Electric Stimulation Therapy 101
If there was one thing we could all add to our training and recovery routines, the #1 answer would have to be, more time. More time to train more effectively and more time to recover completely, as both of these things help our bodies to become leaner, fitter, stronger and faster. While it may not be possible to add a few extra hours to each day or take time away from other commitments, there is a way to make more effective use of your time both for recovery and for training, and that is by using the widely popular Electrical Stimulation Therapy (EST).
Athletes who are looking for an advantage to make gains in their training may want to seriously consider EST. EST has become a standard recovery protocol and has been used safely and effectively for decades for physical therapy, but new research demonstrates how it is an effective way to speed up recovery and improve strength. And EST has been used by professional athletes to speed up recovery and improve training workouts. In recent years EST has gained popularity in Crossfit, MMA and is catching on with Obstacle Course Athletes and mainstream fitness, with very good reason. Reducing recovery time, allows you to train more often and to train harder as your power and endurance improve. Sounds like a win-win, doesn’t it? Let’s look a little more closely at what happens to your muscles when you train and how EST works.
Fatigue and DOMS
When you train hard, your muscles become fatigued and need time to rest and repair, before you train again. Training your muscles when they are fatigued can delay recovery, lead to injuries and training plateaus. When you’ve trained very hard, you may experience delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS. You can experience DOMS when your muscles are performing intense or loaded lengthening or contracting. The soreness you feel is due to small muscle tears and inflammation that are a sign that your muscles are adapting to your training program. Many factors contribute to DOMS, and you probably don’t experience it all the time, but even if you only experience mild fatigue, common sense tells you to rotate muscle groups in your training and even the style of training you're doing throughout the week. Traditionally time and rest were the protocol for recovery, but research has shown that increased blood flow to muscles can speed up recovery and that is where EST comes into play.
How it Works
EST therapy is pretty straightforward, electrodes are placed on the skin, above the muscles that are getting the therapy and the electrodes deliver an electric current that contracts the muscle and makes it twitch. EST speeds up recovery in two ways; it warms the muscle and it improves circulation. When the muscles contract they heat up and when the contraction releases, new blood full of oxygen and nutrients floods the muscles. EST is effective because it affects the entire muscle and all of the blood vessels, so the entire muscle experiences increased blood flow and warmth, which can be hard to replicate with other modalities, especially big muscles or muscles in hard to reach areas. EST works at the cellular level increasing production of nitric oxide, regulating muscular fluid, forming new blood cells and aiding in protein clearance, which no other modality can do.
Why it Works
EST is so effective because the way the electrical currents travel through the muscle and make the muscle contract are different than massage or training movements that initiate contraction in muscles. Massage relies on external pressure while training movements contract muscles intensely or under a load and cause swelling. When you train, swelling restricts blood flow to the smaller blood vessels in your muscles, EST doesn’t cause your muscles to swell, it simply contracts and then releases the muscle. EST sends an electrical current through your nerves, to activate your muscles. When the muscle contracts it speeds up the elimination of the metabolic by-products of training aka toxins, and when the muscle is released it is flooded with nutrient and oxygen rich blood. The swelling can make it hard for the muscle to benefit from the increased circulation. As EST affects the entire muscle, you experience faster recovery, with less muscular pain and fatigue.
EST is easy to use, you can apply the electrodes and use it anywhere, unlike other modalities you don’t need someone to facilitate the therapy. You also won’t risk other injuries that you could experience when trying to do a light workout with sore muscles, or develop poor bio-mechanics or put yourself at risk for sprains, tendon or ligament injuries. But the benefits don’t stop there, in addition to speeding up your recovery, EST can also increase muscular strength and size. This benefit isn’t only experiential it is also scientifically proven, a 2010 study on the effects of EST in soccer players showed that players using EST, combined with training saw an increase in quadricep strength, while a 2013 study demonstrated that using EST on calf muscles not only improved strength but also reduced fatigue from training.
Is it Right For You?
Deciding if EST is right for you, depends on where you are at with your training and what your goals are. EST can be a great way to alleviate training fatigue and help you stay motivated. After the initial investment of the device, you don’t have to pay a fee or make appointments to get the therapy, you can hook yourself up and do EST anywhere. When you implement EST or any new training technique or modality to speed up recovery, remember it doesn’t replace the other key elements to recovery, namely; proper nutrition, hydration and good sleep. While EST is safe, there is a learning curve, of how much electrical current you need to use, and the amounts are different to for everyone. If you use too much current you can experience pain, or overwork already fatigued muscles.