Every four years, a bit like the Olympics, I take on a mad fitness regime to see how far I can push myself out of a largely sedentary lifestyle.
The first time, back in 2014, having never been a member of a gym, I went back to basics, learning about nutrition, how to properly use the equipment, what exercises to do. Four years later I spent 18 weeks bulking up, shovelling in a huge amount of calories and spending an absurd amount of time lifting weights. It worked, if by ‘worked’ you mean ‘looks like he spends every waking moment in the gym’. But it came at the cost of a social life.
This time, as I near my 40th birthday, fitness studio Exerceo approached me about trying electro muscle stimulation. ‘EMS’ involves squeezing into a suit lined with electrodes, plugging it into the mains and performing a workout while your muscles are zapped with electricity. It promises to give you the benefits of an hour’s workout in just 20 minutes. It sounds a little too good to be true, so I was sceptical. While most people can quietly write off a failed fitness regime, I have to get my kit off in a newspaper, and it would be embarrassing to end up with a bunch of ‘before’ and ‘still basically before’ pictures. Still, having done little exercise since before the pandemic I needed an excuse to get back on the wagon, so here we are.
I signed up for three months, with two sessions a week in the Exerceo EMS studio (there are locations in Blackfriars, Monument and Belgravia), as well as two regular gym sessions on my own. In the first week I got a detailed food plan from Exerceo’s in-house nutrition expert, and I cut out booze apart from on the odd special occasion.
The three months followed a now familiar pattern. The first couple of weeks are difficult and painful, with the constant dull ache of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), which is even more intense after EMS because of the way it works deeper into your muscle tissue than a regular workout.
After the pain wears off around week three, I fell into a fairly comfortable routine. I could leave my desk, walk to the gym, do a full workout, shower and be back within an hour, which is impossible with a regular workout. By the end, I looked forward to the sessions rather than dreading them, although I never got used to pulling on the damp suit (water helps the conductivity).
The sensation of EMS is difficult to describe. Pulses of electricity come in relentless ‘four-seconds-on, four-seconds-off’ waves, causing your muscles to constrict in a way that isn’t exactly painful, but is definitely a distant evolutionary cousin of pain.
You’re then guided through a series of movements – an empty-handed bicep curl or shoulder press, for instance – and it’s the movement, rather than the electricity that gives you the results (bad luck for anyone hoping to buy one to wear while they watch telly).
The intensity of the pulses are controlled by your trainer and are increased throughout each session, depending which part of your body you’re working on, and also over the course of the 12 weeks, meaning your workouts never become easy; I’d be sweating and fatigued by the end of each session.
So while it’s not exactly a free pass to fitness – you have to put in the sweat and tears, if not the blood – it definitely works. After 12 weeks I’ve lost fat and gained muscle (I weigh exactly the same, which shows how useless weight can be as a measurement of progress).
What EMS won’t do is teach you transferrable skills you can use in a standard gym in the way a regular PT session will. But if you’re working towards a special occasion – a wedding or a big holiday, say – or just want to get a head-start on a new fitness regime, an EMS course will give you the structure and intensity you need, and it fits brilliantly around busy work schedules.
If you start now, you could be in shape come your summer holidays. Now I’m off to sit in a chair until 2026.
• You can book a 12 week transformation package, which includes one session a week, EMS underwear, a nutrition plan and two body composition tests for £495. For more information go to exerceotraining.co.uk