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How To Use Electrical Muscle Stimulation to Enhance Performance, Build Power and VO2 Max

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Last week, you learned about How Underground Russian Techniques From Old Soviet Training Journals Can Turn You Into An Endurance Beast.

A topic we touched on just briefly during that discussion was that of electrical muscle stimulation (EMS).

And way back in podcast #71, I interviewed physical therapist David Markovich about whether Electrical Stimulation Devices Make You Fit or Help You Burn Fat.

I personally own a Compex Sport Elite device, and although I’ve only used it in the past for recovery, I have been experimenting with it quite a bit since returning from Dave Asprey’s Bulletproof Biohacking Conference – specifically by running strength and explosive strength training electrical sessions through my quads and hamstrings while practicing deep diaphragmatic breathing. Interestingly, I’ve been able to get myself into a dripping wet full body sweat with these sessions!

So today, I’m giving you a guest post by an expert who knows how to use electrical muscle stimulation to enhance performance…

jim bruskewitzJim Bruskewitz is today’s guest author.

Jim founded Endurance Performance Ltd. in 1992 to provide physiological testing and specific training programs for endurance athletes. Jim received his Masters Degree from the University of Wisconsin – Madison and retired after 15 years as a Lecturer in the Kinesiology Department. He also developed and coached a water running and Master’s swimming program for the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics Sports Medicine facility.

Jim has been a two time World Triathlon Age-Group Champion, seven time Triathlon National Age Group Champion, gotten Second Place Age Group Ironman World Championships in Kona and has Ironman Wisconsin, Wildflower Triathlon, and Muncie Endurathon Age Group Course Records set.

So let’s hear about how Jim recommends you use electrical muscle stimulation to enhance performance, build power and VO2 max…in this case with a focus on Jim’s weapon of choice: the Compex.

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What is it?

Compex is a neuromuscular electrical stimulator. As the name suggests, it is involved with stimulating nerves and skeletal muscle. The Compex stimulates only motor neurons. These neurons innervate or will stimulate skeletal muscle fibers. What you will notice is the contraction of the muscle. These contractions can be quick and rapid, quick with pauses between contractions, or contractions that are held for seconds at a time. It’s this variety of contraction types that will result in improved warming up, strength, and recovery.

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How does it work?

Pads are placed on the skin at each end of the skeletal muscle to be stimulated. There are four channels with lead wires. Each wire is connected to two pads. Very small amounts of current runs from one pad to the next and completes a circuit using the muscle tissue as a conduit. The current runs at specific frequencies (Hz) and pulse durations (microseconds). The motor neurons found within this circuit are stimulated. The muscle fibers innervated by the motor neurons then contract.

Changing the frequencies can change which kinds of muscle fibers are stimulated. Three ranges of frequencies stimulate three kinds of motor neurons-muscle fiber types. A slow twitch muscle fiber will contract at one set of frequencies while an intermediate fast twitch muscle fiber will contract at a different set of frequencies, Likewise, the fastest twitch fast twitch muscle fiber has its own set of frequencies that it is sensitive to.

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What can it do?

A Compex comes pre-programmed to deliver three types of programs: warm up, strength building, and recovery programs.

Here is what the various programs are designed to do:

Pre-warm up: Increases blood flow to the muscle increasing the temperature of the muscle. All the reactions associated with a muscular contraction will occur at a faster rate. The muscle will more easily change shape. Neural inhibition is decreased so that more muscle fibers can be recruited when the muscle contracts. Oxygen is released to the muscle at an increased rate.

Potentiation: A short program that puts minimal load on the muscle while speeding the reaction time of a muscular contraction. This program should be used 10 minutes prior to a workout or competition.

Explosive Strength: Stimulates the Fast Twitch Type IIb muscle fiber and trains its creatine phosphate energy delivery system. This energy delivery system provides stored energy needed for the fist three to five seconds of work while the multi-enzyme mediated anaerobic and aerobic energy delivery systems proceed.

Strength. This program trains the Type IIb fast twitch muscle fibers as well. It trains these muscle fibers to deliver energy anaerobically and generate a great deal of force for efforts lasting up to one minute. This is done without cardiovascular or mental fatigue. There is no risk of injury often associated with intense muscular contractions of this kind.

Resistance. This program trains the Type IIa fast twitch muscle fibers. This is the most common muscle fiber type in an average individual. These fibers can deliver energy both aerobically and anaerobically. They are well adapted for delivering energy at a rate fast enough to support very hard efforts that last for 1 to 5 (8) minutes.

Endurance. This program stimulates the Type I slow twitch muscle fibers. These fibers are capable of delivering energy aerobically and therefore are the most used muscle fiber for efforts lasting many minutes to many hours.

Active Recovery. This program has three parts to it. The first part with it’s rapid contractions at 9Hz squeezes the blood out of the capillary beds, flushes out the waste products from the work done, and makes room for fresh blood to supply the muscle with the oxygen and nutrients it needs to recover. The program decreases the frequency every three minutes moving to frequencies that produce endorphins for an analgesic response and finally a muscle relaxation response from 1Hz to 2Hz frequencies.

