This is the age of being fast. Fast cars, fast internet and even hopes of faster government processes (#Modi anyone?). So why should we devote same long hours in the gym for fitness. Shouldn’t science advance in such a way that fitness becomes convenient and fast for us?
Lo and behold comes a revolutionary technology: Electronic Muscle Stimulators which basically passes electrical currents to contract your muscles. Now you don’t have to do anything, just stick the electrodes and let them make you stronger and slimmer. Washboard abs with sticking butterfly shaped machines, what an idea! At least this is what companies are marketing.
Who Sells It?
Which companies? For starters, there are Ab EMS machines to tone up your six pack. Moving on from telemarketing products, firms focusing on cosmetic procedures like VLCC use it. Even big companies like Talwarkars (which owns over 100 gyms in India) are opening up Transform centers (earlier NuForm) in Mumbai based on the same EMS technology. We called one of these centers to ask whether this is regulated or not and in case something happens, who takes the responsibility. The guy receiving the phone although did admit this practice is unregulated in India but assured by saying the machines are from Germany and he’s a fitness trainer so he knows.
Does It Work?
In principle, it should. Physiotherapists and sports scientists have been using it for treating injuries and rehabilitation work since 1960s. But the real question is does this mean you should give it a try if you’re looking to slim down or gain muscle?
This is a study done more than a decade ago on exactly these factors in question: Physical appearance, body composition (how much fat, how much lean mass) and muscle strength. It states that effectiveness of EMS for healthy individuals is not supported by the results. You may find studies (often sponsored by companies) that may show contrary results so there is a systematic review including 35 trials which basically compares EMS with volitional training (exercise) and finds volitional training to be superior for general population.
In fact, the US FDA which regulates usage of such devices condemns commercial usage of this technology for general purposes and identifies them as prescription devices which are being misbranded for common usage. This is the reason gyms/health clubs in US can’t sell/practice it commercially.
How Is It Different?
When you exercise, your nervous system works on a constant feedback loop to gauge the muscle tension required for the exercise and fires the right signals to make everything happen. In common language, This is basically your neuromuscular system making sure you’re not hitting your chin while doing bicep curls by decreasing peak force as the dumbbell comes closer to your mouth. When you apply electric currents, you’re replacing that nervous system artificially. This results in a far more intense contraction which you have no control over. In worse case scenarios, this can result in muscle/tendon tears.
Also, when you lift weights or do jogging, there is a priority order for different muscle fibers to get recruited. As suggested in this study, this recruitment pattern becomes non selective with EMS technology (you can’t select to train one type of fibre which is easy to do with any physical activity).
Studies aside, we asked our affiliate physiotherapist, Dr. Swati Limaye to give her opinion on EMS usage for fitness and here’s what she had to say:
For performing any activity; the brain judges the type, speed and intensity of the movement and accordingly sends orders. If external electrical impulses are used, the brain can misjudge those movements.
Engineering is making progress everyday. Technologies like EMS have been very effective in clinical practices for patients/athletes with injuries or old people who have neurological disorders. But to market them for people fit enough to do workouts is selling a pill which is suboptimal, costly, prone to injuries and promotes laziness.
Your body’s the greatest machine you’ll ever own, no external current can match its spark.
In Lucem Scientiam