Maximum Muscle Activation Training

Maximum Muscle Activation Training

When it comes to selecting which exercises for each muscle group to include in our workouts, we all have our preferred movements that we swear give us the best results or allow us to ‘feel’ the muscle being isolated and engaged. But are we actually selecting the correct exercises to help us capitalise on our workouts?

If only there was a way to measure just how much muscle is being activated during certain exercises.

Well now there is! Introducing Electromyography (EMG)! The process of measuring the quantity of electrical signals sent by motor neurons in order for a muscle to contract.

In other words, EMG measures the amount of force the body is attempting to exert on a muscle, which provides scientists (and now us too) with an indication as to how active a muscle is during a specific movement or exercise.

Related Article: Free Workout Plan

Related Article: How You Should Train

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How EMG Works

EMG testing involves taping electrodes to the skin across a muscle which measure the speed and strength of the electrical signals between two points. The greater the quantity of electrical signals detected, the greater the force required to perform a movement, and therefore the greater muscle activation.

In order to make meaning from the values collected, scientists must know what the baseline amount of force is able to be generated, or the baseline amount of electrical signals are able to be sent in the first place. This sets the calibration for the EMG test and is called the Maximum Voluntary Contraction (MVC) value. In order to obtain this measure, the subject must position their body in the optimal position to allow a specific muscle to generate the most powerful ‘squeeze’ it possibly can during an isometric contraction. Once this value is obtained, EMG has the ability to measure how active each muscle is during different exercises by comparing it to the value obtained from the MVC test as a percentage. Where values exceed 100, this indicates that a higher number of electrical signals are detected during the exercise when compared to the amount detected during the isometric contraction. This is common during compound movements where multiple muscle groups participate.

EMG analysis can provide valuable information to a broad variety of athletes. It allows muscle & nerve disorders and poor motor neuron activity to be detected to reveal information about a person's biomechanics and kinesiology. It has also recently been given a lot of attention in the fitness community, proving useful to both bodybuilders and performance based athletes.

In obtaining results from EMG analysis, two separate measures can be recorded. The first is the "peak", which refers to the greatest observed value of electrical activity that occurs at any point during a movement. This is useful for sports or performance based athletes as it can show when maximum force occurs during a movement, and which exercises should be performed to increase muscle strength. The other useful measure is known as the "mean", which represents the average level of electrical activity that occurs within a muscle over the entire duration of the movement. This information is valuable for bodybuilders with hypertrophy related goals who aim to optimise the amount of time muscles are under tension, or anyone who wishes to know which movements require the greatest amount of activity or effort to complete. 

Implementing The Results Of EMG

A comprehensive study undertaken by certified strength and conditioning specialist, Bret Contreras, provides an in-depth analysis of a variety of common exercises undertaken when targeting specific muscle groups. The following information has been separated based on which exercise yields the highest value for both the mean and the peak value of electrical signal detection. Whether you are interested in optimising your muscle time under tension, or producing maximal force, the following data can help you shape your weekly training regime.

Chest

Muscle

Best Exercise Yielding Highest Mean

Mean Value

Best Exercise Yielding Highest Peak

Peak Value

Upper Pectoral

Mid Pulley Crossover

154.0

DB Incline Press

310.0

Band Push Up

115.0

Guillotine Press

302.0

JC Band Press

143.0

JC Band Press

272.0

Middle Pectoral

DB Bench Press

204

Guillotine Press

511

Floor Press

132

DB Bench Press

451

Dumbbell Fly

133

Dumbbell Fly

493

Lower Pectoral

Weighted Dip

214

Guillotine press

502

Blast Strap Push Up

177

Dumbbell Fly

450

Guillotine Press

169

Weighted Dip

418

 

Most would expect variations of the incline press to fill the majority of spots as the top contenders in both the mean and peak activity for the upper pecs, but this is not the case. Considering the function of the pec is to draw the arm towards the midline, the Mid Pulley Crossover certainly serves this function and the use of the cable certainly increases the amount of constant tension placed on the upper pec.

