Athletes are always looking for a leg up on the competition. We all practice, lift, and work toward honing our craft, but so do our peers and competitors. The greatest challenge for many of us is improving while remaining healthy and safe.
These days, athletes and fitness enthusiasts have increasingly turned to electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) to gain an edge. Now that EMS is available to the masses, it’s growing in popularity and is big within the CrossFit community. “Everyone wants to train like the pros and have the same advantage they have, so I’m not surprised EMS has become more popular,” says Carolyn Mazur, DPT, founder of Fusion Physical Therapy and Sports Performance in New York.
How Does it Work?
When an electrical signal travels down a nerve ending and activates a muscle endplate, your muscles fire. EMS systems mimic this central nervous system process.
“Electrical stimulation pads are placed on the affected area, then turned on to elicit a response that includes muscle activation, increased blood flow, and oxygen to the applied body part,” Mazur explains. “It’s this elicitation of the muscle contraction, using guided electric impulses, [that] produces our desired outcome.”
Different EMS patterns (known as protocols or programs) produce different effects, which Mazur says include “improved muscle function, decreased pain, and promoted healing.”
Although EMS is used primarily in physical therapy, it has emerged as a new technology that athletes of any kind can utilize at home, at the gym, or even while traveling to aid recovery and boost workouts.
What is EMS used for?
EMS has seen its greatest effectiveness as a method of rehabilitation after an injury or surgery. But it also works well for people looking to recover more quickly from tough workouts.
“I definitely think it’s good for any type of post-workout soreness or muscle fatigue,” Mazur says. “It recruits more muscle fibers and decreases post-inflammation buildup after exercise.”
Mazur primarily uses EMS with her athletes to begin the process of proper activation and increased blood flow and oxygen. Studies regarding the effectiveness of using EMS for strength training have been mixed. More definitive findings have emerged regarding the use of EMS in recovery. Patients who used EMS after knee surgery saw significantly greater improvement in hamstring and quad strength in both the short-term (a few weeks) and long-term (after one year) than those who didn’t. In one study, EMS was also demonstrated to help sedentary users improve their physical fitness, while another showed that it could induce beneficial effects for the muscles of patients in intensive care.
It’s clear that the most effective use of EMS is not through stimulation alone. While wearing an EMS unit, your muscles contract. But if you want to move beyond temporarily strengthening or toning those muscles, you must contract them yourself as well. Muscles need to feel resistance, and EMS stimulation doesn’t provide that the same way weightlifting and other exercises can. Applying the two in conjunction may lead to more comprehensive results.
Is it safe?
In the U.S., electrical muscle stimulators are considered devices under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. As such, they are regulated by the FDA. This means two things for athletes:
- Regulated devices must demonstrate that they are safe and effective. Since some devices have been shown to cause shocks, burns, and interference with other medical devices (such as pacemakers), it’s important to stick to those that have been reviewed and approved.
- Devices can only be marketed for uses that the retailer is able to confirm with data. While EMS has been shown to strengthen and tone muscles, no direct link can be made between EMS and weight loss—and FDA-approved devices will make no such claim.
If you’re using EMS in rehab, therapists can set parameters and programs for use in the clinic or home, depending on the type of treatment or goal. There are also tracking and compliance mechanisms that monitor activity, allowing users and therapists to see how long and how often the unit was used to ensure safety.
Should I get one?
If you want to speed up your recovery, there is data showing that EMS is an effective aid. Professional athletes have certainly embraced the practice, according to Mazur.
“I’ve worked with pro teams and learned the benefits of modalities such as EMS from a practical standpoint,” Mazur says. “Athletes are able to compete at a higher level and maintain that level because they would use ‘stim’ after workouts, which allowed them to recover faster.”
Keep in mind: Studies that have measured the effectiveness of EMS contain the caveat that “it’s inherently less efficient than human movement.” There are limitations to EMS since nothing replaces the benefits of cardio, isometric exercises, or strength training.
EMS isn’t for couch potatoes. You’re not going to get a six-pack while watching TV, but you may find your recovery time on said couch shortened by EMS. If you want to reach new athletic heights, EMS can help get you there. But as always, it starts with you, and the muscles and motivation you have already.
We like the Compex Sports Elite Muscle Stimulator, which features nine different programs including Active Recovery and Recovery Plus. It also comes with easy snap electrodes (good for a first timer) and a belt clip for effortless access.