Leading research, training, and rehabilitation medicine counts on electromyography for better outcomes, and professionals who need it should invest in the right technology. Electromyography is a very powerful solution for greater understanding of the body, but it requires a very educated purchasing process to select the right system. Recently, several wearable garment options have entered the electromyography market, creating more options for professionals who need muscle data.
Electromyography use is growing in both research and clinical settings. This review covers the leading companies in the space and explains how to make the best choice when investigating the hardware and software.
What Is Electromyography and Who Is It for?
Electromyography, or EMG for short, is either a direct electrical activity signal from the muscle itself, or from the top of a superficial muscle via electrodes attached on top of the skin. The information can be used to show relationships in research, or clinically to help patients with biofeedback. Because EMG technology is small and mobile in smart textiles, it is gaining traction in fitness and performance.
From a distribution perspective, EMG is most appropriate for researchers. The workflow and knowledge of electromyography requires a deep understanding of muscle physiology, as well as time to perform extensive tests and post-collection analysis. Some small mobile systems deliver a great clinical experience for biofeedback and data-driven precision for therapists, but that market is considerably smaller. Finally, the smallest market is fitness and performance, where user experience and some small insight can be captured for complex return-to-play needs and for motivational purposes through immediate feedback education. EMG is a great opportunity for both the athlete and professional to learn, as every athlete is unique enough to merit a reason to do direct investigation into their movement profile.
Is EMG Appropriate for All Strength Coaches and Physical Therapists?
EMG usage is not for everyone, and an applied setting can take advantage of nearly any technology, but EMG has the most responsibilities of all sports research equipment. Noise and collection errors can corrupt EMG signals, but, for the most part, professionals with the education and proper training can acquire quality data. Even if training is solid and data comprehension is a non-issue, the demands of EMG render it nearly impossible in a team setting that is both fast-paced and constantly experiencing a drought in time availability. Some situations are not that demanding, so modern EMG practices may be easier to integrate into a program now than in the past.
For EMG to succeed in an applied setting for coaches and sports medicine staff, three overarching elements must be in play.
- Time is available to collect, analyze, and coordinate action of the EMG data.
- There are small groups, so the ratio of athlete to professional is not overwhelming.
- Athletes are engaged in the process, not just the one-time experience.
If all three prerequisites are in place, your team, college, facility, or organization may be a great candidate for EMG.EMG is very useful in an applied setting for return-to-play scenarios. Click To Tweet
It may might sound daunting to add EMG if you are already pressed for time, but sometimes access to EMG data can reduce long, complex problems from happening in the first place, if you use it correctly. EMG can be part of the screening process, but to claim it’s a direct way to reduce injuries is simply unfounded, as of today. EMG is very useful in an applied setting for return-to-play scenarios, and using a system can add another degree of confidence for athletes who wonder if their muscle is “firing.” It is up to the practitioner to explain the purpose and limitations of EMG so that athletes don’t overreact to positive or negative findings, as EMG readings alone can’t conclude if an athlete should be able to train or compete after injury.
The Collection Requirements of EMG Recording and Analysis
You can use skin electrodes to evaluate superficial muscle groups—usually those that contribute to propulsion—while deeper muscles require fine wire methods. The muscle’s location and the type of movement being recorded are primary factors in deciding what type of electrode to use. When testing muscle, EMG uses a comparison of the exercise to an isometric action known to be standardized and relevant to the movement pattern. Isometric comparisons are commonly used to create both a baseline of change, and an estimation of activity. You can find more information on the practice of isometric testing for EMG in “Electromyography Science for Performance and Rehabilitation.” Besides isometric muscle testing, it also includes other factors that dictate successful recording.
In addition to getting ready with regards to isometric testing and skin preparation (shaving and cleaning), knowing how to clean up the signal and create meaningful summaries of the action requires experience in both the science of electromyography and the system’s software. Analysis is about using the context outside of the data to bring clarity to the signal, as the software usually does most of the heavy data processing. The extra time after the data collection isn’t especially long, but it does require work by someone doing both reporting and decision-making to make the information usable.
Types of EMG Systems and Options
While the market used to be only a research option for companies, two options generally exist now with EMG. Today, users can have garment-based systems or they can have full wireless sensors with compete software packages.
