Electromyography, also known as EMG, is thought to be the holy grail of science when it comes to testing muscle activity. However, its effectiveness for predicting strength development remains surprisingly understudied. Recently, researchers examined how well EMG measures the bench press and push up in a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
To conduct EMG, electrodes are placed on the skin over a particular muscle. The electrodes then read the electrical activity of the muscle below them. Not only can it tell if a muscle is working or not, but it can also detect the amount of electrical activity generated by the nerves.
This simplicity is the reason studies using EMG are so well regarded by the non-scientific community. What makes more sense than an easy-to-compare number on a page that tells us what muscles had what activity? And the bigger the electrical reading, the greater the contraction. Thus, in theory, an exercise that produces a stronger reading will also produce stronger muscles. It seems pretty clear cut.
In this study, the researchers were concerned because all the research so far either examined the EMG data from an exercise or examined strength gains from a program, but not both. The goal of their research was to see if EMG data could be put to use as a part of a strength training program.
To do this, they needed two exercises that worked similar muscles but had a long history of being notoriously difficult to reconcile with one another. They chose the perfect pair in the bench press and the push up. Each of these exercises is a horizontal upper body press, but they are often used for different purposes. The bench press is a power lift that is frequently used as a test or training modality for pure strength. The push up is a conditioning exercise, usually employed as a test and training method to develop endurance.
The participants of the study were divided into a bench press group, a push up group, and a control. They were tested for their one-rep-max, or 1RM, in the bench or push up using bands, and also for their 6RM. EMG data was gathered throughout all the tests. The training period lasted five weeks, and the 6RM load was used as the training load. At the end of five weeks, the participants were evaluated again.
Perhaps most important of all the results was that the bench press and the push up showed the same EMG activity for the pectoralis and anterior delt, which were the two regions the researchers analyzed. At the 6RM for each exercise, these muscles experienced the same contraction intensity.
With that in mind, we move on to the effectiveness of the program. Despite being fairly short, the 6RM of each group increased from twenty to 26 pounds, and their 1RM went up between twenty and 28 pounds. Not bad improvement over such a short time. The increase was comparable for both groups.
With EMG data and an effective training protocol, both the bench press and the push up can perform similar tasks when used in similar conditions. This is great news for any athlete looking to get a change of pace in their training. You can add variety without fear of losing strength or endurance.
1. Joaquin Calatayud, et. al., “Bench press and push-up at comparable levels of muscle activity results in similar strength gains,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000589
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