What is EMS Training? And Is it Safe? We Explain Everything…

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EMS stands for electromyostimulation and when used as part of a workout method known as EMS Training or EMS Fitness Training, it claims to tone your muscles more effectively than working out in more traditional ways. In other words, you don’t have to spend as long working out to get the same results… but does it actually do what it says and what do you need to know if you’re going to try it. We explain…

What is EMS Training?

EMS training first developed as a form of rehab training to help people recover from injury. EMS officially stands for electromyostimulation, but you’ll also see it referred to as electro muscle stimulation in some places.

In an EMS training session, you’ll wear a special training suit, rather like a wetsuit, lined with tiny pads. These pads deliver electric impulses that stimulate your muscles causing them to contract. At the same time as the machine ‘shocks’ your muscle, you’re doing moves like squats, lunges and bicep curls.

The theory behind this is that the machine allows a greater muscle stimulation than doing the move alone. It’s said that we use about half of our muscle fibres doing a normal workout – but adding an EMS machine causes that to increase to working up to 95% of the fibres in the muscle.

As such, they say, you only need to exercise for 20 minutes per session and, it’s claimed two sessions a week are the equivalent to six hours of normal exercise.

Yep, you can imagine how fast I was asking to try this one, can’t you.

Does EMS Training Work?

It’s got quite a pedigree – in Germany where it is extremely popular, it’s been used in both general fitness and rehab for over 15 years -and there’s a lot of research been done into it and its effects.

One study at Germany’s University of Bayreuth, for example, found EMS workouts just twice a week for six weeks saw strength raise by 12.2 per cent and muscular endurance raised by 69 per cent – with women getting better results than men.  Those women also lost 0.4cm on their thighs, 1.4cm on the waist and 1.1cm from their hips.

A second study at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg comparing EMS to sessions of high-intensity weight training found that while the weight training group lose a little more body fat and gained about 4 per cent more leg strength,  the volunteers said the intense sessions were far more demanding and time-consuming than the EMS ones.

So, no it won’t replace a hard session at the gym – but, if you don’t have time for a hard session at the gym, don’t want to do a hard session at the gym, or are limited to what you can do by injury or limited fitness, then it can help ramp things up.

What Does EMS Feel Like?

I first tried EMS back in 2015 when the first company offering EMS training launched in the UK. This was X-Body and I found myself in London’s very lovely The Library Club in Covent Garden wearing a black t-shirt and cycling shorts waiting to don a version of the fetching suit above.

‘I’m just going to wet the pads’ said Mark, the trainer….erm, hang on. I’m no physicist, but water and electricity? I do recall various warnings about that at school. I suppose the fact that I’m here and typing tells you all was okay, it seems the dampness helps conduct the mild current through the fabric better but still, nervous much!!!

I then stepped into the suit and the pads were aligned along the correct muscles, I was plugged in (again, can you say sudden surge of panic!) and I began a workout strapped to what feels like a giant wearable Slendertone machine.

To start with they turned it quite low – it feels quite tingly and while it’s not exactly relaxing, it wasn’t unpleasant and it was certainly not painful.

The current to each muscle was then adjusted separately to the maximum point between ‘I can feel that’ and ‘turn that off it hurts’

I then went through a variety of different moves – squats, lunges, side bends etc – combining the movement with the electrical stimulation.

Well, in theory anyway – the problem is, when you’re as averse to stretching as I am your muscles are generally quite tight and my glutes particularly do like to cramp up now and again.

It’s extremely painful when it happens and as such, I try and avoid that situation. The muscle stimulation was making them feel extremely tight from the get-go and as such, when I started doing moves like kickbacks, I didn’t work as hard as I think I would have done not strapped to the suit – I also found that my right tricep was also painfully contracted when I tried to do the arm moves and as such, I wimped out on those too..

At the time I also didn’t think I’d done much before I didn’t ache the next day – normally when I test a new workout I get some level of after effect that shows my body it’s done something different. Apparently, though that is normal after your first session – and is a good sign. You shouldn’t have the machine turned up too high on your first workout and so you often don’t feel like you’ve done much -it’s the next one that’ll leave you sore!

It was a fun workout though and, the fact that you really do have to concentrate on when to inhale and exhale (to coincide with when the stimulation occurs) meant it actually flew by rather fast.

