03 May 2019

Does Electric Muscle Stimulation Work?

Fitness Trends

What if shocking your muscles with electricity helped them grow and develop faster?

What if it could reduce exercise-induced muscle damage and help you recover better from your workouts?

What if it could straight up make you stronger?

Well, this is what the team at AIPT wanted to find out. We had our friends from Bionic Fitness come in and show us what Electric Muscle Stimulation (EMS) is all about.

We had read that it is an easy (not easy at all) and safe way to gain muscle and strength faster and boost post-workout recovery.

It sounded too good to be true. One thing we can say for certain is that no form of exercise we had ever done has made us feel that tired that quickly. The common sentiment amongst the team was that we had not experienced anything like that.

We had to put on a black bodysuit, no underwear allowed. We were then sprayed with water to surround our muscle better when the EMS began. It is worth noting that the water felt exceptionally cold for many of us. After being doused with water, they quite literally strapped us in.

The major muscle groups that would experience EMS were the quads and hamstrings, abdominals, lower back, upper back, chest, and finally biceps and triceps. So bar our lower legs and forearms we were pretty well covered. Rather than doing a conventional workout with weights, our EMS session involved doing simple exercises such as body weight squats, lunges and arm raises while the suit works its magic.

I would also like to make it clear that Bionic Fitness never suggested that this would give us a superhero physique. They did talk in great length about the other benefits, such as rehabilitation, combatting muscular atrophy, low impact cardio, post-natal exercise among others. We will go into this more below, but it is important to know that EMS as a concept, and in practice, is not new. Rather, it has become far more accessible to us despite EMS machines not being cheap.

The EMS craze is spreading fast, with locations popping up all over Australia. It's being marketed as a cellulite treatment, stress relief and flexibility enhancer as well as for weight loss and better sports performance. There are multiple studios in Australia's largest cities with most offering a free or low-cost trial session. The average price for a session is $45 - 60 and most establishments offer packages to save you money.

It is important to note that there are a variety of different EMS devices out there, but not all of them are 100% safe. You are much better off getting EMS treatment in a physical therapy session or a gym with a trained fitness professional rather than buying your own. There have unfortunately been reports of shocks, burns and skin irritation from unregulated devices you can use at home.

Let us dive into the science of it all.

EMS is certainly legitimate, but the manufacturers will lead you to believe that it is a silver bullet solution to fitness.

Yes, it’s safe, but no, it’s not going to impact muscle growth or recovery in between sessions dramatically. That being said, it does not mean you shouldn’t necessarily give it a go yourself. You should have the right expectations. Now, a lot of us spent the day watching others participate before it was our turn and even watching so many try it will not prepare you for it is actually like.

I do not want this to sound scary, because it isn’t. It is a unique situation that is difficult to describe considering everybody described it differently. As I said before, the one thing we all agreed on was that we were absolutely buggered after our 20 minutes.

Let's break down what EMS is, how it works, and what science has to say about its effectiveness.

Electrical muscle stimulation is exactly what it sounds like: using an electrical current to stimulate your muscles. This is done through small electrode pads being placed on your major muscle groups as stated previously.

The reason electrical currents can contract your muscles is that our muscles naturally contract in response to electrical signals sent by the brain. EMS machines replicate these impulses, causing muscles to contract.

Does it work?

This is where EMS as a concept starts to get a bit murky. The science is sound, and people swear by their results. Many elite athletes and Hollywood stars utilise EMS in tandem with the rest of their training. So there is that, but like with many other things, the foundations of EMS were laid decades ago.

EMS leapt into the limelight in 1976 when a Soviet scientist named Yohan Kots unveiled research showing that EMS could boost strength by up to 40% in elite level athletes. There has been a lot of studies conducted on EMS since Kots came out with his claims.

We all know weightlifting involves contracting your muscles over and over, and they respond by growing bigger and stronger. EMS also contracts your muscles much in the way a dumbbell curl would, so theoretically it should be able to stimulate muscle growth too, right? Not exactly.

It is important to note that no studies to date have indicated that EMS can significantly impact muscle growth, or at least not by itself.

This is not too surprising when you consider the physiology of muscle growth. EMS lacks any external load. For example, a barbell, this means no progressive overload. And there’s no range of motion, which also plays an important role in muscle development.

This means EMS provides little in the way of external stimulus to promote muscle growth and shouldn’t be considered a substitute for conventional strength training.

Do EMS Workouts Increase Strength?

Effectively, yes. But we should elaborate. There are three primary ways for somebody to increase their strength:

  1. Increase muscle size

  2. Increase muscle efficiency

  3. Increase movement efficiency

Number one is straight forward, the strongest people are typically the biggest for a reason, but the second and third are often overlooked as they are not visually prominent.

Muscle efficiency refers to how efficiently your body recruits and contracts the muscle fibres so, in essence, the more individual muscle fibres that are being recruited, the harder and faster they can fire meaning more weight will be moved. This is why some people can get much stronger without getting physically bigger. Their muscles are learning to fire more effectively, allowing more power to be produced from the muscle you currently have.

Movement efficiency refers to getting better at exercises and reducing the amount of wasted movement and energy.

For example, if you lack stability while squatting, you will be wasting energy that could be going into the up and down squat movement. This is why the better strength programs have you do a lot of compound weightlifting and place emphasis on getting the form right before loading the barbell with plates.

The more you practice any physical activity, whether it be bowling in cricket or performing a deadlift, the better you will become. And in the case of the squat, the better you get at it, the more efficient your body becomes and then the amount of weight you can shift will increase.

Now, EMS, we’re told can increase strength by improving muscle efficiency. That is, by teaching your muscle fibres to fire more effectively.

When the brain tells a muscle to contract, many of the muscle’s fibres will engage, but, in most cases, some are held in reserve to take over when the fibres are moving the load start to tire.

EMS is designed to cause all of the individual fibres in a muscle to contract at once, which is why studies show that it can activate about 30% more fibres in a given muscle than simply flexing it. The trainers with Bionic Fitness would have us feel the muscles of certain participants as a literal representation of how contracted a bicep would be for example. And it was noticeable, to say the least.

The theory is that by doing this frequently, you can improve your body’s ability to recruit more muscle fibres when under tension. Of course, this is great, but the only way for you to know if it works is to try it for yourself.

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