Written by Team Juggernaut
By Chad Wesley Smith
You have all seen infomercials that promise you can effortlessly get 8 pack abs without ever training, just by hooking up a machine and letting it contract and relax your abs for you and voila, you’re ripped. To anyone with any training experience or shred of common sense this idea seems preposterous and it is. While these outlandish infomercial promises aren’t true and you can’t get ripped by just sitting around, Electrical Muscle Stimulation Units (EMS) can have many valid applications in training though in performance, rehab and recovery settings.
For the past 10 weeks I have religiously used EMS to improve my warmups, enhance my recovery and add extra strength. I was as skeptical as anyone about the benefits of EMS in regards to strength development because it was first presented to me when I was in high school by one of the dumbest coaches I have ever been exposed to, a true snake oil salesman, proponent of every gimmick under the sun. He claimed that my bench and squat would skyrocket without ever training them again, just by hooking up this magic machine. Now that I’m a proponent of EMS does this mean that this coach was right all along? No of course not, he is still a dumbass and had no understanding of how EMS is actually applied and regardless, I just don’t like him and would probably never admit that he could be right about anything. So how did I go from such a skeptic to a believer? Well first off I discussed this type of technology with some coaches I respect like James Smith (www.powerdevelopmentinc.com) and my good friend Bryan Fetzer, the Director of Track and Field at University of Virginia and then I read The Truth About EMS by Charlie Francis and when Charlie Francis speaks (or writes) I listen, and so should you!
EMS use for sport performance enhancement began in Communist Bloc countries in the early 1950s and was brought to the West in 1973 when Dr. Y. Kots of the Central Institute of Physical Culture in the USSR presented his findings for tremendous potential in strength enhancement beyond traditional training methods through the proper use of EMS protocols.
How Does EMS Work?
EMS reproduces the body’s natural process of voluntary muscular contractions with “optimal” electrical impulses. Your body fires muscles by sending electrical impulses from your brain through your central nervous system to your muscles, resulting in a contraction. By serving as its own CNS, EMS allows you to elicit deep, intense and complete muscular contractions without further taxing your CNS (or joints and tendons). Just as your body doesn’t know the difference between squats or deadlifts, it also doesn’t know the difference between voluntary contraction or an electrically induced one, it only recognizes stimulus. The “optimal” contractions through EMS allows you to target specific muscle types and qualities through different intensities of stimulation, length of contraction, and rhythm of contraction. Meaning you can target exclusively fast or slow twitch fibers, train for strength or endurance or potentiate or relax the muscles. EMS elicits much more powerful contractions than are possible from voluntary training, up to 30% higher according to Kots. Also EMS allows your to completely and simultaneously fire a muscle, bypassing the body’s energy conservation system which causes you to first fire slow twitch fibers and then fast twitch fibers, once the body realizes the load that it imposed on it is too great to be handled by slow twitch fibers alone. These types of contractions elicited by EMS training enhance strength without increasing muscular cross-section and also optimizes the conversion of intermediate fibers to fast twitch fibers.
Applications of EMS
All this science-y (yep that just happened) stuff is all well and good, but how can EMS be effectively used for your goals. EMS has a wide range of uses for the lifter, athlete and rehab patient, let’s examine them further here…
Maximal Strength for the Strength Athlete
According to Charlie Francis, EMS is the single most intense strength building modality and also has the briefest improvement period. To aid in maximum strength development, EMS should be used as a 2nd strength session in the day to compliment the day’s earlier training; so if you bench in the AM, hook up the EMS to your pecs, shoulders and triceps in the evening, if you squat in the AM, use EMS on your quads, hamstrings and glutes in the PM. EMS will provide a purely muscular effort, not stressing the CNS or joints/tendons/ligaments at all, this will greatly reduce the chance of overtraining. Maximum strength protocols using EMS utilize 6-10 seconds of intense, continuous contraction, interspersed by 50 seconds of intermittent pulsing to enhance recovery, this is repeated for 10rounds. Make sure that you are warmed up prior to utilizing this protocol by either taking a hot shower or by using a low intensity 1 second on/1 second off pulse setting on the EMS for a few minutes. It must be taken into account that when using EMS in this fashion, that you are imposing a greater workload on your body and will thus take greater time to recover and require a longer period of time leading into a peak or competition.
