The extraction of neural strategies from the surface EMG: an update

J Appl Physiol (1985). 2014 Dec 1;117(11):1215-30. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00162.2014. Epub 2014 Oct 2.


A surface EMG signal represents the linear transformation of motor neuron discharge times by the compound action potentials of the innervated muscle fibers and is often used as a source of information about neural activation of muscle. However, retrieving the embedded neural code from a surface EMG signal is extremely challenging. Most studies use indirect approaches in which selected features of the signal are interpreted as indicating certain characteristics of the neural code. These indirect associations are constrained by limitations that have been detailed previously (Farina D, Merletti R, Enoka RM. J Appl Physiol 96: 1486-1495, 2004) and are generally difficult to overcome. In an update on these issues, the current review extends the discussion to EMG-based coherence methods for assessing neural connectivity. We focus first on EMG amplitude cancellation, which intrinsically limits the association between EMG amplitude and the intensity of the neural activation and then discuss the limitations of coherence methods (EEG-EMG, EMG-EMG) as a way to assess the strength of the transmission of synaptic inputs into trains of motor unit action potentials. The debated influence of rectification on EMG spectral analysis and coherence measures is also discussed. Alternatively, there have been a number of attempts to identify the neural information directly by decomposing surface EMG signals into the discharge times of motor unit action potentials. The application of this approach is extremely powerful, but validation remains a central issue.

Keywords: amplitude cancellation; coherence; decomposition; motor neuron; motor unit; neural drive to muscle; rectification; spectral analysis; surface EMG.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Electromyography*
  • Humans
  • Motor Neurons / physiology*
  • Neuromuscular Junction / physiology*