Recovery Plus. This program has both the flush and endorphin productions parts found in the Active Recovery program. There is a greater emphasis on the endorphin production however. This program was written to meet the recovery needs of those involved in very hard efforts day after day.

Massage. This program is dedicated to endorphin production. Heavy muscles will feel light. Ischemic or knotted muscles will relax to allow better blood flow to the muscle, and sore muscles are relieved.

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How To Use A Electrical Muscle Stimulation To Build Power and VO2max

Increasing VO2max (the maximum amount of oxygen one’s muscles can use when exercising intensely) is best improved when not just training aerobically. The higher an athlete’s VO2max, the greater the potential to maintain a fast pace for long periods of time. Training up to the anaerobic threshold without exceeding it, how most of us train to improve our aerobic capacity particularly for longer lasting events, won’t improve VO2max as much as a training schedule including systematic training above the anaerobic threshold.

As pace and power generated increases, we recruit more muscle fiber types. When we recruit the three types of muscle fibers , ST (slow twitch), FTa (intermediate fast twitch), and FTx (dedicated anaerobic fast twitch), we do it in order from ST, to ST plus FTa, and finally ST plus FTa and FTx. Up to our anaerobic threshold, ST and only a few of the FTa muscle fibers are recruited. Until the effort exceeds the anaerobic threshold, the majority of the FTa and the FTx muscle fibers are not recruited.

It turns out that regularly recruiting and training FTa and FTx shows greater improvement in VO2max than just training the aerobic ST muscle fibers. In order to maximize VO2max, an athlete must improve the aerobic capacity of both their slow and fast twitch muscle fibers.

Compex strength programs train the ST, FTa, and the FTx muscle fibers. The Resistance Program targets the FTa muscle fibers while the Strength and Explosive strength programs target FTx muscle fibers. These muscle fibers can be effectively trained with the Compex programs without as much stress as training above the anaerobic threshold. Single muscle groups can be effectively trained without stressing the whole body’s cardiovascular, muscular and structural systems. Being able to more easily fit this important muscle fiber training into a weekly routine pays huge dividends in increased strength and VO2max.

Most will train one muscle fiber type at a time. I and others I am associated with have been experimenting with training a muscle group with two different strength training programs on the same day.

This approach is not doubling the training load on one muscle fiber type, which is probably more than that muscle fiber type can reasonably absorb. Rather the approach trains two different muscle fiber types one time within each 48 hour training window. More of the muscle will be fatigued. The muscle adapts and can handle this load. Rather than trying to gain these adaptations a month before the year’s big event, now is the perfect time to train the muscle to absorb this kind of training load.

The more the muscle can absorb AND recover from in time for the next training session, the greater the level of fitness that can be achieved.

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A Training Plan For Electrical Muscle Stimulation

Follow the 3 block training plan below, and you will notice significant improvements. Those around you will notice the difference too:

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You’ll notice a significant difference in how well you perform your sport after following the above plan for even just three weeks. The benefits will continue to accumulate as you extend the training time with the Compex.

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Additional Electrical Muscle Stimulation Tips

There are other Compex plans that will yield great results too. Variations on the above schedule may be more tailored to your abilities and needs.

Let’s explore the basic features that should be incorporated into any successful plan you land upon:

Any skeletal muscle group can be trained with the Compex. For any muscle group trained:

Train a particular muscle group three times per week.

If you train a muscle group one time per week, you will detrain between sessions, and the amount of improvement will be limited. Two times per week is much better and worth doing if three times per week is impossible. Three times per week is ideal

Take at least 48 hours between training sessions.

Training three times per week will leave 48 hours between two of the three sessions and 72 hours before the remaining session. Since the strength programs deliver a training load, recovery is important to ensure that the body’s capacity to absorb another workout is large.

With any of the fast twitch muscle fiber strength programs (Strength and Resistance) train for at least three weeks and not more than 8 weeks.

It will take three weeks for the muscles to adapt to the stress and respond with significant increases in force production and improvement in aerobic capacity. The rate of gain will drop to zero after eight weeks of training. Switch the type of training, the Compex program in this case, to begin a new cycle and return to a positive rate of gain.

Choose the muscle groups that will most benefit your performance.

You have a limited amount of time to train, even if training is your job. To be efficient with the time you have, prioritize the muscle groups that are the prime movers for your sport. The three blocks of training above are hierarchically ordered for cycling and running.

Most athletes’ training is shifting into high gear in preparation for the upcoming season. Base phase training is in full swing with the promise of a higher VO2max that will both support maintaining faster paces with less anaerobic dependence and improve the ability to recover more quickly.

One of the benefits of using the Compex strength programs is to improve VO2max. The fact that one increases their power output by using the Compex strength programs as well suggests that not incorporating strength programs into a regular training plan is missing a big opportunity to become a better athlete.

Do you have questions about how to use electrical muscle stimulation to enhance performance, or your own tips to add? Leave them in the comments section below!

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28 Responses to “How To Use Electrical Muscle Stimulation to Enhance Performance, Build Power and VO2 Max”

  1. cogrick2 says:

    Fascinating devices. I wish I could afford one at this time. Are you saying that one would use a Complex but not otherwise train on training days?

