Electric Muscle Stimulation (EMS)

Since I first started posting about Electric Muscle Stimulation (EMS) a few years ago, I have received numerous request for information on how to best apply it for performance. Athletes and coaches have regularly emailed me, asked on the Power Athlete Forums and on our program feeds wanting to know how to use it in training to increase performance or help train through an injury. I figured it is time to discuss it in a more public way on Talk To Me Johnnie. While, I don’t consider myself an expert in the practice of EMS, I do know a great deal about it from my own personal experience, 16 years of research and talking to global experts on the subject.

It started back in 1999 when my first year in the NFL came to a grinding halt. I suffered a full rupture of my left patellar tendon and retinaculum in the first regular season game of the 1999 season. The orthopedic on site told me my career was finished and I would never gain control of my quad at a level to play professional football. I have never put much stock in doctor’s opinions but I knew I had my work cut out for me if I was going to prove him wrong.

I decided for the remainder of the season I was going to attack my rehab with the fury of 1,000 suns. But after rehabbing for 4 months, 7 days a week for 6 hours a day, I saw little to no progress. Out of desperation, I reached out a coach who recommended I look up Charlie Francis and EMS.

After some investigative work, I located an archaic EMS unit and started incorporating it into my rehab. In short order, I got stronger. The injury had robbed my body of the ability to fire my quad, and the EMS stole it back. I could see an immediate difference after the first session and I was sold. After about 3 weeks of consistent use, my quad gained size and thickness at rate to where I started using it on my other leg out of fear it might eclipse the good leg. Then being the obsessive individual I am, I started using it on my shoulders, biceps and triceps. After 3 months of EMS training, my strength in the weight room returned to where it was and I was on the road to regaining my starting role for the Eagles.

EMS proved to be the missing link in my rehab and in my training. I’m fortunate the coach I reached out recommended EMS and turned me onto Charlie Francis who ultimately became a huge influence on my training beyond just EMS.

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My only regret, I wish I had access to more advanced EMS technologies like the ones companies like Powerdot are producing during the remainder of my career. The archaic unit I used all those years ago had limited frequencies, which limited the effective period of usage to about 14 weeks, as per Charlie Francis. The technology being utilized today is able to extend the effective training window past 14 weeks to almost endless times through the use cycling of programs and cycling volume and intensity.

If you guys are regular readers of TTMJ, you know the rest of the story, I returned to start the first pre-season game and the season opener the next year. Without getting a jump-start from EMS and direction from Charlie Francis there is a good chance you might not be reading this.

How does EMS work?

Your body activates a muscle by sending an electrical impulse from the brain via the central nervous system (CNS) to a muscle; this results in a muscle contraction. EMS, and units like Powerdot, work by “jumping the circuit” and pushing an electric current directly into the muscle, thus circumventing the CNS. This results in a maximal muscular contraction of the muscle with no load placed on the CNS, joints or connective tissues. Basically, everywhere the pads are placed results in 100% full recruitment of motor units.

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As Charlie Francis states, “EMS is the single most intense strength building method and has the briefest improvement period of all training modalities.”

Simply, EMS stimulates motor neurons in the area being treated. By driving current at various frequencies, we can fire certain muscle fibers. These are known as uncoordinated contractions. In contrast, a coordinated contraction is one where the muscle is fired to complete a particular task. For example, think of an athlete using their biceps to curl a weight. The biceps concentrically contracts to bend the elbow, and the dumbbell moves to the shoulder.

EMS has a long history. One that finds its roots in the former Communist Bloc as early as the 1950s. The first recorded information on EMS comes in 1973 when Dr. Y. Kots of the Central Institute of Physical Culture in the former USSR presented a paper on EMS at Concordia University in Montreal. He presented his research on EMS as a form of strength enhancement that exceeded traditional training methods.

In his research, Dr. Kots using a unit designed to measure tensile strength demonstrates the muscle tension produced in a maximal EMS contraction can be up to 30% greater than a maximal voluntary contraction.

How can this be?

Muscles fire in patterns starting with slow twitch fibers first, then fast twitch fibers. Slow twitch fibers have endurance but lack power; fast twitch fibers generate great power but only for a brief period of time. Because of this pattern firing it is impossible to fire all fibers during a voluntarily contraction. The order of recruitment makes it likely fibers will be held in reserve. That means during a contraction your body will always hold a deficit fast twitch fibers.

But how many?

That depends on the athlete, their training and genetics (how many fibers they have available to them to begin with). Not every person is born with the same amount of motor units. Some people are born with more fast twitch fibers and some are born with more slow twitch fibers. Your ability to access and use them depends on how you have trained, your CNS and how they are cultivated over a lifetime of physical exercise.

Think about when attempting a max effort squat or jump, how many motor units are you recruiting to accomplish this task?

