

Often times it’s force EXPRESSION that we’re most concerned with, not force production. The major take home here is that EMG studies that focus on the comparison of activity within a single muscle and compare this amongst different exercises completely overlook the importance and inevitably of antagonist and synergist activity.

2) More is Better
The underlying assumption and arguably largest misinterpretation of EMG is that MORE activity is a GOOD thing. In reality, EMG activity always needs a contextual qualifier to rationalize whether increased activity is beneficial or detrimental. My friend Jim Snider from U of Wisconsin did a great job of explaining this in his presentation over the weekend at BSMPG’s Hockey Symposium. Not every muscle plays the same role within the body. There are segmental stabilizers that create a stable base from which more global mobilizers can function. More EMG activity in these stabilizers, especially at the expense of coordinated firing patterns relevant to their true function in movement, is likely detrimental to performance.

This is about as functional for hockey as smoking cigarettes

Secondly, it is often the case that the goal of any given muscle is to use the absolute bare minimum of activity necessary to accomplish a given task. This is true in the interest of energy preservation. This is one of the reasons why we don’t coach a “hard brace” during plank exercises. In this situation, we’d be encouraging a high threshold strategy for a relatively basic task. Instead, we aim to optimize body position and ensure proper breathing patterns and simply allow the nervous system to appropriately interpret the force needs to provide accordingly. Utilizing high threshold strategies for low threshold tasks has a number of other deleterious implications, but that of excessive energy use is not to be overlooked.

I fully understand why some interpret EMG studies the way they do, but isolating an individual muscle in EMG is no better than attempting to isolate individual muscles in training. There are likely more implications for this research in a rehabilitation setting than in a training setting, but in both environments it’s important not to overlook the vast mechanical and neurological integration of human movement. Getting back to Rob’s question, my rationale for including some exercises and excluding others goes well beyond isolated gross neural input signals. Every exercise we use serves a specific purpose and fits within a linear and/or parallel progression. In other words, my interpretation of an exercise’s proficiency is based on my particular training philosophy and system, which is likely quite different from most others. As always, it’s important to critically analyze information as it becomes available and not get caught up in something just being “new”. Remember, hyped up garbage is still garbage!

To your success,

Kevin Neeld

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As the next segment in my “Throwback Thursday” series, I wanted to repost an article discussing the bilateral deficit. This article was originally published in June of this year (2013, if you’re coming to us from the future), which doesn’t make it much of a throwback, but the last post on “Rethinking Bilateral Training” (which you can find at the link posted below) generated some questions about the topic so I thought it was appropriate to follow up with this one. Enjoy, and as always, post any questions/comments you have below!

Understanding the Bilateral Deficit

Over the last several years, the bilateral deficit has received a lot of attention in the training world. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, the bilateral deficient (in the lower body, where the majority of this research has been conducted) simply refers to a phenomenon whereby the sum of force production from each leg individually is greater than the force production of both legs together. I covered this topic in a fair amount of detail 5 years ago in an article for StrengthCoach.com, which Coach Boyle was nice enough to let me repost on my own site here: Rethinking Bilateral Training.

Since then, there seems to be the misunderstanding that anytime an exercise is performed with one limb with a load greater than 50% of the two limb equivalent (e.g. a 180lb 1-leg stiff-legged deadlift versus a 300 lb 2-leg stiff-legged deadlift), that the explanation lies within the bilateral deficit explanation. It’s important to remember that the bilateral deficit is largely a neural phenomenon. While limitations in neural drive can certainly be a limiting factor in exercise performance, especially with fatigue or with untrained individuals, it is far from the ONLY limitation to exercise performance. Two of the more common culprits are stability and force production from other musculature.

Stability as a Limiting Factor

If you draw a rectangular box around your feet during a traditional back squat, the box represents your base of support. Naturally, a narrower stance would narrow the base of support, as would having smaller feet. During a traditional back squat, lateral stability isn’t likely to be a limiting factor to performing the exercise. Some novice lifters have trouble with anterior-posterior (front-back) stability, as the rectangle is much wider side-to-side than it is front-to-back.

