A Deep Dive into EMS & Sports

There have been many studies and tests done over the years with the goal of proving the benefits of EMS. Some of these studies have incomplete information or the study doesn’t necessarily show the uses specifically for sport. This article will attempt to put credible sport specific information into one place, while explaining these studies in practical terms.

What is EMS?

EMS stands for Electric Muscle Stimulation. Your body naturally produces contractions through your nervous system. Signals are sent from your brain telling your muscles to contract. Using electrodes, electric signals are sent directly to the muscle telling it to contract, bypassing the brain and peripheral nervous system. In 1791, Luigi Galvani was the first person to show scientific proof that an electric current can activate a muscle.

Isn’t EMS used in physical therapy?

A form of EMS is used in the physical therapy setting. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation or (TENS) is a small unit used primarily as pain relief. One of the main differences between TENS and Lightning Fit EMS is that TENS is a wired device while our EMS is bluetooth, making free movement an option. TENS is typically used lying or sitting on the table in the physical therapy office while our EMS can be used in a gym, field or your home.

Rehab and Recovery

One of the most intriguing uses for EMS in sport is in rehabbing and recovering from injury. A study done in 2000 used 14 patients with spinal cord injuries to test if EMS can increase muscle strength and reverse osteopenia. This study showed that after training for 1 hour a day, 5 days a week for 24 weeks the femur and tibia recovered nearly 30% of the bone lost. It also showed significant gains in muscle strength. Strength gains were as high as 8.1% per week when training with a combination of EMS and resistance training. This lead to overall gains of 150%.

After understanding how significant of a tool EMS is on spinal cord patients, we wanted to take a deeper look at how this would effect healthy individuals recovering from injury. A 2018, 6 week study, showed that EMS can increase muscle mass by around 1% and can improve muscle function by around 10-15%. This study showed that EMS improves anabolic/catabolic balance and stimulates the regenerative capacity of satellite cells. Satellite cells are needed for myofiber growth and repair.

EMS Effects on Blood Cells

Before we look into the benefits of EMS on sports performance, let’s get an understanding of what EMS is doing on a cellular level. In a German study done on elite soccer players, their focus was to understand the influence EMS has on red blood cell deformability. Red blood cells (RBCs) deliver oxygen to the muscles through the circulatory system. As they move through the circulatory system the RBCs have to squeeze through small capillaries. This requires the RBC membranes to be highly deformable. A higher RBC deformability rate leads to better oxygen flow thus leading to a higher muscle oxygen level. A higher oxygen level influences the reoxygenation in the muscles leading to phosphocreatine resynthesis, a key factor in brief recovery periods. This study found that EMS is a useful and time saving addition to traditional training to improve RBC deformability and oxygen supply.

Why does EMS fatigue?

This has been a very widely discussed and studied topic in EMS. During a traditional gym lift an athlete is only recruiting type 1 or slow twitch muscle fibers. WIth EMS athletes are able to recruit type 1 and type 2 (fast twitch) muscle fibers. It has been thought for many years that what is happening is the muscle fibers are being recruited in reverse. Fast twitch to slow twitch. In a 2005 study, data was collected from multiple studies to understand this is not the case. What is happening is the muscle fibers are being recruited in a nonselective, synchronous pattern. This recruitment of fast twitch muscles during slow twitch movements is what is fatiguing the body. Fast twitch fibers are much more susceptible to fatiguing than slow twitch. As you are contracting a muscle the fibers are also experiencing glycogen depletion, with EMS now recruiting slow and fast twitch fibers there is significantly more glycogen depletion leading to quicker fatigue.

EMS Performance Benefits

Strength

One of the most commonly studied and proven benefits from EMS is, when combined with resistance training it significantly enhances strength levels over only resistance training. In a 2016 study on professional soccer players, they found that implementing EMS into their training program, showed significant increases in leg strength. They found this performance gain directly transfers to the players performance, resulting in significant improvement of jumping, sprinting, and kicking. This study was done in season, proving significant strength gains can be achieved using EMS at any point in the athletes year.

Strength in antagonist muscles

There are many studies proving the strength benefits of superimposed EMS over traditional training alone. Let’s take a different look at how this is working. In 2016, a study involving 20 athletes looked to investigate the effects EMS has on back squat performance. At the conclusion of this study they found that the biggest change over the control group was in hamstring strength. This suggests that while training the primary muscle, athletes can also see strength gains in unloaded antagonist muscles leading to an overall higher quality session.

Increase in Stamina. Decrease in Acidification.

Since we spent some time learning about what happens physiology, let’s take another look at how that correlates to athletes and performance. The study done with elite soccer players prove that EMS significantly enhances RBC deformability. This improves blood circulation and oxygen transport to the muscles and organs. The improvement in circulation leads to an improvement in tissue oxygenation and can lead to an increase in maximum oxygen uptake. Improved blood flow also helps to prevent or delay acidification of the muscles.

Conclusion

As more research is done, EMS is proving to be a promising additive to traditional strength training. Studies show promising results for any athlete at any phase in their season, as well as faster recovery times to get back to their sport. A 2012 study states, “the present review shows that EMS training is able to significantly enhance the most important components of the athletes’ performance such as maximal strength and speed strength in the form of explosive movements with maximal forces, for example, jumping, sprinting, or throwing.” A study of EMS on rehabilitation of a knee joint injury stated, “Timely and on-target use of EMS after knee joint surgery yields a better starting level for rehabilitation and is in our opinion mandatory as a matter of principle especially in high-performance sportsmen.” With studies and statements like these it is our opinion that any athlete that wants to out perform their opponent should be utilizing EMS.