EMS Training for Athletes and Bodybuilders

EMS for Bodybuilders and Athletes

Electronic muscle stimulation is an excellent training companion for bodybuilders and elite athletes alike.  There are four main uses for EMS in sport training. First, for the enhancement of maximum strength; second, as a means of recovery; third, as a rehabilitation tool; and fourth, as a motor learning and muscle recruitment tool.

An EMS stimulus fires all the motor neurons in the treated area simultaneously, creating an uncoordinated contraction, which is primarily isometric in nature. Voluntary muscular contractions, on the other hand, roll through the muscle in a wave to generate a coordinated, directed force. The muscle tension produced in a maximal EMS contraction can be up to 30% higher than a maximal voluntary contraction.

Since individual muscle fibers can be completely exhausted in just a few seconds, the body has adopted several strategies to prolong endurance. Slow twitch (red) fiber is used first in voluntary contractions, as it is energy efficient, though not very powerful. Then only enough strong, but voracious, fast twitch (white) fiber is added to handle the load.

In addition, muscles work their individual fibers in relays, always holding some back from even the most demanding load to maintain a reserve. It’s impossible to voluntarily contract all fibers simultaneously.

EMS works directly on the muscles, bypassing the body’s energy conservation system, so there’s no limit to the percentage of fiber that can be activated. The EMS stimulus “spills over” from fully contracted fiber to activate remaining fiber allowing the athlete to experience a training stimulus that’s unattainable by any other means.

The supra-maximal nature of this exercise enhances the strength to weight ratio by favoring enhanced recruitment over cross-sectional growth and also optimizes fiber splitting and the conversion of intermediate fiber to white fiber, the “Holy Grail” of power training.

Recruitment Velocity

Recruitment velocity is the rate at which a muscle fiber can achieve maximum tension, varying from 20 milliseconds for white fiber to 65 milliseconds for red fiber. Recruitment rates vary since red fiber gets a “head start” in voluntary contractions as white fiber is only added in as needed once the load has been determined.

EMS reverses the natural recruitment order, as its nonspecific current flows more easily through the bigger neuron of the white fiber (less resistance) forcing red and intermediate fibers to shorten their recruitment rates in response to white fiber recruitment, which now precedes rather than follows in the contraction.

The reversed recruitment order combined with the positive effects of high intensity make EMS ideal for improving recruitment velocity across all fiber types, a key factor in explosive events.

Long-Term Planning

Strength is the foundation for sport-specific tasks, therefore it must be established early, in both general and specific terms. Generally, strength improvement needs are very high in the early stages of a career and diminish through the years until the athlete fulfills his strength requirements and merely must maintain them (keep in mind that this point applies to non-strength training athletes).

EMS should be used for strength development as soon as fitness fundamentals are in place, with a diminishing role in routine strength enhancement as the career advances. A quadrennial plan for a top sprinter might include EMS strength building twice per year during years one and two, reducing to once during year three and only if needed in year four.

Incorporating EMS into the Training Plan

EMS strength training should coincide with maximal strength weight lifting. The two modalities are synergistic, though the introduction of EMS must be phased in to allow a smooth progression of the workload. Modern sprint training uses a triple-periodized annual plan, with three maximum strength phases, though only the first two include EMS. The third maximum strength phase is shorter, with a more moderate strength improvement goal.

When adding EMS to a program, expect your peak performance up to two weeks later than before, as you’re now tapering from a much higher workload.

Selection of Muscle Groups

Maximum strength EMS is applied to the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and the erector spinae. These muscle groups play the main role in power development around the hip joint, where, at maximum speed, the power output is seven times higher than around any other joint. The abs play a major role also, and they can be treated as well, but their rotational movement and primary support, rather than power role, favor traditional high rep training. The soles of the feet can even be treated in cases of insufficient foot strength.

Preparation for Sessions

EMS works best as the last training element of the day, separated from other work by at least two hours. This is usually done at night before bed, as it can be done at home and the supra-maximal stimulus it provides is excellent for promoting the release of growth hormone during sleep.

Use a hot shower as warm up preparation, being careful to remove any oils or creams from the areas to be treated to ensure proper conductivity (oils left on the skin can cause the current to jump around the skin surface causing considerable discomfort). The increased blood flow in the muscles after the shower heats the muscle motor neurons, lowers electrical resistance, and makes them more receptive to EMS.

Start the EMS session with a gentle pulsing mode for three to five minutes to complete the warm-up before starting the maximal contractions. Warm down using the same pulsing method.

Electronic Muscle Stimulation for Bodybuilders

Bodybuilders could also use EMS to help them break through a barrier. For example, if a competitor’s upper body is weak as compared to his legs, they could use EMS to maintain their legs for a few weeks while focusing on upper body training. Basically, allowing all their body’s recovery mechanisms and central nervous system to focus on the upper body. You wouldn’t lose any size in legs and may even see some improvement in density during this time of upper body specialization.

EMS for “Burning Off” Fat

Here’s another trick that may help competitive bodybuilders. EMS can be used to temporarily “burn off” a layer of fat in small areas. What happens is that about two millimeters of subcutaneous fat is mobilized in the area directly under the pads. You can compare this to the effect seen when shooting growth hormone, i.e., there’s local mobilization of the fat at the point of injection.

Now, since that layer of fat is a protective mechanism, this isn’t permanent. In fact, the effect doesn’t last long at all. Once the area under the pad starts to cool, the fat starts storing again. So if you’re already very lean and are competing in a bodybuilding show, you’d have to use the machine (possibly even backstage) and then cover up and keep warm until you hit the stage.

Injury Recovery with EMS

Low intensity exercise has a positive effect not only on recovery from high intensity work but on the high intensity work itself. While high intensity exercise is anti- circulatory as it pumps up the muscles (restricting blood flow), low intensity exercise promotes circulation, which aids in nutrient transfer and hastens recovery.

Exercise of a low enough intensity will not lead to detrimental fiber type changes. In fact, the enhanced capillary density it creates leads to precisely the opposite effect! The enhanced capillary density raises the temperature around the motor neurons, lowering electrical resistance, allowing more fiber to take on the characteristics of fast-twitch fiber in response to high intensity work.

EMS for Rehabilitation

EMS can play a role in the rehab of a variety of injuries and is used extensively in clinics to treat the VMO (vastus medialis oblique) with knee cases. But its value in the rehab of hamstring injuries is poorly understood and under appreciated.

The selection of isokenetic machines over EMS contributes to a lengthening of injury downtime as the fluid resistance on which these machines rely hits the muscle all at once, causing muscle shortening and irritation. Often, effective treatment including EMS can have the athlete back in action within ten days.


We are merely scratching the surface on the benefits of incorporating EMS training into your elite training regime. With our portable EMS technology, you can train or rehabilitate whenever and wherever you need to. You view some recent clinical studies conducted on athletes for more information about what EMS can do for you and your training goals.