When I heard that New York City had opened up its first electric shock therapy training gym on the Upper East Side, I knew I had to give it a try.
When it comes to exercise crazes, I’m willing to try just about anything to get a fresh endorphin rush.
Yoga in a 95-degree room full of sweaty mouth-breathers? Sure. A marathon in the scorching tropics? Why not.
While shock therapy training technology has been available to the rich and famous for years, “Shock Therapy” is the first studio in the city offering group fitness classes with electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) body suits.
Turns out, I was not prepared for the wild, pulsating world of full-body EMS workouts. Here’s what the 30-minute electrocharged experience of a shock therapy workout is really like.
When I arrived at the studio, my trainer Ural said he’d need to hose down my electric vest with warm water before I put it on. I was prepared to sweat, but I didn’t realise I was going to get drenched so quickly!
The water-loaded vest, a special cotton-y shirt, and pajama-like capri pants were given to me for the workout. They’re meant to help the electrical current pulses from the EMS pads better reach my body and start toning it.
Ural helped me buckle into the bodysuit. The water felt warm at first, but in a matter of seconds it cooled off and then I was strapped inside a slightly cold, clammy, wet suit.
Despite the chill, I feel a bit like a superhero with my ab, arm, leg, back and butt stimulators all strapped on and ready to go.
The workout I was about to embark on is a 30-minute long strength training routine.
Ural explains that all of the moves in the workout today will be demo’d by a model on a big screen at the front of the class. All we have to do is copy the avatar. How hard can this be?
I was about to find out, as Ural booted up my power suit.
Ural adjusts my power suit and turns the electric pulses up in each part of my body, one at a time. Some spots feel tingly, while others are more spasm-like. It’s a bizarre feeling.
He adds a little more “buzz” power in my butt and thigh pads, and really ramps things up on my abs, too. I’m used to lifting weight with my arms, but the muscle pulses on the core feel really weird.
It didn’t hurt, but it was a different kind of feeling than I’ve ever experienced before. I told our photographer Hollis that it felt a little like having one of those blinking restaurant wait-time buzzers strapped to a bunch of different muscles all over my body.
The buzzing sensation here is much more powerful than a handheld pager.
The EMS pulses are timed to coordinate with our movements during class. I try to copy the on-screen avatar as best I can so the moves are in sync with the pulses, but the avatar is clearly having an easier time than I am.
When the on-screen model bends down into a squat, my bodysuit buzzes to life. As he stands back up, the machine pauses, and I get a brief respite from the shocks.
It’s not a particularly sweaty workout, but it’s challenging moving my body around while all of my limbs and major muscle groups are getting zapped.
The craze has already caught on with supermodels, billionaires and celebrities. Ural’s from Turkey and he says people have been exercising like this in his home country for years.
In the middle of class, my instructor asks me if I’d like to turn up the intensity on any of the pulse pads. Nah, I’m good. This is intense enough!
The science of this kind of full-body EMS isn’t exactly proven, but there is some fledgling evidence it can be beneficial.
Recent research suggests a single session can ramp up your resting metabolic rate and burn around 460 extra calories in the three days following a class. But since researchers have only studied this in 16 people so far, more research is needed to know for sure if the technique helps.
There’s also some evidence electric shock workouts can help boost strength and power on specific moves, like squats. But the verdict on health benefits is still mixed.
EMS has been used clinically and in more targeted, localised ways for years, helping patients with muscle rehabilitation and pain relief.
Recent studies also suggest it can be a good option for older adults who might not do other muscle-strengthening exercises because it’s so light on the joints.
But some doctors are worried about the idea of shocking your entire body at once.
Doctor Nicola Maffiuletti and his colleagues at the Schulthess Clinic in Zurich, Switzerland say a 20-year-old patient was rushed to their hospital with muscle damage after his electric shock session in August 2015. He was diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis (muscle breakdown) and had to stay in the hospital for five days.
Rhabdomyolysis can result from all kinds of overexertion, but it’s especially a concern in warm weather and for previously untrained people. You can also experience rhabdomyolysis from spinning or any other kind of intense exercise – especially if you are unprepared.
It’s still not clear how worried the general public should be about this, though, because electric shock workouts doses are completely unregulated – something that troubles Maffiuletti and his colleagues.
At some points during the class, I feel like my left arm was totally seizing up, and when that happened, it was extra-tough to coordinate the movements.
At other points, it was a challenge to bend down or lunge. The pulsing sensations on all of my muscles at the same time created something like sensory overload. Add in a strength training move, and it’s tricky to move quickly.
My instructor says this type of workout is meant to be performed two or three times a week, max.
Part of the idea is that you’re working all your muscles for the entire half-hour class. That’s why it’s so short.
The studio claims that you’re also getting at different parts of your muscles that might not be worked without help from electrical stimulation. It certainly feels like that’s true – there are parts of my abs that I have never noticed before screaming at me right now.
After half an hour, it’s all over. Not as long as my typical workout, but I’m ready to be done.
My muscles feel fatigued. But my heart’s not racing.
I leave the studio feeling energised, giddy and ready for a day at my desk. There’s some new evidence that I’m not the only one: people who did this for a six-week period in Korea felt less anxious and less fatigued.
The new Korean study found that former couch-potato college students who tried out total body stimulation over a six week period felt less sore at the end of the study than they did at the beginning. Psychologists also rated the study participants slightly less anxious, less sleepless, and less fatigued. But, that probably would have been true no matter what kind of workout regime the students started, given that they weren’t moving much before.
I’m not quite ready to get shocked on the regular, but this was a charged-up one-time adventure I’m glad I tried.