The fitness phenomenon has been around for a while, but images of super-fit celebs strapped into their futuristic suits seem to be popping up with increasing frequency on my Instagram feed.
Super-svelte songtress Lira, gorgeous former Miss SA Melinda Bam and Top Billing hostess Jade Hubner all swear by the muscle-strengthening effects of Electro Muscle Stimulation (EMS) training.
20 minutes strapped up to a machine, a few simple movements and I get a full-body workout – the system sounded too good to be true, right? As one of YOU’s resident fitness fanatics – and a lover of weird and wonderful tech – I had to test it out.
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So it was in the interest of science and a six pack that I marched into the Bodytec® studio at the Foreshore in Cape Town to see for myself.
Minimalist is really the only way to describe it. I was expecting tons of Bodytec’ers all hooked up to machines lining the walls. But all the neat, modern front room contained, aside from a front desk and a couple of chairs a coffee table, was two EMS devices. Really. That was it.
Right away I was greeted by one of the studio’s personal trainers, Riaz Jogee, and the owner, Sandra Leyck. Incidentally, it was Sandra and her husband Boris who brought the phenomenon to South Africa in 2011, after Boris fell in love with EMS training on a business trip to Munich, Germany – so much so that he immediately coaxed his wife onto an 11-hour flight to experience the 20-minute workout for herself.
First things first: Riaz sat me down and talked me through the process. I’d be strapped into one of those Instagram-worthy suits (or electrode vests), and plugged into one of the two machines in the studio. The electrodes on my skin would send currents through all of the major muscle groups in my body, forcing them to contract, while I performed basic moves like lunges, squats, standing crunches and bicep curls, to further target those areas.
He presented me with a skin-tight black Lycra shirt and ski-pants, and pointed me in the direction of the changing rooms.
“So, everything needs to come off,” he said pointedly. “The electrodes need to make full contact with the skin in order to work.”
I hesitated. “Wait. So no underwear..?”
“Really? Not even a sports bra?”
“Seriously? Are you sure..?”
We did this for a while until I accepted that my experiment would require me to go commando in a suit that others had very likely done the same in, and attempted to make my peace with it. Obviously, the studio’s undergarments are laundered after each use or you can buy your own, but still…
I was strapped into my electrode vest, spritzed with water and plugged into one of the machines.
Slowly, Riaz turned it on.
“Tell me when you feel it.”
PHOTO: Peet Mocke
I did right away. The sensation was strange, like ants crawling under my skin. Bit by bit, he cranked it up and the feeling became more intense. The electrodes were connected to all my major muscle groups – lower back, stomach, biceps and glutes, stimulating them to contract in short bursts.
According to Riaz, the electrode-induced muscle contractions are of “higher quality and more intense” than one would be able to create in a normal workout.
PHOTO: Peet Mocke
For the next 20 minutes, he guided me through minimal reps (four or five at most) of basic movements like squats, lunges and standing crunches. Just doing a handful of moves like these wouldn’t normally cause me to break a sweat – but with the added resistance that my involuntarily contracting muscles caused, they were certainly no walk in the park.
Did it hurt? No – but it wasn’t pleasant. By the end of my session – which flew by – I was panting, and seriously sweaty. And my muscles had already begun to ache.
PHOTO: Peet Mocke
Chuckling at my groaning, Riaz said, “And you’re going to feel it tomorrow!’
Seriously, he wasn’t kidding.
Now, I’m a fairly regular gymer – but the stiffness the next day was something else. Still, it was a good kind of sore. In spite of the fact that I’d only ‘worked out’ for 20 minutes, I felt like I’d had a far more intense session than I usually do even in my usual 40 minutes at the gym.
Over the next six weeks, I showed up bleary-eyed for my 6 am sessions, which got progressively harder as Riaz or one of the other personal trainers cranked up the intensity. It certainly never got easier, but I got used to it.
What EMS will do
The trainers had told me I’d start to notice a difference in six sessions, but by week three I was already starting to see changes. Unfortunately, the six-pack had still yet to make an appearance – but I was stronger. Suddenly, the 15 push-ups in my regular gym class that had left my arms feeling like jellyfish tentacles were more doable. The last few crunches in the abs sessions the gym instructor always insisted upon were more bearable.
Bit by bit, my strength crept up – with each week, I noticed something more that my body was suddenly capable of. Planking for longer, cycling on a higher resistance, running faster.
What it won’t do
Six weeks later, even though I’d kept up with a regular workout schedule, I didn’t suddenly have a body like Jade Hubner’s. In fact, I hadn’t lost a single kilo.
Bodytec® and most other EMS studios are pretty upfront about the fact that the programme is not magic bullet for that bikini body. Right at the outset, Riaz explained that in order for your average Joe to see weight-loss results, they’d need to do EMS training in conjunction with additional cardio sessions and (here’s the rub) monitoring their diet.
Keen for more info? Visit the Bodytec® website here