I like to consider myself reasonably fit. I do two hours of footy training twice a week and play on weekends, go for regular walks, and depending on how I’m feeling physically, I try to get a run in every so often. Despite all this, I tend to find I get pretty busy and my weeks are rarely the same. So when I found out a friend was doing a 20-minute EMS workout once a week, my interest was piqued.
EMS stands for Electro Muscular Stimulation. So the nuts and bolts of an ‘EMS workout’ is that you’re working out while having your muscles buzzed by electricity. The EMS pads pulse for a few seconds, working to target around 1.5cm into your muscles while you tense and go through pretty simple movements. It claims that a 20-minute session is the equivalent of four hours at a normal gym, which sounds insane.
And yes, it feels weird as hell.
I quizzed my mate about the sessions, and she put me onto the 20V Studio in Prahran — the gym that she frequents. I wanted to give it a red hot go, so the team signed me up for their 2021 winter eight-week challenge to see what happened.
EMS Workout: Week One
The first session was daunting. I had a vague idea of what to expect, but that didn’t stop me from waking up early and immediately feeling nervous.
My trainer Liz kitted me up in the workout gear, which included being totally nude under the top and shorts (felt wrong), but the EMS vest compresses everything in so it’s not all tits akimbo. Alongside the vest, I had to wear straps around my thighs and biceps, and a big belt under my bum — all to target those important muscle groups.
All the electrolysis pads are wet down so there’s minimal chance of getting hurt on a surface level, and making sure all the work is happening at a deeper level of the muscles.
From there, I was hooked up to the machine, which could be altered to target some areas more than others depending on what movements were being done. Liz got me to brace and tense my own muscles as she slowly introduced the electro pulses into each section of my body. It’s like this strange, deep vibration that feels tingly and odd at first, but you quickly get used to it.
The pulses last for four seconds, with another four seconds rest between pulses, so you’re able to reset and tense again. Liz took me through a range of movements that got me engaging my various muscles as the electro pulses kick in, which is so important to do because trying to switch on your muscles while they’re being buzzed is damn near impossible, and makes the workout much harder.
After that first workout, I felt much more alert and awake, and my muscles felt like I’d worked them from the inside out. My thighs, my God. They felt like I’ve just done the 1000 Steps Track out in the Dandenongs. Walking out I felt like I’d finished a big recovery workout after footy training on Tuesday night — like I’d worked myself hard, but not so much that I wanted to die immediately.
Trying to run around for two hours at footy training on Thursday night was hellish — my chest was burning, my legs felt like two stacks of cinderblocks and wet cement. It was hard.
I felt much more mentally prepared this time around, now that I knew what I was stepping into. I opted for an after-work session which felt like a different ball game entirely — getting buzzed by electricity while mentally fatigued from a big day at work felt more of a challenge for my mind, body and spirit.
The evening crew worked me hard, and at times my triceps were shaking from the EMS workout, exactly like they would if I was pushing myself with weights.
Despite that, I felt much more capable and able to do the whole workout without wanting to die. My regular footy training on Thursday night was different too — I felt like my legs had more power, I was able to take it up a gear with quick sprints and generally just felt more able to move.
Back on a morning session for my third week, I felt ready to take it head-on. Just make my muscles go brrr, I beg of you.
Something that I realised this week was that the EMS training takes movements and poses that I would consider as rest or recovery in other workouts and turns them into punishing pulses.
Eternal yoga fave, the child’s pose? That’s a couple of rounds of gruelling vibes targeting directly into your abs. Lying on your back and bringing your knees to your chest? Get ready for your glutes to be worked as you’ve never felt before.
This was the week I started making noises like the gym bros who want everyone within earshot to know they’re really pumping iron. What was this EMS workout doing to me?
A forced week off due to lockdowns was pretty noticeable both physically and mentally when I could finally get myself up and going for my fourth session. I’d lost a bit of my routine and making it out of the house earlier was a bit of a struggle. But once I was at the studio and all strapped in, the momentum returned quickly and I ended up pushing it to a slightly higher level than I’d done before.
It had been just long enough that I’d forgotten how punishing the floor work was, and how much it lights up my back muscles (AKA ones I apparently don’t work out as much) but I felt bloody alive again, I tell ya what.
This week I opted for more of an upper-body workout, which meant we were incorporating resistance bands and pilates rings to give my arms and shoulders some attention for a change. And yep, there was a noticeable difference in how the machine worked me. It meant that there wasn’t any floor work this week (my back thanked me for that) BUT it meant that my chest and arms felt like semi-set jelly afterwards.
I’ve also noticed that I’m usually bloody hungry and thirsty during the day after my EMS training. I’m told this is because I’m essentially putting myself into the same calorie deficit as I would be if I’d spent a good couple of hours at the gym.
One of the trainers early on in the challenge told me to make sure I’m keeping hydrated and having a good amount of food during the day after my sessions, which sometimes means having a couple of extra snacks during the day so I don’t crash out at 3pm. Who am I to say no to more snacks?
By week six, it was like I hadn’t had a break at all, and I felt like I could really push myself. I found I was asking for my pulses to be turned up a little higher, I could take on the challenge of being buzzed a bit more than usual. Sure, it was hard work but I didn’t feel like I was about to fall into a puddle of goo on the floor anymore.
My little weekly session definitely felt like it was having good knock-on effects with everything I did outside of that 20 minutes hooked up to the machine. Kicking literal goals at footy finals, working up to run my first 10km ever, sleeping well and generally feeling pretty fucking good.
And then, it happened. Victoria’s big 2021 lockdown. No more footy, no more making my silly little muscles go brrrr once a week.
The Final Two Weeks
Look, this was meant to be an eight-week challenge, but was rudely interrupted by the extended lockdowns. But the six weeks of pretty regular sessions felt good and brought me back into my body during a time where I’ve been struggling with that. I don’t think it’s something I could personally do as a lone workout, but having it as a supplementary sesh helped me maintain a good level of fitness through really weird times.
When gyms were able to be back open after the big lockdowns, I popped into the Prahran studio to finish off the longest eight-week challenge in the history of the world. It was time to complete what I started back in… June?
Was I dreading coming back to some form of exercise after doing piss-all for nearly three months? Absolutely. Was it terrible? Surprisingly not.
I genuinely thought the time away would have put me back to square one, but I didn’t get wrung out as much as I thought I would. I didn’t go super hard but I didn’t take the easy road, either. Very minimal muscle soreness the next day, definitely nothing like how I felt way back in Week One.
In my final session before the Christmas break (and shit extremely hitting the fan again), I felt great. I worked some muscles I hadn’t targeted in a while and powered through some new movements.
All in all, it’s a good option for the time-poor, or anyone who wants to have a quick recovery session that goes a fair bit further than a home workout. For about the same price as seeing a personal trainer once a week, you’re apparently getting more bang for your buck in a fraction of the sweat time.
No harm in trying out something new, right?