Home Workouts and Compex EMS

Hi Coach,

I enjoyed your article about home workouts today. One part in-particular, EMS hit me. I have the exact unit you linked to in your article, and I noticed you used it as well. My questions are:

A- Do you actually workout with the units on? And do you do so for the suggested time compex provides?
B-How often do you incorporate this? Monthly, bi-monthly etc?

A. Yes and no.

You CAN do movements with the EMS device on. In that case, you would time the movement with the intense contraction period (this works better with the “strength” program). But I don’t really do it with weights (yet). It’s just to get a better neurological transfer to dynamic movements.

Normal EMS (done without moving, which is what I do 90% of the time) is a lot like isometric work. It does get the muscles stronger, but it doesn’t transfer directly to a movement because the coordination and muscle recruitment pattern is not the same.

The logic is that doing some sessions where you perform either the eccentric or concentric action while the machine is producing tension, allows you to get a better transfer.

I find that doing only the concentric portion of the movement works better (for strength) than doing only the eccentric portion.

For example, I would put the EMS pads on my triceps (or chest). Set myself in a bench in the power rack with the empty bar set on safety pins in the low position. When the intense contraction starts (which lasts around 5 seconds) I press the bar up slowly, focusing on contracting the muscle being stimulated as hard as possible. At the end of the intense contraction I bring the bar down (the rest period being around 15 seconds).

I have not done it with weights yet, but I’m sure it can be done and I will do it in the future.

I think that the best protocol to do “with movement” would be the explosive strength protocol, which has a contraction of around 3 seconds and wouldn’t force me to go slow on purpose.

I still do most of my sessions without movement though. Because I do plenty of regular lifting, the transfer is still likely to occur.

The protocol that I will experiment with we me and some athletes will be:

Weeks 1-3: no movement, with strength protocol
Week 4: movement (lightly loaded) with explosive strength protocol

B) Well I use some form in every block. I use block/concentrated periodization (my goal right now is sprinting speed, until next november). During power development blocks, I don’t use it on major muscles, only on abs and lower back. During the strength blocks I use it on quads/hams/glutes (I don’t really need my upper body to be bigger or stronger), 3x a week.

So that means normally 3-4 weeks of intense EMS work

Wow, thanks so much for going to that level of detail coach! Very much appreciated!

Hi Coach,

Just had a few quick follow ups, if you don’t mind:

A- I know compex claims you can expect to see strength gains of 20-30% in 4-6 weeks, as well as upwards of 8% muscle increase. I was curious as to if you believed those numbers or if you had any of your own?

B- I know you suggest cranking it up as high as you can reasonably tolerate and that will vary per person, what’s the minimum MA one needs to be consistently at in-order to experience the greatest gains?

C-I’ve heard some folks say you shouldn’t work more than one muscle group per setting, I’ve heard you can as long as they aren’t antagonistic groups (back and bi’s ok but tri’s and bi’s no good), and I’ve also heard you can theoretically work every Musdle group at once if you have enough electrodes-what are your thoughts?

Yes and no.

  1. I’m sure that there is a study that had some subjects reach these numbers, likely beginners. They are likely not lying when they make these claims. BUT they are no realistic for non-beginners.

  2. From experience, the strength gained with EMS is like the strength gained on isolation exercises. Because you only use one muscle at a time and you don’t have any coordination involved, the individual muscle strength can go up significantly, but it might not mean that your performance on the big lifts go up immediately, especially if the muscle(s) you used it on is not the weak link in a lift. For example, in the beginning, I used EMS on my triceps. Did 10 total sessions. During that time I did ZERO isolation work for triceps. After 10 sessions, just for fun I decided to do an arm pump workout and was able to get 8 reps at 100lbs on rope triceps extension (the amount of weight doesn’t matter as all machines are different) while prior I would use 60-70lbs for 6 reps. BUT my bench did not improve. The reason is that my limiting factors in the bench are my shoulder/rotator cuff.

  3. I have noticed significant hypertrophy on whatever muscle I use EMS with. Oddly enough, I get better hypertrophy results from the strength protocol than the hypertrophy one. Something that an athlete I work with also noticed.

I have no idea. First, because everybody will be different (for example, the amount of fat over the muscle, thickness of the skin and thickness of the fascia plays a big role). It also vary from muscle to muscle. I suspect that muscles with a higher ratio of fast-twitch fibers need less current intensity to reach tetanic contraction. Even electrode placement can make a difference.

An extreme example is a sprinter (he made the olympics for Canada) I used EMS with years ago. On his hamstrings he could barely get to an intensity level of 40 without feeling like the muscles would tear appart. The guy was 1) super lean 2) thin skin 3) extremely fast-twitch dominant and 4) we used the EMS on the most FT muscle in the body.

Personally, I simply go with the highest tolerable level. And try to increase it a bit more on every 1-3 contractions (at first, pain signals make the stimulation feel much more painful/intense than it is, gradually you desensitize them and can go higher and higher).

Charlie Francis (Ben Johnson’s coach) used to train quads, hamstrings and glutes on every session. I think that people saying that you can only train one muscle per session is old-wives tale as most studies on EMS for performance do quads/hams and calves at every session.

However, you should not do two muscles AT THE SAME TIME.

That having been said, I personally only do one muscle per session but only because of time constraints. When doing EMS a session lasts 25-28 minutes and if I were to train 3 muscles it would take almost 90 minutes. Which is fine if you use EMS instead of regular training. But if you use it to supplement regular training that is way too long (let’s say 90 minutes workout + 90 minutes EMS) for a working/busy person.

Thanks again coach!

Can EMS be used if hypertrophy is your main goal rather than strength/performance?

How would that be incorporated into your workout plan? Stimulate the same muscles lifted that day at the end of your workout? Or use them at a different day/time from when you lift?

Most of the studies on EMS are on strength and performance (vertical jump, sprint) although studies that looked at muscle growth tend to find some hypertrophy.

I cannot tell you a definite answer but I can give you my observation.

I do notice that there is an increase in muscle size with EMS training, even when using strength parameters.

In fact, what I, and an athlete I’m training, have noticed is that with the Compex unit the strength protocol seems to be more effective than the hypertrophy protocol to build muscle.

I personally would not recommend using it any differently if your main goal is strength or size.

Hi Coach,

I know you mentioned having some athletes try working out while simultaneously using a compex, I’d love to follow up and see what happens. When would be a good point to reach out regarding the results?

It was me trying it. Honestly, it’s not great. First because its a hassle to set up and keep the electrodes on. Second to get the timing right.

Would it work? I honestly don’t know because it was too annoying to stick with it.

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