Electric Muscle Stimulators (EMS) in sports and athletics
Electric Muscle Stimulators (EMS) have become increasingly popular in sports and athletics as a complementary training and recovery tool for boosting the strength of muscles and improving strength.
E-stim devices use electrical impulses to cause muscle contractions, which can help athletes improve muscle function, increase blood flow, and reduce pain.
I use electrical muscle stimulation extensively in my training, and have found that it offers many benefits.
Importance of EMS for Sprinters and High-Performance Athletes
Sprinters and other high-performance athletes can benefit significantly from incorporating EMS devices into their training regimen to improve explosive strength, prevent injury, and improve recovery from workouts.
Electrical muscle stimulation can aid in muscle conditioning, muscle strength development, and muscle recovery, all crucial factors for enhancing athletic performance.
This article will discuss the benefits of EMS devices, how they work, and how sprinters and other athletes can use them to reach their peak performance.
My Experience With Electrical Muscle Stimulation
As an athlete who has competed in various sports, as well as NCAA Division 1 Track & Field, I have used EMS devices for pain relief, injury rehab, maximal strength development, and workout recovery.
I first heard about EMS when reading the Charlie Francis Training System, where Charlie detailed how he would use EMS to enhance the strength of his athletes. When paired with sprint training and strength training, e-stim therapy can help further develop athleticism and speed as it can help train muscle contraction without fatiguing your central nervous system.
When my body is feeling good, I use EMS for maximal strength development in my glutes, quads, calves, feet, hip flexors and other muscle groups. This helps me get a more significant strength development stimulus without making me more tired, as EMS bypasses the nervous system and activates muscles with direct electrical current.
When dealing with pain or an injury, I use the TENS pain-relief setting and sometimes the muscle relaxation program to help rehabilitate injured tissues, reduce pain, and relax tight muscles.
With an electrical muscle stimulator, you can perform your own physical therapy program at home. When paired with other interventions such as BFR training and proper nutrition such as collagen protein intake, e-stim therapy can be a game changer for the banged-up athlete.
If combined with a good training program, proper sleep, and good nutrition, EMS devices can help sprinters enhance their training and recovery, which collectively can help athletes get stronger and run faster.
How EMS devices work
Basic principles of EMS technology
An EMS muscle stimulator works by sending electrical impulses through the skin to stimulate muscle fibers, causing them to contract.
These electrical impulses mimic the signals sent by the central nervous system to the muscles during regular muscle contractions, causing tension and stimulating adaptations in muscular abilities. By producing repeated muscle contractions, EMS devices can help improve muscle function, tone, and strength.
Because these signals are sent through a device rather than from your brain, electrical muscle stimulation does not fatigue your nervous system like traditional strength or sprint training.
This makes EMS a great addition to a training program, as it allows you to cause more mechanical stress to the body via muscular tension without requiring effort.
Types of EMS Devices and their Applications
There are several types of EMS devices available, each with a unique purpose and method of application:
Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation (NMES): NMES is primarily used for muscle conditioning and preventing muscle atrophy in weakened or atrophied muscles. NMES can also treat muscle spasms and improve muscle function in injured muscles.
Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS): TENS therapy is a form of electrical nerve stimulation that focuses on pain relief. TENS devices can block pain signals from reaching the brain by sending low-voltage electrical pulses to the nerve fibers, providing temporary relief from pain caused by muscle spasms, arthritis, and other medical conditions.
Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES): FES is a specialized form of electrical stimulation used to restore function in paralyzed muscles or improve muscle function in weakened muscles. This technique is often used in physical therapy and rehabilitation to re-educate muscles and improve motor control.
While each type of EMS device serves a different purpose, they all utilize electrical currents to stimulate muscle contractions, making them valuable tools for athletes seeking improved performance and recovery or therapists looking for novel ways of treating medical conditions.
Benefits of EMS for Athletes
There are a number of EMS benefits that athletes should take advantage of if they want to get the most out of their training.