  2. Ben says:

    Is this in addition to a normal training program?

  3. Carol C says:

    I already own a 4 channel combination EMS/TENS unit I Used to recover from shoulder surgery. My PT set it for the correct frequency for the post surgery pain relief treatment. However I have no idea how to change the settings To accomplish pre-and post workout muscle stimulation.. Really don’t want to Spend another $800, since this one was nearly that expensive to begin with. Do you have any recommendations or guidelines for the frequency used for these protocols?

  4. Philippe says:

    What complex model would you recommend for a week-end ” athlete ” who is not intending to do competitive sports but mostly having a lot of fun and wanna see his performance gerting better?
    Thanks

  5. David says:

    Could you describe the cain of workout you can do when your follow the compex training program ?

  6. Steven says:

    Ben, is this the device you will be using to incorporate with Jay Schroeder's long duration isometrics or will that be an entirely different device? Even if not absolutely optimal could this device handle POV protocols? Finally, how do you feel it handles recovery tasks, as that is listed as one of its uses. Thanks, and I apologize for the multitude of questions.

  7. jason says:

    Are you familiar at all with the Marc Pro? Is this device "Complex" similar or would you recommend Complex over other electrical stimulators? Thanks

  8. John says:

    When it says in block 1 to do quads 1st does that mean a cycle of strength then a cycle of endurance then move on to glutes? Follow the placement guide from Compex?

    • I asked Jim and here's what he said: Hi Ben,

      Following the pad placement guide is the way to go. Know that each muscle group stands alone. That is to say that one muscle group could be on a Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule while another muscle group is on a Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday cycle. All the muscle groups trained could be trained on the same day of the week. So you see, you have quite a bit of flexibility with which days of the week you train a particular muscle group.

      You also have flexibility with which muscle fibers you train. With the Compex, you train slow twitch muscle fibers with the Endurance Program. With the Resistance Program you train Type IIa muscle fibers, also know as FT1 and intermediate fast twitch. With the Strength Program you train Fast Twitch IIb or FTX muscle fibers. You could train slow twitch muscle fibers on your quads, Type IIa muscle fibers on your gluteals, and Type IIb fibers on your calves. Mixing and matching which muscle fibers you train in a particular muscle group works well. Not mixing and matching works too. So although there are certain training principles you should adhere to with any successful training program, you have a good bit of leeway when strength training with the Compex.

      Jim

      • John says:

        So the endurance is a 40′ session and strength is 20′. Doing the four muscle groups would take 4hrs a day. I’ve had a Compex for four years and only used it for recovery, so I was excited to have a fitness protocol, but this isn’t feasible. Am I reading it wrong?

  9. This is a good informative blog which is full of information about the using an electrical Muscle Stimulation which can help a person gaining good muscle a lot. A lot of thanks for posting this allocation in this website at all. Take it up….

  10. [...] And while an EMS device certainly isn’t going to burn significant calories or fat to give you an amazing six-pack, it can indeed result in a significant boost in cardiovascular and musculoskeletal fitness. For more tips on how to implement EMS into a training season, visit that Hammer website I just referenced, or read my blog post “How To Use Electrical Muscle Stimulation to Enhance Performance, Build Power and VO2 Max“. [...]

  11. Alyssa says:

    Just found this article, I am trying to decide if it's worth me investing in a Complex. I frequently get mild muscle strains (about every month or two) so it kills my training and makes me a regular at my physical therapy place. They always uses electrical muscle stimulation and the laser on my strained muscles. I am wondering if this really speeds up recovery enough to be worth me investing. Also maybe with my injury history it might be worth using as recovery after my hard training session. I am not looking to use it to build muscle. Thoughts?

  12. anchorair says:

    This is a very useful discussion which i have got and it is this the device you will be using to incorporate with Jay Schroeder's long duration isometrics or will that be an entirely different device? Even if not absolutely optimal could this device handle POV protocols? Finally, how do you feel it handles recovery tasks. I will suggest to my all friends.

  13. Rod9301 says:

    I have used a compex four two years on quads, butt and hamstrings.
    I mountain mountain bike in the summer and alpine ski in the winter, both 4-5 times a week.

    In pre season (may for biking and october for skiing), I use level 5, 90 ma plus (my unit goes to 120 max).

    And three times a week. I get very littlesoreness.
    But in season,i use it only once a wk, at 50 ma,level 2 and I am sore for two days.
    Both cases I use the strength program.

    Any idea why I am sore and what I should do?

    • You are adding it on top of already fatigued/damaged muscle fibres so the soreness is not unexpected. Switch to more of a recovery protocol (instead of the strength program) and you will likely get less soreness and more practical benefit.

  14. Yuri says:

    Ben, thanks for the info.

    There seems to be a cheaper alternative to Compex: NeuroTrac Sports XL. I tried to search Internet to find a practical comparison between them, but failed. Have you heard about it?

  15. gataribez1 says:

    I`M USING MY NEW TOY COMPEX ELITE TO SEE ANY CHANGE IN MY LEGS; I`M ON DE 30S ;/ LET SEE WHAT HAPPEN

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