In 2004, when I was racing in France, my then house-mate returned from racing in Italy bearing a gift; a Compex Electro-Muscle Stimulator which he’d been using for recovery during stage races. We all felt compelled to attach ourselves to the device which replicates the nervous system’s impulses, causing muscle contractions of varying durations and intensity. Boys being boys, we dared each other to increase the strength of the impulses to painful levels, but the Compex turned out to be more than a novelty.

Italian Polymaths & Soviet Pioneers

Electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) has been around for more than 200 years. In 1771, Luigi Galvani, an Italian polymath whose passions spanned medicine, physics and philosophy, stimulated the dismembered legs of a frog with a spark thereby demonstrating that an electrical current could cause a muscle contraction. Thankfully, the technology progressed from this early starting point. Early proponents of EMS amongst athletes were the Soviets, who claimed 40% improvements in muscular force through their training protocols(1). You can read more about these formative experiments in a paper entitled “Russian electrical stimulation: The early experiments” (Shkuratova, 2002). It sounds like a great title for a documentary!

Fast-foward to the 21st Century and a new generation of Italian Scientists are venerating the efficacy of Electro Muscle Stimulation. Maffiuletti et. al, in 2011, published a paper(2) entitled “Electrical stimulation for neuromuscular testing and training: State-of-the art and unresolved issues”. Maffiuletti and his team believe that evidence supports the use of EMS for a range of purposes including strength training and post-exercise recovery. Some studies have even suggested that it may be beneficial to apply EMS around areas affected by ‘road-rash’ to reduce pain and aid healing(3). Omega Pharma Quickstep Team Doctor Helge Riepenhof used EMS to treat Tony Martin, following his crash at this year’s Tour de France.

EMS devices exploit the fact that there are different types of muscle fibres within the human body. Muscles can be targeted, activated and emphasized in specific ways by modifying the type EMS applied. In response, muscles will adapt and develop according to the protocol used. Compex devices include a range of programmes designed to achieve the athlete’s desired objectives, be that strength, recovery, pain relief as well as a host of sub-sets of protocols within these categories.

EMS For Recovery

Many athletes have been using Compex devices to aid recovery. Some evidence and many anecdotes suggest that EMS may be used to help return the body to it’s pre-exercise state, or at least as close as possible in the time you have before the next training session or stage. A study from 2011 suggested that using EMS following a strenuous exercise test accelerated recovery of strength (4). Some theories suggest that this recovery effect may be a consequence of the contraction and relaxation of the muscles gently stimulating blood flow and promoting circulation in the lymphatic system, with a similar benefit to traditional massage. This is likely the thought process behind the use of Compex devices by many professional cyclists immediately post-race and during smaller races and training camps, when the services of a masseur may not be available.

Strength Training

As EMS devices have become more compact and easy to control, on the bike training programmes have become increasingly popular. The protocols often involve the rider attaching themselves to a Compex device whilst riding on a turbo-trainer and selecting a programme which stimulates powerful contractions, much more intense than would be possible using the brains own muscle innervation, whilst riding through this resistance in short, intense intervals. The theory is that the EMS stimulation results in greater stimulation and therefore increased muscle recruitment, resulting in more adaptation than would be possible in a conventional high intensity strength training interval.

In the short video featured on this page, you can see a Compex device in action during an evening presentation at Cyclefit. Tour of Wessex organiser Nicholas Bourne tries out an on the bike strength programme and I test a more relaxing recovery protocol, following a 100 mile sportive ride.

References: 1. Ward, AR; Shkuratova, N. (2002). “Russian electrical stimulation: The early experiments”. Physical therapy 82 (10): 1019–30 2. Maffiuletti, Nicola A.; Minetto, Marco A.; Farina, Dario; Bottinelli, Roberto. (2011). “Electrical stimulation for neuromuscular testing and training: State-of-the art and unresolved issues”. European Journal of Applied Physiology 111 (10): 2391–7 3. Ågren, Magnus S.; Engel, Marc A.; Mertz, Patricia M. (1994). “Collagenase during Burn Wound Healing”. Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery 94 (3): 518–24. 4. J. Leeder; J. Spence; E. Taylor; A. Harrison; G. Howatson. (2011). “The effect of electrical stimulation on recovery from exercise-induced muscle damage” Br J Sports Med 45 

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