Garment solutions are very limited, and tend to collect general “areas” versus targeted muscle groups. For example, the hamstring is not a muscle—it’s a set of three individual muscles: the semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris. Garment-based EMG can provide general awareness and simple feedback, but for specific muscle groups and even regions within the muscle group, you will need research-grade instrumentation. Nearly every system is wireless, meaning the signals from the electrodes or fine wire get sent directly from the muscle to the computer, but many companies still use a boosting device to relay the data from the athlete to the computer. Real-time EMG is a feature of many systems, as the need to see live information is requested enough to warrant it.If you need data that is acceptable in sport science studies, you shouldn’t use EMG garment options. Click To Tweet
There is currently a line of differentiation between research-grade and consumer-grade EMG, and if you need data that is acceptable in sport science studies, you should not use garment options. If you are looking for additional help with lower-level needs, the convenience of wearable systems that you can use over and over may be a good option for your environment. Electrode placement is still a timeless requirement, so there needs to be supervision of athletes if you use garment options, as well as somebody double-checking that the data is correctly assessing the muscle group. Data is not interchangeable between consumer- and research-grade products, but some areas like glutes are very easy to collect from and might provide more value.
EMG Hardware and Software Considerations
Three distinct hardware components are the backbone of EMG data collection: the electrodes, the signal relay, and the receiver. Electrodes are not complicated, as they are just conductive, adhesive material that captures an electrical signal. The signal relay transmits the muscle information and time data to a receiver, usually connected to a computer system. These three components together typically gather and record muscle activity with EMG, and software usually just visualizes the information.
Signal processing can sound confusing, but the complexity and demand of extracting valid data from the recording requires filtering. Raw data is easy to collect, and you can do it with very little expense or effort, but ensuring that the information is trustworthy requires an extra step. Professionals should know that filtering is just statistically cleaning data, so both analysis and valuation for biofeedback sessions can use it.
Software is used for additional analysis and for presenting the information in reports or similar documentation. Most of the included software packages specialize in EMG analysis, while some packages can also connect multiple data sets other than EMG for deeper understanding of the information and to explain patterns from motion capture and force analysis. On average, the companies tend to do a balanced job with providing both hardware and software, but most companies are much stronger with one or the other.
Leading Options in Electromyography Systems
The list here is not an exhaustive collection of companies and products, but it does illustrate that you can’t just decide on an EMG system after looking at a few brochures. Professionals need to know they will be investing thousands of dollars into one data set, and hundreds of hours into using it in an applied setting. Electromyography is a powerful tool and very useful for certain situations, but it’s not a toy or system to use for the entertainment of athletes or marketing of performance and rehabilitation systems. You should use EMG to increase the fidelity of data collected in a professional setting, not to fit a business narrative or sales agenda.You can’t decide on an EMG system by just looking at a few brochures. Click To Tweet
Delsys: Delsys is known as a research product, and most of their clients are universities and hospitals. EMG pioneer Carlo De Luca founded this Massachusetts-based company, which provides a wireless EMG system with real-time biofeedback. Delsys focuses exclusively on electromyography, and has multiple systems available for both clinical and research needs. It has videos and an online knowledge base.
Noraxon: This Arizona company is a giant in the EMG and biometric data space, and a leader in both clinical and research markets. Their software is nearly agnostic, meaning they can take data from multiple sources. Clinics, private facilities, hospitals, universities, and professional teams use Noraxon. Its software is perhaps the most popular part of the system, as it is extremely user-friendly and offers extensive reporting options. You can see Noraxon internationally when vendor exhibits are part of a conference.
BTS Bioengineering: BTS Bioengineering is known for its commitment to design, and offers an EMG solution for professionals. The Italian company does offer force analysis and has partnered with other companies for fully integrated labs in the past, but they now use their resources for more internal launches and sales. BTS has software and hardware that are popular with researchers, and they support an international market.
CONTEMPLAS: Based in Germany, this company provides various hardware options, including force analysis and videos capture. They also have an EMG solution, and the product is research-grade. CONTEMPLAS is known for their integration of all data, as they have software that connects all of their systems into one package. The company markets their systems to commercial applications such as running stores and bike fitting shops.
