There are dozens of electrical muscle stimulators on the market, many of which make some pretty outlandish claims. Can you really get stronger just by hooking yourself up to a machine?
I looked at the research behind EMS (electronic muscle stimulator) devices to find out how much a performance-driven athlete could really benefit from electrical stimulation, and I appreciated how Marc Pro focuses on where EMS really has the most potential: recovery. Plus, with some of my favorite OCR athletes personally using Marc Pro, I had to give it a try myself.
Marc Pro Technology
The idea behind EMS is to stimulate nerves and muscles by passing current through. However, different frequencies and amplitudes will have very different effects on the body, and not necessarily positive ones. Because different devices are tuned to different parameters, each will work differently. Unfortunately this means there’s a lot of variability among products, so while there are tons of research studies on EMS out there, there are very few studies on each specific use. In fact, only a dozen human studies have been done to investigate whether EMS enhances recovery, and the results weren’t entirely convincing . That said, I looked at some other studies done with the Marc Pro unit specifically that show that it is effective at reducing muscle soreness and recovery time , and promoting angiogenesis / increased blood flow . While these were all small sample studies done by the same guy, there was enough there for me to want to run a Marc Pro through a field test. Obviously, reducing down time between training sessions and increasing maximal blood flow would be great for any type of athlete .
Marc Pro Unboxing
The packaging on the Marc Pro is great, and it’s really easy to get started. It comes in a carrying case with partitions for the unit itself, the wires/electrodes, and the charger. The case itself is compact and protects the unit pretty well, so it’s perfect for travelling with right out of the box. The unit came fully charged, so I started hooking up electrodes as soon as I opened it. There are two channels, with two electrodes each, so you can stimulate both sides of the body at once or just go double-time on a single area or muscle chain. Each channel operates at a fixed frequency (about 2Hz) but adjustable intensity. For some reason, intensity is on a scale of 0 to 9. Most other people I hooked up to it were hesitant to go above 5 or 6, but I would have loved a 10 on some of my larger muscle groups. Lower intensities were fine for smaller muscles on the arms and shoulders. I’m not really sure what determines an individual’s tolerance to electrical stimulation, but it definitely varies. Here is what it looks like in action on my quad:
Marc Pro Usage
I tested out the Marc Pro on pretty much every muscle group I could think of, but there are some limitations on where you can use it. For obvious reasons, don’t use it around your head, neck, or heart; this means your chest muscles are going to have to recover the old fashioned way. As an endurance athlete, I mainly used it on my lower body, but I have heard more than one person say they used it to treat their bicep tendonitis with good results (disclaimer: I’m not a doctor). At first, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to figure out where to place the electrodes, but it was really simple. Generally, start by placing an electrode at each end of the muscle you’re trying to stimulate, and then adjust the electrode placement until you maximize the muscle’s contraction. The Marc Pro comes with a booklet with some suggestions on electrode placement that I found helpful. My personal favorite was one electrode on the bottom of the foot, another at the top of my calf. I loved the unit on my calves, hamstrings, and quads, but I never could find a configuration that really got my glutes firing. As far as upper body usage goes, my experience is limited. To be honest, I don’t push my upper body to the limit very often, and don’t need it to recovery any better than it already does. I tested out some upper body configurations for fun, and found lower intensities (3 to 5) were sufficient for stimulating the arms, shoulders, and upper back, but I didn’t find the sensations to be as enjoyable as on the legs. In certain configurations, the electrodes can cause some painful stings, but a slight placement adjustment will resolve any issues. The only minor issues I really had was that the electrodes pull out my leg hair, and my skin is sensitive to the adhesive.
To really see how well the Marc Pro worked for recovery, I pushed myself a little harder than usual during the two week training block that I had the unit. It’s so hard to definitively say whether something helped or not, especially when it comes to recovery aid, but I do believe the Marc Pro helped me sustain an increased training load for two weeks. I used the unit for about 90 minutes per day, after training, for 14 consecutive days. Weeks later, after a workout that was a bit too hard, I really wish I still had the Marc Pro to help me get ready for another full week of training. It may be placebo, but based on the studies cited above and the almost exclusively positive feedback from fellow athletes, I think there’s actually something to it. Here’s what top OCR athlete, Hunter McIntyre, had to say about his experience with Marc Pro:
“The Marc pro has been a key tool in my training for almost a year now. The body of an athlete is constantly taxed by the training that we put ourselves through to improve for future sport. The truth is that training is only part of the cocktail – it’s more recovery, more importantly, that will allow you to grow and excel the next time you test yourself. The Marc pro is a huge part of getting me ready for whatever I face next.”
For a kind of tutorial on how to use Marc Pro to help recovery after a run, check out this video from Bryan MacKenzie. He makes it seem pretty complicated, but it’s a starting point if you have no idea what to do.
Marc Pro Competition
While it’s definitely an expensive piece of equipment ($650) for a weekend warrior, a top athlete looking for an extra advantage should consider adding Marc Pro to their regimen. There are competing products on the market, like Compex and Tens units, but the Marc Pro is the only one designed for recovery only. The Tens unit focuses on treating nerve pain, and Compex has a bunch of different pre-set programs for a variety of purposes. I haven’t researched or tested a Compex unit, so I’m not sure if it works well for recovery like the Marc Pro, but I don’t think using EMS programs to build strength or endurance is the most productive use of an athlete’s time. I like how Marc Pro focuses their research and attention on enhancing recovery. In addition to the regular Marc Pro unit, the also make the Marc Pro Plus which includes a higher frequency pain-relief mode. I only got to test a regular unit, but if that sounds appealing, you can get that feature too for an extra $300.
- “Active” recovery without fatiguing muscles
- Increased blood flow, possible angiogenesis
- Portability, convenience, and battery life
- Benefit relative to other modes of recovery is debatable
- Fixed frequency
- Electrodes need occasional replacement (and can pull out leg hair!)
Marc Pro Verdict
After using the Marc Pro daily for 2 weeks, I feel like it helped me adapt to a higher training load by reducing the amount of time I needed to recover between workouts. I even used it to compete in two back to back races over a weekend and felt better than I ever have before when double racing. But was it superior to other recovery techniques like dynamic stretching, massage, rolling, etc? Maybe adding an hour of yoga to my daily routine could have similar effects at a fraction of the cost. Personally, I feel like one of the biggest advantages of the Marc Pro is improving recovery without further accumulating fatigue; you can just hook up the electrodes and relax while doing other things like working on the computer, something you wouldn’t be able to do while employing other recovery techniques. I guess you could say it’s passive recovery that works like active recovery. So, while there a tons of ways to help you recover, hooking up to a Marc Pro while you sit on the couch beats just sitting on the couch, and can easily be incorporated into any routine. And while it may be expensive, it’s a one time cost unlike the recurring costs of PT appointments and massage.
My recommendation: if you’re already maximizing your recovery ability in other ways and feel like there’s not much more you can do, the Marc Pro could give you an extra edge. But if you’re not even eating right and hydrating after your workouts, doing recovery workouts between harder ones, training purposefully instead of always going “beast mode” with random fitness challenges, etc., put your time and energy into the basics first.
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Sources  http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Citation/2014/09000/Neuromuscular_Electrical_Stimulation_During.12.aspx  https://www.asep.org/asep/asep/JEPonlineAPRIL2013_Blum.pdf  https://www.asep.org/asep/asep/JEPonlineApril2011KennethBlum.pdf  https://www.asep.org/asep/asep/JEPonlineOctober2011Blum.pdf  http://jap.physiology.org/content/97/3/1119