If you have ever seen someone using electrical stimulators, you may have thought they were in some kind of medical trouble or so. Fortunately, they’re not (although they are used in rehabilitation to strengthen muscles and prevent atrophy).
Neuromuscular electrical stimulators (NEMS) are used in the athletic world but there is still a lot of potential since many athletes are unaware of the technology. The Soviet Union started using them in the athletic world in the 60’s and claimed their athletes increased their strength by 40%.
Basically, what happens in our body all the time is that the nervous system transports electrical impulses. When it reaches a muscle it makes the muscle contract, therefore move (of course there are a lot more processes going on but this is the most relevant one for this topic).
The electrical stimulator works by the same principle. It send electrical current through the skin and makes the skeletal muscle contract. Depending on the frequency, different types and quantities of the muscle will contract.
At first, the feeling is extremely uncomfortable and this is a turn off for many people. However, you are in full control and can start off easy and build your way up to higher intensities. Different individuals will have different sensitivities so don’t compare levels and intensity of shocks between multiple people.
There’s a few different ways you can use an electrical stimulator as an athlete. The first one is low frequencies, which is great for recovery and ‘massage’. It makes your muscles gently contract to increase blood flow which increases recovery by supplying nutrients and oxygen and takes away metabolic waste products from the muscle. In my opinion, nothing beats sport specific active recovery but using the NEMS is absolutely advantageous, especially compared to passive rest.
The second method to use a muscle electrical stimulation machine (there’s many different names for it but they are all about the same) is to use higher frequencies. This will benefit your maximal strength and power output by targeting your 2a and 2b muscle fibers. The NEMS can make your muscles contract harder than a voluntary contraction (especially with large muscles), therefore recruits more muscle fibers and also offers a more intense training. Treat the sessions as a weight training workout. Do the same amount of sets, duration, rest etc.
The biggest problem of the NEMS is danger of overtraining. Because you are able to recruit more muscle fibers and you are not limited by other factors such as cardio or respiratory limitations, you are in danger of training too hard. This can result in massive muscle damage, too little rest etc. Start of very easy and build up. Many beginners without guidance can’t move the trained area for a few days after their first NEMS workout, which indicates that the intensity was too high.
There are contradictions about this type of training. Some use the argument that you need to train a muscle through the whole range of motion to really shape it and make it stronger. Since NEMS contracts the muscle in an isometric way, only a part of the muscle is being worked at that time (although isometric exercises have a solid place in a workout routine). Pro studies have shown that after using NEMS, many of the benefits are caused by an improved connection between the nerves and the muscle. This enables to muscle to recruit more motor units, which increases power output (therefore more efficient).
In my opinion, NEMS is a fantastic tool to supplement your training! However, sport specific training should always be the focus. You cannot skip training and use an electrical stimulator instead while watching tv and expect the same results. What you should do instead is train hard/smart and supplement your training with the NEMS. Put the focus on training specific, do exercises to maintain your full range of motion and keep shocking your body to make it adapt. A neuromuscular electrical stimulator absolutely has a place in a workout routine but you need to use it wisely.
Warning: when used properly, these devices are safe. However, there are many risk factors so check with the seller and your doctor before utilizing the NEMS. Also hire a trained professional to show you how to use the device properly.
By Sander Vanacker for FitGuana
Sander Vanacker is a personal trainer, CEO of Bring Back Nature, Inc. and founder of FitGuana. He believes in improving health and wellness by incorporating more nature into our lives, being active and spending more time outdoors.