In contrast, during a split squat (which I recognize is a different pattern altogether), the base of support represented by a rectangle drawn around the feet may be of comparable area to the traditional squat, but now the rectangle is much longer front-to-back and narrow side-to-side. Simply, this means that anterior-posterior stability is sound, and lateral stability is more likely to be compromised or a limiting factor in the exercise.

Lastly, during a 1-leg “pistol” squat, the base of support is only as large as the individual’s foot. In this example, anterior-posterior AND lateral stability are compromised. This significant decrease in the base of support will absolutely limit the external load the athlete can use during this exercise. If someone can back squat 400lbs and only 1-leg squat 50-100 lbs of external load, the bilateral deficit may still be in play, but the limiting factor to further loading in this exercise does not lie in a neural drive explanation, but instead in a compromised stability one.

Jen Poulin Deadlifting

The limiting factor to Jen Poulin pulling 495 is not likely to be her base of support.

Note the considerably decreased base of support and therefore greater challenge to stability with this exercise compared to the traditional deadlift.

At this juncture, it’s worth pointing out that comparing external load to internal load across exercises is somewhat vague. One of the proposed benefits of SOME single-leg exercises is that you’re able to load the involved musculature to a greater degree using less external load compared to double-leg exercises. For example, Coach Boyle stated several years back that at a certain point for most athletes, the ability to stabilize through the core/torso during the back squat becomes the limiting factor to increasing squatting load.

Using this thought process, let’s postulate that an individual can stabilize sufficiently to squat 400 lbs, but not 405. Knowing that the core can’t maintain regional integrity and stiffness above this load, it’s logical that an athlete may be able to rear foot elevated split squat (to full depth) with 275. While the loading pattern is different, the difference between the load used in the single-leg variation is notably higher than 50% of the bilateral version because the limiting factor of core stability is removed, and the true threshold of lower body force production capacity is more closely approached. This may also provide evidence in favor of the bilateral deficit. Tying things back to the original discussion on stability as a limiting factor, at some point of loading, lateral stability in this exercise is likely to limit further external loading, but in my experience this point is still well beyond the 50% back squat load and therefore still holds merit as a progression or alternative to traditional squatting. This, of course, is in addition to the other benefits of single-leg exercises, which is beyond the scope of this discussion.

Additional Muscular Force Production as a Limiting Factor

Recently, there have been a few discussions on single-leg Olympic lift variations. As with almost any exercise, I think it’s possible to develop an argument for why these variations hold merit, and how they may help improve some target athletic ability.

That said, I don’t think the differences between loads used in double-leg and single-leg O-Lift variations lies in the bilateral deficit. If an athlete has a hang clean 1-RM of 200 lbs and has optimal technique, the limiting factor to increasing loads is likely to lie in an inability to generate enough extension force/velocity to accelerate the bar upward. It’s likely that this athlete would be able to put 50% of this load (e.g. 100 lbs) on the bar, set-up in a high hang position (bar above mid-thigh) and simply shrug hard and drop beneath it to catch it. In other words, even with a damped lower body/hip component, the athlete can move 50% of the full hang clean load. This is an important point when looking at the differences between double- and single-leg Olympic lifting variations because the lower body component has been decreased, but the upper body component is the same. With any lateral stability, the athlete SHOULD be able to single-leg clean more than 50% of their double-leg load because they aren’t truly cutting their force generating musculature in half. This really highlights the importance of considering ALL of the musculature involved in a given lift.

As you can imagine, the limiting factor in a one leg clean will likely come back to lateral stability, and ability to center the bar over the support leg, which comes back to the previous discussion. As another example, a strong athlete may be able to hang snatch a 100lb DB, but not a 110 because of an upper body power limitation, which would clearly not be a limiting factor for this athlete with a 60lb DB. Despite 60lb being over 50% of the 100lb load, an athlete may be able to 1-leg 1-arm snatch a 60lb DB because the limiting factor has now changed from an upper body power limitation to potentially a lower body stability/base of support one. Ultimately, understanding the limiting factor in the performance of any given lift is key toward improving within that lift or selecting a different exercise that may provide a higher ceiling.

