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How Does EMS Work?

Mar. 06, 2021

Maybe you've seen pictures of Hannah Bronfman or Ashley Graham on Instagram, wearing futuristic suits with metal wires hooked to their muscles. Maybe you've heard of a new workout that "shocks" your muscles into working out. Maybe you've undergone physiotherapy for an injury and are familiar with electro-muscular stimulation (EMS). Or maybe you've never heard of any of them and you're suddenly intrigued?

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Beginners think of EMS as a tool used by physiotherapists to help people recover or rehabilitate from surgery, explains Ryan Yelle, clinical director of Professional Physical Therapy. Typically, he says, EMS is used for people who have muscle suppression and weakness due to pain, swelling and immobilisation. For example, after anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) knee surgery, people tend to have reduced muscle weakness in their extremities. He says that EMS can "involuntarily activate" or awaken the quadriceps so that people do not lose muscle or function completely.


But recently, boutique fitness enthusiasts and fitness influencers have been talking about working out with EMS technology. These EMS workouts involve sending electrical impulses to your muscles to absorb more muscle fibres and increase the intensity of your strength training routine. Sound hardcore? People claim that using EMS can build more muscles and improve your health in less time, which is why so many people are attracted to it.

How does EMS work?

In order to make a muscle contract, your brain must send electrical impulses to the neurons in the muscle fibres. EMS basically mimics the brain's behaviour in this case: by using electrode pads on different parts of the muscle, the trainer can send a small electrical pulse to the muscle, telling it to contract.

So, how does EMS help during a workout?

According to Bernstein, using an EMS machine activates more muscle fibres compared to a standard strength workout without an EMS. He says, "It's really more complete in terms of the individual muscles you're working." You wear a vest and shorts with electrodes on them. The trainer then guides you through a series of simple bodyweight exercises (push-ups, dips, squats and sit-ups) and regulates the amount of electricity sent to the muscles. This workout model may be somewhat legit: a 2016 study found that people who did a six-week squat programme using EMS had greater strength improvements compared to those who did not use EMS.

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