A firm favorite with multiple-endorsement, sparkly smile celebrities and boutique gyms of the uber-rich. But could EMS really help you lose weight or is it just another fad?
The fitness industry has always been obsessed with shortcuts. We’ve had toning belts, shake weights and god knows how many instant abs infomercials.
They get touted as the next big thing. They get popular for a while. And then people realize that they don’t work.
We never see it again.
In the spotlight right now is EMS – a device that promises a tighter tummy, toned muscles and better posture in just 25 minutes.
Are we really going to fall for it again?
Let’s take a look at EMS and weight loss…
What is EMS?
Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) is a device that uses electrical impulses to subconsciously activate your muscles.
You place various electrodes on your body. They stick to your skin and provide contact for the impulse to pass through.
Some are just small devices and others are more like body suits, in which you have to wear water-soaked clothing and a huge box on your back that looks like a generator.
The idea is to either lie there and let the electrical stimulation ‘switch on’ your muscle fibers. Or you can exercise while wearing the device.
EMS isn’t cheap.
You could be paying anything from $50 per session. More if you book into an expensive boutique gym.
It’s currently not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
How Is EMG Supposed to Work?
The impulse that passes to your muscles from EMS mirrors the electrical stimulation your brain and nervous system uses to activate your muscle fibers.
When you perform a bicep curl, a squat or any any other exercise, your muscle fibers need to contract.
The only way they do this is be receiving an ‘action potential’ from your central nervous system.
An electrical message is sent from your brain, down the superhighway of your nervous system, and across small gaps at the end of neurons called synapses.
Once these electrical messages hit the bed of your muscle, the message becomes chemical. It’s then able to travel through your tissue to the group of fibers that needed to work.
And from there, your muscle contracts, shortens and lifts the weight.
Your muscles are under conscious control.
It’s you that decides to lift a weight.
But EMS hijacks your nervous system by simulating the action potential sent from your brain. It more or less overrides it.
EMS has been used by athletes and physios for rehabilitation
EMS has been around for a surprisingly long time.
It was popular in eastern bloc countries in the 50s. And over time it’s become a therapeutic tool for physios.
EMS has also been used in the beauty industry as a cosmetic tool too.
When used in rehab, there does seem to be some value to EMS. For example in patients that are immobile because of injury, EMS has been shown to slow down the rate at which muscle is lost.
Electrical stimulation has also been used to manage pain.
However, studies like this have used a different type of EMS device called a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) machine.
In the cosmetic industry, EMS has been used on the face to treat wrinkles and saggy skin. However, like most things in the beauty field, there’s no science to suggest for one minute that it actually works.
Could EMS Help You Lose Weight?
Over the last few years, EMS has also started becoming a tool of weight loss gurus who suggest providing your body with electrical stimulation could help you tone up and lose body fat.
But does it really?
The short answer is no, not really.
The idea that subconsciously activating your muscles will help you lose weight defies most rules of thermodynamics.
In order to burn fat you have to be in a calorie deficit.
The actual energy expenditure of indirect muscle activation is extremely low. Far less than you’d get from a traditional gym workout or even a walk.
Is there any research on EMS and weight loss?
There’s actually hardly any research linking EMS technology to weight loss.
And the research that is available isn’t exactly convincing either.
One reason why fads like EMS disappear after a while is that they are soon caught up by scientists who want to test the claims made by manufacturers about weight loss, muscle toning and improved posture.
EMS doesn’t increase energy expenditure
There’s only really one study that manufacturers of EMS cling to when telling you that their machine burns more fat.
It’s from a paper in a journal of physical therapy, which found that 6 weeks of 60 minute EMS sessions, 3 times per week did result in both weight and inches lost.
It’s worth noting though that the female volunteers did have their calories restricted, which is probably the reason why they lost weight.
And the methods that were used to test body fat changes before and after are less than reliable (it was just a commercial body fat tester, not a lab one).
We’ve already said that the key to weight loss is calories.
When you exercise, you burn off energy, and that makes it easier to tip the scales in favor of a calorie deficit.
A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning found that EMS had no significant effect on oxygen consumption at all.
And another study from the same journal found that adding EMS to weight training only had a slight effect on muscle strength.
But probably the most damning research for EMS and weight loss came from Porcari and colleagues.
They found that even though EMS had been “advertised to increase muscle strength, decrease body weight and body fat, and improve muscle firmness and tone” it had…
No effect whatsoever.
Manufacturers are exaggerating weight loss results
Ultimately, EMS is a gimmick with no real science behind it for weight loss.
Okay, it might help to reduce muscle wasting in bed-bound athletes – but that’s nothing to do with ‘toning your tummy’ or ‘lose 11 lbs of fat in just 4 weeks’.
Summary – EMS Won’t Help You Lose Weight
The bottom line is EMS doesn’t work. In fact, it’s so bad we even included it in our article on top fitness trends you should avoid.
There’s currently very little evidence that EMS can positively effect weight. And the research that is out there is heavily balanced towards it being a waste of time.
We suggest you leave the electrical stimulation devices to the injured athletes and spend time getting the basics right.
Control your calories, increase activity levels and focus on fat burning nutrients.
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