Gadgets acting on human muscles with the help of electricity have been existing on the market for dozens of years. Their reputation has undergone changes during this period. First portable muscle stimulators were insanely famous an immediately became TV shop hits as ads promised quick muscle growth without much effort. Disappointment in EMS followed soon enough once people realized that it’s impossible to become a jock without training and dieting.

However, EMS gadgets did not disappear over time as the consumers still managed to find use in them. Obviously, they won’t turn a skinny geek into Conan the Barbarian, but they will help during recovery or as pain therapy. Pro athletes use them during complicated training sessions or when rehabilitating after injuries. Add to that the fact that it is a drug-free method, and you will understand what a beneficial approach it is.

We have aggregated all the important information about EMS and TENS gadgets. You will find a review of 5 muscle stimulators and will be able to choose the best stimulator among cheap and helpful ones.

What You Will Learn from This Guide:

What is EMS? EMS Technology History

Electrical Muscle Stimulation has long been known to humanity. Scientists discovered electricity’s ability to cause motion in human muscles back in the 18th century. However, no useful application to the invention was found for the first century and a half. No scientist went further than weird experiments (oh look, a dead squirrel’s paw is jerking!) and fantasies about Frankenstein.

How USSR Wanted to Increase the Strength of Weightlifters by 40%

Soviet scientists realized that electrical muscle stimulation hides a load of potential in the 1970s. They began to study the possibilities of using electricity for the rehabilitation of paralyzed patients and for increasing athletes’ muscles.

NCBI has published an interesting article devoted to those experiments. Soviet researchers set amazing goals as they aimed to improve weightlifters’ strength by 40% with EMS. They believed that combining muscular stimulation with conventional training will lead to great achievements.

It is at that time that USSR became the world leader in all weightlifting sports. This could indirectly confirm the effectiveness of this new technology, but the results of the experiments were quite contradictory.

Soviet science concentrated on the medical application of EMS, and the idea abandoned by Soviets was revitalized in the USA where clever businessmen decided to make money on people’s desire to have a perfect body with minimum effort.

Does Electrical Muscle Stimulation Work?

First, portable muscle stimulators and wonder-belts promising to develop abs and pumped biceps with zero stress appeared in the 80s. Allegedly, you could watch TV and grow muscles. Soon, the authorities intervened in the market of EMS gadgets. None of them received a certificate of a weight-loss device. Ads promoting non-existing properties of these devices were also banned.

According to the FDA, EMS was certified as a means of treating muscular atrophy and spasms but not as a muscle growth stimulator.

Nowadays, EMSs are sold both for medical and athletic purposes. They are recommended for recovering and strengthening muscular tissue, for support during complex training, for improving blood flow, as well as for treatment of some musculoskeletal diseases. Some experts keep insisting that combining training with EMS results in synergic muscular growth. This hypothesis has neither been 100% proved nor refuted.

However, there is a number of studies that have proven the effectiveness of EMS in improving sportsmen's strength and jumping ability. Tests conducted with the participation of rugby players showed improvements not only in strength but also in power. A study on groups of tennis and soccer players has indicated a positive impact of EMS treatment on sportsmen's performance as well.

EMS and TENS Action

Our body is designed so that electricity contracts muscular fibers. EMS imitates our central nervous system so that the correct setting of the electric signal can help you bring such contractions closer to healthy training. Muscular movement guarantees to accelerate blood flow in the veins, can have an impact on the production of lactic acid and improve muscular elasticity.

It’s important to distinguish EMS and TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation). EMS-marked gadgets act on muscles directly while the impulse of TENS devices is set to affect the nerves.

EMS causes relaxation, blood flow recovery and creates conditions for muscle growth, while TENS helps eliminate neck pain, arthritis, sciatica, and other forms of neuritis. These gadgets are suggested as good therapy for chronic pain.

EMS and TENS Action: photo

By the way, TENS is ancient technology. Ancient Romans made people with leg ache stand on electric fish, as historical sources testify. In the 19th century, doctors officially confirmed the effectiveness of electrical treatment.

The bottom line is, make sure you can tell EMS and TENS apart, even though certain gadgets combine these technologies with various levels of success.

Can EMS Gadgets Help Grow Muscles?

Expensive and powerful medical equipment is capable of maintaining the muscles of paralyzed patients. Ultra-expensive sport EMS gadgets are used to train top athletes of the world. Perhaps these gadgets even tone their muscles. However, no mass-market product has yet proven its ability to really grow the buyers’ biceps and triceps.

Jerry Brainum, a nutritionist, draws our attention to one important detail: during regular exercise, our body first activates small and weak muscular fibers followed by larger ones, while EMS first involves the latter fibers (larger ones followed by weak ones). It seems that under such circumstances, the muscles are bound to grow, but the expert refers to scientific research and disappoints us by saying that this works in theory only.

