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28 June 2020

Is Electrical Muscle Stimulation the secret to easy muscle and strength gains?

by Jackson Peos 0

By Jackson Peos PhD (c) No doubt most of you will be familiar with Electrical Muscle Stimulation or EMS. EMS makes a lot of promises, one of which, is fast-tracked muscle and strength gains in as little as 15 minutes per day. But, does EMS really live up to the hype? EMS has a lot…

By Jackson Peos PhD (c)

No doubt most of you will be familiar with Electrical Muscle Stimulation or EMS. EMS makes a lot of promises, one of which, is fast-tracked muscle and strength gains in as little as 15 minutes per day. But, does EMS really live up to the hype?

EMS has a lot of appeal, after all, how good would it be if we could get jacked and strong while burning fat and calories, WITHOUT having to kill ourselves for hours in the gym. According to EMS proponents, all we need is a few short sessions hooked up to some wires and pads, then boom, quick results arising from hastened muscle remodelling and recovery. Furthermore, if EMS did work, it would provide us with a means to stimulate muscle growth, without the risk to soft tissue (muscle, tendons, ligaments) or joint injuries. There is a reasonable theoretical rationale as to why EMS might work, as the devices are designed to stimulate nerves arising in motor recruitment and subsequently muscle contraction, in a similar vein to weight training. But what about if we added EMS on top of our training? Would it provide an extra edge?

Thankfully, we no longer have to speculate on the potential benefits of EMS. In a recently published study, researchers set out to examine the effects of weight training combined with EMS treatment, or weight training alone. The researchers focused on changes in performance, as well as perceived delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). 18 males completed 8 weeks of the program involving 3 workouts per week wearing an EMS device for 3 hours post training (and in the morning on rest days) or a sham device (control).

So, what did they find? Compared to baseline, both groups increased muscle thickness of the biceps (+2.9mm in EMS versus +3.0mm in control), triceps (+4.3mm in EMS versus +2.7 in control), and the vastus medialis (+1.5mm in EMS versus +0.9 in control) and vastus lateralis (+6.8mm in EMS versus +3.2mm in control), with no significant changes between groups. Furthermore, both groups significantly improved bench press strength and power, but only EMS improved vertical jump height. At the end of the 8 weeks, only EMS resulted in reduced DOMS at 12-, 24- and 48-hours post training.

So, what does this mean? Is EMS worth our time or is it another training fad? I must admit, I am somewhat surprised with the results, as I expected EMS would not be additive to regular weight training. While there weren’t significant differences in muscle gained between groups, there was a trend for favourable gains with the EMS group. Furthermore, while bench press performance wasn’t statistically different between groups, only the EMS group increased their vertical jump. It’s important to note that these benefits were obtained with reduced DOMS post training compared to weight training alone. This benefit might provide substantial value for athletes, allowing them to return to optimal performance in the gym, on the track, or on the court, earlier than otherwise. This is a surprising finding in its own right, as usually tactics that reduce DOMS also reduce the muscle adaptations, however this was not the case in this instance. 

Do I think EMS is worth it? Well, I won’t be buying a device. My feelings about this study is that the benefits of EMS observed are most likely due to the untrained status of the participants. In other studies, untrained participants often hypertrophy in response to aerobic exercise alone, due to their sensitivity (or lack of exposure) to a tension stimulus. For advanced trainees who have been putting their muscle under substantial tension for months or years, it is in my opinion UNLIKELY that EMS will provide an adequate stimulus to encourage further gains. Just in case you’re reading this article and you’ve never been to the gym, adding EMS to your early training months might yield some value. This is of course because overall your muscles have heightened sensitivity to all tension and will grow and respond off extremely low amplitude muscle stimuli that would just not benefit an advanced trainee. 

Considering the price point, the time investment and inconvenience of using the device, and the modest advantages observed thus far, I don’t think EMS is a worthy investment for most trainees. 

References

Naclerio, Fernando, Marcos, Seijo, Battina, Karsten, George, Brooker, Leandro, Carbone, Jack, Thirkell and Eneko, Larumbe-Zabala (2019) Effectiveness of combining microcurrent with resistance training in trained males. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 119 (11-12). pp. 2641-2653. ISSN 1439-6319 (Print), 1439-6327

About the author

Jackson is a PhD researcher in Clinical & Sports Nutrition, an accredited Sports Nutritionist, and competitive bodybuilder and boxer. He currently works at the School of Human Sciences, where he has completed a BSc in Sports Science and in Exercise & Health, and an Honours in Exercise Physiology. Instagram @jacksonpeos

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