Electrical Muscle Stimulation

Electrical Muscle Stimulation - Exploding the Myths

Wouldn’t it be fantastic if all you had to do to achieve the perfect physique was settle down in front of the television, place some electrodes strategically on your body, then sit back and relax. I am sure you will have seen the adverts tempting you to part with your hard-earned cash in return for a fancy box of tricks that will help you achieve ‘rock-hard abs’ or ‘buns of steel’ from the comfort of your armchair. But can it really be that simple? A team of US researchers decided to find out whether Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) products really can help to improve muscle strength, body composition and appearance.

EMS technology was first used in the 1960s as a means of rehabilitating muscles after surgery. As the technology improved, it was extended for use in patients suffering from central nervous system impairment and, more recently, in patients who have had orthopaedic surgery.

What does all this have to do with the development of muscular strength in healthy athletes? Well, back in the 1970s Eastern Bloc research suggested that EMS was more effective than exercise alone in strengthening muscle in élite athletes. Fast forward to 2002, and budding entrepreneurs have made a giant leap of faith based on this early research and started to market EMS to the general public. This area of the fitness industry has started to gain popularity with people looking for a quick fix to their shortcomings, but claims for the benefits of EMS have never been confirmed.

Step forward the research team from the University of Wisconsin, who assigned 29 healthy college-aged volunteers to either an EMS or control group. All subjects completed an identical battery of pre- and post-test assessments, including body weight, skinfold, muscle girths, muscle strength of biceps, triceps, quadriceps and hamstrings. Subjects in both groups then completed EMS training three times a week for eight weeks with a typical EMS machine as available for public purchase, although the units used by the control group had been altered so as not to transmit any electrical current.

At the end of the study period weeks there were no significant changes for either group in skinfolds, bodyweight, percentage of body fat, fat weight or lean body weight. There were no significant changes in arm, waist or thigh girths and evaluation of photographic evidence failed to show any significant changes in the appearance of firmness or tone. In terms of strength testing, the researchers concluded that any slight changes that may have occurred during the eight-week training period were unrelated to the stimulation. If that’s not enough to put you off, the claims that EMS is a ‘quick and easy’ training method were also dispelled. Not only did it not work, but each session averaged 45 minutes in duration!

The take-home message, if you need one, is that EMS does not appear to be a quick and pain-free method for increasing muscular strength and is not recommended for the apparently healthy consumer.

The Journal Of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol 16 (2) 165-172

Nick Grantham

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