To your success,

Kevin Neeld

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A couple days back, I wrote an article on the benefits of Generation UCAN as they pertain to maintaining/achieving low body fat levels AND in avoiding the deleterious effects of an over-reliance on carbohydrates. If you missed it (or want a re-read!), you can check it out here: UCAN Break Carbohydrate Dependence

The general idea of that article was that we don’t want to rely on high-intensity systems when we don’t need them. This is true from both a performance and fuel perspective, and has significant implications on training program design. This conversation highlights a change in my thinking regarding program design that stems from interactions I’ve had with Patrick Ward, Joel Jamieson, and David Tenney. Most recently, I spent 4 days with Patrick when I was out in Phoenix for a Postural Restoration Institute seminar. As Patrick described it, programs can be designed with a solitary or combined focus of these foundations:

  1. Exercise Progressions
  2. Energy System Utilization

While I think most people reading this are familiar with exercise progression concepts, the idea of energy system utilization congruency might be less familiar. A simple way to grasp this concept is to refer back to the article from last week: Peak Performance and Diet Design Seminar. More specifically, the list of physical quality competing demands from Dr. Issurin provides a structure through which we can begin to understand how to design programs around energy system congruency.

  1. Aerobic Endurance: Alactic (Sprint) abilities, strength endurance-aerobic, maximum strength-hypertrophy (after)
  2. Anaerobic (Glycolytic) Endurance: Strength endurance-anaerobic, aerobic restorative exercises, aerobic-anaerobic (mixed) endurance
  3. Alactic (Sprint) Abilities: Aerobic endurance, explosive strength, maximum strength-hypertrophy (after), aerobic restoration exercises
  4. Maximum Strength-Hypertrophy: Maximum strength-innervation, flexibility, aerobic restoration
  5. Learning New Technical Elements: Any kind of training modality, but after the dominant tasks

This list refers to a basic physical quality or energy system, and what other qualities can be developed concomitantly without the interfering with each other. Recently there has been an increased focus on high intensity interval training (or “Anaerobic/glycolytic endurance” in the list above) as a primary conditioning method for athletes. If you refer to the list above, you can see that this approach can be used coincidentally with training for anaerobic strength endurance, aerobic-anaerobic endurance, and aerobic restorative exercises. Notably absent from this list are many of the other major qualities that are important for both hockey players and almost all other team-sport athletes: alactic (sprint) abilities, maximum strength-hypertrophy, maximum strength-innervation, and explosive strength. 

Strength matters

Related to my previous post, putting such a high emphasis on anaerobic/glycolytic training, such as that commonly used during high intensity interval training sessions, will not only interfere with the development of other qualities, it will also make the body reliant on the glycolytic system (carb dependence!), which has a limited fuel supply, creates a high degree of stress on the body and has longer recovery times, especially in the absence of a well-developed aerobic system.

There is a time and a place for this, but this type of training should not be used haphazardly

Interestingly, last off-season I made some changes to our off-season conditioning progression based solely off of my feelings about how the athletes recovered from the progression in the previous off-season that appear to be in line with this “energy system utilization congruency” idea. That said, there is always room for improvement and I’ll be readdressing this for all of our athletes in the coming weeks.

Early in my career, if you would have said “energy systems training” I would have said, “sure, conditioning.” Recently, I’m finding that EVERYTHING is energy systems training, and viewing things in this light will have pretty profound implications on how I design programs in the future. A related take home is that it’s important to be proactive in seeking new information and to continually improve yourself. In this regard, it’s helpful to stand on the shoulders of giants, to learn from the best in the industry. Patrick, David, and Joel have been outstanding resources for me, and I’m confident they will be for you too. If you haven’t already, start looking into their work, much of which can be found here: StrengthCoach.com

Lastly, remember that you only have a couple days left to save $100 on Joe Dowdell and Dr. Mike Roussell’s Peak Diet and Training Summit Package, which includes 12 DVDs and 3 manuals with over 500 pages jammed full of quality training program and diet design information. Go here to take advantage of their offer before the price jumps! Peak Diet and Training Summit Package

To your success,

Kevin Neeld

P.S. If you’re interested in more information on energy systems training, Joel posted a great video from a talk he gave that you can watch for free here: A New Perspective on Energy Systems Training

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I hope you had a great week. We’re wrapping up another busy week at Endeavor. The hip assessments have spawned some interesting results that you’ll be interested to hear about in the future. Of the 20 guys I’ve tested, 1/4 have a structural abnormality that will absolutely need to be accounted for in their training, and the test is really easy to perform.

