Instead of struggling on the weight bench, many have their muscles hardened with electrical impulses. How EMS works and what experts think of the trend.
The outfit looks a bit getting used to – not only the skin-tight functional underwear but also the vest, from which various cables hang and in which several electrodes are attached, which are sprayed with lukewarm water. In addition, I get cuffs with moist electrodes strapped around my buttocks and thighs, and arms; everything is lashed in place. It’s not nice. As soon as all parts are connected to the control device, you can start.
Gentle, electrical impulses first contract muscles in the legs, then over the buttocks, back, and stomach up to the arms. It tingles a bit at first and then gets more robust. The power supply can be dosed for each muscle group, and as the body soon gets used to the stimulus, the intensity is increased. Four seconds of electricity, four seconds of pause, constantly alternating – the rhythm for the 20 minutes that the EMS training lasts. While the current is flowing, I should tense my muscles and hold them against it. Otherwise, it will pull – not painful, but also not need to be repeated. The whole time I do exercises, sometimes more light like squats, sometimes more demanding on the floor. It’s exhausting but invigorating. Only: it has nothing to do with laziness.
Electrical Impulses: Fitness for the lazy? Not necessarily
EMS is sometimes advertised this way. EMS stands for electrical muscle stimulation and means that external current exerts a stimulus on muscles. The limp powerhouses of the body do not have to be laboriously brought back into shape in the gym, so the message that the device takes over. Fitness for lazy people, so to speak, because your effort is limited: 20 minutes, there is space for that in a full appointment calendar. One or two workouts a week should be enough to get you in shape since muscles are built with EMS, the basal metabolic rate, and the calorie consumption increase. That means: fat pads melt, the skin is better supplied with blood, and tighter, as is the connective tissue, the body straightens up.
Sounds almost too good to be true. But sports scientists and fitness experts are also impressed by the training, which is becoming more and more popular. In the meantime, EMS is no longer only offered sporadically in fitness studios. More and more so-called micro fitness studios are opening up, in which there are only two or three EMS devices, nothing else.
The method is not new. Electrostimulation has a long tradition and comes from rehab. Stimulation current has been used for a long time to prevent muscle wasting, for example, after injuries. Later, top athletes made use of electricity to improve their performance. A few years ago, EMS moved into the fitness area. This changed the application: Instead of small electrodes for stimulating individual muscles, large electrodes enable whole-body training for everyone.
But is the method suitable for everyone? Is it harmless? Not everyone likes the idea of being electrified; images of torture and electric shocks come to mind. “Muscles also contract because of neurophysiological processes via electricity. Nothing else happens in the body,” explains sports scientist Ingo Froböse from the German Sport University in Cologne. When used correctly, the electrical impulses are harmless and have been adequately tested for many years of therapeutic use.
Positive effects, but also criticism
It is undisputed that the current causes something in the body. Studies show: regular EMS training strengthens the performance of the muscles. “The gain in strength is less than with conventional training on equipment,” says sports scientist Wend-Uwe Boeckh-Behrens. The emeritus academic director of the Institute for Sports Science at the University of Bayreuth has dealt with EMS for many years and has carried out numerous studies. Some of his subjects even reported that their back pain and incontinence problems had improved during exercise. But these are empirical values of individuals that have not yet been scientifically proven.
When it comes to the benefits of popular sport, experts disagree. Froböse, for example, criticizes the simple approach: “EMS increases performance. That makes sense in top-class sport, but the wrong approach in fitness.” Because people need more activity, there is a risk of becoming even more passive and letting the device do the work for you with EMS. “Anyone who wants to benefit from sport should rather perform self-controlled movements. This not only strengthens the muscles but also trains coordination. That cannot be achieved by electrostimulation.”
Boeckh-Behrens takes a more pragmatic view of this. “Many people no longer move at all and shy away from active training precisely because of the exertion,” he says. “But some of them are ready to be trained. The device does that.”
Electrical Impulses: Significant differences in quality among providers
In addition, EMS is not necessarily purely passive training. It is worthwhile to compare providers here. In many studios, the members are briefed only briefly and train alone – and statically. That is, they repeat the same exercises every time, and only in the time when there is no electricity. Other studios offer training under supervision and are not more expensive. In any case, the pleasure is not cheap: it can cost up to 80 euros a month to train for 20 minutes once a week.
Martin Wendt, fitness trainer from Hamburg and operator of the “training room,” a pure EMS studio, relies on personal support. “Using the device is not difficult; that’s not the point,” says the 33-year-old. His training is not static but dynamic – the customer moves even while the current is flowing. Wendt also uses equipment for this, such as weights or sling trainers, and works on the ground. He never has more than three clients training at the same time so that he can correct everyone. He also has a physiotherapist on his team who can address health restrictions if necessary. He is convinced that this is the only way to improve performance. “You have to make an effort to make it work,” he says. The slimmer silhouette cannot be achieved without effort here either.
Dynamic training, i.e., the combination of natural movement and current, is also what experts recommend. It would be even better to do other sporting activities in addition to EMS. But the most important thing is to take action at all. “Everyone should choose what they like,” says the Cologne sports scientist Kleinöder, be it with or without electricity. “Once someone has found the incentive to do something, they will want to train more and more variedly. How the entry is made does not ultimately matter.” And what the training clothes look like, too, at some point.