The Best TENS Units/EMS Units for Muscle Recovery
A TENS unit—transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation unit, for those who were wondering—was first patented in the US in 1974, for use in treating both acute and chronic pain. After making the rounds through sports medicine clinics, the device has also garnered praise when used as part of a post-workout recovery plan. My first introduction to TENS came as part of my post-surgery rehab, having broken both my radius and ulna simultaneously, and as I researched these TENS units, the more information I uncovered about their efficacy when used for workout recovery. EMS (electrical muscle stimulation) units are in a way an amplified version of TENS, in the sense that rather than just stimulating nerves, they cause muscle contractions through electrical pulses. Regardless of your training method of choice—strength training, running, cycling, or others—when used properly a TENS or EMS unit can help you recover from a heavy workout faster, and get you back out there sooner. Many machines are available that do both, and especially on the fitness rehab side, EMS tends to be more effective when it comes to recovery.
Best TENS/EMS Units
TENS + EMS
How Does a TENS/EMS Work
At a very basic level, a TENS unit uses small electrical pulses to stimulate nerve endings. Through this those electrical pulses modify the way that neurones send signals and prevent the pain signals from reaching the brain. EMS on the other hand operates slightly differently, as it focuses on muscles rather than nerves, forcing involuntary contraction over the target area.
What Does a TENS Unit/EMS Unit Do
In the case of a TENS unit, the principle is effectively an action of altering or scrambling nerve response. You’re basically ‘scrambling’ the pain signalling to the brain so that the pain you’re experiencing is processed differently by the brain. In rehab practices, TENS is used at the end of a therapy session to lessen recovery pain. After all, you’ve been working out a sensitive area of your body, and the stimulation of the area after the fact both increases blood flow to the area and assists in blocking the signal path of pain to the brain. It isn’t long-lasting, and depending on the user can sustain for roughly a day or so after treatment, but generally speaking the pain from rehab shouldn’t last much longer than that.
With EMS, this is where the more ‘massage-like’ function of treatment comes into play. By inducing muscle spasms in an area that’s been worked out heavily (especially legs and shoulders, in my experience), EMS units can be effective in reducing delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS is primarily caused by the micro tears that occur within your muscles after the strain of a workout (not by a buildup of lactic acid, as previously believed). The added movement/contraction of muscles via an EMS acts in a way like massage therapy or deep stretching would. If you’ve experienced DOMS before, you’ll also be well aware that static rest (laying around at home on the couch) makes recovery that much harder/last longer, but at the same time it can be very hard to force yourself to keep active and moving after exerting yourself at the gym or on a treadmill.
What To Look For
With these units there are a few key specifications to look at, which we broke down in the table above. First off, having the versatility of TENS and EMS treatment in a single machine is a big plus depending on your personal situation. Also important is the number of channels; this is how many locations you can target at once. If you’re targeting localized pain this will be less relevant, but if you are looking at post-workout/run recovery, having four channels to be able to treat both of your legs at the same time is a nice benefit to have. On-board battery power is the last big consideration, as on one hand having to replace batteries all the time can feel a bit wasteful, but by contrast a unit with a built-in battery is only as good as the lifespan of said battery.
Building Muscle With EMS
Here’s where things get a little shady. There are folks (and companies) out there that claim that EMS units can be used to build and tone muscle. In reality, and having reviewed several studies. This is just barely true but not in the way that you want it to be. Muscle contractions do help build muscle regardless of whether they come from electric stimulation or from lifting, nut you’re not going to build big biceps and a 6-pack by sitting on your couch strapped into an EMS all day. Most studies were focused on rehab, and the results were more that using electric stimulation was helpful in preventing muscle atrophy when a patient was recovering from injury or surgery. So basically, remember that this is a recovery device and not a replacement for your workout strategy.
TENS Unit/EMS Unit Features
As with a lot of categories in fitness, there’s quite the range of available options and price points for TENS and EMS units out there. These days it’s more common to find units that can do both TENS and EMS from a single machine, and many have a variety of programming for different muscle groups, a range of intensity, and even settings that can be used as pre-workout warmups. As you’ll see from our list, we lean towards more comprehensive and feature-rich units, though we’re also including more basic/affordable options for those on a budget.
The Road to Recovery
TENS or EMS units in this case can be viewed as the ‘easy alternative’ for short term recovery, giving you an option to help reduce post-workout soreness without having to ‘walk it off’ or ‘stretch it out’. Those days when everything aches after the gym, where you can’t just ring up your massage therapist and spend money on a good relaxing massage, or where you know you’ve got a busy day coming tomorrow and you can’t afford to be aching in agony, being able to use an EMS unit to loosen things up will be incredibly handy.
1. Compex Sport Elite 2.0 Muscle Stimulator with TENS
We’re starting big here, as Compex is one of the top names in the category when it comes to quality, features, and functionality. It’s the real ‘all-in-one’ approach, being a 4-channel device that runs both EMS and TENS programs, with special pulse patterns dedicated to both pre and post workout scenarios.
2. TENS 7000 2nd Edition Digital TENS Unit
Stepping down to something much more affordable, the TENS 7000 is a TENS-specific unit that still delivers good quality and function for those looking specifically at pain relief over workout rehab. It’s an extremely popular model with great adjustability, allowing users to fine tune pulse amplitude and intensity to suit their comfort/pain situation.
3. Belifu Dual Channel TENS EMS Unit
This unit from Belifu is an interesting one, as it touts quite a few perks at an entry-level price. Don’t let all the bells and whistles fool you—the volume of programs might seem good, but there’s little in the way of differentiation from oner to the next, and their electrode pads are of so-so quality as well. That said, if it’s something you’re just going to use on rare occasion it’s good enough to get the job done.
4. OMRON Max Power Relief Tens Unit
Going very basic without compromising quality, this TENS unit from OMRON is a simple, effective, and very portable model designed for targeted single area pain relief. One of its key selling features is its upper range of power, which is great for those with a higher pain threshold.
5. iSTIM EV-805 TENS EMS 4 Channel Rechargeable Combo Machine
Our last pick is basically the affordable/no name equivalent of the high spec Compex unit we started off with. It has four channels, a rechargeable battery, ample operating modes, and plenty of electrode pads, but where it seems to fall a bit flat is reliability and quality control. While most survive without issues, these things can have battery failures, screen failures, and other shortcomings. If you don’t want to sacrifice features but are on a budget, you can give this one a try and hope for the best possible outcome in terms of reliability.