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How to Get Fit Using Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS)

Although EMS (Electrical Muscle Stimulation) devices will not allow you to sit on the couch eating bonbons while you build biceps like an Avenger, it can help with warm-up, recovery, relaxation, strength, and yes, even burning some fat.

By
Brock Armstrong,
Episode #418
Photo of a man using EMS on his bicep

What Is EMS?

During a normal exercise session, your brain sends signals to your muscles to make them voluntarily contract. With Electrical Muscle Stimulation, it is the electrical impulses sent from a device that causes your muscles to involuntarily contract. These contractions can be quick, long, fluttery, uncomfortably long, and everything in between. It is the contraction type that determines whether the session will result in a better warm up, increases in strength, or better recovery.

Before we move on, I want to clear one thing up: A TENS unit is often mistaken for an EMS unit, but don’t be fooled: they are not the same. TENS is short for “transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation” and that is a measure of nerve stimulation, not muscle stimulation. Although TENS may seem like an inexpensive alternative to EMS, it really is more of a short-term solution. Like a painkiller or a Band-Aid.

How Does EMS Work?

When you want to perform an EMS session, sticky, rubbery pads are placed on the skin at each end of the skeletal muscle band that you want to stimulate. There are three or four channels (depending on the unit) with lead wires to each pad.

When the session or EMS program starts, very small amounts of electrical current run from one pad to the next and complete a circuit using your muscle tissue as a conduit. The motor neurons found within this circuit are stimulated and they contract. Freaky, right? The current runs at specific frequencies (Hz) and pulse durations (microseconds) depending on the program you choose.

EMS works directly on the muscles and bypasses the body's own energy conservation system, which means that there's no limit to the percentage of muscle fiber that can be activated.

EMS works directly on the muscles, bypassing the body's own energy conservation system, so there is no limit to the percentage of fiber that can be activated.

Varying the frequencies can change which types of muscle fibers are stimulated. Three ranges of frequencies stimulate three kinds of motor neuron-muscle fiber types—aka the slow, medium, and fast twitch fibers.

I use a device called a Powerdot, and at first, I simply used it for massage and recovery. But lately I have been using it to perform strength and explosive strength training electrical sessions while I catch up on the latest binge-worth content. I have to say, despite my skepticism, I have really been able to poop myself out with these sessions. And once again, science is on my side.

A French study used an EMS device called a Compex to investigate the effect of a 5-week electrostimulation (EMS) training program on muscular strength (quadriceps), kicking velocity, sprint, and vertical jump performance in football players.

20 male soccer players were randomly divided into two training groups:

  1. EMS Group: Received EMS on the quadriceps muscles during 5 weeks (3 sessions of 12 minutes per week) and soccer training.

  2. Control Group: Only had the soccer training.

The athletes were tested after three weeks and five weeks of training and, at both assessments, the EMS group showed significant improvements in quadriceps muscle strength parameters as well as in ball speed performance. These improvements were not seen in the control group.

So, while an EMS device isn’t going to burn a ton of calories and give you an amazing six-pack while you sit on the couch, it can indeed result in a significant boost in cardiovascular and musculoskeletal fitness.

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