This is Part 2 of a 3 part series, written by Ovidiu Octav Florea. He is a Rugby coach and Rugby fitness coach in Canada, France, and Romania. He earned his Masters degree in Sport Management from Université de Technologie de Troyes (UTT).
Part 1 discussed Rugby Training Challenges: Agility, Balance, Coordination & Power
Rugby Training Challenges: How Electrical Muscle Stimulation should be considered
In such circumstances, Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) seems to become a serious option for coaches… Sometimes even a miraculous or salvation solution, but (and always we have a "but") things are not so simple and it all depends on how the coach will consider this possibility.
Strength increase after EMS training cycles is apparently due to the stimulation of larger number of fibers. Using it systematically, it does activate a larger number of muscular fibers than the neuronal command can do. It is a kind of awakening which is going deeply inside the muscular tissue. If that happens on a regular basis, it seems that with time, the result would be a multiplication of neural active connections along with the muscular fibers. Of course – more connections, more fibers…it is what we call for decades a better muscular recruitment, which logically should lead to spectacular gains in strength. But does this really justify the acceptance of the fact that through software programs we can control and orient major physiological modifications/adaptations of the muscular tissue? Does this allow us to recommend it as a major component of the training program? And above all, does that allow manufacturers to sell it as a sure method to performance objectives?
Let’s admit that we could even control or be sure of all these modifications. Most of these changes will be in the muscle’s composition, so they can determine energetic adaptations and – of course – a part of the physical modifications (I won’t argue on muscular development mechanism). What about the physical characteristics of the muscle – elasticity, amplitude and resistance of/to elongation, resistance to contusions, the contraction speed, etc. – does these modifications have anything to do with that – if yes, how much?
Before making any recommendations and coming to conclusions regarding the advantages (or disadvantages) of using EMS, let’s try answer a few (more) questions. We have the eternal classic and common sense questions available for all the sports – what for, which period of the year, which preparation phase or cycle, about the phases planning and periodicities, if we are in the competition season about the frequency of the training sessions, games, playing post demands and tasks, priorities, etc., but also we have some “specific” (more or less) ones – these should also be asked for every discipline’s training process:
- Strength is a very general word. What are the potential situations of pure strength manifestations in the rugby game? Do I really need a bigger segmental force or actually a better resultant force coming from…I don’t know, let’s say a better coordination and muscular synergy , posture, angles, leverages, technique ?
- Considering the way EMS is used – it generally stimulates/induce isometric contractions – does this type of work-out responds to the requirements of strength and force manifestations and situations during the rugby game? If yes, which are these situations/efforts or how else could EMS stimulation be helpful to optimize performances (that is, if performance is indeed the strength). For example – maybe is not about segmental force or dynamic contractions, but about core’s strength and conditioning!?
- From a statistical point of view, is the strength a real limiting factor for the rugby player’s speed and velocity (and generally for his performance)? It depends. So for whom, how, what for and in/on what situation do we really need to develop players “strength”?
Real Life Situations
Well, if this doesn’t help too much… Let’s go back to the real life situations. My experience guides me to consider things from a simple perspective:
- velocity is a matter of ground contact, balance, coordination, rhythm and “eye” – so if we are not developing or optimizing all these, EMS will not change things too much. Let’s remember we are talking about rugby players – big guys – and not about sprinters. Except the players the Southern hemisphere, most kids (environ 65%) arrive in rugby because they have been literally refused or evaluated as "time loss" by coaches from other disciplines. Sometimes it takes years to teach them running…
- speed is also a matter of neural impulse and muscular excitability – reaction time and contraction’s speed…It starts with the eye, the ear, it goes to the brain and ends with motor responses or commands involving more muscles, eventually complete kinetic chains… and definitely this can not come from “a sticky local patch’s impulse”. What I’m trying to say here is that no matter how strong and developed a muscle is, the key of the speed is the nervous impulse and the inter-muscular coordination. It may be the fastest best possible recruitment too, but I’m not sure that in this situation the muscular recruitment reproduces the same mechanism as in pure force efforts or if it really has something to do with the one due to a local or peripheral stimulation;
- "artificial" electric impulse can be brought to intensities that the human nervous system could never deliver/attain in normal conditions – what about the muscular "addiction" to this intensity!? Even if the process seems to be reversible, do we really know how this routine will modify the muscular excitability…. It is not only about deficiencies; still, there are many variables and that gives me the feeling of going in an unknown “zone”.
Part 3 will discuss guidelines and suggestions about EMS used in rugby players conditioning.