Looking at the mid pec, the DB Bench Press, Guillotine Press and DB Fly consistently rank at the top in terms of activation. All these movements have a very similar motor pattern where the elbows move behind and to their most distal (furthest) position from the midline of the chest. This gives credence to bodybuilders typically adopting a wider grip than powerlifters on all pressing movements, allowing the elbows to move to their most distal point emphasizing a greater stretch across the pec. Similarly, the lower pec responds best to exercises that place an emphasis on a full stretch across the pec, which is not unreasonable due to the close synergy between the middle and lower portions of the chest.

Strangely enough, EMG infers that heavy powerlifting style bench pressing is not necessary, nor desirable, when the goal is maximal chest stimulation to promote muscle growth. It certainly appears that using multiple isolation-type exercises within a workout that strategically target the chest from a variety of different angles will reap the greatest results in terms of muscle growth.

Shoulders

Muscle

Best Exercise Yielding Highest Mean

Mean Value

Best Exercise Yielding Highest Peak

Peak Value

Front Deltoid

Seated Behind Neck Press

274

Seated Behind Neck Press

471

Seated Military Press

162

Standing DB Military Press

432

Incline Press

144

Incline Press

390

Middle Deltoid

Band Face Pulls

90.7

Band Face Pull

152

Lateral Raise

84.3

Lateral Raise

213

Seated Behind Neck Press

69.5

Cable Lateral Raise

136

Rear Deltoid

Band Face Pull

144

Band Face Pull

252

Bent Over Rear Delt Raise

94.7

Bent Over Rear Delt Raise

182

Prone Rear Delt Raise

88.9

Hanging Row

182

 

The data is definitive that pressing movements are king for developing the front delts, with variations of the military and dumbbell press holding the top spots for both greatest mean and peak activation. It is interesting to note that behind the neck pressing, which is foregone by most due to the high risk of shoulder injury, yields substantially more front deltoid activation. This may be in part to the reduced ability of the chest to assist as an ancillary muscle group during this pressing variation.

The popularity of Face Pulls has certainly increased in recent years, however most would associate this exercise with maintaining shoulder health and integrity, along with activation of the rear delt. Surprisingly, based on the results of the study, the Band Face Pull topped the list for mean and peak values for both the middle and rear delt.

Biceps & Triceps

Muscle

Best Exercise Yielding Highest Mean

Mean Value

Best Exercise Yielding Highest Peak

Peak Value

Biceps

Weighted Wide Parallel-Grip Pull Up



109

Weighted Chin-Up



205

Weighted Chin-Up

107

Weighted Wide Parallel-Grip Pull Up

184

Barbell Curl

94.7

EZ-Bar Curl

146

Triceps

Rope Extension

135

Rope Extension

276

Cable Extension

132

Cable Extension

255

Weighted Dip

124

Band Extension

221

 

The EMG results provide some interesting insight into the most effective exercise selection for developing the biceps and triceps. It appears for both mean and peak activation the biceps respond most favourably to compound movements. This is contradictory to the tendency within the bodybuilding community to use predominantly isolated movements that result in the best contraction or 'pump' in the biceps. It is feasible that compound movements, particularly lowering one’s bodyweight in a stretched arm position, cause a much greater eccentric load compared to isolated movements which may have contributed to the counterintuitive results of the EMG analysis.

In comparison, the triceps responded most favourably to isolated movements, with Rope Extensions and Cable Extensions topping the list with the highest mean and peak values. Certainly the triceps receive plenty of activation during compound pressing movements and these results are no reason to completely dismiss these movements. However, the EMG activity does support incorporating movements that allow the triceps to reach a fully contracted position with minimal assistance from ancillary muscles such as the chest and shoulders.

