The “Shocking” truth about electrical muscle stimulation (EMS). Shocking. Get it? Sorry, bad pun – I couldn’t resist. But this deserves to poked fun at. “Attach electrodes to your belly, turn on the current, and zap! Just like that, you have six pack abs!” These claims are silly! Yet people fall for this every day because, like so many exercise and diet myths, they have their origins in legitimate science and therapy, but then slide into BS. Read on, and you’ll be shocked how a recent study picked apart the EMS to build muscle and burn fat claims…
Q: Tom, I’ve had knee problems – chondromalacia and tendinitis – since last February. My physical therapist recommended using Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) for my legs. I’m also using EMS in my arms, glutes and waist for a total of no more than an hour per session, six days a week. I’m also training 3 days a week at the gym with weights, and I’ve worked back up to lifting no more than 50 kg in the leg press and 35 kg in the leg extension.
I was doing fine until last week when I went to the beach for 5-days and walked for hours in the sand. Now my knee hurts again and I don’t know if this EMS is helping or not. Can you give me your opinion about EMS to build muscle and whether it’s worth continuing? Should I give it more time? Is it helpful for strength and muscle in every body part?
A: If your doctor or therapist prescribed electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) as part of rehabilitation or therapy for your knee and the surrounding muscles, I recommend you continue to follow their advice.
Pain flare-ups and re-injuries do happen from overuse or sudden trauma so a visit to your medical professional for re-assessment would be wise. I’m not qualified to give medical advice, but I can confirm that EMS has some accepted and appropriate uses in rehab and recovery situations.
On the other hand, I would not recommend EMS to build muscle, gain strength, lose fat or increase fitness. To achieve those goals you should use good nutrition combined with conventional resistance and cardiovascular training.
I bring this up because you mentioned you were also spending a significant amount of time using the EMS on other parts of your body including your waist (abs), glutes and arms, and also because I have seen EMS marketed as a fitness and muscle-building solution so I understand why many people are tempted to try EMS at home for toning, firming and so on.
Get Rock-Hard Abs And A Tight Butt While Watching TV?
There was a time, some years ago, that EMS was so popular, you would see advertisements for consumer-grade EMS devices in all the fitness magazines and on TV. It reached the point where EMS to build muscle became one of the biggest “get fit quick” gimmicks being marketed to the public.
The biggest promises made were that you could “build rock hard abs” or “firm your butt and thighs” while sitting at your computer or watching TV. That lured a lot of people in, and the fact that EMS was being used by doctors and therapists made it appear more credible.
A group of physiologists in the Department of Exercise Science at the University of Wisconsin had seen these wild claims and decided to put them to the test with a proper study. They acknowledged the legit uses for EMS in physical therapy and rehabilitation after injury or surgery, but their study didn’t support the fitness claims for using EMS in healthy people.
The Shocking Truth About EMS (Science!)
These exercise scientists published their findings in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Here’s what they concluded:
1. EMS has been marketed in a gimmicky way as a quick fix for “toning your abs,” “firming your butt,” or even “training” your whole body (while you sit at your computer or watch TV).
2. EMS devices have legitimate therapy and rehab uses, so that gives EMS an air of credibility. Therefore, many more people fall for the BS fitness and fat loss claims.
3. In this study, EMS did not produce statistically significant improvements in muscle strength, or muscle appearance.
4. In the study, which lasted 8 weeks, body composition was measured with a 7-point skin fold caliper test. There were no significant changes in body fat or lean body mass in any of the subjects. There is no evidence that EMS helps burn fat or reveal your abs
5. It is difficult or impractical to work the whole body with EMS, especially with electrode pads alone. In the study, the researchers had to provide sleeves to hold electrodes in place, which typically do not come with over-the-counter (consumer-grade) EMS devices.
6. If you want to train your entire body (to build muscle, strength and fitness), you might as well go to the gym for 45 minutes because the research says it takes at least that long to work your whole body with EMS. You get a lot more stimulation from weight lifting.
