We’re all after a quick, no-fuss way to lose weight and get fit, and perhaps electric muscle stimulation (EMS) is just the thing you’ve been looking for. The premise is simple: attached electric muscle stimulation pads to your body, and every two to three seconds, an electric pulse triggers an involuntary contraction deep in your muscles. The impulses mimic the action potential coming from the central nervous system, causing the muscles to contract. EMS works directly on the muscles, bypassing the body’s energy conservation system, thus there’s no limit to the percentage of fiber that can be activated.
How Does Electric Muscle Stimulation Work?
Imagine you’re doing a push-up. Your brain will signal the nerves in your chest, shoulders, and triceps to contract a certain number of muscle fibers, explains Glenn Wright, professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse. The greater the load, the more muscle fibers you need to fire. For low loads like push-ups, the brain starts by recruiting endurance-oriented muscle, or slow-twitch muscle fibers. For a heavy bench press, it engages your quick-to-fatigue, fast-twitch muscle fibers.
With electric muscle stimulation, you engage both kinds of fibers. While your brain tells nerves to contract slow-twitch muscle fibers during a push-up, signals from the electric muscle stimulation tell fast-twitch fibers to engage.
Does Electric Muscle Stimulation Help Your Burn Calories & Increase Muscle Mass?
There are many bold claims about what electric muscle stimulation can actually do, including that you can lose weight and obtain a six-pack by hooking up your machine and watching television. But a recent German study calculated the calorie expenditure for a 20-minute EMS training session at just 82 calories (12 more than the same body-weight workout without EMS).
“One can at least state that you can recruit more muscle fibers by EMS,” says lead study author Wolfgang Kemmler, but he estimates that the technology probably engages closer to 65 to 75 percent of the body’s muscle groups.
There is another downfall. Strength training is a complex motor-learning process, and many experts are worried that interfering with the brain’s natural way of firing muscle fibers might be detrimental to overall function. Instead of your central nervous system telling muscles to engage, now a machine is doing some of that work. “From a bodybuilding standpoint, you might get a bigger muscle,” says Wright. “From an athlete standpoint, you get on a football field or a basketball court and you may not move faster or more powerfully, because you still need that central nervous system to turn muscles on.”
The Baseball Pitcher Study
Another study looked at whether electric muscle stimulation helped baseball pitchers to perform better, for longer and with better recvoery. Baseball pitching has been described as an anaerobic activity from a bioenergetics standpoint with short bouts of recovery. There is the possibility of pitchers fatiguing during a game, which could lead to a decrease in pitching performance. The purpose of the study was to evaluate the effects of 3 recovery protocols: passive recovery, active recovery (AR), and electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) on range of motion (ROM), heart rate (HR), and blood lactate concentration in baseball pitchers during a simulated game.
Twenty-one college baseball pitchers with an average age of 21 volunteered to pitch 3 simulated 5-inning games, with a maximum of 70 fastballs thrown per game while wearing a heart rate monitor. Range of motion was measured before the game, straight after the game and 24 hours post game. Heart rate was recorded after each pitch and after every 30 seconds of the 6-minute recovery period. Immediately after throwing the last pitch of each inning, blood lactate concentration was measured. Pitchers were instructed to throw each pitch at or above 95% of their best-pitched fastball. This was enforced to ensure that each pitcher was throwing close to maximal effort for all 3 simulated games.
Results revealed that the method of recovery protocol did not significantly influence the range of motion of the pitchers; however, it did significantly influence blood lactate concentration. Blood lactate concentration significantly decreased when using EMS recovery condition but did not change for either the active or the passive recovery conditions.
The study found that the use of electric muscle stimulation was the most effective method at reducing blood lactate concentration after 6 minutes of recovery during a simulated game; but the blood lactate concentration were never high enough to cause skeletal muscle fatigue and decrease pitching velocity.
If, during a real baseball game, a pitcher were to throw more than 14 pitches per inning, throw more total pitches than normal per game, and have blood lactate concentrations increase higher than in the simulated games in this study, the EMS recovery protocol may be beneficial to pitching performance by aiding recovery. This could potentially reduce some injuries associated with skeletal muscle fatigue during pitching, may allow a pitcher throw more pitches per game, and may reduce the number of days between pitching appearances.
What Electric Muscle Stimulation Is Great For
The baseball pitcher study correlates to most of the other data, which indicates that electric muscle stimulation has some beneficial uses, but that losing weight and getting fit are not among those benefits.
Muscle Re-education: Muscle re-education through electrical muscle stimulation is used in the early stages of physical rehabilitation following an injury that has either left certain muscles unused for a long period of time, or that has affected the brain. The goals of this treatment are to build basic tone and strength in weakened muscles and to force the contraction of these muscles in a coordinated pattern to strengthen the cognitive link between the brain and the movements. After training with electrical stimulation, physical rehab patients can move on to more strenuous exercises to return muscles to their optimal strength.
Muscle Atrophy: Muscle atrophy is a symptom characterized by decrease in muscle mass. and can occur as a result of numerous medical conditions. Electrical muscle stimulation may be used to slow or prevent the effects of muscle atrophy by keeping weakened muscles active.
Osteoarthritis: Osteoarthritis is a painful and sometimes debilitating condition caused by the degradation of joint tissues. According to a clinical study published in the “Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation,” electrical muscle stimulation was found to be an effective component of physical therapy for elderly patients who developed hip osteoarthritis after total hip arthroplasty surgery. Also an important benefit for mobility and indepdendence, electrical muscle stimulation can strengthen knee extensor muscles.
Pressure Sore Prevention: Electrical muscle stimulation can effectively reduce the risk of pressure sores in prone patients. Pressure sores are common problems for patients who are bound to wheelchairs, beds and other equipment that results in constant pressure being applied to certain areas of the body. Electrical muscle stimulation can be applied to the gluteus maximus of wheelchair-bound participants. This treatment can produce significant results regarding the maintenance of proper buttock shape and avoidance of deformities, which may be effective in reducing the incidence of pressure sores.
Ultimately, electric muscle stimulation has some excellent benefits when it comes to recovery, rehabilitation and prevention. But if your goal is to lose weight, get fit, build muscle mass and improve your strength, you’re still going to have to do it the old-fashioned way.
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