I’m now updating this post in 2021 and since the first day I tried it, things have moved on a little in EMS world. When I have a session in Sydney’s Speedfit recently, the suit was much less bulky than the one pictured above and, I found it much easier to move in and I didn’t feel I needed to resist the movement as much as I had on my original session.

Is EMS Safe?

Used correctly then yes it is.

The machine uses a current that only hits the type of muscles that you normally use when you are working out – it therefore doesn’t affect other types like the muscles in the heart.

However, there are been some concerns about the effects of overuse of EMS with one report of serious damage being done to the muscle when a machine was used incorrectly. This condition called rhabdomyolysis, occurs when overworking the muscle causes a very quick breakdown of the muscle which then has the potential to overload the kidneys. It can happen with any kind of intense exercise, not just EMS.

It sounds a bit scary doesn’t it, but a while back, I was lucky enough to interview Wolfgang Kemmler, a sports scientist at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in German and, probably, the world’s authority on the benefits, and hazards of EMS training and he told me the following…

‘This issue regularly makes waves in the media and unfortunately unsettles the participants of a WB-EMS training massively and it’s true that due to the high amount of muscle groups that can be stimulated with (in excess) supramaximal impulse intensity, WB-EMS could generate severe rhabdomyolysis. However, our further research has found that the problem of WB-EMS induced rhabdomyolysis is largely based on an inappropriately high-intensity impulse application during the very first session(s). However, also after the conditioning period, we did not support a WB-EMS training to complete exhaustion.’

In other words, so long as the machine is not turned up too hard during the first session of EMS, your body quickly becomes used to the stimulation it provides and the risk disappears – if you don’t work to excess in future sessions.

Professor Kemmler went on to say that he’d definitely recommend EMS training to those who found it hard to work out in other ways due to injury.

model-in-xbody-suit.jpg
Image courtesy of X-Body EMS training

How to Get The Best From Your EMS Training Session

However, what that means is that if you’re going to get the best results from EMS – and do it safely, the trainer using it must be properly trained and using the machine as per the guidelines later set up by Professor Kemmler. So, how do you know your machine is being used properly?

The tips below come from these guidelines and also from  Roland Safar from Australia-based EMS chain Speedfit who told me a few golden rules that you, and your studio, should be using to make sure you get an effective safe workout.

‘These guidelines don’t come from me, they come from trainers in Germany that have the most experience with EMS,’ he told me. ‘There is has been around for, like I said, 15 years or longer and they have thousands and thousands of studios. So this comes from millions and millions of training sessions in Germany and throughout the world.’

First up, you should have a consultation before your treatment that goes into your medical and training history. You should never use EMS training if you’re pregnant or if you have a pacemaker or defibrillator fitted. It’s also not recommended for anyone with type 2 diabetes or multiple sclerosis except in, potentially, a clinical rehab setting.

The guidelines basically say the session duration should not be more than 20 minutes – you don’t need to do more than that as it could overwork the muscles.

The level of muscle stimulation should not be too high – particularly on your first session as this is when the muscle is likely to be most vulnerable to damage. To you the tingling should feel pleasant, but challenging – not painful or causing cramping.

It should take 8-10 weeks before you build up to the higher intensities on the machine.

You shouldn’t do an intense session at the gym the day before your EMS workout. You should also take it easy the day after – this stops the muscles from becoming over-trained. That means you shouldn’t book back to back EMS sessions, you need a few days between each workout.

You should be well hydrated before you training starts and also drink some water after your session.

If you have a fever you should definitely not train.

Ideally, you should be eating a balanced diet including carbohydrates if you’re having EMS training – and, the guidelines recommend a high carbohydrate snack of 250 calories or less around 2 hours before training. This is so there is fuel in the bloodstream for your body to draw on – if there isn’t the body might be forced to draw on energy from the muscles you’re using – which is not the plan.

You shouldn’t be in a big group. At most only two people should be trained at a time to ensure individual attention

Your trainer should also never leave the area and should be about two arm lengths away from the machine or you at all times (subject to social distancing rules obviously)

You don’t need extra bells and whistles ‘I’ve also seen a lot of fitness trainers try to marry this with their experience with conventional training. So they had to just do the very same thing they did, just boosted with EMS. That means combining a lot of weight training with EMS on top of that and crazy jumping and this and that. It’s unnecessary,’ says Roland.

If your studio doesn’t use the above protocol – and, if they haven’t even heard of it, you might want to check how well trained they are on the machines before you sign up.