Everyone wants to believe 100%, but an athlete has no practical way of knowing how many motor units they are recruiting during a max attempt. They only know whether or not they were successful. Factors like injury, muscle imbalances or neural inhibition would be just a few of the things preventing them from maximizing their potential.

In contrast, an athlete using a Powerdot unit can get full maximum recruitment of a muscle during a session. This can work to awaken dormant motor units and help to recruit muscle fibers that might not have been available before applying EMS.

Research has demonstrated the body cannot make a distinction between a voluntary contraction and the one created by EMS.

Simply, the body only knows a maximal contraction of the muscle is happening. Not how or why it is happening.

Expanding on Charlie Francis’ statement from earlier, “EMS is the single most intense strength building method and has the briefest improvement period of all training modalities…High intensity training elements must compete for central nervous system energy. A novice sprinter can’t tax the CNS significantly no matter how hard he tries, but as he improves, the CNS demand rises exponentially, even if the volume of sprinting remains constant. As a result, EMS should be used for strength development as soon as fitness fundamentals are in place.”

The value in units like Powerdot are the various frequencies and programs they provide. By utilizing the programs, unique pad placements and user driven intensities, we can create optimal contractions to target specific muscles fibers all while not placing the body under load.

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With some planning, an athlete can pre-select the muscle fibers he wants to train with 100% recruitment without stressing the body or CNS. Remember, EMS creates a much more powerful contraction than what an athlete can do voluntarily. For an athlete dealing with injuries or those healthy athletes wanting to increase proficiency while not in the gym EMS becomes an indispensable form of training.

Selection of Muscle Groups

How to know what muscles to train?

EMS is applied to the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and the erectors during primarily lower body days. These muscle groups play a pivotal role in lower body power production. The shoulders, biceps, triceps, rear deltoids, forearms and pectorals can be trained for the upper body. Many times the pectorals are avoided as complications can arise from using electrical current over the heart if you are using a pacemaker or have other coronary problems. User should take caution.

josh-bridges-power-dot-power-athleteHow To Incorporate It In To Training

I approach my EMS similar to how I program barbell movements and accessory work for my athletes. In the program, I prioritize what is needed most and train body parts that support the primary movements. I take into account frequency, volume and intensity when designing EMS protocols.

For example, if an athlete squats and pulls during a training session, I prescribe EMS be applied later in the day, maybe 4-8 hours after training. However, if an athlete has a time constraint and can only do EMS training immediately post workout, then you gotta do what you gotta do. While it’s not the most advantageous time to use EMS, it is better to do it here than not do it at all.

I hit the primary movers such as quads and hamstrings followed by erectors. I always train opposing muscles and do each session bilaterally. This means if I train a quad, I train a hamstring, and also train both right and left quads at the same time. This is done to balance the contractions. I want you to focus not on the number on the screen but the quality of contractions. This should always be at forefront. The number is just for keeping score. I want you to record starting and finishing numbers each session as a way to measure performance. Remember, the more intensity used, the greater the contraction.

I train each muscle group 2-3 times a week. If an athletes has lagging or injured body parts, I shoot for 3-5 times a week depending on their level of exposure and their competition schedule.

For young, healthy athletes, the 4-8 hours post training window is most effective if done after a brief warm up or hot shower. Through trial and error, I found the muscle contractions were more intense and the quality of work was much higher when the tissues were warm.

For older athletes with more miles under their “belt” or with overuse injuries, I use the EMS pre workout to awaken dormant motor units or what I call, “priming the pump”. I found these athletes performed better and were able to do things in training they were not able to do before using EMS.

Back in 2000, the unit I used had limited frequencies and therefore I believe the 14-week affective window Charlie Francis referenced about was due to accommodation. Accommodation is the decreased response a biological object has to a given constant stimulus. By utilizing and cycling through the various programs an athlete can avoid accommodation and keep progressing.

Remember, EMS results in an uncoordinated contraction. This means all the motor units are firing. What empowers an athlete to perform is a coordinated contraction where the body is working to accomplish a task. Therefore, EMS alone will not improve performance. However, when EMS is coupled with an intelligent strength and conditioning program, like Field Strong, the results are nothing short of amazing. By making more motor units available during training, we can maximize performance and increase the quality of the work done during each training session.

Lastly, the secret to EMS and what nobody speaks about and surely never tells you have to push intensity no matter what program you are using. When you attach the pads and fire up the unit, you will have to increase intensity to get the muscle to contract. After the first cycle, you will hit a rest period and during the next set you have to push up the intensity to the point of being painful. If you don’t have a thin bead of sweat on your upper lip, you are not pushing the intensity high enough.

Matt Vincent, the Drita Lifta, made the observation, “It should feel like your muscles are giving birth.”

To reap the benefits of EMS, you have to push intensity each and every set. And when the next time that muscle group is trained, you must push the envelope and beat that number. By pushing intensity, we can start to push the boundaries of what is possible.

Training With Injuries

How many of you are struggling with tendonitis, beat up joints, arthritis or other injuries that make heavy loading impossible?

EMS is a game changer as you can apply various strength protocols to your quads, hamstrings, glutes and erectors to keep your muscles strong and firing while resting from injuries. This allows the body to stay strong while not beating yourself up under load.

Because EMS is used bilaterally, it can help balance muscle contractions.

For example, if you hook up both quads to EMS and start the protocol, many times you will see the degree of intensity will differ with similar contractions bilaterally. This means the contraction will be the same right to left but the number on the screen will be different. The quad that requires more intensity to result in the same contraction is out of balance. By balancing the contractions and constantly pushing the intensity, the EMS units can bring the muscles into balance and help athletes avoid costly injuries during competition and training.

EMS is a simple tool that can be added to any program to increase performance. At Power Athlete, we have been using EMS, and units like Powerdot, for over two years with our athletes. I ran one of the largest training programs using EMS daily with my Field Strong program.

If you have questions about how to incorporate EMS into your training hit me up or look for one of the Powerdot programs launching shortly. If you’re looking to get your hands on a Powerdot, take advantage of the offer below and start unlocking your potential.
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John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and creator of Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year starter in the National Football League and NFL veteran. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early and retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL and other professional and Olympic athletes. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete and the CrossFit Speciality Seminar: Sports Specific Application. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie or at Power Athlete.
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Posted in Blog, Featured | Tagged , , , , , , | 16 Comments

16 Responses to Electric Muscle Stimulation (EMS)

  1. @john, at the end of the article you talked about programs with the PowerDot, will you be incorporating that with all the programs on train heroic or only Field Strong? Thanks

  2. @john
    Great article. I remember having an email back and forth about old “Russian Stim” settings and antiquated involvement in training when Compex first appeared. The unit arrived and shit got real. My athletes coming back from injuries, my off season workers and myself have all benefited from this tech (thanks again for the program request after my surgery). I mirror the question above, for the days of Compex programming in FS have been long gone, and want to know if there will be use during training as well?

    • In the mission statement of Power Athlete I talk about being cutting edge and adhering to the best training practices. Powerdot takes EMS to whole new level with a streamlined iphone/android control unit, sleek quality pads, custom PAHQ programs designed by me and a much better price point. The best product on the market today.

  3. I have the PowerDot Duo as well.

  4. Duke

    @john,
    It’s strange that as I started looking for more info on this, you post. I just had knee surgery and am now in a brace for the next six weeks. Do you think that this would be an effective means of keeping my leg muscles active and healthy?

  5. @john I see the confusion in my question and agree that the PowerDot is the superior device and platform. Will there be PowerDot in the FS programming? Will there be/is there prudence in using EMS via PowerDot during the workout. Remembering an ARP Wave and Archuleta discussion.

  6. Luigi

    Hey john i want to know how do you work with imbalances and that kind of problem, i know the compex does like a scan… im just curious because i want a power dot

  7. Great article! I have included it into my weekly article recommendation http://christianbosse.com/article-recommendations-week-40-2016/
    I like the way you mixed personal experience with recommendations.
    Keep up the great work!

  8. Luke

    @john – I read somewhere that you need to crank your EMS up as high as you can handle to get the best results. Is this true? I often find I get a little sting from my Powerdot that causes more discomfort than the contraction itself, but sometimes I can avoid this by re positioning the pads. Is there something I should/shouldn’t be doing or is this normal?

    • Did you read it in the post you are commenting on? B/c I just said that you have to turn up the intensity as high as possible. The wave on the PowerDot can be a “bitey” at first. The engineers have this feedback and have been working to refine it. Cool thing is the hardware is set and we can add/sub and make tweaks to software via the app. Next level stuff.

  9. Sam B

    Hi John. Do you have to mindfully contract the muscles to get the best results? Could that lead to more recruitment? Thanks for the help

  10. @john, I thought I posted this a while ago, but it didn’t seem to go through. In the article you mention if you are an older athlete, it could be beneficial to use the system to fire the muscles pre-workout. If I give this a try pre-workout, do you recommend doing it 4-6 hours later as well, or is that too much use?

  11. Stacey Cantrell

    There is lots of growth in EMS device’s technology. Now a days athletes are using it for improving their physical training and to recover from physical injuries.

  12. Lesly

    Which frequencies can I use with this EMS?

  13. @john if you are an older athlete and use it before lifts like a squat do you go quads only or quads, hamstring, and erector? And what if I want to use it to wake up the upper body primals as well?

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