Sunday, September 15, 2019
Fitness

Why everyone’s doing electric-shock workouts

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My bum is clenching without me. In fact, my whole body is tingling in a most extraordinary way. The reason? I’m wearing a suit studded with electrode-filled pads. For six seconds, these fire an electrical current into the muscles I’m working, through moves like bicep curls or squats. It’s not uncomfortable nor unpleasant, it’s just weird — like being tickled by electric fingers.

I’m trying EMS (electrical muscle stimulation), the latest fitness trend to make a splash Down Under, which is said to give you the equivalent of three 90-minute sweat sessions in just 20 minutes. There are no weights, no treadmills — you don’t even need trainers!

In your session, you’re given a specially designed suit with in-built electrodes to wear. You’re then hooked up to a machine, which sends electric pulses to your muscles as a personal trainer guides you through a low-impact workout. The idea is that the combination of movement plus the extra electrical stimulation makes for a supercharged workout.

According to Roland Safar, the founder of EMS chain SpeedFit, the EMS increases the intensity of the muscle contraction by targeting a greater number of muscle fibres than simply doing the move alone. “Normally when you exercise, your brain will only switch on about half of your muscle fibres to conserve energy — but EMS can override that and recruit up to 90 per cent of the muscle fibres,” he explains.

“EMS mimics the exact signals your brain sends to make your muscles move. Like in the brain, the frequency of the pulses is tailored so that only the type of muscle you want to build is affected by the current, not other types like cardiac muscle.”

You’re also working your whole body in each six-second burst, with up to nine muscle groups being targeted by the pads in one go.

EMS started life as a method of injury rehabilitation in the 1960s. In the 1970s it was used, mostly in Russia, to boost the fitness of professional athletes. And while the first studio for the general public was set up in Australia around 10 years ago, in the past year or two there’s been an explosion of new studios in the market, charging anywhere from $40 to $60 per session. It’s these studios that claim that just one 20-minute EMS workout a week can give you the same results as several hours of sweaty gym work. But is that actually true?

What the science says

One study by Germany’s University of Bayreuth found training with EMS just twice a week for six weeks saw participants’ strength increase by 12 per cent and muscular endurance climb 69 per cent. Another German study compared the effects of EMS to high-intensity weight training. While the weight training got slightly better results, study author Professor Wolfgang Kemmler pointed out that those sessions were far more demanding and time-consuming.

However, its claims of being a fast fix have raised a few concerns with other experts. “I have no doubt that EMS does what it says it does, but like any quick fix, what it doesn’t do is teach you the tools you need to change your habits for life,” says Sydney-based exercise physiologist Sam Rooney.

Prof Kemmler agrees. “We do not favour the idea of replacing sport with whole-body EMS. It does not address endurance and flexibility, and it cannot be considered a complete workout. On the other hand, it’s definitely an exercise method that’s very time-effective and suitable for those who have restricted time resources or who cannot, or do not want to, take part in conventional exercise,” he says.

Safar’s client base is evidence of this theory. “Our typical clients are busy mums and professionals who don’t have much time for conventional gyms and training, people with injuries who need an effective yet low-impact program and just about anyone who doesn’t like gyms for whatever reason,” he explains.

Danger, high voltage!

While the buzz on EMS is generally positive, in the wrong hands, problems may occur.

In 2015, a team of Israeli doctors reported one case of a young man who ended up in hospital with severe muscle pain after an EMS session. The patient was diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a rapid breakdown of muscle tissue that can lead to serious health complications. Publicising the case saw other people come forward with the same worrying side effects. This led to experts in Israel calling for greater regulation on the use of EMS.

Prof Kemmler agrees that misuse can be dangerous. In a separate medical trial, his team studied the effects on muscle when an ‘inappropriately high impulse intensity’ was used. They found that when the intensity was too high, it produced high levels of the enzyme creatine kinase, which is an indication of muscle damage.

It follows that while EMS can indeed be a great way to boost your fitness, as with any other new fitness or diet routine, you should do your research and check with your doctor before you begin. And the EMS studio should ask for your medical history as there are certain medical conditions for which EMS is unsafe, like if you’re pregnant or have a pacemaker, for example.

You only need one session a week and you can build up to two, but no more, and with a two-day gap at least between workouts — and there’s no need to combine moves like weight training or cardio in the same session to get better results.

Your trainer should start you off gently and Safar says after the first session you’ll feel like you’ve hardly worked out at all, but he warns not to get overexcited and ask for the machine to be turned up. “Stay on the safe side, go for a pleasant, somewhat-challenging sensation,” he advises. “An experienced operator will know how far to push you to get results and still stay safe.”

How EMS works

6 seconds: That’s how long the bursts of electrical current last as you slowly work through your movements

90%: That’s the potential percentage of muscle fibres activated during a 20-minute EMS session, which is equivalent to three 90-minute gym workouts

12%: That’s how much your strength will improve after 12 sessions of EMS.

Read more stories like this in today’s issue of body+soul, in your local Sunday newspaper.



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