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How will we build muscle in the future?



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Photo: Juergen Jotzo /

Electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) could represent one method of building muscle in the future. For some years now, electrical stimulation has been employed as a rehabilitation treatment in physiotherapy to inhibit muscular atrophy, e.g. after injury. Electrodes affixed to the skin stimulate the affected muscles without the patient having to actively move them. EMS has now found its way into the gym as well. During normal physical exertion our nerves send electrical impulses to our muscles, causing them to contract; in EMS strength training, low-level external electrical impulses assume the role of the brain and send these signals to the muscles. Frequent muscle contraction causes muscle growth, and muscle fibres grow denser regardless of where the electrical impulse originates. Using a varying range of frequencies, EMS treatment can greatly stimulate different types of muscle fibre. In comparison, training on exercise machines alone first works “red”, or slow-twitch (aerobic) muscles, and then “white”, or fast-twitch (anaerobic) muscles. EMS training can activate nearly all muscle fibres. Nonetheless, there is no way around physical activity if we wish to achieve maximum performance. A training plan that combines EMS with sporting activities is the most sensible way to attain this. What’s more, to maintain general health and fitness, we should not focus solely on building muscle; training to enhance endurance and coordination is equally important. It must also be noted that EMS training does not suit everyone. In particular, pregnant women and people with pacemakers, implants, epilepsy or sensory disorders are advised against using EMS treatments.

Saskia Blank of the Ideas 2020 team answered this question in consultation with Prof. Heinz Kleinöder of the German Sport University Cologne.