The Practical Guide to Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) For Athletes

The Practical Guide to Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) for Athletes

Electrical Muscle Stimulation devices (EMS) are making a resurgence into the market with claims of boosting athletic performance and recovery. But how does this technology actually work? And does the existing research back its claims?

This article will break down everything you need to know about electrostimulation, its potential benefits, the research in the field, and what exactly its limitations are.

What is Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS)

Every time your muscles contract, it begins with your brain sending electrical impulses through your central nervous system. Your brain sends the signal; your motor neurons trigger the chemical reaction that causes your muscles to reorganize themselves to shorten the muscle. That’s muscle contraction in a nutshell.

Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) creates muscle contractions by using electrical impulses to stimulate your motor neurons directly. Since your body can’t tell the difference between the electrical impulses sent from the brain and impulses sent from a device, you’re able to simulate the contraction and relaxation of muscles just like you’d experience during training.

Surprisingly, the history of electrical muscle stimulation predates modern electricity itself. Ancient Egyptians, and later the Greeks and Romans, commonly used electrical fish as an effective method of pain management. But it wasn’t until the 18th century that the modern forms of EMS we have today began to evolve.

However, at the beginning of the 20th-century outlandish marketing claims cut the power for electrostimulation therapy (we’ll talk about what it won’t do for you later in this article). Without a basis of scientific evidence existing at the time, the methods were quickly dismissed and left alone for generations.

But, once modern technology allowed us to better understand how electrical impulses play a role in our physiology, there was a resurgence in the interest and credibility of the effectiveness of electrical muscle stimulation.

The application of EMS started with its usefulness in medical applications and quickly translated into benefits for athletics. Let’s outline a few of the most prominent potential benefits that electrical muscle stimulation claims to provide.

Benefits of Electrical Muscle Stimulation for Athletes

  1. Improves Muscle Strength
  2. Increases Range of Motion
  3. Improves Muscle Recovery
  4. Increases Blood Flow and Circulation
  5. Trains Muscle Fibers to Specific Response Patterns
  6. Slows the Process of Muscle Atrophy
  7. Reduces Muscle Soreness
  8. Enhances Muscle Rehabilitation
  9. Reduces Pain

The list of benefits for electrical muscle stimulation is a comprehensive list boasting some pretty significant claims. So how much of it is backed by science, and where are the lines for its limitations drawn?

Science Behind How Electrostimulation Works

The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research conducted a systemic review of how effective electrical muscle stimulation is for strength development and athletic training. 

The results of their first study displayed the effectiveness of electrical stimulation for enhancing maximal strength, speed-strength, force impulse, vertical jump height, countermovement jump, and sprint times in trained athletes.

Interestingly, several studies in the review have shown that electrical stimulation can be more intense than voluntary activation by the central nervous system. This means that while it may be an effective way to increase muscle stimulation, it also may directly impact the recovery time needed between sessions. 

For individuals with significant immobilities, are recovering from medical procedures, or have specific medical conditions, the utility of artificially stimulating muscle tissues as a tool for physical therapy is straightforward. But for trained athletes, the question lies in “how much additional benefit” the technology can provide.

Studies in experimental models and human subjects have also confirmed that EMS can improve muscle function by around 10-15% and marginally increase muscle mass. But it’s important to note that it shouldn’t be a replacement for your conventional training but as an additional training alternative for healthy athletes.

However, while there is promise in the growing data around the positive applications for incorporating EMS into training, there are also studies that show ineffective results.

Electrical muscle stimulation is a technique that involves a massive amount of variables. From electrode placement, treatment length, frequency and amplitude, prescription timing, and even the body composition of the test subjects, conflicting research has always plagued the field of study.

To begin to dissect all of the different varieties and purposes for EMS devices currently available on the market, let’s break down the different kinds of electrical stimulation and their intended purposes.

The Different Kinds of Electrical Stimulation

  • Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation (NMES)
  • Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)
  • Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES)
  • Russian Electrical Stimulation
Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation (NMES)

Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation (NMES) uses electrical impulses to target the motor neurons, causing your muscles to contract.

Its primary purpose is muscle activation, aiming to help improve muscle strength, increase blood flow and circulation, improve range of motion, and ease muscle spasms.

