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Back to the History of EMS Training

Going back to the early years of electronic muscle stimulation application in high performance sport, we can still find a sort of knowledge confusion when it comes to dealing with the origins and the first on-field applications.

As for many other complementary methods for training, recovery and regeneration purposes (just think about the first fundamental studies and applications of heart rate variability), sport scientists of the former Soviet Union gave us an invaluable contribution in terms of understanding the importance of electrical muscle stimulation in the process of physical preparation of athletes.

A leading pioneer in EMS application in sport, Soviet Scientist Dr. Yakov Kots has been one of the very first proponents of electronic muscle stimulation to enhance the performance of the soviet athletes competing at the Olympics in the early 70’s.

At that time, there were no scientific studies or evidence supporting the EMS usage in sport performance and the work of Dr. Kots helped to create the foundations for both applied work and subsequent research.

As for many of the sports science researchers and training methods coming from Soviet Union, the cultural and political Iron Curtain made it impossible to filter information especially in the 50’s and 60’s: in fact, before the Western World became aware of the electrical muscle stimulation usage during the seventies, Soviet coaches and scientists had started to experiment with the technology since the early 1950’s.   

The first successful experiments of Dr. Kots were linked to the physical preparation of USSR athletes competing at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Canada: Kots, working at the Central Institute of Physical Culture in USSR, showed through his first studies the superiority in muscle tension generation from an EMS contraction in respect to a maximum voluntary contraction.

The stimulation parameters used by Kots became later known as Russian Stimulation: the protocol consisted of a 10/50/10 cycle, in which 10 seconds of stimulation were followed by 50 seconds of rest for 10 total repetitions. The stimulation frequency was set at 2500 Hz, being considered as the most effective frequency at which to stimulate muscles.

In the following years, the coach who mostly popularized the use of EMS in Western World has been Canadian Charlie Francis.

Francis is well known to have been Ben Johnson’s coach as well as one of the most innovative and smartest minds in the field of elite performance due to his brilliant ideas and concepts about training, recovery and regeneration. 

In a period in which lack of well-designed researches and contrasting opinions were predominant, Charlie Francis once stated: “my own results have been so favourable that i am not interested in debating whether or not EMS works but rather in optimising the use of EMS in the training of elite athletes.”

In recent years there has been a growing interest in EMS application in sport both from a scientific research standpoint than from an on-field application point of view.

Our knowledge about the efficacy of EMS and the difference between voluntary and electrical induced contractions is highly increased today and the aura of skepticism is slowly disappearing.

Nevertheless, going back to the history of EMS applications in sport, we can not fail to recognize the importance of the early work done by Russian scientists and western coaches like Charlie Francis in the diffusion of innovative training concepts, which have definitely improved our knowledge of the powerful athlete-machine.

In the next blog articles we will go deeper through the specific terminology when it comes to EMS and the evolution of scientific research over the years.

Article by

Antonio Robustelli

PainPod BioTechnology advisory board - Head of Sports & Technical Science. International Sports Performance consultant

Home Nation: Italy / Sport: Multiple / Date Joined: 2017

Antonio is a widely sought after International Sports Performance Consultant & Applied Sports Technologist. He works around the world with Olympic athletes and professional sports teams in Europe, Asia and the USA. He is a prominent speaker and contributor to international sports magazines including Athletics Weekly.

His area of expertise includes injury prevention, sports technology, strength training programming, speed development and recovery monitoring. He works with advanced technologies in the field of performance monitoring, injury prevention and improved performance that includes infrared thermography, foot pressure mapping, myotonometry and tensiomyography

A regular speaker and lecturer at International Sports Science conferences, he is currently writing ‘Sports Biometry: application of technology for Sports Science’.