Can electrical stimulation improve your workout at the gym?
- Stav Dimitropoulos
- BBC Economics
The first time long-distance rower Lebby Ayres tried to work out in the gym wearing an EMS suit, it felt weird.
“I put the suit on and then the trainers sprayed me with water and tied these things around my arms, legs and butt,” says the 51-year-old. “I thought, ‘Am I really going to be able to work out wearing this?’
So the incentive [eléctrico] the machine gave me the most unusual sensations.
When he woke up the next morning at home in London, his muscles were at the level of soreness they usually are from exercising for several hours, but he says I was just practicing from 20 minutes.
Doctors have used muscle electrical stimulation for a long time to help improve the mobility of people with a range of health problems, such as patients recovering from a stroke or people with multiple sclerosis.
With low charges of electricity to stimulate muscles and nerves, it is often used by mothers during labor to relieve pain.
The woman places sticky pads on her lower back and then uses a hand controller to adjust the level of electrical charge they emit.
While these healthcare uses typically focus on one area of the body, full-body EMS suits (which typically include a short-sleeve T-shirt and shorts) are now a fast growing trend in the fitness and fitness world.
The idea is that the electrical stimulation of your muscles accelerates the effect of the exercise and its strengthening. So a 20-minute workout is equivalent to 90 minutes for someone not wearing the suit, according to its promoters.
This may sound like fancy equipment to many of us, but the number of gyms offering it is increasing rapidly.
One such provider, American chain Iron BodyFit, continues to expand in Europe after opening more than 100 rooms in France over the past five years.
Other chains that focus on electrostimulation suits are also expanding.
Such growth is helping to drive the global market for this technology, which, according to a report by Allied Market Research, will grow from US$122 million in 2020 to US$184 million in 2030.
what results to expect
Does this really work in the fitness realm? Does it really improve the effectiveness of your workouts and give you bigger muscles with less effort?
And most importantly: is it completely safe?
“We’re bypassing the brain,” says Phil Horton, UK director of the German company Miha Bodytec, one of the biggest makers of electrostimulation suits.
“We can activate the muscle in a more intelligent and efficient way compared to how the brain would tell the muscle to move.”
Horton adds that the small electrical charge reaches deeper muscle tissue more easily.
And water is often sprayed on the suit to increase conductivity.
The problem for the fitness industry with electrostimulation suits is that studies on whether they work are very mixed, and even those that are positive often use words like “might” or “could.”
A 2011 report said the use of these suits “has been recognized” to help achieve “significant improvements in strength.”
However, he immediately added that such changes are “still ambiguous”, “poorly understood” and “require further study”.
An article earlier this year concluded that there are still no definitive answers.
Disadvantages of the method
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates these machines, says that when used for exercise, “they may temporarily strengthen, tone, or tighten a muscle,” but only if accompanied by exercise and diet.
It also warns against using unregulated devices as they can cause “bumps, burns, bruising, skin irritation and pain”.
Nicola Mafiuletti, a sports science expert at the Swiss orthopedic clinic Schulthess Klinik, has also long criticized the full-body electrostimulation suit.
“Whole-body electrical stimulation in particular is extremely difficult to dose correctly,” he says, adding that underdosing has no effect, while overdosing can cause muscle damage.
“So if we look objectively at the harmful versus beneficial effects of whole-body electrical stimulation, there are no strong arguments in favor of its use“.
Veteran American weightlifter Robert Herbst’s opposition to these full-body suits is more clear. The 64-year-old thinks it just doesn’t work.
“The stress on the muscles from these suits is insufficient to create the microtrauma that weightlifting creates,” says Herbst, who has won multiple world and U.S. championships and still competes.
Instead, American physiologist Tom Holland says the full-body suit is beneficial because it can encourage people to exercise more.
“Squats, lunges, sit-ups, bicep curls and other traditional exercises are more fun when done in these suits,” he says.
But he admits it’s often not cheap, with prices in the US reaching $125 for a 20-minute session.
Back in London, Ayres wore a full-body ambulance suit to train for the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge in 2021. She successfully completed the event rowing a boat with three friends.
“My abs are a lot better now than they were when I was 21,” thanks in part to wearing the EMS suit, Ayres says.
“Everyone complimented me on my much stronger and toned figure.”
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