You may or may not have heard of it but electrical muscle stimulation training is an actual thing. It’s not quite the same as popping to the gym and doing some ab crunches or reps on the leg press; it’s something entirely different. Let’s be clear about what it actually is. Electrical muscle stimulation (or EMS for short), is also referred to as neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES) or electromyostimulation – a mouthful that one!
Anyway it is the elicitation of muscle contraction using electric impulses. The impulses mimic the action potential in the muscle fibres that come from your central nervous system, thus causing the muscles to contract. You have probably seen those adverts on the TV for ab toning belts, which you wrap around your torso and they deliver a series of electrical stimuli to help exercise and tone your abs. A series of patches are placed on the muscle group which are connected to the EMS or TENS machine where you or the professional can control the level of intensity.
What is it and what are the benefits?
EMS training is pretty much everywhere at the moment. You can find it in gyms, spas, wellness centres and beauty parlours to name but a few. It also has a solid place in competitive sports, rehabilitation and even medicine. As well as being used for aesthetic values, athletes and sports people alike incorporate EMS into their training regimes in order to make strength and speed gains. Physical therapists prescribe the use of EMS for joint sparing muscle formation and for targeted back exercises. In a rehabilitation context, EMS is complementary to voluntary exercise because in the early phase of rehabilitation it elicits a strength increase, which is necessary to perform voluntary training during the later rehabilitation sessions .
In a study performed on 49 critically ill patients, who received daily treatments of EMS it was discovered that EMS is very well received and seems to preserve the muscle mass of critically ill patients. Competitive bodybuilders and beauty parlours tend to focus more on the fitness and beauty aspects of EMS such as achieving a more shredded and aesthetic look through lean muscle mass and the catabolism of fat, stimulation of metabolism and tightening of connective tissue – sounds pretty good doesn’t it?
Does it really work?
The main reason why people tend to opt for EMS muscle workouts as part of their training or as part of rehabilitation/strength/ for aesthetic reasons is because it effectively activates over 90% of your muscle fibers at the same time during each contraction.
In a study performed on a group of ice hockey players the influence of short-term electromyostimulation (EMS) training was examined on the strength of their knee extensors, skating, and vertical jump performance.After 3 weeks of EMS training, isokinetic torque increased significantly as did 10-m skating performance. It was concluded that an EMS program of the knee extensors significantly enhanced isokinetic strength (eccentric and for two concentric velocities) and short skating performance .
When compared to the more conventional gym-based resistance training, deeper muscles are demanded so, with EMS you can really focus on isolation. Because of this, targeted isolation enhances intra- and intercellular coordination. Therefore, the training produces an effect much more rapid and effective than conventional weight training. The training effect with EMS training can be up 18 times better than with conventional weight training.
It can help improve the recruitment of nerve conduction rates
Another reason that argues for the cause of EMS working is due to an improvement in the recruitment of your nerve conduction rates. It takes approximately 10000 repetitions for your brain to learn how to quickly send a message to your muscles via the quickest nerve pathways. This contraction pattern becomes your “memory engram”. The more times your muscle is recruited the more efficient your body becomes at finding the quickest way to recruit that muscle. EMS can potentially provide you with repeated contractions to accelerate this learning process.
The myths and the bravado
Bearing in mind the above studies and discussion it’s important to point out that using EMS training is by no means a short cut to having a seriously lean and toned physique. If you are looking to use it for rehabilitation or to improve sporting performance as part of a regular training regime then you can enjoy the benefits. It’s not a short cut to getting body builders physique though. Sitting in front of the TV while wearing your EMS device, as your only form of muscular activity won’t get you results. Where advert companies fool people is that they lead consumers to believe that by using the device alone they will get that ripped 6-pack. Look at the science – if you aren’t filling your muscles with protein and giving your body the correct nutrition they wont grow. Also you wont have any visibility unless you lose enough body fat so don’t fall for those marketing gimmicks.
Hopefully you now feel as though you understand EMS more and the benefits of it. It’s a useful way of training your muscles, especially when coupled with your usual exercise regime especially if you are an athlete.
 Paillard, Thierry. “Combined application of neuromuscular electrical stimulation and voluntary muscular contractions.” Sports Medicine 38.2 (2008): 161-177.
 Gerovasili, Vasiliki, et al. “Electrical muscle stimulation preserves the muscle mass of critically ill patients: a randomized study.” Critical Care 13.5 (2009): R161.
 Brocherie, Franck, et al. “Electrostimulation training effects on the physical performance of ice hockey players.” Med Sci Sports Exerc 37.3 (2005): 455-460.