We tried EMS training: The 20-minute workout that’s equivalent to 90 minutes at the gym

Now To Love’s health editor Anya Truong-George hooks herself up to an electro muscle stimulation machine to find out if it really does what it claims.

By Anya Truong-George
When I was first asked whether I'd be keen to try a few sessions of EMS training, short for Electro Muscle Stimulation, my first question was, 'what is it?'
Safe to say, when I heard that it's essentially a 20-minute workout that's equivalent to up to 90 minutes of a conventional gym workout, I was all ears. As someone who has a gym membership card that was collecting dust, I was definitely after something a little novel to pique my interest and motivation.

What is Electro Muscle Stimulation?

Electro-muscle stimulation (EMS) is the use of low-frequency electrical impulses which mimics what your brain would usually do to contract your muscles, but at a higher rate – making it more effective.
It's been used for decades in physiotherapy practices to help with muscle recovery and has since grown in popularity in Europe as an alternative full-body workout with professional athletes such as Usain Bolt and Roger Federer known to be fans. The drawcard for the 'normal' person, however, is that you can supposedly work out for the same results within a shorter amount of time (you can apparently begin to see and feel results within at least four weeks). Sounds like a win-win to me!

What’s the process like?

For my first session, I head to the fu/nis studio in central Auckland. While sessions are usually twenty minutes long (plus 10 minutes to get changed into the gear – more on that later), my first session will be an hour, to fit in a half-hour consultation ahead of the workout.
I'm nervous heading into the studio, I honestly have no idea what to expect, but my nerves are put at ease after talking to my personal trainer Denita and the owner of fu/nis Catrina, who both assure me it's completely safe and most importantly, won't hurt!
Surprisingly, getting changed into the gear was the weirdest part of the process. You have to take everything off, and I mean everything (in the comfort of your own changing room, of course), and slip into disposable underwear and their specifically designed activewear. Next, I get fitted into the special EMS gear which houses the electrodes inside. These included a vest, glutes pads and bands around my thighs and biceps. These are sprayed with water beforehand to help with conductivity which feels strange at first, but once you're working out, you hardly notice.
And then we're ready to go, I head to one of the yoga mats, which is set up in front of the EMS machine, Denita plugs me in and then counts me down for my first taste of an EMS workout.
A close-up of some of the EMS gear you wear for the session.

What does it feel like?

Very strange! I'd describe it as feeling like all your muscles are vibrating very quickly. Denita starts me off on one of the lowest levels, which essentially feels like I'm in one of those vibrating massage chairs.
Little by little she turns the dials up and I can definitely begin to feel my muscles contract, making movement feel more and more restricted.
Week One:
For my first workout, Denita takes me through simple movements like lunges and squats while the pulses make movements that would usually feel simple, so much harder - you can absolutely feel the burn!
The whole time she checks in with me and asks me how it feels and whether it's too easy or too hard, adjusting the intensity of my different muscle groups according to how I respond.
I definitely feel a little ridiculous struggling to do the movements and sweating doing it - to those not-in-the-know, they'd probably be scratching their heads at why my arm curl with no dumbbell was an effort - safe to say there were plenty of laughs. It is, however, a good indicator that I got a really great workout, particularly when my arms feel a bit like jelly afterwards.
It was the following day that it really hit me though. I could feel the aftermath of my work out across my entire body and sitting down was a huge struggle. It was hell for a few days there (four to be exact) – but in the best way, I was keen to head back!
Week Two:
Heading back to the fu/nis studio for my second session I'm keen to push myself a little harder this time, particularly now that I know it doesn't hurt. The work out was similar to my first, but we add a bit more twisting and slightly more complicated movements, we also turn up the levels of the EMS machine for some added intensity. I found that because the movements are slow and there's so much resistance against your muscles you're forced to really pay attention to your form and controlling your movements – I'm no PT, but I'm sure that's a good thing.
The aftermath after this week's session was similar to my first week, but instead of hurting for three days, I probably hurt for 'just' three.
My personal trainer Denita put me through a range of movements - lunges, curls, squats, the works! And man did I feel the burn.
Week Three:
Along with many of the movements I'd done in my previous workouts, mimicking kettlebells swings (without the kettlebells) and dumb-bell curls (without the dumbbells), for my third session we also spiced things up a bit with some floor exercises, which were, in one word: killer.
I knew I was going to feel this one the next day, and trust me, I did! After just my third session I'm really loving it. I'm feeling good, stronger and I've noticed I seem to have lost a bit of the weight I've been carrying around my stomach. It's got me considering signing myself up for a six-month membership…
Week Four:
This week I bring along a workmate who is a self-confessed gym addict. She's keen to give it a go and see what the fuss is about, and I'm keen to see how the workout affects someone who works out regularly – would they see or feel as sore as I did?
The answer? She definitely did.
She wasn't the biggest fan of the buzzing sensation – it was a bit of a love/hate experience for her as we went through the session, but the next day she texted me saying she was sore in places she'd never been sore before and… she was keen to give it another go, proving that whether you're incredibly fit and active or not, EMS can be beneficial either way.

Are there any risks?

While being hooked up to electrodes which contract your muscles sounds like it could be risky, you'll be relieved to know it's perfectly safe. It may, however, not be suitable for people who are pregnant, have medical implants or severe neurological disorders. If you're unsure, all of this will be covered in your first trial session consultation.
It is also recommended not to have more than two EMS sessions a week.
By week four, I'm pretty much hooked. I'm starting to already see results (from just 20 minutes a week!) and am already feeling stronger.

Any surprises?

I was definitely a little sceptical heading into my first session, I mean it all sounds a bit too good to be true, but after feeling how the workout affected me afterwards i.e. sore – but that good sore – it wasn't hard to convince me that EMS really can make a big difference, particularly once I got the opinion of someone who actively goes to the gym.

The verdict

Well, I've signed myself up for a six-month membership, so if that isn't a clear indication of my verdict I don't know what is.
In just a handful of 20-minute sessions in just a few short weeks, I've already begun to see changes in my body, and that's just doing EMS alone plus, having a personal trainer there definitely helped me push myself and stay motivated – something I'm terrible at if I'm by myself.
Whether you're a regular gym-goer or exerciser and want an extra boost to your workout regime, or you're a busy bee who is short on time, EMS has something to offer for everyone.
If you're keen to give it a go for yourself and see what the hype is all about, make your way down to fu/nis studio, you may just see me there too.
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