Will Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) Be the Next Big Fitness Trend?

When I first heard about Shock Therapy Fitness, a fitness class that zaps you with electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) waves during the workout, I was a bit skeptical and apprehensive. I mean, how could it be fun to get zapped for a whole class and can these EMS waves really tone your body? There are crazier approaches to health and fitness that I’ve encountered, however, the low impact exercise promises you a good workout, safely and effectively.

The idea is that the electronic impulses that are sent through the body are supposed to elicit muscle contractions. In fact, the EMS concept isn’t new. Remember those 90’s era electronic ab belts? Now it’s gaining popularity with athletes and average gym-goers alike. Founded by Esra Cavusoglu PhD., an internationally respected psychologist and addiction counselor from Istanbul, Turkey, she swears by EMS and says it’s the training of the future. Cavusoglu discovered EMS while living in Turkey and before opening up the NYC studio, she said she did further research to learn more about the science behind EMS.

“As someone who likes to work out doing everything from boxing to pilates, I felt most workouts would cause me to bulk up,” explains Cavusoglu. She adds, “It wasn’t until I starting attending a small EMS studio doing sessions for 15 to 20 minutes that I noticed a difference in my body and got the results I wanted in as little as two months.”

As someone who is pretty familiar with the NYC fitness scene and trends, EMS training was not something I was familiar with. I’m normally not one to shy away from new fitness trends, so I signed up for a 30-minute strength class (Note: this class is recommended for newcomers because it’s the authentic way to do EMS. But they offer a Metabolism class which consists of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) as well).

Upon entering the studio, I noticed it was small, yet cozy and futuristic looking. A friendly staff member gave me a brief overview of the workout and handed me a long black sleeve shirt and tights that I was told I had to change into. Once I changed into the garments, I met the instructor and a staff member who strapped me into the suit I would need to get the full-blown Shock Therapy experience. Each of these suits are sprayed down with water beforehand so it feels cold and wet once you have it on. Funny enough, I felt like I looked like Lara Croft with my newly strapped-on attire.

The class takes place in a dark room with the exception of a brightly lit projection screen on the wall and a red neon sign that reads “#GetShocked.” Because of how time consuming adjusting everyone’s gear can be, there are only a maximum of six students allowed in a class. Before class begins, the instructor places what resembles a wireless power charger into everyone’s suit and adjusts the level of zapping you feel during the class. Luckily this is the part that you have control over and can decide how powerful you want the zapping to be during the workout. Some students warned me that I would feel sore for days, so I played it safe and had my zapping set on the low end. I was planning on running a 5k that weekend therefore I didn’t want to risk feeling too sore, especially with a new workout.

Initially the electrical vibrations feel more like a massage than a zap, but the more you increase the level of intensity, the deeper you feel the vibrations penetrating into your body. Cavusoglu says the strength class is intended to be done using your own bodyweight (although you have the option to include dumbbells) because you resist the vibrations running through the targeted body parts. In other words, when you’re squatting or bicep curling, the suit activates the muscle groups you’re using and the signals force them to contract.

“During an EMS workout your body is experiencing over 30,000 contractions,” Cavusoglu explains, adding, “that’s 350 contractions in one microsecond, making it super powerful.” After doing some basic squat exercises, lunges, push ups, and standing ab crunches I felt comfortable enough to take my zaps up a notch. But one mistake I made was locking out my arms a few times throughout the class—which thanks to the electric waves causes them to get stuck in place. It sounds and feels scary at first, but the waves pause for about 10 seconds allowing you to unlock your arms. Despite the challenge, it didn’t feel like the hardest class I’ve taken and I appreciated the low-intensity. The post-workout soreness, however, was a different story (More on that later).

Cavusoglu states that the beauty of Shock Therapy is that anyone can do it (as long as their health is in good standing). “We’ve had fitness enthusiasts, to those with little fitness background, and athletes who love EMS,” she says, adding that the system can humble even the most experienced and fit individual. Those who should avoid it or receive medical clearance first are pregnant women, those with cardiac issues, kidney disorders, and Diabetes, to name a few.

There have even been studies that show the positive effects of EMS, such as a group of  athletes who improved their sprinting performance in a matter of 10 sessions and got stronger and faster in a matter of weeks. In fact, Cavusoglu says she’s seen many success stories from students who attend her studio, including one man who in a matter of three months saw drastic changes in his body (ie. his body fat percentage went down, he lost inches off his body, and lost weight). She also met an athlete who came in with some imbalances caused by an injury which improved thanks to EMS.

“The ideal person who will enjoy EMS workouts are clients who are trying to get fit in a short amount of time and athletes who want to perform better,” she says. “what’s great about Shock Therapy is that it is complementary to other workouts and not intended to replace them.”

So how many times a week would a person need to take an EMS-based class in order to see results? “Once a week is more than enough because of the number of contractions you experience in that half hour,” says Cavusoglu. In fact, she says studies have shown the long term effects of an EMS workout.

“It’s been found that EMS keeps burning calories post-workout. It’s therapeutic for those who have lower back pain, and helps strengthen your pelvic floor muscles if you suffer from incontinence” she explains. If you’re an athlete, EMS has been shown to improve your performance skills and makes you faster and stronger. Cavusoglu claims that this is because EMS activates both your fast and slow-twitch muscle fibers. Fast-twitch muscles are the ones you use when you sprint or do any movement that requires an explosive burst of energy. They fatigue faster than slow-twitch muscles which sustain more endurance, but they’re the muscles you want activated if your goal is to burn more fat.

To further prove the positive effects of EMS, Cavusoglu is currently working with a focus group of clients who volunteered to help her with her research. “We took measurements using the InBody test, took their measurements, and conducted a strength test in which we tested how strong they were holding planks and more,” explains Cavusoglu. As someone well-versed in EMS, she says she does all of her workouts—no matter what they may be—with her EMS suit on. Not surprisingly, she’s also picky with instructors she selects to teach in her studio. She says,“Our instructors go through a rigorous training, and we do our best to make sure they master the equipment before we give them their own classes”. Ultimately her goal is to find a way for EMS to be accessible and affordable to the public. Currently she is focusing on creating new classes for the Shock Therapy schedule. “I’m working on developing a challenge class which is intended to be a fusion class of boxing, Pilates, and other exercises while wearing the EMS gear.”   

If you’re looking for a unique challenge, and don’t mind the idea of getting zapped throughout your workout, then give Shock Therapy Fitness a shot. I will forewarn you that the delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is very real. The soreness sneaks up on you and hones in on isolated body parts (hello left glute!). Therefore you’ll want to prepare to be out of commission for a few days. But look on the bright side, it also makes the perfect opportunity to book that massage you’ve been putting off.

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