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Guido Franchetti

Is EMS of any use?

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Guido Franchetti

Because of an injury rehabilitation in my family, I have at disposal an EMS (electrical muscle stimulation) unit. It is a Compex model. Besides programs for rehab, it has a multitude of programs for strength, stretching (reciprocal inhibition based) and recovery/massage. Can these things be useful for training/recovery (of course on top and not in substitution of normal workouts) or are they a waste of time?

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Fabio Pinna

I found it useful to mantain muscle mass during prolonged periods of downtime, back when I was traveling a lot. I could do some maintenance while I was on the train, or in my hotel room at night while writing emails. Still, once back home, I always felt stiffer and clumsier than when I departed... For anything else, I'm of the opinion that they are quite useless outside of their therapeutic usage.

Also, reciprocal inhibition is not a function of the muscle mass itself, but of the central nervous system, so I'd be inclined to think that it wouldn't really work.

I've had one physio claiming that they're useful to bring lagging muscles forward faster, which is in itself a form of rehab I guess. But unless you know with great precision which of your muscle fibers are lacking in strenght/mass, I don't think it's very useful in that regard, either. Another friend swears by the recovery effect, and he claims that it makes him recover twice as fast. Can't attest because I never used it in that regard, tho.

As long as you're aware that it's definitely no substitute for real training (and you seem so)... I guess if you enjoy the feeling, keep using it?

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Guido Franchetti

Grazie Fabio! I tried a couple of time for strength training, but from what I have understood in order to get some results intensity should be the highest tolerable, and that is certainly not enjoyable - I could not manage to do anything else meanwhile.

The way it works for stretching is that you stretch normally, and while you stretch a long and steadily applied impulse makes the antagonist contract. This lasts for a certain time (which can be varied) and the whole process is repeated for a total duration of about 15 minutes. I tried it only once and cannot say if it is really effective, but I noticed that the antagonist, which is in a shortened position, cramps easily, so I had to keep the intensity quite low.

I also have not tried to use it for recovery yet.

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Mark Collins

I have one at my Physiotherapy clinic that I never use. I never got good results with it.

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Jason Berger

Michael Gundill, a writer for Iron Man, was experimening with EMS for bodybuilding / strength training and was having some incredible results. He could zap  his lifters with it and all of a sudden they could do 12 reps with their 1 rep max.

He found that the common machines with their lite settings were useless and he had to find units that put some pretty high voltage into your muscles. He also found that he had to save it's use towards the end of a powerlifting cycle because using it every day was hard on the athlete's mind. It was essentially torture that, after, you had to lift heavy.

 

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Douglas Wadle

Good way to get an adrenergic surge.  I would recommend focusing on the basics and not worrying about these little tricks.  For almost everybody here this is a drop in the bucket. Focus on your workouts and you won't need any gimmicks.

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Alessandro Mainente

With EMS you will obtain LOCAL muscles stimulation but you have practically zero activation from SNC that is extremely important for pattern activation and OPTIMIZATION (that is the base of improvements). 

it is like to be at 300 km/h when you drive a Ferrari, the problem is that when you dismount from it you will run always at the same speed as your legs permit.

IMprovements on bio-motor qualities start always  from the SNC, if you work with it , it can adapts. if not, you are at the starting point...more or less.

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Guido Franchetti

Thank you all for the answers. I was not looking for shortcuts or gimmicks, I just happened to have one available and thought I would ask people more experienced than me for their opinion about it. In my googling I found nothing about adrenergic surges in the case of healthy people, so that claim may need some references. Anyway, the overwhelming opinion of competent people here is negative, it is not enjoyable to use, I do not have time to use it as when I am not training F1/H1 I am recovering from it and, I think most importantly, as Alessandro pointed out it only stimulates the muscles without SNC intervention. Hence it will stay in the drawer I guess.

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Fabio Pinna

After this thread appeared here, I -by complete chance- met two guys that make a living out of going to their client's homes and treat them with a very expensive EMS system. They claim their clients range from post-surgery patients, to high-end athletes, to stay at home dads, and claim very good results with all of them. Having heard about EMS repeatedly over such a short time, I got curious about the subject, and decided to do some research. After spending a day reading studies, turns out that I slightly changed my point of view on these devices.

The best article I found to resume what I found is on T-Nation: https://www.t-nation.com/training/truth-about-ems. But an afternoon on google will bring forth many other very interesting articles on the subject.

What follows is a short version of what I found.

-- Disclaimer: I have no personal experience on the matter, and I'm only reporting here what I found in the literature. --

Technique and skill: everybody everywhere agrees that EMS will never give you actual technical skills. Is this clear? Good.

Strenght: EMS is indeed beneficial for increasing maximal strenght expression in muscles treated with it.

Power: EMS can positively influence recruitment speed of muscle fibers. This means that you can express the same amount of strenght in a shorter time, thus expressing more power.

Recovery: EMS is apparently exceptionally beneficial for recovering from an intense training - and it is the use it's most commonly recommended for.

Mobility: zero effect. Mobility and flexibility are mainly limited by the neural factors, and secondarily by connective tissue. EMS is ineffective towards both.

Fat loss: none, nada, nein, zero, zilch. Go eat a salad. Or better, do Thrive.

CAVEATS:

1) You are only going to be able to improve strenght (and power) in prime movers: large muscle groups, which are the biggest and most superficial, thus more easily reached with the electrodes. Think chest, glutes, quads, hamstrings, deltoids. Targeting secondary muscles and stabilizators (brachialis, teres major/minor, hip and shoulder rotators, etc) is not really possible. Since GST skills are heavily limited by secondary rather than prime movers (warning: gross, gross oversemplification), EMS won't have any more carry over than heavy squatting or bench pressing would. (If you want to drain your bank account towards very high end machines and a very good trained operator, then fine targeting becomes possible, albeit still not very effective. But if you have that kind of money to spend, I suggest you buy your own fully equipped olympic gymnastics gym. It's probably going to be cheaper in the end...)

2) No amount of electrical stimulation will ever improve muscle fiber recruitment by the CNS, or syncronicity, or any of the neuromotor aspects. There SEEMS to be a slight improvement of the ratio of white to red fiber recruited for targeted muscles, but I didn't find anything conclusive on the subject. Anyway, even if there is an effect, it's going to be marginal for GST -- see [1] above.

3) you need a device of at least decent quality, one that can be programmed with some versatility. See the article on t-nation for some of the details, google for the rest.

4) append "if used correctly" to any and all sentences of this post. These devices are not very intuitive to use, and need to be programmed correctly to get the desired outcome.

5) everybody agrees that if you hope to substitute real training with EMS, you're in dire need of a mental health specialist.

Fun fact: the main disadvantage of EMS - the fact that it bypasses the CNS - is also its biggest strenght, as it means that the recovery time for EMS strenght work is an order of magnitude lower than strenght exercise of the same intensity. We're talking a few short hours instead of days.

My own personal conclusions: I still would never invest money in one of these machines. But my mother owns one that has never seen any use, so I am going to steal it from her and experiment with it for recovery at the end of the day, while I am taking care of my e-mails and other boring computer work. I'll let you know what happens. I guess you could give it a shot as well, since you have the device already. From the looks of it, there's nothing to lose: best case scenario, you are able to fit one or two more training sessions in your week; worst case, you wasted some time that you were going to spend sitting down anyway.

I hope to have some first hand experience in a few weeks.

Godspeed.

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