Surface EMG amplitude does not identify differences in neural drive to synergistic muscles

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

External organisations

  • Universita' di Brescia, Italy.
  • Imperial College London


Surface electromyographic (EMG) signal amplitude is typically used to compare the neural drive to muscles. We experimentally investigated this association by studying the motor unit (MU) behavior and action potentials in the vastus medialis (VM) and vastus lateralis (VL) muscles. Eighteen participants performed isometric knee extensions at four target torques [10, 30, 50 and 70% of the maximum torque (MVC)] while high-density EMG signals were recorded from the VM and VL. The absolute EMG amplitude was greater for VM than VL (p<0.001) while the EMG amplitude normalized with respect to MVC was greater for VL than VM (p<0.04). Because differences in EMG amplitude can be due to both differences in the neural drive and in the size of the MU action potentials, we indirectly inferred the neural drives received by the two muscles by estimating the synaptic inputs received by the corresponding motor neuron pools. For this purpose, we analyzed the increase in discharge rate from recruitment to target torque for motor units matched by recruitment threshold in the two muscles. This analysis indicated that the two muscles received similar levels of neural drive. Nonetheless, the size of the MU action potentials was greater for VM than VL (p<0.001) and this difference explained most of the differences in EMG amplitude between the two muscles (~63% of explained variance). These results indicate that EMG amplitude, even following normalization, does not reflect the neural drive to synergistic muscles. Moreover, absolute EMG amplitude is mainly explained by the size of MU action potentials.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1071-1079
JournalJournal of Applied Physiology
Issue number4
Early online date8 Feb 2018
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2018


  • Journal Article, electromyography , motor unit , amplitude , motor unit action potential , high-density surface electromyography