Here is an overview of my typical EMS schedule throughout my training week…
|Deadlift/Squat Day||Off||Overhead Press Day||Back Day||Off||Event Day||Off||Bench Day||Off|
|Warmup/Potention Setting on Quads/Hams prior to TrainingStrength Protocol on Hamstrings/Quads 6-8 hour after training||Active Recovery Protocol on Hams/Quads/Low Back in AM and PM||Warmup/Potentiation on Shoulder prior to TrainingStrength Protocol on Shoulders/Triceps 6-8 hours after training||Active Recovery Protocol on Shoulders in AMStrength Protocol on Lats 6-8 hours after training||Active Recovery on Lats/Low Back in AM and PM||Warmup/Potentiation on Quads/Hams prior to TrainingStrength Potocol on Hamstrings/Quads 6-8 hours after training||Active Recovery Protocol on Hams/Quads/Low Back in AM and PM||Warmup/Potentiation on Pecs prior to TrainingStrength Protocol on Pecs 6-8 hours after training||Active Recovery on Pecs in AM and PM|
Training Around Injuries
Do you struggle with tendonitis or sore joints that make some important training moves difficult to load heavily? EMS could be a great aid to you if this is the case. For example, if you are struggling with patella tendonitis that is making your squat training excruciating, using maximal strength protocols on your quads, hamstrings, glutes and erectors will provide your body with strength stimulus while you take a break from squatting and allow your joints to heal, while training your upper body hard. Granted this isn’t ideal because you aren’t being able to coordinate your strength into the necessary action, but you could perform very submaximal training (at a point that doesn’t aggravate your injury) to continue to train the necessary motor patterns and then rely on the EMS for the strength stimulus.
Allowing Elite Athletes (Non-Strength Athletes) to Focus on What’s Important
Strength is foundational to all sporting success and it must be established early in an athlete’s career for them to be successful, but as an athlete rises in competitive level, the role of general strength as it relates to sporting success is diminished. I have written at length before about the findings of coaches like Dr. Bondarchuk, on how general exercises have a low correlation to the success of World Class athletes, meaning that when you are near the top of a sport, only performing that sporting activity at varying intensities will help you improve; if you are a 10.0 second 100m runner, adding 20 pounds to your squat isn’t going to be worth the substantial energy required to receive a negligible performance boost, if any. High intensity training elements must compete for central nervous system energy. A novice sprinter can’t tax the CNS significantly no matter how hard he tries, but as he improves, the CNS demand rises exponentially, even if the volume of sprinting remains constant. Therefore, the degree of intensification of other factors must be reduced over time if speed is to improve further. To simplify this an 11.5 sprinter is incapable of overstressing their CNS through sprinting, but they need to spend significant time/energy improving maximal strength (through barbell lifts) to improve, while a 10.0 sprinter is placing such great demands on their body through sprinting that the other training elements, like barbell lifts, must be reduced in intensity. This athlete will greatly benefit from the use of EMS protocols, as it will allow them to maintain/improve strength levels of the lower body without further taxing the joints and tendons of the legs or compounding stress on the CNS.
To further simplify this idea, for the past 2 offseasons I worked with a football player named Evan who plays defensive back. Evan squatted 485 pounds, 2 weeks after finishing his football season in 2011, at a bodyweight of 192 pounds. Even at that point in the offseason, Evan had demonstrated sufficient maximal and relative strength to perform speed/power feats that he was currently not capable of, instead of having Evan perform the type of heavy squatting that he would require to further improve those barbell lifts and greatly tax his CNS impeding his recovery and taking away from his energy to focus on exercises with high transfer of training like sprints, jumps and throws, EMS could be utilized to provide him with the necessary strength stimulus. Evan could only perform Sprints, Jumps, Throws, Upper Body Primary Weights (Bench, Rows/Pullups) and secondary lower body weights (accessory work for hamstrings/low back) and utilize EMS for his primary lower body strength stimulus. Doing this would allow Evan to be much more fresh and have much more energy to dedicate towards the things that would have the greatest benefit on his improvement as a football player.
The better an athlete gets at their sport, the smaller role maximal strength expressed through traditional means will impact their success. Now that doesn’t mean that it isn’t important to be strong, of course it is, but the ability to express that strength through a squat, bench press or power clean isn’t necessary, as it is only necessary that they can express it through a sporting movement. A sprinter’s legs must be strong for him/her to run fast but since the 100m doesn’t involve any squat racks, it isn’t imperative that they are able to squat a lot to be successful, particularly at the most elite levels of performance. Allow elite athletes to save their energy for what is most important, sporting practice, and develop/maintain their strength through submaximal weights and the use of EMS.
