Working out for less time than it takes to watch an episode of Bridgerton, but still getting amazing results sounds like a dream, right? Actually, it may be possible with EMS, or electro muscle stimulation. This futuristic style of exercise is gaining popularity for its short but effective workouts, and as a result, EMS studios are popping up around the country.
EMS involves wearing a suit with built-in electrodes targeting and stimulating specific muscles while you exercise. Celebrity fans like Ashley Graham and Lindsay Lohan have already tried it, and EMS instructors claim it can give you serious results in as little as 15 or 20 minutes of working out. But is this for real, or too good to be true? We asked top trainers to explain what exactly an EMS workout involves and if it’s worth a try (and the high price tag).
What Is EMS, Exactly?
EMS stands for electro (or eclectic) muscle stimulation. During an EMS workout, you’ll don a suit (worn over light workout clothes) fitted with electrodes that are situated along major muscle groups. Some EMS studios offer wireless suits that run off a low voltage battery, while others feature wires that hook your suit up to a control panel.
As you start to move through exercises, your body will feel small sensations as the electric current causes the targeted muscles to contract. While it shouldn’t hurt (though it may feel a bit strange at first) you’ll feel your muscles contracting right away. “EMS is the practice of delivering tiny pulses of electricity to the muscle while working out,” explains Brandon Nicholas, NASM certified personal trainer. “These contractions mimic the body's natural muscle contractions after brain stimulation to elevate the training's intensity. This training method aims to fortify the muscle strength of the targeted muscle groups.”
EMS workouts claim to give you the results of a 90-minute workout in just 15 or 20 minutes. Even if you are doing the same exercises you’d normally do like squats and lunges, you’ll likely feel the effects a lot more during EMS.
“A simple circuit training can have twice or thrice its normal effects on the body when done while being hooked up to an EMS machine,” Nicholas says. “As this device doubles the intensity of the workout training itself, weight loss and muscle toning may be sped up with this integration.”
EMS workouts are relatively new, but it’s a technique that’s already been used by physical therapists for years. They use EMS machines to increase blood flow to an area and help reduce muscle damage to an injury.
What the Science Says About EMS
Even though the effects of EMS training seem promising, experts still have reason to be skeptical about its claims. Studies about EMS have also been limited so far, explains James Taylor, a functional movement coach in London.
“Currently, it's difficult to say to what extent EMS is effective in boosting results. Most of the current research does not support its use as an effective method for hypertrophy or recovery,” he says. “One study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that EMS did cause a slight strength increase in both healthy humans and athletes. However, until researchers find common results on a continuous basis, it will be difficult to believe some of the more extraordinary claims for EMS.”
He says proven methods like strength training may be a better use of your time to help you meet your fitness goals. But there’s no harm in trying EMS if you are interested. “If you have the means and the right expectations going in, then there is no harm in trying EMS if you really want to do everything in your power to maximize your training efforts,” he says.
Heading to an EMS studio
EMS workouts should ideally be done in the studio under the supervision of a specialized trainer. “It's crucial that EMS workout sessions are supervised by training certified personal trainers. This way, your exposure and usage of the device will be moderated and you'll have a hands-on guide in order to get maximum benefits,” Nicholas says.
And while you may be able to find EMS type devices online for use at home, they won’t give you the full-body EMS studio workout experience. They also may not be regulated and/or effective to give you the results you’re after (and could therefore also be dangerous).
Who Should Avoid EMS?
While EMS is generally considered safe and focuses on low-impact exercises, you’ll want to skip it if you are pregnant or have an underlying medical condition. It’s important to avoid EMS if you have a pacemaker, a seizure disorder, or active blood clots.
How Much Does an EMS Workout Cost?
How much you’ll pay for an EMS workout depends on where you live and which studio you choose. A 20-minute private, 1:1 class with a trainer at Epulse Fitness in New York City costs $125, while a 15-minute semi-private session at Manduu Fitness (with locations around the country) will set you back $49. (Buying class packages will save you some money, too.) You can also sign up for intro classes at most studios if you are interested in trying EMS without committing.
Search for EMS studios in your city to inquire about specific pricing.
Pavlović, R, Trkulja-Petković D, Dragutinović S. Electro-muscle stimulation-the application in practice. Acta Kinesiologica - International Scientific Journal of Kinesiology. Published online 2016;10.