Quads

Muscle

Best Exercise Yielding Highest Mean

Mean Value

Best Exercise Yielding Highest Peak

Peak Value

Vastus Lateralis

(Quadriceps)

Half Squat

101

Full Squat

194

Parallel Squat

99.9

Parallel Squat

189

Quarter Squat

65.2

Band Skorcher Hip Thrust

172

Adductor Longis

(Adductors)

Single Leg Gliding Leg Curl

61.6

Romanian Deadlift

163

Hack Lift

47.9

Single Leg Gliding Leg Curl

120

Russian Leg Curl

46.5

High Step Up

104

 

No real surprises when it comes to maximizing the activation of the quads with slight variations of the squat resulting in the highest mean and peak values. What can be drawn from the data is the fact that quarter, half and parallel squats all outperform the full squat in terms of yielding the highest mean values. This gives support to the variance seen between a typical bodybuilder style squat (which is slower in tempo and more quad focused) and the explosive hamstring dominant variation used by powerlifters and strength athletes.

Often forgotten, the adductors (inner thigh) are a huge contributor when it comes to impressive leg development. Typically squatting and leg pressing with a wider stance will help to engage the adductors to a greater degree, however there are a number of underused exercises that can be utilised to specifically target the adductors. The Romanian Deadlift tops the list for highest peak activation, while Single Leg Gliding Leg Curls are the top pick for highest mean adductor activation.

Hamstrings, Glutes & Calves

Muscle

Best Exercise Yielding Highest Mean

Mean Value

Best Exercise Yielding Highest Peak

Peak Value

Gluteus Maximus

Band Skorcher Hip Thrust

88.3

Band Skorcher Hip Thrust

160

Glute Bridge

65.3

Glute Bridge

142

Pull-Through

61

Hip Thrust

138

Bicep Femoris

(Hamstrings)

Deadlift

105

Rack Pull

181

Rack Pull

105

DeadLift

179

Hanging Single Leg Straight Leg Bridge

96

Weighted Bird Dog

173

Calves

Heavy Lever Calf Raise

134

Parallel Squat

263

Explosive Lever Calf Raise

124

Heavy Lever Calf Raise

211

Single Leg Calf Raise

104

Pause Lever Calf Raise

177

 

Most people would believe squats and deadlifts, particularly the sumo stance variety, are all that is required to completely activate the glutes, and as such their training programs largely reflect this. According to the data the highest mean and peak values occur during more isolated bodyweight glute exercises, with the Band Skorcher Hip Thrust topping the list. This movement utilises a unique piece of equipment that elevates the shoulders and hips allowing the hips to descend through a greater range of motion and thus producing far greater results in glute activation than heavy compound movements.

For the hamstrings, the results suggest the greatest muscle activation is achieved through explosive compound movements like the Deadlift and Rack Pull. Interestingly, the Stiff-Legged Deadlift did not make an appearance at the top of either the mean or peak lists, which suggests that the movements that typically cause the most soreness or muscle discomfort may not be the most effective in terms of muscle activation.

Overall the calves respond best to Heavy Calf Raises as opposed to lighter more explosive calf raises or paused calf raise variations. It is typical for most people to tack on a couple of half-hearted sets of calf raises at the end of a leg workout, generally with light loads and lots of reps in the shortest time possible; these results certainly support re-thinking and prioritizing calf training with heavy sets in the 6-12 rep range and a focus on increasing the amount of weight used from one session to the next. 

Back & Traps

Muscle

Best Exercise Yielding Highest Mean

Mean Value

Best Exercise Yielding Highest Peak

Peak Value

Lats

Weighted Chin-Up (Underhand Grip)

108

Weighted Pronated Wide Grip Pull-Up

167

Weighted Wide Parallel-Grip Pull-Up

75.3

Rack Pull

163

Rack Pull

93.1

Underhand-Grip Feet Elevated Inverted Row

158

Lower Traps

DB Bent Over Row

99

DB Bent Over Row

160

Prone Trap Raise

81.6

Prone Trap Raise

170

DB Elbows Out Chest Supported Row

71.9

DB Elbows Out Chest Supported Row

180

Middle Traps

DB Bent-Over Row





123

Prone Trap Raise

186

DB Elbows Out Chest Supported Row

100

DB Bent Over Row

126

Prone Trap Raise

94.2

DB Elbows Out Chest SUpported Row

194

Upper Traps

BB Shrug

81.9

Cable Lateral Raise

150

Cable Lateral Raise

75.5

Barbell Shrug

145

Standing Military Press

60.1

Seated Behind Neck Press

110

 

Both the Weighted Chin-Up (Underhand Grip) and Wide Grip (Pronated/Overhand Grip) Pull Up movements top the list for lat activation across both the mean and peak values. Due to the increased assistance of the biceps in the Weighted Chin-Up (Underhand Grip) it is often criticised as being less effective at activating the lats, however the results disprove this with both chin up variations showing very similar muscle activation.