MuscleLab: Founded in the 1990s, the Norwegian company Ergotest released a series of research-grade products that coaches now use here in the U.S. MuscleLab’s strength is that the system works seamlessly with all other sensors, including force, motion, speed, and contact. Ole Olsen founded MuscleLab, and partnered with legendary sport scientist, Dr. Carmelo Bosco, to create systems for velocity-based training decades ago, as well as other systems like jump testing. The software and hardware are developed equally as well, and you can use them on a tablet for mobile environments if necessary.
Cometa: Cometa is another Italian company, founded nearly 20 years ago. The EMG provider has emerged as a quality option in muscle activity science. Recently, they have been promoting their EMG solution for aqualic movement, and they are growing in Europe and other international markets. Cometa is used in clinical settings, as well as other health-related spaces. Their connection with sport is extremely visible, and they provide systems to teams and private coaches.
BIOPAC: One of the most well-known companies in academia, BIOPAC’s hardware options support EMG uses. BIOPAC is a major supplier of biosignal equipment, and they work with universities, clinics, hospitals, and other minor markets. They are primarily a research company, as none of their products are for consumers. They are a U.S. company and have been in business for decades.
Shimmer: Similar to MuscleLab, Shimmer offers more than just EMG, and is more of a biosignal provider. This decade-old Irish company is a growing force internationally, and has offices in Asia and North America. Shimmer is an example of a typical medical biosignal company that focuses on a wide market, rather than specialize in sport or research. Some of their users do use Shimmer in scientific studies, but they are more known for their clinical uses outside of academia.
Cadwell: This electrodiagnostic provider’s product is an example of nerve-testing equipment that incorporates electrical muscle stimulation and EMG. Cadwell is a U.S.-based company that provides medical equipment; specifically equipment that captures data. Most electrodiagnostic equipment is sold integrated, meaning the system includes both the stimulating components and the electromyography sensors. Athletes will rarely need to have nerve testing performed, but you can use EMG to help ensure that the function of the nervous system is measured with objective feedback.
The following sections includes systems that are either garment-based or more entry-level, due to their convenience. These systems are highly prized for user experience and ease of use. While other systems are available, we’ve included these three due to their length of time in the market.
Somaxis: Founded by Alex Grey, the company provides a general biosignal product that can collect electrical data from the body, including muscles. The system is very inexpensive and connects directly to a smart device via Bluetooth. In addition, the product can get heart and brain electrical activity data. Somaxis also includes options with light consulting, and you can purchase expertise directly from their website. While not a garment, they have their own adhesives that improve the wearable quality of the sensor.
Myontec: This Finnish company created the first EMG shorts nearly a decade ago, and was one of the first to enter the smart fabric market. The product has two options, either anterior and posterior muscles below the hip, or with glutes. Athletes can use the system in team environments or in therapy or training sessions with a professional. Myontec is aggressively working with teams and private facilities internationally, and has a big following in Europe. They are growing in the U.S. as well, now entering other markets such as recreational sport and occupational sciences, as well as the research community.
Athos: This California startup is growing in the private facility market, and can measure both upper body and lower body muscles. Athos is a true wireless option that connects to a smart device, and the data synchronizes to the cloud. The system can collect about a half-dozen muscle groups and, because of the web portal, the company provides an enterprise software solution for coaches. Athos is popular for return-to-play environments and the MLS Combine conference featured it this past year. In addition to coaches and trainers, individuals can use the system.If you plan to buy an EMG system, be sure to invest in the training you need to use it effectively. Click To Tweet
More companies exist, and we can easily double this list, but the group above is a great example of what is typically available in the market. Most companies can provide either a live or video demonstration of the equipment, and they are often available in person during conferences that have vendor exhibits.
When to Buy and When to Outsource the Data
Investing in EMG isn’t for everyone, as several teams are underwater with data and responsibilities. Sometimes it makes sense to look to third parties, such as consultants and clinical groups, who can perform the testing and analysis for you. If you are going to buy, always invest in training like any other sport technology. Not everyone can collect data from EMG systems, but everyone can learn from the information they provide, either in research or from other experts in the field.
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