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Is EMS Training Safe?

Due to advances in the technology, EMS and EMS bodysuits have become increasingly popular amongst athletes and the average Joe alike. Additionally, promises of quick and painless workouts have meant that many individuals suffering from pre-existing injuries now have the opportunity of increasing their fitness levels without putting their joints at risk. 

However, as has been seen time and time again, there is no one size fits all solution. Before we then decide to adopt these methods, we must ask ourselves what potential risks they can hold. 

Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) is a powerful technology but perfectly safe if used correctly. Each training session should last a maximum of 20 minutes with 3 workouts per week, giving your body 48 hours to recover. Overtraining by any method can be dangerous and counterproductive. And while EMS is effective, not everybody may be suited to it due to genetics and their medical history. 

If you want to know more about EMS safety, along with some handy tips on how to stay safe and train correctly, then read on! 

How Does EMS Work?

EMS involves using electric impulses to force an involuntary contraction in the muscles. Unlike with a normal contraction, this involuntary contraction is able to bypass the brain and fire all the muscles in a targeted area simultaneously, resulting in a four times greater contraction than when done voluntarily. 

One of the additional benefits to EMS is that it trains our muscle fibers to fire more effectively, by reversing the order of recruitment and activating fast-twitch (Type 2) fibers immediately rather than after slow-twitch (Type 1) activation. 

What Has Been Reported?

As appealing as EMS training sounds, it hasn’t existed without its problems.

Medical experts in Germany and Israel have called for stricter regulations after some individuals developed health complications after starting EMS training. One of the major concerns is the development of rhabdomyolysis.

Rhabdomyolysis is caused when direct and indirect muscle injury leads to the death of muscle fibers. The contents for these muscle fibers are released into the bloodstream, which may result in kidney failure if left untreated. The loss of functioning kidneys means that the body is unable to remove waste and concentrated urine from the body.

Who Is Affected and Why?

This might put you off of EMS, but don’t jump the gun just yet.

The reality is that the development of rhabdomyolysis is not limited to one form of training.

In fact, most forms of high intensity training, like Crossfit, marathon preparation, weight training and HIIT, if taken to the extreme without listening to the body and hydrating correctly, can lead to “rhabdo”. Additionally, substances like alcohol and others are significant contributors to the condition.

One of the major indicators of rhabdomyolysis is elevated levels of creatine kinase in the blood. Creatine Kinase (CK) is a form of protein that is found in our muscles and plays a role in the creation of energy for muscle contractions. 

As we exercise, we naturally sustain micro-injuries to our muscles and creatine kinase is leaked into the bloodstream.

However, some individuals with a higher percentage of fast-twitch type II muscle fibers may be prone to higher levels of CK values after exercise. This potentially puts them at risk during heavy anaerobic activity – although this is still being debated by researchers.

Things to Consider Before Using EMS

Individuals who are considering EMS training, with either individually placed pads or whole-body EMS suits, should disclose any information about implanted electronic devices such as:

  • pacemakers
  • implanted defibrillators
  • neuro-stimulators
  • pain pumps

This is because of potential electrical interference. 

The research on this is still lacking, but it is always necessary to consult with a medical expert before undergoing any form of training.

Safe and Effective Guidelines for EMS training

Claudia Stöllberger and Josef Finsterer published an article titled Side Effects of and Contraindications for Whole-body Electro-myo-stimulation: a Viewpoint in the BMJ Open Sport in 2019 examining Pubmed studies on EMS from 2000 to 2019. 

Additionally another German report titled Whole-Body Electromyostimulation – The Need for Common Sense! Rationale and Guideline for a Safe and Effective Training was published by Kemmler, Froehlich, von Stengel1, Kleinöder in 2019.

Here are 7 practical suggestions from these articles, for those of you out there considering EMS training:

  1. It’s important to abstain from any drugs, alcohol, muscle relaxants, and stimulants, and to be in good physical condition before any training is undertaken.
  2. A sufficient amount of carbohydrates and protein should be included in your diet to help your body cope and recover from the high metabolic stress placed on it. This should be ingested at least 2 hours before the training session.
  3. You should stay well hydrated and aim to consume at least 500ml of fluids before and after training. This helps to avoid possible renal stress on the body.
  4. If any major discomfort is experienced during the session, you should immediately cease your workout and consult a medical professional.
  5. It is strongly advised that you not be trained or push yourself to exhaustion during the trial and the first session as this can lead to negative health consequences.
  6. The stimulation levels should be increased gradually over a number of weeks and highest current is only to be used after 8 to 10 weeks of training. This will help your body become accustomed to the stress placed on the muscles.
  7. Ideally, training sessions should be limited to 1 session per week for the first 8 to 10 weeks. You should take no less than 3 days of rest between sessions.

Final Thoughts

What we need to realise is that conditions and regulations like these aren’t only linked to EMS suit training, but any form of conditioning that places high metabolic stress on your body. Rather than avoiding high-intensity training and EMS, we should make a point to approach it responsibly and with the guidance of experienced professionals.

Additionally, we need to be aware that the market is expanding and that means an influx of cheap EMS devices that could put you at risk. Thankfully, high-quality devices, such as the EMS Powersuit by Awifit, are tried, tested, and FDA approved.

Interested in starting your EMS journey?  Visit the Awifit website to learn more about their range of affordable products.