Surface electromyography (sEMG) is a popular research tool in sport and rehabilitation sciences. Common study designs include the comparison of sEMG amplitudes collected from different muscles as participants perform various exercises and techniques under different loads. Based on such comparisons, researchers attempt to draw conclusions concerning the neuro- and electrophysiological underpinning of force production and hypothesize about possible longitudinal adaptations, such as strength and hypertrophy. However, such conclusions are frequently unsubstantiated and unwarranted. Hence, the goal of this review is to discuss what can and cannot be inferred from comparative research designs as it pertains to both the acute and longitudinal outcomes. General methodological recommendations are made, gaps in the literature are identified, and lines for future research to help improve the applicability of sEMG are suggested.
Keywords: activation; excitation; exercise; hypertrophy; motor unit recruitment; muscle force; rate coding; strength.