As anyone who has ever worked hard on their body knows, you need to invest considerable time regularly to keep fit and toned. However, as people in the West tend to have more income and less free time, new fitness trends offer ways to get stronger, faster. Electric muscle stimulation (EMS) is one such method; but is it safe?
Image Credit: iStock
Here’s the scene: you put one a sci-fi-looking costume that contains electrodes connected to the mains with cables. Electricity is turned on and suddenly muscles in your body start contracting. It is a strange, vibrating sensation. And then you have to exercize. Nothing too intense: simple squats and lunges, lifting small weights… But for some reason, these exercises seem much harder now; so hard, in fact, that after a 20-minute session you can hardly stand or lift your arms, as if you have done a super-intense long workout.
In fact, there is nothing weird about using electricity to strengthen muscles. Our brain uses electric impulses to move our limbs, and EMS just adds to this natural current. It has been used in medicine since the 1960s to rehabilitate patients who suffered from muscle atrophy but couldn’t do too many exercises due to weak joints.
According to its proponents (fitness centers that make you pay around 50-100 USD per session), EMS can give you bigger muscles in less time, since you just have to do two 20-minute sessions a week. Apparently, it will burn fat and improve your cellulite – all with minimum time spent in the gym; plus, EMS is supposed to activate even deep muscles, thus strengthening the whole body. It is true that EMS has been proven by studies to help build and tone muscle (see this study, for example). However, scientists did not find any real reduction of fat or girth. As for cellulite claims, as we have written in an earlier article, there are many reasons why you may have cellulite even while being strong and fit.
Are there any risks?
As EMS devices are used in hospitals, they are regulated in the US by the FDA, and only approved devices are used in fitness centers. However, one can still get injuries when such a device is not used properly: electric burns and shocks, bruises, skin irritation, muscle pain. Another risk is that too strong a contraction can cause a muscle to tear. And if you have a pacemaker installed, you should proceed with utmost caution – EMS devices can create interference. Therefore, you must be sure that the service provider knows what they are doing!
Another risk is simply overdoing it. There can be too much of a good thing: even if you feel that you are getting great results from two EMS sessions a week, it doesn’t mean that four will be even better. Remember that the effects of non-medical use of EMS devices are still little studied!
While the efficacy of EMS technology has been proven, perhaps most fitness centers make inflated claims of what it can do for you. You will get stronger muscles, but it won’t turn you into a fitness model. If you time is very limited, EMS may be a good option; but if you have more leisure, a varied and regular fitness routine that includes both aerobic and anaerobic activities may be more pleasant and beneficial. And of course, no amount of exercize – enhanced by electricity or not – will make you fit unless you stick to a healthy diet.