Trying Electro Muscle Stimulation (EMS)

Trying Electro Muscle Stimulation (EMS)

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Back in March 2016, I was attending the expo of the Malaysian Woman Marathon 2016 (MWM 2016) for the Malaysian Ultra Runners Association. We had a booth there to create awareness of ultra-running with the MWM marathon runners. Out of the many booth there, there was one from a company called FitOrange. Karsten Korbel, who was the coach for this year MWM training program had just started FitOrange and was presenting their main product: Electro Muscle Stimulation (EMS).

What is Electro Muscle Stimulation (EMS)

Anything close to electrical in the name sounds a bit scary for most people I think, but fear not ! EMS is basically a training method where you’re doing some exercises to activate various (understand a lot of) muscles from your body while they’re are stimulated via some electrical current sent through electrodes put on your body. Obviously it’s a low frequency – fine tuned – electrical current that is chosen to be the most effective at contracting your muscles…not your wall socket one !

The way your muscles work is through some electrical current sent by your body to contract them. When you decide say to contract your abs for example, your brain is sending some nervous system signals (electrical) that will then trigger the contraction of your muscles. In essence EMS is doing the same except it’s triggered from a machine using electrodes in contact with your skin on top of your muscles.

EMS has been around for a while and it’s been used in couple of domains: muscle rehabilitation in medical environment and (doubtful ?) weight loss programs. You probably have all seen these advertisements where you are promised wonderful weight loss or 6 packs muscles after putting some electrodes on your body and then seating watching TV ! I think EMS has always been very useful in the medical domain as a niche technic for rehabilitation (because of cost probably). The weight loss thing was probably (like most of those) a scam and not reflect what is EMS is. EMS certainly can help you loss weight but just like doing regular exercise will help you. It’s a tool to make your workout more efficient and more effective timewise. If you go MacDonald’s right after an EMS session… well forget it !

One thing to be noted is that the EMS training from FitOrange is a full body workout. You will exercise your muscles from your hamstrings /quads to your gluts, abdominal muscles, low and high back muscles, arm muscles. When I – rarely – go to the gym, I personally never get such a full body workout, certainly not in 20 minutes !

My first EMS session at FitOrange

As a disclaimer, I was given a free trial session as I registered to their newsletter on the FitOrange website following the MWM expo. During the launch period of FitOrange, you can just do the same and enjoy a free EMS trial session. However, it’s probably wise to act fast as it’s probably only for a limited time (and I don’t know how long that is).

The workout you will have takes 20mn of active EMS training. The first session is longer than that as you will get many explanation about EMS, how the workout will be conducted. The FitOrange studio is located in Plaza Damas 3 (not the main Plaza Damas but the recent building additions facing Plaza Damas). It’s very neat and clean and surprisingly it looks very big (the effect of a full wall mirror and some cleverly positioned wall posters). They provide a locker area, toilets, and showers. The idea is basically that you go to FitOrange at a scheduled time (by appointment) in your normal day or office clothes and can leave after that. You don’t actually need workout clothes because you need to wear special EMS garments (provided) for the workout. If you plan to use other gym tools as part of their membership, then of course you need to have workout clothes 🙂

When you arrive there, you will remove your shoes at the entrance. The entire workout area is for barefoot workout. It’s actually very important to do the workouts (EMS or not) barefoot as it promotes good stability and healthy feet/lower legs muscles (after all you spend most of your day standing up). In the locker/shower area, you are provided with nice slippers, towel and EMS workout garments. It’s actually very neat and clean and from what I saw they’re maintaining the cleanliness very thoroughly.

EMS is mainly looking at enhancing your muscle strength and muscle mass. Hence FitOrange provides you measurement of your various body. I went on a fancy weighing scale and got my body mass measured. I was told that once you go for regular EMS workouts, you are measured. The measurement are to be taken with a pinch of salt as they vary a lot depending on the time of the day, what you ate, drank, … Hence if you take the measurement in the same condition and the same time of the day, everything is fine and you can compare the results from one session to the other. However, it’s unlikely to happen and you need to look at the measurements from a trending point of view. When you work out regularly with EMS, there will be improvements that will show up in the trend of your body measurements (understand “muscle mass increasing”, “body fat decreasing”, …). Karsten and FitOrange coaches are well versed into helping you understand where you are in your fitness journey.