Strength Development With EMS
How EMS Contributes to Muscle Growth and Strength
EMS devices can contribute to muscle growth and strength by generating muscle contractions, which can help improve muscle function, muscle tone, and overall conditioning.
By inducing repeated muscle contractions, electrical muscle stimulators encourage the recruitment of additional muscle fibers, leading to increased strength and power.
When combined with traditional strength training, EMS can enhance the effectiveness of an athlete's training program, leading to improved performance and reduced risk of injury.
EMS & Henneman's Size Principle
In normal, voluntary muscle contraction, electric impulses are sent from the brain to motor units, a bundle of muscle fibers that are innervated by a motor neuron.
According to Henneman's size principle, the body will recruit motor units from smallest to largest, using the least amount of muscle activation needed for a particular movement.
This principle is one reason why sprinters need to train with heavy weights and intense sprints so that the body will recruit high-threshold motor units and develop explosive abilities in the body.
EMS benefits your strength training by skipping this process of graduated motor unit recruitment, instead going straight for the strongest, most powerful, and most explosive motor units directly.
In contrast to traditional strength training, electrical muscle stimulation preferentially recruits type II fast-twitch muscle fibers, helping to enhance the efficacy of EMS training on strength development.
When you use electrical muscle stimulation, you'll be recruiting the most important motor units in your body from the comfort of your living room couch.
EMS Stimulates MicroRNA Expression In Muscle Tissue
One of the ways electric muscle stimulation can cause adaptations and improvements in muscle function is through the expression of miRNA in muscle.
According to scientific research, a single bout of e-stim therapy increases functional myomiR-206 and -133a levels over 72 hours.
This suggests long-lasting effects on muscle proliferation and differentiation after using e-stim in EMS-based strength training.
Electrical Muscle Stimulation Significantly Improves Muscle Strength & Endurance
A randomized controlled trial looked at the effects of EMS training on the abdominals and quadriceps to see if the muscular improvement induced by EMS could lead to functional changes in muscle strength and endurance.
This study found that neuromuscular electric muscle stimulation on the quadriceps and abdominals led to significant increases in muscular strength and endurance, with study subjects reporting high levels of satisfaction with their enhanced strength levels.
This study shows us that there are functional improvements in movement ability as a result of EMS training, further supporting its use for strength training and athletic development.
High-Frequency Current Therapy Increases Muscle Hypertrophy & Stimulates mTOR Expression
Further supporting the use of EMS for muscular development is research showing that high-frequency muscle stimulation can stimulate the expression of mTOR. This anabolic signaling pathway helps the body build muscle and strength.
One study found that using EMS at 100hz increased the weight of the subjects' calf muscles by 17%, strongly suggesting that EMS can be a potent method of increasing hypertrophy and muscle size.
We know through research increasing muscle cross-sectional area through hypertrophy training is strongly correlated with strength levels, and EMS is a great way to boost your hypertrophy.
Combining EMS with traditional training methods for optimal results
Athletes should incorporate EMS devices into their training programs to optimize strength development.
Combining EMS with traditional strength training methods can help stimulate muscle growth and improve neuromuscular coordination, making it an excellent complementary technique for sprinters and other high-performance athletes.
For example, an athlete could use an EMS device as a warm-up tool to activate specific muscle groups before engaging in targeted strength training exercises or as a recovery tool to reduce muscle soreness and promote faster recovery after intense workouts.
Role of EMS in injury recovery and Prevention
Electrical muscle stimulation can be crucial in injury rehabilitation and prevention for athletes.
By activating weakened or atrophied muscles, EMS devices can help restore muscle function and strength, reducing the risk of muscle re-injury.
Additionally, EMS can be used to target specific muscle groups and improve muscle imbalances, further promoting injury prevention and enhancing overall athletic performance.
