Fitness review: the electrical muscle stimulation workout sends a current through your body

We strap in for a 20-minute EMS session to see whether it really does deliver a full-body workout.
EMS sessions cost from Dh250, and are available in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Courtesy Fit in Time
EMS sessions cost from Dh250, and are available in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Courtesy Fit in Time

When I was a child, my mum was always trying the latest fitness gadgets. I remember her testing ab rollers, exercise bikes, ankle weights, upside-down back aligners and an early incarnation of an electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) device, which she hired on a monthly basis.

She was always looking for the quickest and easiest way to get fit and lose weight. Most of the gadgets eventually ended up as dust-gatherers once the next new thing came along.

Skip ahead about 25 years and EMS devices have been cropping up in gyms and fitness centres across the UAE. Less-sophisticated devices are also marketed for home purchase, especially ones that target the abs.

Like my mum, a lot of people are looking for easy ways to lose weight fast, so it’s not surprising that people are drawn to something that promises a full-body workout in 20 minutes. But is it worth the cost, usually Dh250 or more per 20-minute session? I decided to try it. After I change into a fetching black T-shirt and cropped leggings, my “trainer” Ina Schumacher, from Fit in Time Dubai, attaches pads – one each for my arms and upper legs, a vest targeting my abs, back and chest, and another around my buttocks.

She then starts turning up the current for one body section at a time. She reminds me to tense my muscles – four seconds on, four seconds off – in time with the stimulation. The sensation is strange at first, and I have to remember to breathe through the contractions. It’s also important to tense the muscles before the current starts flowing, otherwise it can get rather uncomfortable.

Schumacher targets the different muscle groups separately, while instructing me to perform specific exercises, such as squats, arm raises or lunges. It sounds easy enough, but when the current is tensing your muscles, you do work up a sweat. I also get a bout of the giggles, which is an unfortunate reaction to being in discomfort. It happens to me during deep-tissue and sports massages, too.

Towards the end of the session, I’m counting down the minutes until it’s over. I can see why a session only lasts 20 minutes and I’m wondering if I’ll feel the effects later on.

Schumacher recommends sessions twice a week, and says that after three to four weeks, most people notice an improvement in body tone and strength. She adds that even after a few sessions, people feel their skin getting tighter and experience better sleep.

I only have one session, but over the following week, my muscles are sore, just as they’d be if I’d done a tough workout at the gym.

I decide to look into it further, consulting journals to see what research has been done. A study published in the German-language Dtsch Z Sportmed in September concluded that EMS “may be a good choice for people unable or simply unwilling to conduct intense resistance training protocols” because of time constraints and concerns about effect on joints. It did, however, stress the need for sessions to be conducted under the guidance of personal trainers to minimise the risk of muscle injury, which can happen through overstimulation.

Another study, published in the Journal of Sports Science Medicine in 2005, found that EMS “was effective in increasing muscle strength and endurance”, particularly in the abdominal area; however, results varied dramatically with commercially available devices for home use, depending on the quality. While there may be benefits for muscular strength, the jury is still out on whether it can deliver any cardio benefits, which are essential for good heart health.

Considering the minimal time investment and that the cost is similar to what you’d pay for personal-training sessions, I can see the appeal. Will I be signing up for a package any time soon? I giggle at the thought.

EMS sessions are available in Abu Dhabi at The Body Company and Abu Dhabi Country Club, and in Dubai at Talise Fitness, select Fitness First clubs and elsewhere. Prices start from Dh250 per session.

Published: November 16, 2016 04:00 AM


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