The popularity of whole-body electro-muscle stimulation (EMS) training has exploded, both locally and abroad. The reason? It’s fast and effective.
But if you’re planning to give it a go, it’s important to ensure that your EMS provider follows the correct guidelines to safely apply this advanced training technology.
A surge in results
EMS uses precisely controlled electrical impulses generated from purpose-built machines to simulate intense muscle contractions in targeted body parts.
Clients wear specially-designed whole-body EMS suits and work out for just 20 to 30 minutes, once or twice a week to enhance fitness, sporting performance, weight loss or improve health, realising comparable results to hour-long conventional resistance training sessions in the gym.
And that’s not just marketing hype – this technology-mediated training modality has a significant body of research supporting its efficacy and application across a broad range health and fitness related settings.
Intense training stimulus
Study findings even show that the effects of whole body EMS compare favourably with that of high-intensity interval (HIT) training, which has been shown to deliver significant improvements in body composition by increasing muscle tissue and decreasing body fat.
However, because many people don’t have the time, or are unable to engage in HIT due to the high levels of mechanical stress imposed, EMS training has risen in popularity for its ability to deliver similar if not better results in just 20-30 minutes, twice a week.
These benefits have driven demand, with EMS studios popping up all over South Africa in recent years.
A forerunner in the EMS industry is BODYTEC. Boris Leyck launched the concept in 2011 using the gold standard in EMS equipment, Miha-Bodytec. Over the past nine years he has built a successful national franchise that now boasts some 38 studios across the country.
Body20 is another home-grown EMS franchise that leveraged Miha-Bodytec EMS technology to build a thriving business, with over 50 studios throughout South Africa, and a presense in Botswana and Namibia. The brand also recently expanded into the US market, with nine studios currently active and another three scheduled to open soon. New entrants into the market also include ActivX and Flab2Fab EMS.
Based on this success, numerous other studios and service providers have launched offerings, but not all EMS training (and the technology that drives it) is created equal.
While this is helping to make this highly effective form of training accessible to a broader segment of the market, it has also created an environment where individuals can be exposed to greater risks when the incorrect guidelines are not followed.
Quantifying the risks
In principle, whole body EMS is an extremely safe training method – it is easy on the joints and the lack of added resistance substantially lowers the risk of soft tissue injuries.
However, it is still a potent technology that, when used incorrectly, can cause serious damage. For instance, the ability of EMS to generate a supra-maximal muscle contraction can lead to rhabdomyolysis – a potentially life-threatening condition where muscle cells break down and expel their contents into the blood stream, which can cause potential renal, hepatic and cardiac complications.
As such, the application and intensity of muscle contractions stimulated using EMS must be done in a very responsible manner by a qualified trainer who employs methods that are in line with scientifically-validated criteria.
Safe EMS training guidelines
Guidelines for the safe and effective use of whole-body EMS were developed by sports medical scientists who have been researching whole-body EMS at the universities of Cologne, Kaiserslautern and Erlangen for over 10 years.
After attending an industry event where the researchers engaged with representatives from the sports science, education and EMS equipment manufacturing sectors, guidelines were drawn up that should now be applied as global best practices for all fitness professionals offering whole-body EMS.
These guidelines are brand, manufacturer and technology independent. They are aimed at supporting commercial EMS operators by helping them choose a safe yet effective approach, while also guiding the consumer by providing industry standards and helping them identify what to look out for before signing up with an EMS trainer or studio.
These guidelines are about making EMS training a mainstream form of effective personal training that is guided and administered by a qualified professional, regardless of the setting, be it at home or in a gym environment.
It’s also about establishing how many clients a trainer can manage during an EMS group session without compromising on the workout results or, more importantly, on their safety.
The updated guidelines for the safe and effective use of whole-body EMS include:
- Safe and effective whole-body EMS training must only be offered by a trained and licensed trainer or scientifically-trained fitness professional who is familiar with this field of application.
- A detailed assessment and questionnaire that covers every possible contra-indicator must be conducted and documented in writing before a client’s first training session, especially previously sedentary individuals. Where relevant anomalies are found, a doctor must be consulted. Medical consultation and clarification is advisable in the case of any discomfort, physical restrictions, infections or other internal, cardiological or orthopedic conditions. Training can only commence if medical clearance has been given.
- WB-EMS training must only be engaged in by those who are in otherwise good physical condition and are free of pain. This includes abstaining from alcohol, drugs, medications, stimulants, muscle relaxants or stress ahead of the training session. Training must never be carried out by anybody suffering from an illness, especially if they present with fever.
- WB-EMS training leads to high levels of metabolic stress because of the high volume of muscle mass that is activated. This factor must be taken into account through sufficient food intake to support the recovery and adaptive responses. A light snack (≈250 kcal) should be eaten, ideally about 2 hours before training.
- Additional fluids should be consumed before, during and after training (up to 500ml) to avoid possible renal stress (especially with undiagnosed problems).
- Under no circumstances may WB-EMS training to exhaustion take place during the first training session or trial training. After a moderate initial WB-EMS session, the stimulation level or current must be progressively increased and adapted to the individual’s specific goals. The highest level is to be reached only after 8-10 weeks of systematic training at the earliest.
- Initial training sessions should be curtailed with only a moderate-intensity stimulus applied. An introductory session that entails a five-minute impulse familiarisation period and 12 minutes of intermittent load with short impulse phase is advisable.
- To ensure sufficient conditioning and to minimise or rule out possible health impairments, training frequency should not exceed one training sessions per week during the first 8-10 weeks. After this conditioning phase, an interval of ≥4 days must be maintained between sessions to ensure full recovery occurs.
- During the training session, the qualified EMS trainer should concentrate exclusively on the interests of the user(s). Before, during and after the session the trainer should verbally and visually check the user‘s condition to rule out health risks and ensure an effective training response. Training is to be stopped immediately if there are any contraindications.
- During training, the equipment‘s operating controls must be directly in reach of the trainer and the user at all times. Adjustments must be simple, quick and precise.
The researchers also advise against the private use of the commercial-grade technology without the support of a qualified and licensed trainer or instructor.
“In this context, we are also very critical of the approach being adopted by some providers of increasing the instructor-user ratio to such a level that personalised and thus safe and effective training is no longer possible, even in the light of technical progress and trainer education,” stated Cologne-based sport scientist Ingo Froböse.
Author: Pedro van Gaalen
When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.