When it comes to exercising and working out, new programs can be as trendy as fashion. There’s always some new weight loss diet that advocates claim as being the best ever. And past exercise trends have included things like freezing cold workouts and, of course, pickleball. But there’s one type of workout that is attracting an increasing amount of attention lately. It goes by the name of whole body electrical stimulation, and it’s the latest fad in strength training. In essence, it is a form of electrical stimulation exercise training that literally shocks your muscles during your workout. And proponents claim it’s a great way to build muscle strength in a much shorter amount of time.
It is worth noting that whole body electrostimulation has been around for about two decades. However, it has not been until recently that the technology is being adopted on a broader scale. In the U.S. alone, there are some 400 gyms, spas, and other facilities that offer electrical stimulation exercise training. Some companies are even offering consumer equipment and programs that can be purchased online for home use. Despite its rise in popularity, however, this new exercise approach is not for everyone and not without risks. And while many support its use, others warn against potential hazards.
“We suspect that the true number of people injured by this form of exercise may be much higher but they are undiagnosed.” – Doctors from Israel’s Kaplan Medical Centre Consensus Letter, published in the British Medical Journal
Whole Body Electrostimulation Basics
In some respects, electrostimulation exercise training has been used for many years. Specifically, physical therapists have used such technology to relax muscles, prevent muscle atrophy, and improve range of motion. But the current form of whole body electrostimulation is part of the evolution of the digital fitness industry. These systems include a vest, arm and leg attachments connected to a machine that can deliver much higher impulses. The associated workout regimen then entails performing various exercises while being stimulated, making the task much, much harder. In fact, most people perform biceps curls with tennis balls instead of weights while being stimulated. Estimates suggest that electrical stimulation exercise training is about 10 times harder overall.
Given this, it’s not surprising the workout sessions are much shorter with whole body electrostimulation. The most common routine consists of a 20-minute workout of lunges, squats and biceps curls while being shocked. This is believed to be comparable to a 2.5-hour workout without the electrical stimulation. And the vast majority recommend performing this type of exercise only once a week rather than several times. Naturally, the level of electrical stimulation exercise training received varies from one person to the next. And there is a learning curve to determine which degree of stimulation is ideal to achieve the desired muscle effects. But once identified, whole body electrostimulation typically improves muscle strength and tone in a significantly shorter amount of time.
“It is possible to cause [muscle] damage if the intensity of the muscle stimulation is abnormally high…[To do damage] you basically need to have a person who has a very high pain tolerance, and a trainer who is being very irresponsible.” – Roland Safar, Personal Trainer and Co-owner of Perth’s SpeedFit EMS Centre
Potential Benefits and Risks of Electrical Muscle Stimulation
When it comes to the advantages of whole body electrostimulation, research has provided mixed results. In one study involving healthy adults in their twenties, notable benefits were seen. Compared to controls, those enrolled in electrical stimulation exercise training had lower waist and hip measurements. They also had lower cholesterol levels and better aerobic capacity. But this study stands in contrast to others that show no real gains in using whole body electrostimulation. Though the time required to exercise was less, other physical improvements were not appreciated. This is why some opponents are less than enthusiastic about its use.
In addition to the benefits of electrical stimulation exercise training being questionable, some risks with its use do exist. The most serious one involves actual damage to the muscles causing a condition known as rhabdomyolysis. This is where muscle tissue is destroyed with the release of proteins into the bloodstream. These proteins can then result in lung and kidney problems that can cause significant illness. Burns to the skin can also occur with whole body electrostimulation without proper precautions. Individuals wear a protective leotard between the stimulation electrodes and their skin to avoid this. While both of these conditions are rare with electrical stimulation exercise training, they’re still worth noting. This is why many believe these systems should only be used under professional guidance and supervision.
“Electrical stimulation won’t turn a sedentary person into an athlete.” – Damien Callahan, Assistant Professor of Human Physiology, University of Oregon
Is Electrical Stimulation Exercise Training for You?
Without question, there are definitely some individuals who should avoid using electrical muscle stimulation. Women who are pregnant and those with heart conditions, metal implants, and cardiac pacemakers are notable ones. But likewise, individuals looking for a shortcut to lose weight aren’t likely to benefit from whole body electrostimulation either. It appears this innovative approach to exercise can help tone muscles and reduce the time required to workout. But it doesn’t typically lead to six-pack abs and a body builder’s physique. As such, those short on time and who enjoy innovative technologies with their workouts might be ideal for these techniques.
It’s also worth noting that whole body electrostimulation isn’t cheap. A typical electrical stimulation exercise training session costs about $130. And for those choosing the at-home version, systems go for about $2,300. Katalyst Interactive Inc. is one of the leading companies in this field at the present time. Thus, willingness to invest this type of money into a new workout routine is also a consideration. All in all, it appears whole body electrostimulation serves a small segment of the population. In all likelihood, it will simply reflect another fleeting fad in exercise and workout history.