Electrical Muscle Stimulation: What You Need to Know
This is what happens when you electrocute your muscles for a month
Of all the weird and wonderful training trends I've trialled for Men's Health, Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) is surely one of the strangest.
The location, for a start, is unusual. My sessions with EPulsive took place in a quiet basement flat off Gloucester Road. With mushroom-coloured walls, cream carpets, floor-to-ceiling mirrors and minimal furniture, it looks more like a show home than a modern fitness space.
And then there's the outfit. First, you pop on a slimfit black Bodytec top and shorts. Over that, you slip on what looks like a police vest with multiple wire attachments – the inside dampened with water – along with black bands for your arms, quads and glutes. Once you've gone the full Tron, your outfit is then connected to a control device, via which your personal trainer can "turn up" specific muscles – stimulating them with a mild electrical current to force them to contract rapidly. Your PT is the puppet master and you are his or her human toy.
According to Epulsive's promotional materials, a 20-minute EMS workout is the equivalent of 90 minutes in the gym. While a traditional full-body, weight-training sesh might recruit half of your muscle mass, Epulsive claims to fire up to 98% of your muscles. But does it? Anecdotally, I'd be inclined to say yes...
The sensation is hard to describe. It's sort of like a spasm or cramping, but not at all painful. It's a little bit like pins and needles – only it doesn't hinder your movement in the same way. Over the course of each 20-minute workout (I did four, in total – one a week, in place of one of my regular sessions) I performed the same sort of exercises most of us are used to doing in the gym: planks, lunges, bodyweight squats and light biceps curls and triceps extensions, gradually building up to barbell deadlifts and spider-man push-ups, which require more focus. Throughout this, my arms, abs, lats and glutes buzzed with a pulsating electric current.
If you've ever trained in an altitude chamber, you'll likely have some idea of the intensity: even without putting in much effort, I felt worn-out and short-of-breath.
One study found that a 12-week EMS programme leads to a 30% increase in strength and a slight reduction in fat mass, though the same could be said of most programmes. Another found it helped athletes boost their speed and power. Calorie burn has been estimated at 200-300 per 20-minute session (my Fitbit indicated my burn was closer to 150 calories, but then I'm 5ft 2in and not very muscular). That's slightly less than you might achieve with a 5K run.
The DOMS was pretty impressive. My abs, in particular, ached in the days after my session, which is a sign that something had happened. I definitely felt like I'd had a good workout.
Those looking to improve muscle function and strength. (Testimonials on the website come primarily from models, influencers and Made in Chelsea stars and seem to focus on "toning".) However, I'm told it's also a popular tool for recovery, rehab and pain-reduction, making it useful for those with an intensive fitness schedule. Zapping my back muscles into action seems to have helped with my dodgy shoulder, at least.
Here's what EMS won't do: it won't build the kind of functional, real-world strength you can only develop by moving your body through its full range of motion and picking up awkward, heavy objects. But for jolting those minor muscles that often lie unworked during your bench press sesh? Give it a go – if just for the Instagram pics. Or, if you're truly sold, try it out at home. The Cristiano Ronaldo-endorsed Sixpad connects to your phone via Bluetooth and promises an improvement in abdominal muscle size (naturally).
Essentially, EMS is a supplement to your weight-training, not a replacement for it. But, just like a good protein shake, it might help you eke out that extra 10%.
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