Insight into the magnitude of muscle forces is important in biomechanics research, for example because muscle forces are the main determinants of joint loading. Unfortunately muscle forces cannot be calculated directly and can only be measured using invasive procedures. Therefore, estimates of muscle force based on surface EMG measurements are frequently used. This review discusses the problems associated with surface EMG in muscle force estimation and the solutions that novel methodological developments provide to this problem. First, some basic aspects of muscle activity and EMG are reviewed and related to EMG amplitude estimation. The main methodological issues in EMG amplitude estimation are precision and representativeness. Lack of precision arises directly from the stochastic nature of the EMG signal as the summation of a series of randomly occurring polyphasic motor unit potentials and the resulting random constructive and destructive (phase cancellation) superimpositions. Representativeness is an issue due the structural and functional heterogeneity of muscles. Novel methods, i.e. multi-channel monopolar EMG and high-pass filtering or whitening of conventional bipolar EMG allow substantially less variable estimates of the EMG amplitude and yield better estimates of muscle force by (1) reducing effects of phase cancellation, and (2) adequate representation of the heterogeneous activity of motor units within a muscle. With such methods, highly accurate predictions of force, even of the minute force fluctuations that occur during an isometric and isotonic contraction have been achieved. For dynamic contractions, EMG-based force estimates are confounded by the effects of muscle length and contraction velocity on force producing capacity. These contractions require EMG amplitude estimates to be combined with modeling of muscle contraction dynamics to achieve valid force predictions. © 2009 Elsevier Ltd.