The Dumbbell Bent Over Row stimulates the greatest mean and peak activation across the board for the mid back and traps. In comparison to the barbell row, using dumbbells allows for an increased range of motion as the elbow can track further behind the torso, which would appear to provide an advantage for increasing muscle activation. 

The upper traps receive the greatest activation through a combination of heavy shrugs and, surprisingly, from most lateral raise and shoulder pressing movements.

Limitations

With all scientific experiments come some form of limitations and factors that must be noted when considering the accuracy and personal applicability of the data. In this instance, the data was produced for bodybuilding purposes, therefore the amount of weight selected to perform each exercise enabled at least five successful repetitions to be completed. For those who participate in strength training or powerlifting, the data may not accurately represent muscle activity, especially when attempting 1RMs.

It must also noted that each individual is unique. Individual biomechanics and genetic makeup will dictate just how motor units activate and perform, and therefore which muscles are used and to what extent. Individual differences surrounding anthropometry (differences in size such as height) will also influence how exactly movements are performed. For example, taller athletes may use more gluteus muscles during a squat than shorter athletes, as they have further to travel from the starting position. 

You may be surprised to discover your favourite exercise didn’t make the cut. Don’t take it personally, research surrounding this topic is only in its infancy, with research yet to be conducted inspecting variations in grip, rep tempo and repetition ranges. 

Conclusion

Some of the most interesting, and perhaps counterintutive, conclusions we can draw from this analysis are:

  1. Upper traps are highly active during many shoulder exercises.
  2. Barbell Incline Press and Incline Fly do not make the list for maximum upper pec engagement.
  3. Lat Pull Down is not one of the best exercises to engage lats.
  4. Conventional Deadlifts engage hamstrings more than Romanian Deadlifts.
We have compiled the best exercises that reported the highest quantity of mean and peak electric signals for each major muscle group below, so be sure to include some of the following exercises in your upcoming workouts with the knowledge that you are optimising muscle engagement potential!
 

Chest and Triceps:

  • Guillotine Press or Dumbbell Bench Press
  • Dumbbell Incline Press or Mid-Pulley Crossover
  • Weighted Dip or Dumbbell Fly
  • Rope or Cable Triceps Extension

 

Shoulders and Traps:

  • Seated Behind the Neck Press
  • Face Pull
  • Cable Lateral Raise
  • Barbell Shrug

 

Back and Biceps:

  • Weighted Pull Up/Chin Up/Parallel Grip Pull Up
  • Dumbbell Bent Over Row or Weight Elevated Inverted Row
  • Dumbbell Elbows Out Chest Supported Row or Prone Trap Raise
  • Deadlift or Rack Pull
  • Barbell Biceps Curl or EZ-Bar Biceps Curl

 

Quads:

  • Full/Parallel/Half/Quarter Squat

 

Hamstrings:

  • Deadlift or Rack Pull

 

Glutes:

  • Barbell Glute Bridge
  • Hip Thrust or Pull Through

 

Calves:

  • Heavy Calf Raise

 

Related Article: Free Workout Plan

Related Article: How You Should Train

Core Nutritionals Full Range

Resources Used:

http://bretcontreras.com/whats-fuss-emg/

https://www.t-nation.com/training/inside-the-muscles-best-chest-and-triceps-exercises

https://www.t-nation.com/training/inside-the-muscles-best-leg-glute-and-calf-exercises

https://www.t-nation.com/training/inside-the-muscles-best-shoulders-and-trap-exercises

https://www.t-nation.com/training/inside-the-muscles-best-back-and-biceps-exercises

https://www.t-nation.com/training/inside-the-muscles-best-ab-exercises


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