In my case, it basically says – with a measurement done after a day of work at 7:30pm and an early light dinner – I have 7 kg of fat that need to be lost to be at optimum fitness…

Honestly, I need to dig into that and hopefully with normalised measurement done in the morning before breakfast, after toilet break, it should be better… Then you’re off for the EMS workout ! You need to go through a form with various questions about your fitness, if you have any health issues, … To do EMS, you have to be in good health basically 🙂

After changing into the EMS garments in the changing area, Karsten explained that we need to wear the EMS vest. It is a vest sprayed with water at key areas where electrodes are by Karsten before the workout. It has to be wet to facilitate electricity conduction.

You will then be hooked to the EMS machine for calibration of how much electricity goes into your muscles. You want something triggering contraction but not “tazing” you ! The calibration is done by Karsten based on your feedback for the electrodes of muscles that are electrified. You will be asked how comfortable you are with the current, until you say it’s not. That’s where the setting should be for maximum effectiveness. To be noted this has to be done only once and your settings are kept on a smart card that is reused for every workout (saving you time). The first time is surprising and a little bit “ticklish” but you get quickly used to it.

The EMS workout will be guided by the coach – Karsten that day – who will tell you what exercise you need to do. He will do them with you to show you, correct if you’re doing it wrongly and encourage you when you need to be pushed. You need to start with an active position for your muscles (legs slightly bended, abs contracted, arms flexed). The electrical stimulation works if your muscle are relaxed (it would contract then relax the muscles) but does not yield much benefits. By having your muscles naturally activated  and contracted by your position, you will then contract them even more and get more effect from EMS.

I had to follow a workout given by Karsten during my session. It is tailored depending on what you need to improve. This is why having a professional coach to define and follow the program with you is very important. If I get hooked to the machine alone and do some exercise, I’ll do fine but won’t get things as good as they could be. Same thing as working out with a very good professional coach. They tailor for you the exercises, push you when you need to be pushed, understand your needs, your weaknesses and work with you a putting a plan together and executing it to become better. In my trial session, Karsten knew I was a runner, running long distance races. I did the following:

  1. squats (static then active) – slow and fast repeats
  2. lunges (static then active)
  3. Kicks/High knees (slow and fast repeats)
  4. Lateral (side) lunge
  5. Pec flies  (“Pec” from Pectoralis Major, the muscle targeted with this exercise)
  6. Glute bridge
  7. Dead bug (contracting abs essentially)
  8. Wood Chop (Core workout exercise by pulling a big elastic band from the wall – slow and fast repeats)
  9. Hamstring curls (your legs are on a big ball and you bring them back toward torso)
  10. Trunk rotation with medicine ball

That was just a sample set of exercises. My wife Anabelle did the EMS trial first and she had some similar exercises but different ones also. For example, she had the “superman” plank.

Following this, the actual EMS workout will be completed (20mn) and you will have few minutes of recuperation. During that time, I was in a yoga relaxation position and all my muscles were activated using EMS but in a very soft way with less current it seems. Karsten explained the frequency of the current sent is different than the main workout and it helps muscles to relax after the quite intense workout they went through.

I was wearing my Scorch heart rate monitor during the workout (you can’t wear a chest strap one due to the EMS garment, water and electrical stimulations).

The peak was 120 bpm during the most intense part. The actual workout is starting at 2m40s and finishes at 23mn. The first part is the setting of the EMS machine (calibration) and after is the recovery period. The recovery period usually is shorter than that, we were actually caught in chatting about EMS and Karsten was very kind to answer all the questions we had !

As a bonus, I was able to play around the other stuff they had here. I was told if you are a member you can use those prior or after your EMS workout. They have all kind of balls, wobble board, elastic bands, foam rollers, big gym balls, … And the great thing is that you can just ask how to use those and Karsten will be very happy to explain you. To be noted, these are also there because they use them as part of the EMS workout too to activate your muscles. I used mostly the wobble board and it’s a superb exercise for strength at the feet, calves and legs level which requires very good balance and control of the muscles involved in balancing properly.