7. EMS doesn’t stimulate your muscles to the critical threshold needed to increase contraction strength. This can be as low as 30% of maximal voluntary contraction in untrained people, but must be in the range of 60 to 80% in highly-trained people and athletes. In the study, the EMS unit only produced force less than 20% of the volitional contraction. This is simply not enough stimulation to increase the strength of a muscle in a healthy person. When someone is recovering from surgery, they are rehabbing an injury, they suffered a stroke, or their central nervous system is impaired, then a low level contraction stimulus can have a therapeutic benefit.
8. Most over the counter EMS units are not medical grade. Many are very poor quality. (When you see an EMS device advertised in the “As seen on TV” section of Wal Mart, that might be a red flag). The responsibility is on the company to prove the product is medical grade if it’s to provide any kind of benefit in the first place.
9. When the electrical charge is strong enough, many EMS units cause discomfort, and it was noted in the research that subjects complained about it.
10. After experiencing the full sessions of EMS, the subjects in the study said they’d rather just go to the gym.
Scientific reference: Effects of electrical muscle stimulation on body composition, muscle strength, and physical appearance. Porcari JP et al, J Strength Cond Res. 16(2):165-72.
A member at our Burn the Fat Inner Circle recently commented that participants in a local bicycle and runner’s club were using EMS and claiming some kind of success. However, first, that is just an anecdote, and second, many runners do suffer from knee pain and other types of overuse injuries, so there may have been a clinical reason to use EMS.
If the runners and cyclists assumed that EMS was an effective way to increase strength and muscular fitness, they would be mistaken. Endurance athletes might use different types of therapies for recovery, restoration and rehab, but for strength and muscle development, they will benefit the most from weight training, just like other athletes.
Why Do People Fall For It?
Testimonials can be persuasive, especially coming from celebrities and pro athletes. An NFL punter recently posted his impressive weight training regimen, and also said he used EMS for his knees and legs. Again, it’s likely he was using EMS for a clinical reason, perhaps recommended by his trainer or team physician.
It’s possible EMS may have a place in athletic training, especially in contact sports where the players are getting bruised and beat up in every game. But this kicker’s muscular physique did not come from EMS, it came from the incredibly strenuous weight lifting sessions he was known for doing in the gym. His low level of body fat was from the strict control over his diet.
Still, I have no doubt that this type of story, written up in a mainstream fitness magazine, piqued people’s interest in EMS again.
Wise Words Of Advice
In summary, if EMS has been recommended to you as a rehabilitative method, then follow the advice of your doctor or therapist. On the other hand, if you had any intention of using EMS to “flatten your abs,” “firm your glutes,” “tighten your arms” or “strengthen your thighs,” you’ll only be wasting time and money.
If a consumer-grade EMS product is marketed with the claim of “burning fat,” then flip on the BS alarm and run away fast!
Couldn’t there be some kind of performance, muscle or strength benefits of EMS for elite athletes, outside of rehab and recovery? Yes, it’s possible, and you do see EMS used in high-level sports settings. But are you an Olympic sprinter, NFL running back or national powerlifter? If not, and you’re thinking of using EMS to build muscle, improve your physique, or lose fat, you will end up disappointed.
Go to the gym (or into your home workout room), and use resistance training (weight lifting, etc), as the number one priority in your exercise plan and do it consistently as part of your lifestyle. There is no other way to get significant and measurable results in strength, muscle appearance and body composition.
– Tom Venuto,
Author of Burn The Fat, Feed the Muscle.
Founder & CEO, Burn The Fat Inner Circle
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About Tom Venuto
Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural (steroid-free) bodybuilder, fitness writer and author of Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle: Fat Burning Secrets of Bodybuilders and Fitness Models and the national bestseller, The Body Fat Solution, which was an Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine pick. Tom has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Oprah Magazine, Muscle and Fitness Magazine, Ironman Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine, as well as on dozens of radio shows including Sirius Satellite Radio, ESPN-1250 and WCBS. Tom is also the founder and CEO of Burn The Fat Inner Circle – a fitness support community for inspiration and transformation