Its benefits are numerous: Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS), also known as Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation (NMES), or simply “electromyostimulation”.
3 Types of EMS Benefits
EMS has really 3 types of benefits: Rehabilitation AS WELL AS Training and Recovery. In the US, people (used to) think of EMS or NMES as for rehab only. It’s time to think again, as on a worldwide basis, competitive athletes and coaches use EMS for training and recovery too. They are reaping the benefits.
I observe that here in Italy Electronic Muscle Stimulator type devices are way more popular and widely accepted as compared to Canada or in the USA. Perhaps it is because EMS was used in Eastern Bloc countries back in the 1950’s and their coaches infiltrated the Italian coaching system? It wasn’t until 1973 when EMS was presented in Montreal.
Derek Hansen of RunningMechanics.com wrote a great review on the Globus Premium Sport Plus Electronic Muscle Stimulator. Derek has been using EMS for a long, long time, and gets to try different protocols and devices for a variety of sports at SFU.
How Does EMS Work?
The electrical impulses are generated by the EMS unit and delivered through electrodes on the skin fairly close to the muscles that you want stimulated. The impulses resembles the action potential (AP) coming from the central nervous system (CNS), causing the muscles to contract. The electrodes stick to the skin via pads.
The usage of Electrical Muscle Stimulation can be broken down into 3 categories: Training, Recovery, and Rehabilitation. When I first heard of EMS, my primary goal was the usage for the last two (Recovery, and Rehabilitation) primarily because I was a sub-Master’s athlete and these were my top two concerns.
EMS for Training, Recovery, and Rehabilitation
People think electrotherapy is mainly used for rehab, but it has several uses in everyday Training, Recovery, and Rehabilitation.
For training, electrical muscle stimulation can provide greater contraction as compared to a normal voluntary contraction, up to 30% higher. Thus more muscles are being used. (i.e. more muscle fiber recruitment).
Another benefit of using the electronic stim in training is the order of muscle recruitment velocity. Normally, your body would use red fiber (slow twitch) first to do a specified movement, followed by white fiber (fast twitch) when needed. However, with EMS, the order is reversed with the white fibers activating first, thus this type of “muscle training” is beneficial for all speed, power and strength athletes.
But the key benefit of using EMS is it bypasses your CNS! CNS overload is a complicated subject matter, but I describe it best as feeling “hung over” without drinking any alcohol the night before.
Like weight training, clearly the improvement is greater for a beginner athlete compared to an elite athlete. So implementing EMS into your annual plan (both macrocycle and microcycles) requires a bit of planning, especially the training component. It will differ year to year (or every two years, like your weight training routine)
I’ll discuss more about the Training, Recovery, and Rehabilitation for EMS devices along with Derek Hansen. I believe electronic muscle stimulation is a lost art in the USA and Canada, partially because of the stigma with Eastern Bloc countries. Electrotherapy is part of the whole training plan, and not “the only thing” used by Olympic athletes.
As well, we will discuss selecting an electronic stim unit, the muscle groups to work on, pad placements, the intensity, and the proper protocols of rest and contraction to use (including a warm up and warm down) in future articles and interviews.
>> Click here for information on Globus Electrical Muscle Stimulation units.
EMS: What is it NOT
EMS should not be confused with TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulator) which is common in the use of electric current for pain therapy, especially people with lower back problems.
EMS is also not a magic wand for weight loss. Certain low end Electrical Muscle Stimulator-type of devices can be seen in ads and products such as the Flex Belt. Even when endorsed by former San Francisco 49er legend Jerry Rice, … don’t be fooled.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows EMS devices for over the counter usage as long as it’s clearly marked as muscle toning and strength building, because after all, it really does tone the muscle, IF you crank the intensity high enough. You CANNOT call electro-therapy units a weight loss product!
Sure, you think your muscles are burning calories, and they are, but if you just want to burn calories, you are probably better off burning calories by walking up and down the stairs. Or running to the bathroom. Everyone knows spot reduction doesn’t work. Well, at least the educated readers know that.
If you look at the ad on the left, you will see the words “weight loss” is NOT on the ad copy. These cheap knock offs are just glorified TENS units suitable for pain therapy, but do not provide enough intensity to benefit training. Plus, there are a series of protocols (duration, intensity, warm up, cool down, etc.) that must be programmed into the units.