Sounds absurd, but it works! By Estelle Low
Photo: VisionBody Asia
I don’t want to believe there’s such a thing as shortcut when it comes to exercise and weight loss. Every bit of effort counts, and it shows. The more frequent you exercise, the more fit and toned you’re going to get. The harder you push yourself, the stronger you become.
So when I heard about electrical muscle stimulation (EMS), which involves sending low-level electric currents to your body to contract your muscles during a workout, I was quite skeptical.
EMS is not new. For years, it has been used as a treatment modality in physiotherapy and rehabilitation programmes, for its ability to strengthen muscles and relieve pain. But EMS in a workout?
Wouldn’t those muscles already be contracted while you’re exercising? Why need an external device to stimulate them?
Proponents claim that a 20-minute EMS workout is equivalent to four hours of conventional gym training. Going by those numbers, that would mean EMS is 12 times as effective as a gym workout for fat burn and weight loss. Really? Other purported benefits of EMS training include improved blood circulation which leads to tighter, firmer skin (bye cellulite!).
Curious, I joined a trial session at VisionGym. It’s the first gym in Singapore to offer EMS training in a wireless, free-to-move setting. That means wearing a suit with embedded electrode pads and wires, instead of having them manually attached to your body and connected to a machine, as seen at other gyms.
Step 1: Change into a bodysuit
What the bodysuit looks like up close. Photo: VisionBody Asia
Upon arriving at VisionGym, I was asked to change into a bodysuit. It felt like a wetsuit made of foamed neoprene, but significantly heavier due to the 20 built-in electrode patches, and surprisingly damp. The staff explained that the suit had just come out of wash.
It took me a while – about five minutes – to change out of my clothes and into the suit. It was a bit of a struggle as the damp fabric clung to my skin. Also, the suit had to be fastened by a back zipper, so my triceps got a good stretch. How’s that for a warm-up?
Not one for form-fitting clothes, I was a tad bothered by how body-hugging the suit was, like a swimsuit. Thank goodness it comes in black, so bulges wouldn’t be that obvious. My trainer Rohaizad bin Keliwan (everyone calls him Izad) told me that ideally, the suit should be worn without garments underneath, as clothing in between the electrode patches and skin may reduce the sensitivity of the electric currents. For hygiene reasons, clients are given disposable underwear to change into. I cringed at the thought of exercising sans sports bra and panties.
Step 2: Do a 20-minute workout
Sucking in my tummy was my instinctive reaction when I put on the bodysuit. Photo: Coleen Tan
In the stretchy suit, I became extra conscious of my body and posture. Looking at my mirror reflection, I instinctively pulled my shoulders back and sucked in my tummy. Trainer Izad wasted no time in getting me moving. We did quick exercises like side lunges and jumping jacks to warm up.
You can’t see it, but the throbbing of electrode pads made it extra tough to balance. Photo: Coleen Tan
First exercise: Squats with arms outstretched. The moment I lowered my body, I felt vibrations rippling through my body: the chest, upper and lower back, upper arms, glutes, stomach, quads and hamstrings. The contractions in my thighs were the most intense, almost causing my knees to buckle. I braced my core and tried to resist the force. At the same time, refrained from hollering from the shock.
Izad said it’s perfectly normal for first-timers to feel discomfort, as long as there’s no sharp pain. The point of EMS is to make your muscles work harder, and activate muscles that are neglected. Yes, sure, I thought bitterly as I glimpsed Izad tapping on an iPad. The suit is Bluetooth-enabled, allowing trainers to use a special iPad programme to control the type and intensity of the currents. I later found out that there are six modes – basic, endurance, strength, fat-burn, cool-down and special (massage) – to suit different needs. Cool.
Even a lunge felt hard to do with currents running through my body. Photo: Coleen Tan
We spent no more than a minute at each exercise, which included lunges and bicep curls with dumbbells. The moves were to be done slowly, in intervals of 10 to 20 seconds.
The next half of the session was high-intensity interval training, where I had to do a series of moves in a circuit style: Mountain climbers, planks, Russian twists, butterfly crunches and reverse crunches. Those were a nightmare, as the focus was on my core.
Izad made me hold in plank position for up to 30 seconds, which felt super long with the electric muscle stimulation going on. Photo: Coleen Tan
Sweat beads started forming as I tried to ignore the strong tingling sensations around my tummy and lower back. It was as if millions of ants were nibbling at my flesh. I knew Izad had upped the intensity of currents, and was determined not to let that hinder my workout. Everything felt twice as hard.
The vibration at my core was so strong, I struggled to keep a straight face while doing crunches. Photo: Coleen Tan
After the worst was over, Izad seemed impressed (or so I think) by my efforts. I did not complain or ask for easier variations though I could have.
My reward? A three-minute massage session, using the same EMS technology of course. This time, the vibrations were much gentler and soothing, as if congratulating me for completing the workout.
If my experience is any gauge of the efficacy claims about EMS (that it’s 12 times as effective as a typical gym workout), it definitely proved the point. The workout lasted just 20 minutes, but I felt jelly everywhere. All I wanted to do was vege out. Izad said that like other EMS newbies, I could expect to ache on day three. Sure enough, my abs and thighs throbbed like never before in a long time. My tummy felt firmer too, I swear. Now, if only I could keep this up…
VisionGym is located at #01-01, 146 Robinson Road (tel: 6221-8557). Packages start from $960 for 12 sessions. A drop-in class costs $85. Visit www.visionbodyasia.com for more info.