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Why a TENS Unit WON’T Help You Build Muscle

Can a TENS Unit Build Muscle?

You want to build muscle, so you’re thinking of investing in the best TENS unit you can find. Before you do anything, read this article.

In short, TENS units aren’t considered to be the most effective tool for muscles, though they are beneficial in many other ways.

There’s a chance that you’re thinking of an electric muscle stimulation (EMS) machine, a very similar looking device.

Let’s firstly look at why a TENS unit isn’t the right option:

Can a TENS Unit Build Muscle?

Not really. A TENS machine isn’t designed to work your muscles.

Instead, the stimulating pulses excite the sensory nerve endings, which help to block pain signals from reaching your brain. It is primarily a pain relief tool.

In some cases if the electrode pads are placed on a muscle and used on a high setting, a TENS device may cause the muscles to twitch and contract.

However this is not the intention of TENS therapy and not what the devices have been designed to do.

What you need is an electric muscle stimulator (EMS).

TENS and EMS devices look very similar, both use electrode pads and mild electrical impulses, but there are some big differences.

EMS machines stimulate motor nerves, causing muscles to contract, rather than impacting on pain signals.

The programs on an electric muscle stimulator are created with the intention of causing muscle contractions, making them more effective for muscle building and rehabilitation.

  • If you like the sound of both TENS and EMS, you can get combination devices (like the ones featured below) that offer both therapies.

What Is an EMS Unit?

EMS stands for electrical muscle stimulation. The device sends signals to your muscles to make them contract.

Did you know?

Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) is also known by the names: NeuroMuscular Electrical Stimulation (NMES), electromyostimulation, e-stim, and stim.

How Does an EMS Unit Help Muscle Growth?

An EMS machine stimulates your motor nerves, which induces muscle contractions, mimicking the way they contract during a workout.

It is these contractions that make the device more effective for muscle building.

  • By successfully working your muscles with no exertion, you’re also able to warm up and recover faster, meaning optimum time for your muscle building workouts!

Most EMS machines have programs designed for both warm up and recovery, along with programs for strength, resistance, and endurance.

Plus they aren’t just great for muscle building. Research shows they have many other benefits, including increasing your aerobic capacity.

Choosing the Right EMS Machine for Building Muscle

There are a wide range of devices on the market right now.

Though they all deliver EMS treatment, the way they do it and the benefits they offer are slightly different.

Here are three great EMS machines (that also have TENS programs) to help with muscle growth:

PowerDot Duo 2.0

PowerDot Duo 2.0 is an incredibly popular EMS machine – and for good reason.

Instead of being controlled by a separate unit, the pads work seamlessly with an intuitive app on your smartphone.

We spoke with PowerDot’s CEO Eric Glader, who explained:

PowerDot is a company aiming to tear down the four walls of the training room and give people access to the same therapy professional athletes and physicians have been using for decades.

Take a look at the PowerDot 2.0 in action:

YouTube video
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PlayMakar SPORT Electrical Muscle Stimulator

If you want an EMS unit that doesn’t cost the earth, then the PlayMakar Sport Electrical Muscle Stimulator is worth considering.

Despite the incredibly low cost, you won’t feel like you’re compromising on features.

Sure it’s not wireless like the PowerDot, but it does offer 10 pre-set EMS modes each tailored for your warm up, workout and recovery.

PlayMakar has endorsements from many top athletes.

However their ethos is to make their range of workout tools accessible to fitness fanatics at all levels.

Watch the video below to see how athletes have embraced the technology:

YouTube video
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Compex Edge 3.0 Muscle Stimulator with TENS Kit

Compex has been a trusted name in the EMS world for many years.

Their Edge 3.0 Muscle Stimulator Kit offers a simple way to control your treatment.

Use the center navigation button to easily move between four different programs.

Select Resistance, one of the programs designed for endurance and strength, and you’ll start building both your slow and fast twitch muscle fibers.

Learn more about the device by watching the video below, that explains a little more about how it works:

YouTube video
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What Else Can an EMS Unit Do for Muscles?

Electrical muscle stimulation has lots of health advantages, particularly when it comes to your muscles.

Muscle Cramps

Overuse of muscles is one of the main causes of cramps.

EMS can stimulate overused muscles, helping them to recover without any exertion.

Respondents who experienced cramping at least once a week, were the subject of a 2018 research project.

After just six weeks of EMS, the number of cramps experienced was reduced by a massive 78%!

Retrains Muscles

Amazingly, electrical muscle stimulation can even retrain muscles following an injury.

Some evidence was found to show that the treatment can increase voluntary function in partially paralyzed muscles.

That’s because the repetitive stimulating pulses effectively help to teach the body how to operate the muscles again.

Improves Cosmetic Muscle Tone

Facial muscles can even be toned with EMS, according to the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology.

Age-related loss of muscle mass is what contributes to the aging of the human face.

The use of an EMS facial device for 12 weeks, led 80% of test subjects to report improved firmness, tone and lift, with a significant increase in muscle thickness!

Preserves Muscle Mass

Critically ill patients in intensive care can struggle to preserve muscle mass, as they’re unable to take part in active exercise.

Electrical muscle stimulation provides a way to work those muscles, without any limb movement.

A study in Greece showed that muscle mass decreased significantly less in intensive care patients when they received daily EMS treatments.

Ab Belts and EMS

Ab belts are a big hit in the exercise community, as they can tone your abs while you get on with your day to day life!

They’re essentially just EMS units with pre-positioned electrodes on a belt.

Slendertone’s app driven Connect is one of the most technologically advanced ab belts on the market:

While the main benefit of choosing an ab belt over a normal EMS device is convenience, be aware that there are some performance considerations to take into account.

The shape and position of the electrodes on ab belts have been designed to work your abs only, they’re literally made to measure!

Whereas, generic square or rectangular electrodes from standard EMS units haven’t been specifically designed to work your abs.

  • The takeout here is: If the only group of muscles you want to use EMS on is your abs then get an ab belt.

One question people often ask though is, can an EMS unit build abs?

Well, the FDA seems to think so!

At this time Slendertone’s belts (they also manufacture the Flex Belt) have been cleared by the FDA to tone, strengthen and firm abdominal muscles.

Read our full review of the Slendertone Connect.

Three Great EMS Units for Muscle Building

PowerDot Duo 2.0
PowerDot Duo 2.0
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PlayMakar SPORT
PlayMakar SPORT
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Slendertone Connect Abs
Slendertone Connect Abs
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Laura Smith


Laura Smith

Associate Editorial Manager

Specialist health & wellbeing writer, passionate about discovering new technologies & sharing the latest research.