You must have heard that Electrical Muscle Stimulation is used for rehabilitation. But after hearing about it for sport training, most people get a good laugh, as this reminds them of the marketing hype “exercise while doing nothing and watching TV”. There is a reason for this bad reputation, because done incorrectly and with the wrong tools, EMS will not achieve any result for you. Therefore I’d like to explain what EMS can really do for you.
What EMS Does
First the basics. Voluntary muscle contractions are controlled by the brain, which sends electrical impulses through the nerves that innervate a particular muscle. EMS mimics these electrical impulses, and acting on the same nerves that innervate a muscle, cause it to contract involuntarily. It is important to understand that EMS doesn’t cause the muscle to contract, but it triggers its contraction. The energy for the contraction still comes from the same biochemical processes that make our body work. Therefore an EMS contraction is “physiologically natural”. Because our muscles are composed of different types of fibers (think of slow twitch and fast twitch fibers), EMS electrical impulses can trigger different types of contraction. By harnessing these differences EMS machines can help fine tune muscles for specific goals: development of force; development of endurance; help recover from strenuous training faster than pure rest; avoid next-day muscle soreness.
EMS is not simple and has to be done correctly. That is partly the reason why there are many skeptics. Utilizing the correct stimulation parameters is part of the answer (there are half a dozen parameters to be set correctly). For instance if one utilizes a TENS device (those typically prescribed for low back pain), the stimulation will not be adequate for a training effect on a desired muscle. Or, if one borrows an expensive clinical device, the parameters will be difficult to set and will not address a specific training goal. Thanks to advances in technology, in the last 10 years, portable and relatively low-cost stimulators have appeared on the market, already programmed for different athletic goals, putting results within reach of the sport community. In Europe they are used by a growing number of coaches and athletes. In the US the number of sport users is a much smaller niche. Since one still needs to know what to do, and have enough experience to use EMS programs consistently with the sport goal, I recommend to talk to a coach that has EMS background.
How it Works
I mentioned that our muscles are composed of different slow twitch fibers and fast twitch fibers. In a voluntary contraction of slow-twitch fibers our nerves send electrical impulses, typically 10 to 20 times per second. In the case of fast-twitch fibers, our nerves send electrical impulses, typically between 40 to 80 times per second. EMS can mimic these and other nervous patterns precisely, helping to tweak muscle work toward slow twitch or fast twitch work. There are studies that have shown that EMS has the capability to modify the proportion of fast vs slow-twitch muscle fibers.
Let me once again state (as I have numerous times in my posts) that there is not single “magic pill” to make someone perform better. It will always be what I call an Experiment of One. However, despite some studies indicating conflicting results, the preponderance of research is supporting EMS as a viable training aid. When I combine my personal experience, the research I’ve read and even my skepticism, I fall on the side that EMS is the real deal and not a fad. – Coach Dean