EMS training promises stronger muscles without having to lift weights – in just 20 minutes once a week. Sounds great. Does that really work?
Maximum success with minimum expenditure of time – that sounds like a training concept that fits perfectly into our fast-moving world. With only 20 minutes of training per week, EMS wants to steel the body in a similar way to classic strength training with weights.
The secret: electricity. Because EMS means E lektro m yo s stimulation, where myo is the ancient Greek term for muscle. EMS training uses electrical impulses to stimulate the muscle fibers with the aim of making them contract more intensively than they would have done without electronic support. This will allow the muscles to grow faster.
The method of electrical muscle stimulation originally came from physiotherapy, where it was used to prevent muscle atrophy in patients, for example after injuries. It makes use of a principle inherent in the body. This is because muscles and the brain naturally communicate via electrical impulses that flow through the spinal cord to the nerve endings and into the muscles.
One impulse creates a twitch, several consecutive impulses cause the muscle to contract. The current stimulus during EMS training corresponds to the natural frequency and is around 50 to 150 Hertz. It takes place via electrodes from the outside via the skin.
Basically, EMS training is suitable for every healthy person – no matter what level of training. It is interesting, for example, for people with little time, but also high-performance athletes, for example in cycling or triathlon, sometimes supplement their training with EMS.
In addition, it is useful for elderly, debilitated or overweight people who want to maintain or build muscle mass but need to be easy on their joints. However, this form of training is not suitable for:
Statutory health insurance companies currently do not cover the costs for EMS training. The price per unit is around 20 to 30 euros, which is higher than the membership fee in most gyms per month. Some providers offer long-term contracts that are slightly cheaper.
Sometimes personal trainers also offer to come to your home with an EMS device. Such units are correspondingly more expensive at up to 90 euros. Important: EMS training should always be supervised by a suitably trained trainer. Ask for certification on site (“Proof of expertise according to NiSV”).
The effect of EMS training is based on two mechanisms: performing the exercise and intensifying it with the current. Since the electrical impulses also reach the deep muscle layers, the muscles contract more than in classic training.
This means that each exercise becomes more intense, which is why 20 minutes is enough to train the entire body effectively. The training is even better if the exercises are not performed statically but dynamically, i.e. the person exercising does not remain in the respective position (see exercises)
According to studies by the German Sport University Cologne and the University of Bayreuth, EMS is suitable for fitness goals such as:
A meta-study from 2020 identified significant positive effects of EMS training in terms of muscle mass and maximum strength, which, for example, increased up to twice as much in the test subjects’ legs.
Studies have also shown that EMS training improves body awareness in people who are otherwise not very keen on sports. And EMS training helps you lose weight – even if only to a small extent (up to 1.5 kilos after up to ten weeks of training).
Training with electricity works. However, it probably works no better than so-called high-intensity training (training at high intensity), in which short, strenuous physical exercises and short recovery phases alternate quickly, and which is also not very time-consuming.
In terms of muscle mass, muscle strength and body fat, no significant differences were found in scientific tests. Blood and abdominal fat values also developed positively with both training methods. According to a study by the German Sport University Cologne, the best results can be achieved with a mix of EMS and strength training.
The process is more or less the same in the studios: During EMS training, you are put on a suit with electrodes that is connected to a station. A trainer controls the frequency, strength and duration of the current impulses. In addition, exercisers commonly wear electrode cuffs on their arms, legs, and buttocks.
The trainees assume various predetermined positions one after the other in order to generate a certain muscle tension, which the current then amplifies. The trainees hold this tension for four seconds, followed by a pause of the same length. In this way, all large muscle groups can be trained at the same time and muscles can be built up with EMS.
How often you should go for EMS training depends on how physically fit you are. Beginners usually start with one EMS application per week, advanced users train twice a week.
There are various exercises that you can do during EMS training. Your trainer will tell you or show you which position to take. It is also necessary for such a trained expert to be present in order to control the correct execution of the exercises. Classic EMS exercises include:
From a hip-width, upright position, take a step forward and bend your knees. The hands are on the hips. Make sure your front knee doesn’t go over your toes. Then push off with the front foot and come back to the starting position. This exercise strengthens the leg muscles.
Stand tall and hip-width apart. Optionally, you can bend your knees slightly. Place your palms together in front of your chest, fingertips pointing toward the ceiling, arms bent. Press your palms together for about four seconds. This is how you train your chest, but also your upper arms.
Stand with your knees slightly bent as if you are about to squat. Keep your arms bent at right angles in front of you so that you can see your palms at head level. Close your hands into fists and tense your hands and upper arms. This will strengthen your upper arms and chest.
In contrast to classic crunches while lying down, you can do the abdominal press while standing. Bend your knees slightly and lean your upper body forward. tighten abdominal muscles. This exercise strengthens the abdominal muscles.
They stand shoulder-width apart or a little wider. Bend your knees while pushing your buttocks back, your upper body leans forward slightly, your back stays straight. The stomach is tense. This exercise mainly trains thighs and buttocks.
Training with electricity – that sounds threatening to some. In fact, EMS training can be harmful if not done competently. Then, in the worst case, it destroys muscles instead of building them up. This can also happen with improper strength training.
Since EMS training greatly increases the concentration of a certain enzyme, the so-called creatine kinase, it can, in very rare cases and in the case of excessive ambition, impair kidney function.
For healthy people, however, EMS training does not cause nerve damage or muscle problems if it is carried out correctly. It is not dangerous.
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The sports expert also reveals his own personal motivational tricks.
EMS training is not a miracle cure, especially not with just one unit per week. However, for people who don’t have much time, for overweight people and for the elderly, it can definitely be an option to improve your fitness. It is a possible complement to strength and endurance training, but more expensive than classic (high-intensity) strength training – and no more effective than this.
This article was written by Carola Felchner, medical journalist
The original for this article “With electrical impulses to a dream figure? What’s behind EMS training” comes from FOCUS doctor search.