If you’re looking for an informative way to spend a few hours this weekend, we’ve posted a ton of stuff at Hockey Strength and Conditioning over the last few days. Check out what you’ve been missing!

Sean Skahan posted Phase 3 of his ACL rehab program. As Sean continues to post these progressions, it’s interesting to note that these don’t look like rehab prescriptions for a broken player. They look like a quality training program with some small pieces missing to account for the player’s injury. Hopefully this will continue to shed some light on the physical and mental efficacy of training around a player’s injury, and not just shutting the player down completely for the skeptics out there. Check out the program at the link below:

Click Here to Read >> ACL Rehab Phase 3 from Sean Skahan

My favorite Canadian David Lasnier had another terrific article posted on off-season hockey training. David has been on fire over the last month, as he’s had articles featured at StrengthCoach.com, SportsRehabExpert.com, and HockeyStrengthandConditioning.com (not bad for a guy who speaks English as a second language). All he needs now is to do a webinar for Anthony Renna’s LesWebinarsDeStrengthandConditioning.com and he’ll have officially “made it”! This article breaks down the complexities of off-season periodization into an easy to understand format that can be applied easily. This is the exact model we use to train our hockey players in the off-season at Endeavor Sports Performance.

Click Here for David’s Autograph>> Hockey Off-Season Periodization from David Lasnier

Mike Potenza posted an article outlining his philosophy on training throughout the playoffs. Whether you’re inclined to agree to disagree with his philosophy, I think he does a great job of pointing out that the NHL playoffs are far from short-lived. Those preaching to pack-in the training and basically do nothing at all may lose sight of the fact that, ideally, the team would be in the playoffs for about 3 months. Three-months of no training is sure to exacerbate hockey-related imbalances and detrain important physical capacities. Certain qualities (e.g. speed, conditioning) can be maintained well through on-ice work if it’s of sufficient intensity and duration. Other qualities will surely degrade (e.g. strength, power, structural balance). For some players, their confidence and overall durability are tied to certain physical qualities (e.g. strength), so it’s important not to overlook this when making decisions about late season and playoff training strategies.

Click Here to Read >> Playoff Training Model from Mike Potenza

Mike also added two videos on foam rolling and static stretching pairs, one for the upper body and one for the lower body (4 each). If you only have 5-10 minutes to get this work in, these series are good ones to follow.

Click Here to Watch >> Roller/Static Stretch Combos from Mike Potenza

Lastly, that Neeld guy slipped one past the guards and added an article on rotator cuff training for hockey players. This article highlights the most overlooked function of the rotator cuff and presents a few exercises to train it that you may not be expecting. In the interest of “prehab”, these exercises have extra value in that they aren’t isolative in training focus. In other words, they aren’t just “rotator cuff” exercises; they create a training effect for multi-directional core strength and stability, posture/movement pattern reinforcement and lower body strength (one of them).

Click Here to Read >> A New Look at Rotator Cuff Training

As always, the forums has been packed with some great discussions over the last couple days. When you sign into the site, be sure to check that out. Even in short threads, guys are posting videos and links to other resources that you won’t want to miss.  If you aren’t a member yet, shell out the $1 to test drive Hockey Strength and Conditioning for a week. If it’s not the best buck you’ve ever spent, I’ll personally refund you!

To your continued success,

Kevin Neeld

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Happy Groundhog Day! Hopefully Bill Murray won’t see his shadow so we stop getting dumped on with all this snow!

For whatever reason, my ’99 Saturn is pretty good in the snow. Although, if you looked at it, you’d probably be wondering what is holding it all together. Last week on my drive back home from Endeavor, I stopped on the side of the road to help out a van that had swung off the road into a ditch. As I approached, I saw that there were two guys trying to push it up the small bank as another hit the gas. I hopped in behind the van on the left side to help push. About 4 seconds later, the van hit an icy patch, slid a few inches to the right, and I got blasted in the face with mud from the back tire. The next 15 minutes was filled with more of the same, but eventually we were able to push it out. The moral of the story is twofold

  1. If you see someone stuck on the side of the road, do what you can to help. Not everyone is okay on their own and most people don’t want to shell out the hundreds of dollars to be pulled a few feet by a tow truck.
  2. When abiding by “1”, opt to push in the middle…it’s much cleaner.

