First off, what is electrical muscle stimulation?
Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) is the elicitation of muscle contraction using electric impulses. An EMS device does this by attaching sticky pads to the surface of the skin and sending electricity which replicates the nervous systems signals to contract the muscle.
EMS devices aren’t new technology, they’re simply becoming more popular,
Why would I want to electrocute myself?
The main reason I purchased a Compex EMS, was for rehabilitation and recovery purposes. There are several other claims and reported benefits from the use of EMS, however, they did not fall into my list of factors deciding if I should buy one.
After watching the following series on why RICE isn’t great for injury treatment or rehabilitation of soft tissue injuries: Gary Reinl YouTube interview with Marc Lobliner. TL;DR – injuries in the muscle tissue are repaired by blood flow, this is why inflammation occurs, it’s the body’s ability to flush the injured area with as much blood as possible. This occurs to get in the white blood cells for repair and to remove the waste products. The faster the blood can flow and the more blood can flow through the quicker the body is able to heal. This is why RICE is bad, it’s effectively doing everything possible that constricts this process.
One of the methods to increase blood flow is to engage the muscle, however if the muscle belly is injured, then this may prove difficult. This is also why light cardio is a great way to reduce DOMS, because the increased blood flow throughout the whole body assists this process. Where EMS shines, is its ability to target a specific muscle belly with involuntary contraction. As mentioned above, EMS is able to contract an entire muscle belly, in laymen’s terms, the entire muscle turns into one big pump to flood in new blood and flush out waste products.
How does it feel?
At first it feels like you’re twitching involuntarily, (duh). For anyone that’s actually been electrocuted, it feels like 1% of that, there is no pain associated with EMS, I also have not tried to go crazy with the stim levels. If you’ve ever experienced a twitching muscle or eye lid, this is exactly what that feels like except a lot stronger.
I would say to not overdo this machine, I tried using it on my legs after a squat session for longer than listed and it was causing muscle cramps. Lesson there is to follow instructions. Another negative effect from prolonged use is muscle fatigue, e.g., don’t use it on your shoulders for two hours and then try to do a hard shoulder workout. This wasn’t immediately apparent to myself, since the muscles themselves don’t feel fatigued after the EMS. Lesson there is to follow instructions.
Does it work?
The science is out as to whether EMS can significantly increase strength or improve recovery.
I was able to pick up the Compex Edge for $95 on sale, so I saw it as a low price point for a little bit of experimentation. Having used the unit for a couple of months, I will continue to use it into the future. At a minimum, it’s therapeutic and relaxing, I can place it on some sore muscles while watching TV or surfing the web and, at least mentally, it feels like it’s doing something and it does feel relaxing. Attribute this to the placebo effect, I figure that if I can increase my relaxation at the very least I’ll continue to use it.
I wasn’t expecting miracles with this machine, maybe a 5% decrease in soreness. This didn’t deliver any miracles, however, due to its relaxing affect, just like massage therapy, I’ll continue to use it, since it is cheaper than a massage and a lot quicker. If I do notice any actual improvements in strength output (which can’t be taken in isolation, since lifting weights also builds strength) then that is just a huge bonus effect I wasn’t counting on.
There’s no denying the placebo effect is a factor in EMS’ effectiveness. There haven’t been any peer reviewed studies showing that EMS is 100% effective. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence around and a long history of use in the former USSR weight training protocols.
Even if the placebo effect is 100% the reason behind EMS, a 2014 study showed that even when subjects were told that the treatment was a placebo, they saw improvements in their management of pain. The study concluded that the habitual nature of the treatment itself helps alleviate pain because the action itself makes the brain thinks healing has started.
From my personal experience, the Compex Edge and EMS as a treatment procedure is both relaxing and therapeutic. I believe that there is a net benefit effect on the body and my recovery from weight sessions. I have yet to decide if EMS can help improve old structural injuries (I’m guessing that it won’t, but I’m still using the Edge on my damaged shoulders). But it has been helping me workout 5-6 days a week with minor soreness in the muscles themselves. For the price of under $100, I would recommend getting a unit. However, I don’t think it’s worth paying much more than this. That’s one expensive placebo treatment.
The Compex Edge unit itself is well made and super easy to use. All of the wires and connections are color coded for easy connection. The electrodes themselves have an easy snap on design, I have watched videos that say they break easily in a commercial setting, so I have been careful when I detach them, (since it’s just me using the device I rarely have to disconnect the cables from the electrodes) and haven’t had any issues with the connections.
A single charge using all four pads, lasts around two weeks using approximately an hour a day. There is a nice sliding cover when you plug in the charger, so it makes it physically impossible to connect the electrodes and the charger at the same time.
The Edge (bast unit) comes with three different programs:
Endurance: Lasts around 55 minutes. Pulsating twitches. This program is designed to improve aerobic capacity of the muscle
Strength: Lasts around 30 minutes. More intense rolling contractions, similar to a shiver that increases in intensity. This program is designed to improve the anaerobic capacity of the muscle
Active Recover: Lasts around 25 minutes. Rapid twitches at a low frequency This program is designed to increase blood flow and encourage muscle relaxation to improve recovery.
The more money you spend, the more programs you get as well as wireless electrodes. Not having used a higher model, I can only assume that the twitches and contractions would feel different. I just double stack programs and vary the intensities, maybe not optimal EMS, but I think it’s pretty good for the price point.
If you’re curious, I wouldn’t advise against purchasing an EMS unit, I would just advise to buy a cheaper model (not too cheap though) from a reliable brand.