Effective muscle growth is possible only if gadgets 60 times as powerful as the ones existing today are used (the impulses, though, will no longer be safe for human health).

Brainum also refers to an experiment involving students. One group trained in the gym for 45 days, while the other group worked with EMS gadgets for the same period. Unfortunately, the second team was far behind in all metrics. Moreover, all of the test subjects were bored during the electric workout and craved to go to the gym. C’est la vie!

Weight Loss

What about weight loss? The amount of calories burned during electric workouts is considered marginally low by Nicola A. Maffiuletti in his publication devoted to electric stimulation. Other scientists confirm this and emphasize the fact that only physical exercise involving various muscle groups simultaneously leads to weight loss.

Of course, EMS is not surrounded by negative feedback only. The latest research proves the positive effect of electricity on the adaptation and learning of muscular fibers, improving their stamina and stress-resistance, which is crucial to a systemic training approach.

Are TENS Machines Good for Cancer Pain?

Yes, they can be beneficial. More importantly, these devices have been tested clinically, with the results proving that TENS treatment can alleviate pain in some cases. So researchers from the University of California conducted a study in a cancer center to find out whether this method would help to relieve severe cancer-related pain.

The tests have shown that this method was beneficial in almost 70% of patients over the course of two months. It is important to stress that not all patient turned out to be responsive to the treatment. But those who showed an improvement in pain symptoms were advised to use that kind of device at home.

Another study demonstrated that the device was able to improve cancer bone pain on movement. However, sometimes it goes the other way. There are tests showing no significant relief of cancer pain after TENS treatment, which means that this method is not for everyone.

Using TENS machines as an alternative to medications will help to avoid side effects associated with the latter. In addition, these devices can be a good supplement to medications in case the pain is severe. At any rate, first consult your doctor before treating cancer-related pain with a TENS machine. Since the drug-free approach has become increasingly in demand, more studies are obviously needed to determine the effectiveness of this particular method.

Types of EMS Gadgets

Gadgets not only vary by the type of technology used (EMS or TENS). Other differences exist, such as in devices’ modes, in the power of the electric impulse, mobility or dimensions of a gadget.

EMS abs belts are most popular. Certain sensors are designed to train legs and arms. However, nowadays the market is flooded with universal devices connecting various sensors to the control section. They are convenient as they can be attached to various body parts to activate different muscle groups simultaneously.

An FDA certificate is crucial for products distributed in the USA. It is only legal to sell certified devices; the consumers will bear all the risks at their own expense if they buy uncertified units. We recommend that you check the FDA database before buying a certain device, especially since the blacklist is constantly updated.

How to Use Muscle Stimulators

  1. First of all, EMS trainers have a large list of contraindications. Using these devices is contraindicated to pregnant women, heart disease patients, those who have cardio stimulators, patients with renal insufficiency or chronic diseases of the digestive tract. Oncology or blood flow problems are also a reason for an EMS or TENS ban.
  2. Experts recommend consulting a physician before using any gadget, especially if you have recently been ill with flu, cold, broke a bone, ruptured a ligament or damaged a muscle. Be careful with electricity!
  3. As for increasing the effectiveness of EMS, most manufacturers give the following recommendations. Instead of training your back, abs and ankles simultaneously, focus on each area in turn. Even wiring both limbs disperses the current.
  4. Start the gadget when the muscles are relaxed, do not stimulate flexors and extensors at the same time. Be careful about fixing the sensor on a muscle as improper fixation can give zero results.

5 Best TENS and EMS Muscle Stimulators

Compex Edge Muscle Stimulator Kit

Compex Edge Muscle Stimulator Kit: photo

This is the most expensive gadget of our review; its price is 6-7 times higher than that of the main competitors.

First, we deal with a large Swiss brand. Compex is a manufacturer of medical and sports electronics, and many of its products are respected both by the mass audience and pro athletes. By no means is Compex a no-name brand, so your claims will surely be handled, should any arise.

This is the only device in this rating that promises to grow muscles without stressing heart and lungs (however, there is no proof of any effect). The gadget’s main aim is still pain relief and improvement of blood circulation. The manufacturers promise to strengthen capillaries and improve muscle flexibility. Compex can allegedly increase blood flow up to 600 percent faster and reduce lactic acid production in 4-6 minutes.

The product description contains an important disclaimer: Compex Edge is recommended for professional use so that athletes stay in shape. The brand is known to collaborate with pro athletes, so it can be trusted. The stimulator has four wires with two sensors each. Electrode sensors are made with the brand’s own technology, and two sucker sizes are available. In the comments, the customers praise the gadget’s durability and long autonomous performance. Read all customer reviews

There are only three modes instead of dozens: muscle recovery, training, and intensive training. Each mode has been designed using medical expertise, and you can read all the details regarding lactic acid distillation and various muscle fiber exercises.

