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.

Brock Armstrong
7-minute read
Episode #418

What Can EMS Be Used For?

Warm-up: Increasing blood flow which raises the temperature of the muscle and allows it to work more effectively and efficiently.

Potentiation: The same way that performing some weight squats immediately before performing a verticle leap test can result in high jumping, using an EMS five to ten minutes before a heavy session can help prepare the muscles.

Strength: This EMS program stimulates the Fast Twitch Type IIb muscle fiber and its creatine phosphate energy delivery system. This trains the muscle fibers to deliver energy anaerobically and generate a great deal more force during efforts that last up to one minute.

Resistance: This program trains the Type IIa fast twitch muscle fibers which can deliver energy both aerobically and anaerobically.

Endurance: This program stimulates the Type I slow twitch muscle fibers which are most used in efforts lasting several minutes to hours.

Recovery: My personal favorite, this use features rapid contractions which squeeze the blood out of the capillary beds and makes room for fresh blood to supply the muscle with the delicious oxygen and nutrients your muscles need to recover.

Massage: Probably the most popular program of all. This program is dedicated to endorphin production. The varying pulses and flutters increase blood flow and circulation to decrease soreness, stiffness, and aches.

3 Ways to Use EMS in Your Fitness Program

1. Exercise + EMS

While most EMS devices discourage you from using them during a workout, you can certainly use it before and after. This can be used as a warm-up and a cool-down or as part of the workout itself.

For instance, you could position the EMS on your pectorals, set to a lower setting (like a massage or recovery program) before you hit the weights. Then do your regular chest workout, immediately followed by a strength program using the EMS. Because the EMS works directly on the muscle fibers, bypassing your body's natural energy conservation system, this would be a great way to “finish off” the workout.

2. Isometrics + EMS

Combining EMS and Isometrics (holding a muscle in a static pose) is an effective way to increase the amount of lactic acid that builds up in a muscle. And likely due to the fact that it is extremely uncomfortable, this can help you improve your ability to tolerate lactate build up during hard workouts or intense competitions.

To use EMS in this way, begin by getting into an isometric position and then applying the EMS. You could do an isometric Wall Sit with the EMS on your quads or combine EMS with lunge holds, push-up holds, or planks.

3. EMS + Rest

Perhaps you have an injury or maybe you are streaming a great new series about mid-century zombie architects and you still want to get some sort of workout done. Most of the time, I would advise you to simply get the heck up and move your body, do some stretches in front of the TV, or turn it off and get outside to move around. But you just bought a fancy new EMS device so I will cut you some slack.

In a sedentary position, you can use EMS to keep your muscles activated without even lifting a finger (well OK, you need your finger to turn the device on). In addition to working your muscles while you are recovering from an injury (or watching the art deco zombies), you can use an EMS device during long car rides, while you are doing your homework, or even stimulate your leg muscles while working at your standing workstation.

Some EMS Quick and Dirty Tips

  • Train a particular muscle group three times per week. If you train a muscle group once a week, you will detrain between sessions. Twice a week is OK but three is ideal.

  • Wait at least 48 hours between training sessions. Training three times per week will leave 48 hours between two of the sessions and 72 hours before the remaining session. Remember, even though you aren’t “doing the work” the EMS strength programs deliver a training load so recovery is important.

  • Stimulate the muscle groups that will benefit you the most. To be efficient with your time, prioritize the muscle groups that are what we call the “prime movers” for your sport or preferred activity.

If you are still skeptical, remember that this kind of muscular stimulation has been used in physiotherapy clinics and sport doc labs for years, and EMS training is quite safe for the majority of people and uses. Having said that, it is always smart before you try anything new with your body to check in with your doctor first.

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Brock Armstrong Get-Fit Guy

Brock Armstrong was the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast between 2017 and 2021. He is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute.