Illustration: Matija Medved

Optimize Me

Apparently, Zapping Your Muscles with Electricity Can Make Them Stronger

What to know before you try electrical muscle stimulation

Elemental
Published in
5 min readFeb 25, 2020

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Optimize Me is an Elemental column exploring (and fact-checking) the weirdest self-improvement trends. It comes out every Tuesday.

MyMy senior year of high school, I tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in my knee playing basketball, requiring me to have surgery and ending my future WNBA career (LOL). During the early weeks of recovery, my physical therapist would attach several electrodes to my quadriceps and run a mild electrical current through the muscle, causing my thigh to quiver and spasm. The logic was that by forcing the muscle to contract, I wouldn’t lose as much muscle mass as I might if I had to wait to begin strength training until my knee could bear weight again.

Fifteen years later, this type of electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) has become popular not only in physical therapist offices but also in boutique gyms around the country. These studios claim that a 20-minute workout using EMS can provide the same results as a traditional 60-minute gym session.

During EMS training, you wear a bodysuit composed of a vest and leg and arm bands with large electrode patches strapped onto the biceps, triceps, chest, upper traps, mid back, lower back, abdominals, glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings. The electrodes cause the muscles to contract while you go through a 20-minute bodyweight workout including squats, lunges, and planks.

Michka Mirzanejad first tried an EMS suit eight years ago in Germany. After her first workout, she thought, “Well, that was easy.” The next morning, she says, “I felt tight. Two days after that, I felt like I had been hit by a train. I was sore everywhere on my body.” Mirzanejad was so impressed that she eventually bought several suits and opened a studio, Body by Impulse, in her home city of Seattle. “I couldn’t believe a 20-minute workout could give you that kind of muscle fatigue,” she says. “[It’s] such an intense workout, but very doable.”

A killer workout in a third of the time? Sounds too good to be true. So, is it?

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Dana G Smith
Elemental

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental