By Stephenie Karony

Friday, April 6, 2001

EMS can’t replace an
active lifestyle

Question: Do you believe electrical muscle stimulation builds muscle?

Answer: There is some evidence that EMS works slightly, but only as a rehabilitation technique and only when high-quality machines are used. EMS may strengthen muscles to a point, but will not help an individual lose weight or body fat or change girth measurements.

EMS has been used for many years as a physical therapy tool. Its function is to stimulate, and thus help rehabilitate, immobilized muscle following an injury or surgery. EMS also helps individuals living in confined environments, such as in bed or in a wheelchair. However, to date, there is no evidence that it helps healthy people achieve fitness.

Lately EMS has been marketed as a "get fit quick" training technique that requires no effort on the part of the participant. Manufacturers claim their products will build tight glutes, develop rock-hard abs and firm up flabby thighs, all while you watch TV or work at your computer.

What could be more appealing than result without any effort? Yeah, right!

There is no controlled study that supports this claim. In fact, the studies have all found these machines cause no significant changes in weight, body-fat percentage, strength or overall appearance. Researchers have concluded EMS is ineffective for healthy individuals.

Here's how EMS works. EMS machines stimulate (shock) specific muscles by directing electrical impulses into the body via wires and rubber pads. It is painful, and applying the electrodes is difficult and time consuming. To reach the measure of current that's needed to activate muscle tissue the machines have to be cranked up to a level beyond what most people can tolerate.

EMS has no practical significance, and provides very few health benefits compared to regular aerobic exercise and resistance training programs. Nothing can take the place of an energetic lifestyle, where an individual does something active with his or her body every day.

Q: Will I build muscle doing aerobic exercise?

A: The only really effective way to build muscle is to strength train. Not only will you have to lift weights, they must be heavy enough to overload, and thus fatigue, the muscle.

Aerobic exercise is not physiologically the same as strength training, and the body adapts to aerobic exercise differently. Your muscles are definitely working when you do aerobic exercise (especially your large leg muscles), but because you're not working against a heavy resistance, hypertrophy (muscle building) won't occur. During aerobic exercise, the muscle contracts many times against little or no resistance, but this process will not add muscle to your frame.

The primary reason for aerobic exercise is to develop and maintain a healthy cardiopulmonary (heart and lung) system and reduce risk for heart disease.

Aerobic activities have greater fat burning potential than strength training. They ensure a healthier body weight, which also reduces risk of heart disease.

Aerobic exercise and strength training are both necessary for a truly fit, healthy body.

Stephenie Karony is a certified health and fitness instructor,
a personal trainer and author of "Body Shaping With Free Weights.''
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