Over the last couple weeks I’ve been told on multiple occasions that I look like “that guy from Modern Family.”

What?! I’m not a red-head. I’m not gay! (Not that theres anything wrong with that)

The concept of the show highlights, as the title alludes to, the structure of the modern family in America. Having heard this comparison for the 3rd time in a few weeks and having just re-listened to Alwyn Cosgrove and Mike Boyle’s State of the Industry got me thinking about the structure of the “modern strength coach.”

In the development of a strength and conditioning professional, the commonly assumed path seems to be:

  1. Get a degree
  2. Get a certification
  3. Get a job

This was probably a great route when the profession first came to fruition, but now that’s only a piece of the puzzle. Because the field is so young, information is changing constantly. As a result, there are few (if any) academic programs that provide an adequate educational background, as a lot of the information in textbooks is overly narrow-focused or outdated. Similarly, I don’t think there’s a great single certification out there. While the CSCS is still the gold standard for people involved in training athletes (hopefully this is changing), I know quite a few CSCS certified people that I wouldn’t let train my dog.

This isn’t to say that an academic background and certification aren’t part of the equation, only that they are limited in their ability to continually prepare an individual for the requirements of this profession. In other words, these things are just the first step in a never-ending journey of continuous education. A “modern strength coach” needs to be well-versed in recognizing proper movement and movement impairments. They need to be able to quickly teach and cue exercise technique, using varying language to most effectively convey this information to specific individuals. They need to have sufficient knowledge and professionalism to communicate with sports medicine professionals of other specialties, including manual therapy, physical therapy, and orthopedics. Similarly, they need to build a referral network of these professionals to best serve their clients. They need to know how to motivate their clients, when to be a coach, and when to be a friend, and how to build a success-oriented atmosphere.

StrengthCoach.com: Go here to stand on the shoulders of giants!

All of this stems from a foundational in-depth understanding of functional anatomy, the neuromuscular system, and  biomechanics, coupled with a sound comprehension of strength and conditioning methodology and programming, and finally, with countless hours of experience. This is certainly no easy task, which is why the drop-out rate in our profession is so high. So how do you stay on top of everything to keep up with modern changes? I think Mike Boyle said it best in his “State of the Industry” talk:

“Watch, read, and attend.”

This means watch as many DVDs as you can, read as many books as you can, and attend as many seminars as you can. I’d also add in to observe as many other professionals as possible, seek out and learn from great mentors, and surround yourself with as many like-minded people as possible.

I’ve been fortunate to learn from some of the best. I’m permanently indebted to Mike Boyle (who has been training athletes for longer than I’ve been alive) and Eric Cressey for all the guidance they’ve provided me over the last few years, and am incredibly thankful to have other mentors like Chris Boyko, Brijesh Patel, Sean Skahan, Mike Potenza, and most recently Charlie Weingroff to help guide me along the way. Nothing I’ve done in the past or plan to do in the future would be possible without those guys. The collective wisdom of this group is astronomical.

One slice a day keeps the ego away

Regardless of what you do, it’s likely you’ll have more people telling you why you can’t or shouldn’t than telling you why you can or should. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people is key for your development, and for your sanity. Doing things on your own is tough. When I first started at Endeavor, the rest of the training staff was pretty much gutted, leaving me on my own. As I’ve slowly rebuilt a staff I can trust, I continue to get the same feedback from them, that they love being here because everyone is so passionate about the field. In truth, I’m lucky to have them around. Being surrounded by passionate people helps keep you motivated; it also broadens the range of information you’re exposed to as everyone has different backgrounds and seeks out different information.

I’ve learned a lot in my first few years in the field, but more than anything I’ve learned that I’ll never stop learning; that’s what makes this so much fun. Mike Boyle once said “I’m not young enough to know everything.” I think there’s a profound wisdom in those words.

The modern strength coach, amongst other things, is ever growing.

To your success,

Kevin Neeld

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