Bringing Up Lagging Bodyparts/Lifts
If you are a powerlifter with a great bench press and lagging squat or a bodybuilder with a great back but lagging quads, EMS can play a pivotal role in your improvement. Your body has a finite amount of energy and resources to develop strength and recover, so you are more likely to find success by just focusing on one goal at a time, ie. Pushing your bench press training hard and putting your squat training on the back burner. Using EMS you can more effectively use this strategy without risking reduced performance in the secondary movement. Take a 3 week block of training and only train your squat at 50-60% loads, while really cranking up your press training, but utilize EMS on your legs 2-3x/week. This will allow your body to put more attention from it’s recovery mechanisms and CNS towards developing strength in the bench press. This same idea could hold true for a bodybuilder with a lagging body part. Use EMS exclusively on the lagging body part for a few weeks while really taxing your weak point and you will add size where you need it, without sacrificing size in your strong point (you may even add density where you are using the EMS because it is purely strength training)
Using EMS as a part of your warmup can be a very valuable tool, as it warms the muscle up with absolutely no energy expenditure on your part. Using an intermittent pulse setting on the EMS to bring blood into the muscle is a great low cost option to begin a warmup with. I fully plan on utilizing my EMS unit at Strongman Nationals in early November, as I know that there will be very long periods of time between being able to warmup with an implement and when I actually compete with it and using EMS in the downtime will keep me warmed up without wearing me out.
Utilizing EMS as a recovery means is valuable as it will promote circulation which aids in nutrient transfer through the muscles and hastens recovery. In fact, low intensity recovery work on EMS will enhance capillary density which will raise the temperature around motor neurons, lowering electrical resistance, allowing more fiber to take on the characteristics of fast twitch fibers in response to high intensity work. These recovery protocols serve many of the same purposes of tempo activities, in terms of recovery benefits, but without the aerobic capacity development benefits.
One of EMS greatest benefits is rehabilitation role. Many injuries are accompanied by a lack of activation of certain muscle groups and inability to fire said muscles, which impedes the recovery process. For example, after ACL injuries when quad activation abilities are lost, EMS could be used to fire the inactive muscles and begin to promote strength gain before the athlete could do so through traditional means.
Charlie Francis outlines how EMS can be utilized in hamstring pull rehab in the following ways…
“EMS can play a role in the rehab of a variety of injuries and is used extensively in clinics to treat the VMO with knee cases. But its value in the rehab of hamstring injuries is poorly understood and under appreciated.
The selection of isokenetic machines over EMS contributes to a lengthening of injury downtime as the fluid resistance on which these machines rely hits the muscle all at once, causing muscle shortening and irritation. Often, effective treatment including EMS can have the athlete back in action within ten days.
Immediately after the injury, with the leg in its normal straight position, run your hand along the hamstring to feel for a depression in the muscle to determine if there’s been actual fiber separation (a third degree tear). In all but severe cases this won’t have happened, meaning it’s a first or second degree strain where a quick recovery can be expected.
This must be checked before swelling sets in and fills up any depression and afterwards the muscle should be wrapped, iced, and elevated in the usual fashion. Do not test or stretch the muscle, as further damage could occur and, regardless of the findings, the initial treatment remains the same. Surprisingly, it usually takes only 72 hours for the injury to heal, but extension injuries can occur above and below the original site and adhesions can form if the tissue isn’t mobilized sufficiently.
During the initial 72 hours, the athlete should stay off his feet as much as possible and an EMS pulsing mode can be applied above (not on) the injury site three to four times per day to reduce swelling and promote the transfer of nutrients to the site. After 72 hours, very gentle EMS pulsing can be applied to the injury site once per day while retaining the pulsing routine four times per day above the site.
From the third day on, high intensity EMS can be applied to all other muscles to maintain fitness during the recovery period. Additional therapy should include Active Release Technique (ART) if possible, to further reduce the prospect of adhesions.”
Training While Traveling
I had traveled for 8 days in the weeks prior to writing this article, only being able to train for 2 days during this time period. I brought along my EMS unit though and was able to get strength work completed even though I didn’t have time for proper training sessions. Using active recovery/massage protocols during travel can also help enhance recovery and diminish the effects of flying by improving circulation and keeping blood from pooling in the lower legs.
Selecting a Machine
I personally utilize a Sport Elite Compex Unit (www.ShopCompex.com) which is very top of the line model. Compex offers other models that have less protocols that are cheaper but still very effective. Globus also makes a high quality product with various protocols preset into it (http://www.globussht.com/Reviews). All that really matters is that you get a machine that you can control the rest periods and that has quality leads and pads.
EMS isn’t going to make you the strongest man in the world, the most jacked bodybuilder or the fastest sprinter, but is a potentially valuable tool to improve strength, recovery and rehab. It is a tool that I’m glad I have added to my toolbox and would suggest you do the same.