Most EMS devices on the market tailored for athletes will fall into the NMES bucket. 

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) uses electrical impulses to target sensory nerves, reducing the nervous system’s ability to transmit pain signals to the brain.

The difference between TENS and NMES is the neurons that they target. The primary purpose of NMES devices is to stimulate the motor neurons to create muscle contractions, while TENS devices target the sensory neurons that specifically block the feeling of pain.

Since most EMS devices rely on the same technology for both methods, it’s common to see devices that include both NMES and TENS for a tool that addresses both problems.

Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES)

Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) uses only the required amount of electrical impulse to stimulate the muscle movement you’re trying to accomplish. 

While NMES uses higher amplitudes than you would typically tolerate for stimulating strength and muscle growth, FES only increases the amplitude until the movement is achieved and nothing more.

The application for FES exists more in the territory of physical therapy for improving specific mobility tasks than it does for strength improvements in healthy trained athletes.

Russian Electrical Stimulation

Russian Electrical Stimulation uses high-frequency waveforms intended to increase muscle strength, size, endurance, and recovery.

This EMS protocol was popularized in the 1970s when Russian researchers used electrical muscle stimulation to maximize the training results of their Olympic athletes.

Russian Electrical Stimulation is similar to the function of most NMES devices but differs in the frequency amplitude and waveforms it uses to induce motor neuron stimulation.

Uses for Electrical Muscle Stimulation

There are three main areas EMS is traditionally used to improve:

  • Athletic performance
  • Natural Pain Relief
  • Injury Recovery
Athletic Performance

The ability to speed up the recovery process by increasing blood flow and flushing out metabolic waste from training is usually enough of a reason for an athlete to add a new tool to their gym bag. 

But with demonstrated improvements in recovery combined with its ability to supplement strength gains and range of motion improvements, the potential benefits for athletic performance begin to stack up quickly.

Natural Pain Relief

Like you might use a massage gun or foam roller to alleviate soreness and minor pain between exercises, many EMS devices also include TENS capability along with NMES. 

With the ability to also target the sensory neurons that send pain signals to your brain, you also benefit from blocking pain and releasing endorphins. 

Injury Recovery and Rehabilitation

Injury is the worst-case scenario for any athlete. Not only are you on the sidelines from making improvements in your training, but you often move backward as immobility leads to muscle atrophy.

As always, your first stop if you suspect any form of injury is to your doctor or preferred healthcare expert (and you should abide by their guidance, not a website on the internet). EMS devices have shown great promise in maintaining muscle function while you’re immobilized. The effects help you combat the strength and tissue loss of muscle atrophy, putting you back into training at a significantly better starting point once you recover.

What Electrostimulation Will Not Do for You

Just like breathing trainers had to contend with some products’ outlandish marketing claims, electrical muscle stimulation devices have dealt with the same issues.

There was a time when some electrostimulation devices marketed themselves as a fat loss tool – to the point where the FDA had to step in and state that EMS devices are not effective for fat loss as a replacement to physical activity. 

Adipose tissue (fat) is a poor conductor. That means it doesn’t conduct electricity well and could actually diminish the effectiveness of electrical stimulation. Aside from if it affects the device’s effectiveness, caloric output is the primary driver in burning fat.

Exercise itself burns far more calories than electrostimulation. So replacing exercise with electrostimulation is far less effective if your goal is to lose fat. 

The only caveat is that using EMS along with your conventional training program could potentially supplement your energy expenditure. But if you’re looking for overnight abs without having to put the work in at the gym or in the kitchen, an electrical stimulation device isn’t your answer.

Final Thoughts on Electrical Muscle Stimulation:

Electrical Muscle Stimulation devices have proven useful for healthy athletes as supplementation (not replacement) to their existing training programs. 

If you’re trying to accelerate your workout recovery or looking for a tool to help you break through training plateaus, an EMS device may help you get there. 

If you want to add an electrical muscle stimulation device to your gym bag, we’ll put an Amazon grid below with our top picks for the best EMS devices that you can have delivered directly to your door.

If you’re interested in adding an EMS device to your gym bag, when you use one of our links from this post, we get a small commission from Amazon (at no additional cost to you!) So if you appreciate the work we do and the information we provide in articles like this, it helps us keep the lights on. Thanks for your support!

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