by Geoff Rand

I consider myself somewhat of an expert in the use of electro-muscular incapacitation devices.  In 2006, I was one of only six officers in the country to accidentally set someone on fire with a Taser.  Over the years, I’ve conducted an informal survey of nearly two-dozen unwilling participants and the overwhelming consensus was that this device provides quite an intense workout.  100% of the study participants indicated either verbally or non-verbally, that given the choice, they would never want to do that 5-second workout ever again.

The Taser works by hacking and disrupting the signals from the nervous system to the muscles.  If you’ve never been tased, imagine two barbed darts penetrating ¾” into your skin, spread up to 38” apart and energizing you with 50,000 volts of electricity, causing every muscle between the probes to rapidly contract hundreds of times a second.  After 5 seconds of that, it’s easy to see how one can become totally fatigued.

I began wondering if this life-saving technology could be toned down a bit and turned into a device to help stimulate and exercise muscles or even aid in recovery.  It turns out it can, and it has already been done.  I really need to start patenting my ideas as soon as I think of them…

I first experienced Electronic Muscle Stimulation (EMS) while at Rehab 2 Perform following my dry needling sessions for my shoulder injury.  They use the Compex Sport Elite EMS machines.  In the EMS therapy, a series of adhesive pads are placed around the area to be stimulated and electrodes are attached to the pads.  The machine then fires short electric pulses to the pads for sessions of about 25 minutes at an intensity you control.  The electric pulses cause activation in the targeted muscles.  It feels a little weird at first having your trap writhe independent of your control, but you leave feeling refreshed.

Our muscles are made up of slow and fast twitch fibers that work in relays to help us do work such as lifting loads.  When the brain signals the muscle to contract or release, chemical reactions within the muscle cause it to move.  The body always keeps a reserve to help prevent overexertion and damage, so it is physically impossible to voluntarily fully contract a muscle to 100% capacity. 

Similar to Tasers, EMS machines directly stimulate the muscles by bypassing the body’s normal methods of signaling.  As a result, EMS machines can produce complete contraction in muscles.  Don’t worry though.  They fire at a much slower rate and voltage than a Taser.

EMS therapy is beneficial in that it can directly target specific muscles and work them independently of others.  The electrical stimulation fires in waves through the muscle, helping to work it in ways you just can’t achieve through normal exercise or manipulation.  If you’ve read my other articles, you know that working a muscle helps pump it full of rejuvenating blood and nutrients while ridding it of toxins, all speeding up recovery.  EMS therapy is a highly efficient method of achieving this goal.

One of the most famous users of EMS machines was martial artist Bruce Lee.  Lee began using EMS therapy after a back injury in 1970.  He used EMS not only to speed his recovery, but also to work his muscles in ways he believed were more efficient than traditional exercise.

I haven’t used EMS to develop strength, however some studies have shown that when incorporated into specific workout programs, EMS can produce gains in excess of what traditional exercises can achieve alone.  However, these studies were conducted on elite athletes training under intensely supervised programs.  EMS probably isn’t going to get you those 6-pack abs while you sit on the couch stuffing your face.  Sorry.

I use EMS to help speed my recovery from certain workouts, most often high rep bouts of pull ups or push ups, which seem to aggravate my shoulder issues.  Recently, I used my EMS machine to help reduce my pain right after I got home from the gym.  I mixed a recovery drink, slapped on the pads and electrodes, and lied on the sofa.  After completing the 25 minutes of the EMS program in active recovery mode, my shoulder was nice and loosened up and the pain was nearly gone.

If you are interested in EMS therapy, I would suggest first experiencing it at a rehabilitation center like Rehab 2 Perform.  Go through a couple sessions, and see how the therapist sets the pads up.  If you think you might need frequent sessions and are interested in picking up your own EMS machine, be aware they are not cheap.  You can find inexpensive battery powered devices that seem similar to the professional ones, but the cheap ones lack the multiple settings, programs, and intensity controls of ones like the Compex and other brands.  Expect to pay $300-600 for a good EMS device.  Check eBay as used ones sometimes pop up there.

There’s no one therapy that works for everyone.  For me, I find that dry needling helps relieve pain that won’t go away with less intensive methods.  EMS therapy helps keep me going and so far, has allowed me to recover at home without having to schedule a doctor’s visit, since I can apply the EMS machine’s pads myself.  I haven’t figured out a way to dry needle myself yet.

If you have a problem area that hasn’t been resolved with other methods, give EMS therapy a try.  You might find that tasing yourself does the trick.  Just keep that electric current away from the pepper spray to be safe.  Trust me on this.