Compex Wireless & Sport Stimulator: photo

By the way, this is not a single product; there is a whole range of Compex stimulators. For instance, you can find a wireless stimulator and Sport Elite stimulator.

Compex Edge Muscle Stimulator Kit: Check the current price

Ohuhu Rechargeable TENS Treatment Unit with 16 Modes and 12 Pads Electric Muscle Stimulator, EMS Machine

Rechargeable Electric Muscle Stimulator Machine: photo

This TENS for pain has 16 modes and 12 electric sensors (six of them can be attached simultaneously) to be fixed on the muscles. Ohuhu’s advantage is definitely its large informative display.

Everyone has faced a situation when a gadget claims to have plenty of possibilities and modes that are very difficult to handle as a small screen and unknown icons confuse you. Here, the screen is divided into sectors providing information about performance (from head massage to acupuncture). Moreover, time, intensity and power of the session as well as the battery charge data are output on the screen.

The manufacturers recommend buying this gadget to relieve muscular pain, normalize blood flow, sleep, and even stomach processes. They honestly warn that Ohuhu won’t inflate your muscles and will only relieve pain. A session can be set to last from 10 to 60 minutes with 20 stages of massage intensity.

What are other advantages of this device? Suckers do not require any gel as they are sticky (up to 6 large and 6 small two-foot wired sensors can be connected). The battery lives for up to 10 hours and is charged via USB. The device itself is rather small: its dimensions are 8.7x6.5x2.3 inches. Twelve suckers, a manual, a body atlas, a USB cable and a charger are supplied. The quality of translation of the manual from Chinese to English leaves much to be desired, though. Read over 700 customer reviews to know more

star Excerpts from buyers’ reviews star

«I was diagnosed with Frozen Shoulder. I go to the chiropractor every 2 weeks and they use the TENS on my back and shoulders. I've been using it in the morning for about 20 minutes and have not had to take medication during the day time for pain. I've also decided to use it for other areas of pain, my right knee, left forearm and my right foot (plantar fasciitis)».

«I have rheumatoid arthritis and my shoulders were killing me, so I purchased this. It came with 12 gel pads, 6 large and 6 small, a charger, charging cord, a diagram of where to place the pads for the relief you want, 2 sets of connector cables and a charging cord. I love that it not only has adjustments for the intensity and duration, but I found it also gives you additional adjustment options within each mode setting».

TENS Unit Ohuhu: Check the current price

FDA cleared HealthmateForever YK15AB TENS unit Electronic Pulse Massager

HealthmateForever Electronic Pulse Massager: photo

Judging by the amount of positive feedback, this must be the most popular product for pain TENS therapy. 85% of over 150 customer reviews are positive, which is a record.

The gadget uses 8 suckers and has 15 modes. Its design resembles a TV or an AC remote control. It has a small screen but also a bunch of backlit buttons. Each button is labeled and turns on a particular mode, e.g. “Shoulder”, “Back”, “Elbow” or “Ankle”. Such control is more user-friendly for many customers than having a single button for everything. A rear strap allows attaching the gadget to jeans or a shirt pocket. Many competitors haven’t implemented this convenient option in their devices.

A control, four sets of wires (with a sensor at each end), eight sucker sensors, a holder and 3 AAA batteries are supplied. A manual and body atlas are also available.

The manufacturer deserves extra credit for consumer responsibility as the contraindications (which are often not even mentioned by competitors. Familiarize yourself with the list before you buy this product!

star Excerpts from buyers’ reviews star

«I had a 400lbs patient fall on me 3 years ago, blowing out 2 disks in my lower back, and I've been a mess ever since. But one night with this machine and I already feel much better. On my first night, I already have it on the 4th intensity setting for my low back and 3rd for my mid».

«I'm recovering from whiplash soft tissue neck injury from being rear-ended. The first 2 days I was in even more pain, but now I am doing much better. The seller emailed to make sure the product was not only received but to make sure it was as excepted. I think that is an awesome service. Thank you».

FDA Electronic Pulse Massager: Check the current price

Roscoe Medical TENS 7000 TENS Unit - TENS Machine for Pain Treatment, Back Pain and Rehabilitation

Edition Digital TENS Unit with accessories: photo

This is also a very popular product with nearly 5000 customer reviews. This gadget looks more respectable as it resembles pro medical equipment. A large screen is replaced with a small technical one with two sections, and the streamlined plastic case is replaced with rubber and metal elements. All four control buttons are covered by the protective lid on the rear side.

The wires connecting the sensors are more solid and thick than those of the competitors (they are made of lead). However, it has the least amount of sensors in our review: only four. A firm case can be used to transport the gadget.  