Any Disadvantages of EMS Training?

Let’s start with the big one. While it improves strength it doesn’t improve cardiovascular fitness or flexibility – and you need all three of those for an all-round healthy body. Even Professor Kemmler says EMS shouldn’t be the only workout you do, so, yes while it might give you strength-training results in less time, you can’t completely dump other exercises completely.

Then there’s cost – the sessions aren’t cheap. Plus, if you are getting results, it could feel hard to leave as it’s not like you can replicate the results at home (I’m hoping it goes without saying that you should never buy an EMS machine for home use.)

Does EMS Training Burn Calories? Will You Lose Weight?

The studios claim you can burn between 500-800 calories per 20-minute session, but, I can’t find the independent peer-reviewed study that has proved that.

To give you a comparison, 20 minutes of vigorous weight training would see someone of 155lb (11 stone) burning around 140 calories in 20-minutes. Admittedly, there is an afterburn effect of any kind of strength training which revs the metabolism up afterwards.

There are some studies looking at the calorie burn of what’s known as NMES, which is a less intense form of electrical muscle stimulation that focuses on one body part at a time. In this one study showing that stimulating the thigh muscles burned around 64 calories an hour. A second study found it could go up to 76 calories an hour.

That fact is that every exercise burns calories – and while some studies have shown definite fat loss from doing EMS training, others have found no effect of the training on weight loss or body fat measurements.

The take-home message seems to be if you go into your sessions thinking you’re going to lose enough calories to overindulge in dinner, you might not get the results you were hoping for.

One positive effect of EMS, if you are trying to lose weight though, is that the sessions seem to offset some of the muscle loss that can occur on a calorie-restricted diet. While this might not speed up your weight loss in the same way as, say, a one hour run might, it could help make it easier to keep the weight off once you lose it.

Other Benefits of EMS-Training

While most people now use EMS Training as a toning method, remember its origins were in injury rehab and as such, there’s been a lot of research into other benefits of EMS training – and, there do seem to be some definite positive effects.

For starters, it seems to help reduce back pain. One recent trial on 240 men and women found that EMS training reduced the severity of their pain by 30-40 per cent by the end of the 12-week trial – a result comparable to strength training – but, the EMS group trained for about half the amount of time than the other groups.

It’s also been shown to help reduce incidence of, erm, leaking. Urination is controlled by the pelvic floor and, as anyone who has done Pilates (or kegels) strengthening the muscles of the core and pelvic floor is essential to helping stop leakage that can occur with age or after having kids.

A trial in Germany looked at whether EMS could play a role in this and found that 64 per cent of the women trialled did notice an improvement, while 23 per cent said it had fixed their problem completely. Now, before you all rush off to book a session, I have to point out that the trial was part of a student dissertation and hasn’t yet been published or peer-reviewed, but, it could be worth a try.

PS: If you do have issues in this area, you might want to check out our specific post on exercising and peeing.

Lastly, if you have an injury and can’t work certain parts of your body as hard as you might otherwise, EMS training can help keep muscles toned without putting pressure on areas of injury. If you’re using it for this though it’s worth checking to see if your trainer has used it in the this way in the past so you don’t end up aggravating any issues.

How Often Should You Have EMS Training?

One 20-minute session a week seems to be enough to get good results. Some studios do suggest building up to two sessions a week, but they should never be back to back – you need at least two days, ideally four between sessions. ‘In our studies, we have applied a slightly higher training frequency of 1.5×20 min/week, i.e. a rest interval between training sessions of 4 days (e.g. each Tuesday and every second Friday),’ says Profesor Kemmler.

‘Considering the fact that with whole-body EMS all main muscle groups can be addressed simultaneously, a training duration of 20 min/session is absolutely sufficient for an appropriately intensive WB-EMS application. Longer units and particularly a significantly higher training frequency (≥3 sessions/week) can contribute to overloads. Notably, creatine kinase (CK) and myoglobin usually show their highest levels at day 3-4 post whole-body EMS training. I.e. another WB-EMS session at or even before this point might lead to an accumulation of CK and myoglobin and indicate prolonged muscular exhaustion due to inappropriate rest.’

So, there you have it – a summary of what EMS training is and what it can do – but, do you have other questions about EMS workouts? Then add them below in the comments and we’ll see if we can get an expert to answer them. Also, if you’ve tried EMS training let us know how you got on.

This piece was first published in June 2015 and updated in May 2021

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