EMS in the City
EMS = Electronic Muscle Stimulation and its becoming a bit of a rage in the city. EMS studios are popping up all over. What’s it all about?
I was lucky enough to have time with Alexander Fleischmann’s team at AproSports Stadtmitte who have been specializing in EMS for the last 5 years in Berlin. Here’s what I now know about this strange fitness phenomenon and its attraction as the lunch time gym alternative.
First thing to know, after a bit of research, EMS been around quite a while. It was first used as a rehabilitation tool for patients who had lost the ability to activate their own muscles through for example, stroke, temporary paralysis, spinal injury, etc.. Without regular stimulation from the nervous system muscles will start to waste away (atrophy). EMS was found as a successful way to prevent this by applying the stimulus need to contract muscles from outside the body. Electrical current applied via the skin can reach the underlying muscle to stimulate a contraction, without the need for a signal from the brain or spinal cord. This allowed maintenance of the body’s muscles until the patient could once again activate their own muscle via the brain and spinal cord.
In the 1960s, or thereabouts, EMS moved into the sports arena and was used to improve injury recovery and performance of athletes. EMS is still widely used today by professional sports teams all over the world to maintain optimal muscle performance all year round and especially before or after surgery or injury. In an extreme form it can also be used to build more powerful or faster responding muscles than could ever be achieved through classic (non-EMS) training. (In by-passing the brain for muscle activation you by-pass a natural physiological control mechanism we have that stops the body stimulating a muscle to 100% contraction capacity. The body naturally controls contraction and how much of a muscle is used in order to always have a portion of the muscle fibres in reserve. This allows the body to still respond to unexpected events (more weight in the object we pick up than we thought so we suddenly need more muscle power, running for longer than we planned so we need more muscle endurance than we accounted for). Makes sense right! Using EMS from the outside of the body you skip this control mechanism and you can apply enough current to stimulate a muscle to contract very close to 100%. Used in a controlled training program this kind of EMS can result in some very impressive muscles in terms of power and speed performance).
Only in the last few years has EMS migrated into the general (urban) fitness area for everyone to try and try they do! So I had to take to chance and have a 1-1 session of EMS and see what I make of it.
The principle is simple – You wear a ninja style EMS body vest already loaded with all the electrode pads then you can add additional leg, butt and arm pad sets. You hook up to the wires and plug into the machine and the fun can begin. First you have to set your personal EMS threshold for each body region and then you are ready to enter your program. The system will apply electrical current to the body via the pads causing your muscles to involuntarily contract. The stimulation is set in short bursts with rest phases between repetitions and the whole thing only lasts 20 min. Based on your personalized goal program you can either keep it simple and just try to resist the involuntary contractions by holding the body in a fixed position, or you have to perform certain movements or exercises during the involuntary contractions which makes life harder.
Does it actually do anything? – Well, as a sports person I didn’t find my first 20 min particularly taxing even with some basic exercises thrown in for fun, after all its not really like my usual workouts. However, fast forward 2 days and boy do I know my muscles got zapped! I couldn’t sit down for a day my butt was so sore after 1 session (serves me right for setting the stimulation so high) so it definitely does do something. Obviously more than 1 session is required to see any substantial benefit so i will just have to extrapolate.
Would I recommend it? In certain circumstances, I probably would (but I need a bit ore research on this before i fully commit!) I see the value as a tool to help someone recover from an injury or problem where there is a risk of muscle weakness or atrophy due to the injury or the necessary recovery time (like back problems, broken leg, etc). It could also prove beneficial if specific muscle weakness is the reason for an injury or problem and by boosting the strength of specific muscles you could improve the situation (lower back pain being a good example). I also see that it could help support a more comprehensive training program for sports people to even out muscle imbalances or weakness that are impacting performance or progression.
What I am not sure I subscribe to is the idea some people have of using EMS in your lunch hour as your only fitness program (and yes there are people who do that), but each to his or her own. I will remain a proponent of the great outdoors, stretching the legs, working-out to sweat levels at least once a week and generally finding time in your life for healthy pursuits.
So, EMS, where do I stand on this topic at the end of the day? – I am going to follow it with interest and see where it leads for Urban dwellers and amateur athletes. It may just find its place and become the “norm” of tomorrow in supporting sports people in one way or another.