After the workout, Karsten told us that we could have some soreness (DOMS) in the worked out muscles in the coming days, particularly for the first session (our muscles after all are not used to work that intensively in such a short time). Effectively, I had some soreness in few muscles on the second day after the EMS workout. Not everywhere, just on my left hamstring (traditional more tight) and the two gluts (I guess they never worked that hard !). So yes, expect this but it should be easier on the subsequent workouts and like any long run or intense exercise…. stretch !

Does EMS really work ?

Well, I can’t really tell you about long term results after one session. I have seen Karsten before EMS and after months of EMS and he is definitely leaner and more muscular. He basically swapped long hours at the gym for strength training to EMS. One thing is sure, I had hell of a complete and intense workout in just 20mn, honestly I never got anything like that !

There have been studies to try to prove the EMS effectiveness, mainly from the medical point of view. I found on the Miha Bodytec web site (the manufacturer of the EMS machine used at FitOrange) in the studies section (https://www.miha-bodytec.com/en/studies/). I’ll just mention the titles here. Obviously a thorough check would be needed looking for outside studies: they list the most favourable studies I’d say. Nevertheless, it does seem EMS is really effective.

  1. UNIVERSITY OF BAYREUTH 2002 / Whole body electromuscular stimulation (EMS training) for back ailments
  2. UNIVERSITY OF BAYREUTH 2002 / Electromuscular stimulation (EMS) of the whole body musculature – An innovative method to relieve urinary incontinence
  3. MUNICH 2010 / Electrical muscle stimulation as whole body training – Multicenter study on the use of full body EMS in fitness centers
  4. “MEDICAL SPORTS NETWORK” 04/2007 / Short and long-term training effects on strength-related diagnostic parameters from mechanical and electrical stimulation
  5. UNIVERSITY OF ERLANGEN- NUREMBERG 2009 / The effect of whole body electrical stimulation on the resting metabolic rate , anthropometric and muscular parameters of older people. The Training and Electromyostimulation Trial (TEST)
  6. ERLANGEN- NUREMBERG UNIVERSITY 2009 / Influence of adjuvant EMS training on body composition and cardiac risk factors in older men with metabolic syndrome
  7. BAD OEYNHAUSEN HEART CLINIC 2010 / Electromyostimulation (EMS) in cardiac patients. Is EMS training becoming significant for secondary prevention?

Funny thing, it seems that if you’re a man with incontinence problem go for EMS, it will likely help you resolve your own problems 😀 I read the high level description of the studies, and it does seem indeed conclusive. There is a good reasons it’s been used for years in the medical field to help people in rehabilitation.

Also to be noted, nowadays, a lot of professional athletes use EMS to complement their training (soccer player, runners,  tennis players, swimmers, …). These people always had full support from professional trainers, physicians and they moved to used EMS in complement to their regular training.  Just few names here to illustrate: Usain Bolt, Boris Becker, Rafael Nadal, Lionel Messi, … just to name a few !

What is FitOrange value proposition ?

I’ll just mention briefly here how FitOrange is proposing their services to the public. If you want to have more information, you can contact them at their website http://fitorange.com. They propose per session pricing, per package (1 or 2 sessions a weeks for 3, 6 or 12 months) or a monthly subscription with 1 or 2 sessions a week for 6 or 12 months. Get in touch with them and best is to start with a trial of EMS. Outside of the promotional period, the trial sessions are charged. When you have a package for X months, they acknowledge you can have few weeks where you’re travelling or on holiday and can’t attend, so they’re good to have those postpone for just few weeks (they would freeze your membership say for the month you’re out of country). All sessions are by appointment only and they are flexible on the hours: for example some of their customers go there early morning 8am before heading to work, some at lunch time, some after work, … Ah I forgot to mention them you can also call them or whatsapp them for more info at + 6012 686 0515 or email them at info@fitorange.com.

Final thoughts on EMS

I have to say it’s quite impressive. I’m thinking of subscribing but still wonder which package to take. I liked the fact that you get personalised coaching and from that perspective you really think of EMS as a one to one coaching session. To compare the effectiveness, remember 20mn using EMS is equivalent to 2 to 4 hours of gym intense exercise ! If you do this with a personal coach, it’s not cheap certainly ! So from my point of view, thumbs up to FitOrange. Go there and try, it’s really worth it. The duration of the workout makes it easy to pack in a busy day and i found that I did not sweat too much during the workout, which makes after workout transition time shorter.

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