So, you’ve clocked your favorite athletes endorsing it on their social channels. You may well have even seen your buddies in the gym using it. But what exactly is electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) all about, and how can it benefit your recovery?
Electrical Muscle Stimulation for Recovery
As athletes, we are always looking for ways to improve and speed up our recovery process. EMS has received increasing attention over recent years because of its potential to serve as a strength training, rehabilitation, testing and post-exercise recovery tool for athletes (1).
While there are clearly multiple uses for EMS, this article focuses specifically on the recovery usage and benefits. Going to the gym fatigued is only going to hinder your performance and progression. However, with the bonus of advanced biotechnology today, we have the assistance of new tools and devices such as EMS.
This isn’t to say that you have liberty to discount the fundamentals. Always start with the basics: eat, sleep, supplementation, hydration, managing stress and adequate rest. Incorporating EMS into your routine should be seen as an added bonus.
Electrical muscle stimulation is the elicitation of muscle contraction using electric impulses. Essentially, EMS machines (the ones that you have likely seen) work by placing pads around your skin and allowing for your muscles to be contracted via an electrical current, which in turn causes improved blood flow. But why is this important?
When you train, the blood vessels in your muscles dilate, resulting in greater blood flow. As ATP gets used up in the working muscle, several metabolic by-products — such as adenosine, hydrogen ions and carbon dioxide — are also produced. When these by-products leave the muscle cells, your capillaries within the muscle are left expanded, allowing more oxygen to reach the muscles (2).
However, some of these capillaries are so small that blood vessels have to travel through single file. It’s worth also noting that when you exercise, your muscle tissues also start to swell and when this happens, blood flow to these tiny vessels can be cut off (3). So, while some by-products make it out and welcome oxygen into the working muscle, other by-products are left backed up in the muscle not allowing essential nutrients to get in. This eventually leads to muscle inflammation, more commonly known as DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).
So why is the elicitation of muscle contraction, which EMS provides, so useful?
“To put it quite simply, while most intense exercise can provoke muscle soreness, exercise with a greater emphasis on the eccentric phase plays the most significant role.”
To put it quite simply, while most intense exercise can provoke muscle soreness, exercise with a greater emphasis on the eccentric phase plays the most significant role (3). We’re talking pretty much most things weight training related, let alone any muscle lengthening movements during conditioning or metcons! Yes, eccentric training will certainly lead to more strength and muscle building benefits but it does come at a sore cost. While you can certainly wait it out, clearing those waste products and reducing muscle inflammation quickly is only going to help the state of your body and mindset when it comes to that next training session.
What Makes EMS So Effective?
Once applied onto the skin, the impulses generated from your EMS device mimic the action potential coming from your central nervous system, causing your muscles to contract. These contractions work in tangent with the body’s natural processes.
When the muscles contract, nitric oxide is activated in the bloodstream. Nitric oxide’s main role is to deliver messages between the body’s cells, by playing a key role in controlling the circulation of blood and regulating activities of the brain and muscles (4). Consequently, the release of nitric oxide leads to a process in the body known as angiogenesis, a process where new blood vessels are formed from existing ones. As a result, by-products can be cleared and your muscles can be fueled with the nutrients required to heal and recover. Cell growth and activity demand blood supply and enhanced circulation will have a profound effect on cell function, as well as fueling our muscles with the nutrients they need (5).
Having a base understanding of EMS will allow you to determine whether or not you incorporate it into your routine. Yes, there are certainly similar and more traditional treatments that reduce inflammation, such as ice baths, cold temperature treatment, myofasical release and even active recovery. In this respect, there is debate as to whether or not EMS warrants its price tag. There is also a degree of variability when determining the right amount of stimulation required. But like anything, it is up to you to experiment and see what level of stimulation intensity works for you.
Having used it myself, I can safely say I did notice a difference in my recovery. The portability of the devices also make them a huge convenience in disparity to running baths for example and if you are time short. So, if you’re serious about your training and recovery and don’t mind splashing out on an extra gadget for the gym bag, EMS could well be your next purchase.
- “Electrical stimulation for neuromuscular testing and training.” N. Maffiuletti, et al. 2011.
- “How Exercise Works.” C. Freudenrich. 2008.
- “The good, the bad, and what it really means to your training.” W. Levy.
- “Supplement Guide: Nitric Oxide. L. Friedman.
- “The Cell Cycle in the Central Nervous System.” D. Janigro. 2006.