This is a very powerful and affordable stimulator. Note that incorrect settings can turn it into an electric shocker, so the first try of TENS 7000 can be painful if you ignore the manual and don’t adjust the settings. This unit stores up to 60 sets of operation records, with the total recorded time amounting to 999 hours.

There are five consumer modes available, which is less than in other products. However, each mode combines a predefined set of speed, intensity and power, so you don’t have to adjust them manually. The powerful 9A battery is supposed to provide 48 hours of continuous performance.

Roscoe Medical TENS 7000: Check the current price

iReliev TENS + EMS Combination Unit Muscle Stimulator for Pain Relief & Arthritis & Muscle Strength

iReliev Combination Unit Muscle Stimulator: photo

This gadget is also premium-priced. Unlike Compex, we don’t see this brand’s own style, only imitating famous competitors. iReliev obviously copies the design of early iPods and even Apple products’ naming style. The white streamlined case looks neither expensive nor durable.

But we don’t judge a book by its cover, do we? Let’s check out both the advantages and the disadvantages of iReliev TENS+EMS. This small device is the size of a credit card, and as few as four electrode sensors can be attached to it. To be fair, there are rather three sensors than four as one of them is simply split to be fixed on two muscles at once.

The interface, buttons, and screen are intuitive and straightforward, thanks to the copied iPod design. There is a 5-60 minutes timer. Out of fourteen available modes, seven aim at pain relief; one eliminates arthritis and six modes train and recover muscles. In general, all these options except arthritis treatment are offered by competitors.

As for the advantages, we’ll note that this is the only manufacturer to cite a medical review. The expert comments: “I, Joe Noel, PT, licensed Physical Therapist in the State of Florida and having practiced as a PT for the last 24 years, do hereby recommend the iReliev TENS + EMS unit for treating pain & increasing muscle strength. I have used TENS & EMS in my clinical practice & recommend for home use. I believe iReliev is uniquely designed to offer RX strength pain relief & muscle conditioning,”

They also promise a refund within fourteen days, if you are not satisfied with iReliev TENS+EMS.

Finally, let us say a few words about the pack: the gadget is supplied with four double and eight single sensors, three AAA batteries, a case, a set of wires, and a strap for attaching it to clothes. This is a standard pack, and this high price truly makes this stimulator an outsider of our rating.

iReliev TENS + EMS Combination Unit: Check the current price

FAQ

How long does TENS treatment last?

It depends. Pain relief may last only as long as the device is operating or for a longer period of time — up to one day. In some cases, even though the pain returns after the treatment, it is not as intense as it was before the stimulation. According to Ailsa Wright, a clinical nurse specialist at Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals Trust, the more often you apply TNS therapy, the longer the effect is. In other words, it tends to accumulate.

On the other hand, the repeated TENS treatment may result in increased tolerance to it. Therefore, there is no uniform rule on how long the therapy should last, with its recommended duration varying from 20 minutes to several hours.

Is TENS treatment safe?

Generally, this is a safe method of pain relief that does not involve any side effects. And yet, there is a number of contradictions for using these devices. The website of the UK Department of Health and Social Care mentions the following ones.

First, those people who have metal implants in their bodies should consult a doctor before applying this therapy. Secondly, it is not recommended for pregnant women and thirdly, this gadget should not be used by those who suffer epilepsy or heart issues. Apart from that, the TENS pads may cause allergy symptoms in some people. This is why some manufacturers offer special pads for people with allergies.

How many modes should the unit have: 3 or 15?

It depends on whether the unit combines both EMS and TENS treatments or focuses on a single method. However, keep in mind that the rule "The more the better" should not be applied here as it is the technologies used that make the device effective.

EMS & TENS Muscle Stimulators Comparative Chart

Product Features

TENS Unit Ohuhu EMS Machine

Type: TENS & EMS

16 modes

12 electric sensors

Rechargeable battery

The treatment lasts 10-60 min

HealthmateForever YK15AB

HealthmateForever Electronic Pulse Massager min: photo

TENS & EMS

15 modes

Backlit buttons

Comes with a rear strap

Runs on 3AAA batteries

Roscoe Medical TENS 7000

Type: TENS

5 modes

4 control buttons

Stores up to 60 sets of records

Comes with a protective lid

Run on 9A battery

Compex Edge Silver

Type: EMS

3 modes

Trusted Swiss brand

The treatment lasts 4-6 min

Rechargeable battery

4 electrode wires of two different sizes

Compex Wireless EMS

Type: EMS

9 modes

Trusted Swiss brand

16 snap electrodes

The treatment lasts 4-6 min

Rechargeable battery

Wireless PODs

Compex Sport Elite

Type: EMS

9 modes

Trusted Swiss brand

The treatment lasts 4-6 min

Rechargeable battery

4 electrode wires of two different sizes

iReliev TENS + EMS

Type: TENS & EMS

14 modes

Small size and portable

4 electrode sensors

The treatment lasts 5-60 min