Case studies and expert insights on injury rehab with EMS
Many sports medicine physicians and physical therapists incorporate EMS devices into their treatment plans for athletes recovering from injuries.
E-Stim therapy has been shown in research to prevent losses in muscle function as a result of immobilization, as well as improve muscle strength and function following a muscle strain.
By stimulating muscle contractions in the affected area, e-stim treatment can help restore muscle function, strength, and tone, ultimately aiding in the recovery process.
E-Stim Improves Recovery From Workouts
How EMS aids post-workout recovery
Using EMS devices as a post-workout recovery tool can help athletes minimize muscle soreness, reduce inflammation, and speed up the healing process.
Electrical muscle stimulation increases blood flow to the targeted muscle groups, helping to flush out waste products, deliver nutrients, and promote muscle relaxation.
This increased blood flow to muscle fibers can lead to faster recovery times and improved overall muscle function.
Techniques and best practices for incorporating EMS into recovery routines
To effectively incorporate EMS devices into their post-workout recovery routines, athletes can use lower-intensity settings, training recovery programs, or TENS programs on their e-stim device.
Common best practices include using EMS devices at a low intensity to promote muscle relaxation and local blood circulation, applying the devices to the most fatigued or sore muscle groups, and combining EMS with other recovery techniques such as stretching, foam rolling, vibration plate training, compression therapy, and massage.
Mechanisms of EMS-induced pain relief
One of the primary benefits of electrical muscle stimulation is its ability to reduce pain in athletes.
TENS therapy, a form of electrical nerve stimulation, works by blocking pain signals from reaching the brain. This is achieved by stimulating the nerves with low-voltage electrical impulses, which can help override or reduce pain signals sent to the central nervous system.
Additionally, EMS devices can increase blood flow and promote muscle relaxation, further relieving pain.
Many athletes, including sprinters, have reported reduced pain levels when using EMS devices as part of their training and recovery routines.
Several studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of TENS therapy and other forms of electrical stimulation for pain relief in various medical conditions and post-exercise muscle soreness.
For instance, a systematic review found TENS therapy to be effective in reducing pain associated with arthritis pain. At the same time, another study showed that electrical muscle stimulation could help alleviate delayed onset muscle soreness after intense exercise.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Are EMS devices safe for athletes to use?
Yes, EMS devices are generally safe for athletes to use when properly applied. If you find that EMS is painful, reduce the intensity of the device or choose a different EMS program from your device.
How often should athletes use EMS for optimal benefits?
The frequency of EMS use varies depending on the athlete's goals, training regimen, and the specific type of EMS device being used.
For strength development and muscle conditioning, athletes may use EMS several times per week in conjunction with their regular training program.
For pain relief and post-workout recovery, athletes can use EMS as needed, based on their soreness level and their healthcare professional's recommendations.
Charlie Francis would have his athletes use EMS 3 to 4 times per week for a couple weeks at a time, taking a week or two off, and then repeating this approach.
Research has shown that benefits can be seen with 4 sessions per week, suggesting EMS can be used to enhance strength 3 to 4 times per week.
Can non-athletes benefit from using EMS devices?
Yes, non-athletes can benefit from using EMS devices for various purposes, such as pain relief, muscle toning, and general health improvement. If you want to get stronger or reduce pain, EMS can help regardless of your athletic status.
Are there any side effects or risks associated with EMS use?
When used correctly, EMS devices are generally safe and pose minimal risks. If you turn the settings up too high you may experience pain, so make sure that you start out at lower intensities before trying a more demanding EMS training program.
What factors should be considered when choosing an EMS device?
When selecting an EMS device, consider the following factors:
- Purpose: Determine the primary purpose for using the EMS device, such as pain relief, strength development, injury rehabilitation, or post-workout recovery.
- Features: Look for devices with adjustable intensity levels, customizable programs, and other features that allow for a personalized experience.
- Price: Consider your budget and the potential long-term benefits of investing in a high-quality EMS device.
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