Mrs SA, Matapa Maila Rikhotso, tries out EMS technology at Body20 in Johannesburg. Picture: SUPPLIED
Mrs SA, Matapa Maila Rikhotso, tries out EMS technology at Body20 in Johannesburg. Picture: SUPPLIED

Appropriated from the medical field, electro muscle stimulation (EMS) could be the answer for busy executives and rehabilitation from physical injury.

Initially developed by German researchers to help patients in their recovery from injuries and to help manage pain, EMS is growing as an industry on a global scale. The main selling point is that you can reap the benefits of about five hours’ conventional exercise in the gym in just 20 minutes. And all you need to maintain your fitness is 20 minutes a week, according to some of the companies offering EMS.

However, says BodyTec, which has 40 studios in SA, it is not a quick fix. “EMS training is not a sweat-free experience. Our clients will tell you their 20-minute session a week is tougher than hitting a regular gym, and gets equal or better results.”

Still, there are some in the field who are not convinced by the hi-tech exercise trend, saying it should complement rather than replace your training routine. Prof Elmarie Terblanche of the University of Stellenbosch sports science department says EMS, by only improving muscle mass and strength, cannot lay claim to improving health overall because it does not bring with it the other benefits provided by normal exercise. And Ray Cranston, a personal trainer in Johannesburg with more than 30 years’ experience, says despite the attraction of a 20-minute workout, “I would use EMS as an alternative to normal training, but not as my main form of training.”

But for many the promise of a short and highly effective workout will be irresistible. And on the whole, at about R1,000 a month, going to an EMS studio does not cost more than a gym membership with personal trainer sessions. There is the added cost of your special kit, however: when you check in for your EMS session you don an “undergarment” and you are then strapped into a full-body EMS suit consisting of a vest, arm straps, leg straps and a glute belt.

The EMS suit is made up of electrodes connected to a device that transmits electric currents to the major muscle groups. With the help of a personal trainer, you perform a series of movements while the electrodes activate up to 90% of your muscles at the same time. By maximising efficiency in your training time of 20 minutes, you can improve strength and endurance and reach your fitness goals in a shorter time.

EMS companies such as BodyTec, Body20 and FitTec20, with branches throughout SA, say the client will feel a difference after the first session. “The body releases endorphins and as most muscle groups in your body have been activated, you will experience increased physical awareness, resulting in improved posture,” says BodyTec. You should start to see and feel a real change in strength and endurance in six to eight weeks, they say.

Not everyone should rush to do this type of training, and each of these studios will do a thorough assessment before signing on a client. The training is safe for the average person, as it merely imitates the natural principle of muscle contraction, the result of interaction between the brain, the central nervous system and muscle tissue. The apparatus uses a low-frequency stimulus to activate the muscle contractions, guided by the trainer, who ensures that training levels are suited to the client.

A particular advantage is that EMS is gentle on joints, making it particularly suitable for rehabilitation purposes. However it is not recommended for people with circulatory disorders or who have had a stroke; stent; thrombosis and cardiovascular diseases; bleeding tendency or haemophilia; diabetes mellitus; hernia; neurological disorders like epilepsy; or acute operation (within about eight weeks, depending on the individual case). In addition, pregnant women or anyone who has had a pacemaker fitted should not do EMS training. In some cases, the client can begin the training after obtaining medical consent, and after consultation with their personal trainer.

Many of the companies offer a free initial session, or trial. FitTec20, based in Linksfield, Johannesburg, says: “Once the client has put on the trial undergarment we put them on our Inbody Scale. This scale gives us a full breakdown on the body composition, how much fat, and many other important aspects. We then ask the client what their needs are. Is it fat loss, muscle building, rehabilitation, purely to keep fit? Everyone has different needs. After this we discuss how we will train the client based on the individual needs and the Inbody assessment. We track these results monthly.”

At most of the studios, the client has to buy an undergarment, a lycra or pure cotton suit (about R700). The heavier, black EMS suit with electrodes belongs to the studio, and most can activate up to nine muscle groups. However, FiTec20 says its suit activates 12 muscle groups.

FitTec offers up to three sessions a week, mixing it up with boxing, weights and training classes. “FitTec allows for more than once a week as long as there are 48 hours between sessions, as the body needs time to regenerate. We use weights and cardio exercises to increase the intensity and results.”

BodyTec recommends only one 20-minute session a week, saying: “Research shows that recovery and adaptation periods after whole body BodyTec EMS training sessions are significantly longer than for weight and resistance training. It is not beneficial to train more often to gain better results because BodyTec EMS training is so intense and effective, you only need one session a week.”

A contract at BodyTec goes for R975 a month, while FitTec charges between R1,000 and R2,000 a month, depending on the number of weekly sessions. Group classes, offered by some of the studios, bring the cost down. Some of the companies offer a nutrition advice service. The rates at Body20, with 56 branches in SA, Namibia and Botswana, vary from R250 to R300 a session, depending on the package that best suits the client’s needs and the number of sessions they require for best results. “This includes a personal trainer, progressive results and results-driven EMS training with weekly Inbody assessment and free access to our 24/7 nutrition doctor services (at participating studios),” says Body20.

Clients who want to set themselves up at home can consult companies such as Future Fitness, which sell a variety of EMS equipment, starting at R50,000.