EMS has long been popular in studios across Europe for its short, effective workouts, and the trend is slowly coming to the States. (Similar technology is also used in medical settings to aid injury recovery.) But Catalyst boasts the only electro muscle stimulation technology in the United States approved by the FDA for home use—and it currently has a waiting list of more than 70,000.
Curious, I tried a week of the Catalyst workout to see if it lived up to the hype.
How does electro muscle stimulation work?
EMS workouts use a suit with electrodes to send small electrical impulses to the muscles, causing them to contract. It’s not so different from the signals our brains normally send to our muscles, this external activation makes the type-two better engage (or twitch faster), says Asha Gallagher, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Long Island Jewish Valley Stream Hospital. Muscle fibers that may be more difficult to access.
“Our brain activates our slow twitch fibers first, and then it will activate our type-two fibers as needed,” says Dr. Gallagher. “EMS is mimicking that voluntary contraction, but it’s easier to engage larger neurons and faster twitch fibers, which is why you get everything at once.” That’s the science behind Catalyst’s claim that it can activate 90 percent of the body’s muscle fibers, which Gallagher says, in theory, checks out: “The benefit is the ability to engage muscles that you probably didn’t know existed,” he says.
How is the catalyst used?
Starting with a Catalyst session is significantly more involved than your typical at-home workout. First, I put on my base layer, a thin shirt and shorts designed to retain moisture. Yes, moisture, and lots of it: The catalyst kit comes with a large spray bottle, which is used to douse the suit’s electrodes with water, as they need to be soaked in order to conduct electricity.
Then, I put on my suit (a Catalyst team member taught me how to put it on via Zoom before my first session), a vest with electrodes on each major muscle, and shorts. The suit is very tight-fitting, so much so that I felt like my range of motion was limited (I soon learned that this is necessary for the suit to work, and that having full range of motion isn’t really important, since the suit is the muscle contraction for you).
After hooking up my battery pack, which fits in a suit pocket, I did a brief set-up where I determined how strong impulses I could handle in each major muscle group. (You can adjust intensity individually for quads, hamstrings, glutes, lower back, middle back, upper back, chest, biceps, triceps, and abs.) At the lowest level, electrical stimulation feels like a tickle or a gentle pin. and needles But for Catalyst’s strength workout, the idea is to set the impulse to a level that causes the muscle to fully contract. You know it when you feel it – the sensation is startling at first, as if your muscles have a mind of their own and are contracting with more force than they would during a normal workout.
In Catalyst’s strength workout, which founder Bjorn Woltermann says represents the classic use of EMS, the impulse—and thus the full muscle contraction—lasts four seconds, then pauses for four seconds of rest. Simple movements such as squats, bicep curls and lunges demonstrated by trainers in videos recorded on Catalyst’s app are passionately coordinated. Trainers increase emotional intensity throughout the workout (the app is connected to the suit’s battery pack via Bluetooth).
Emotions usually make simple movements more difficult. I was experiencing a lot of muscle fatigue especially as the intensity increased. Even muscles that weren’t directly targeted by specific exercises were being worked — I found Impulse in my abs, for example, to be a helpful reminder to always engage them.
I was warned that I would be in extreme pain for the next few days, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought (which made me wonder if I was too scared to increase the intensity enough). One thing that probably helped: Catalyst’s recovery mode, where I can lie down and the suit sends out very gentle electrical pulses, intended to help produce lactic acid. The Catalyst has two other workout modes, Cardio and Power, which feature more dynamic movements and more frequent, low-intensity impulses. Each category contains a variety of workout videos, some with a specific focus (such as ACL injury prevention or stability and balance) as well as those based on other types of workouts (such as yoga and boxing).
While I can’t say that a 20-minute workout on the Catalyst makes me feel like I’ve spent two hours at the gym, I found the workouts to be fun and fly by—and very handy for small home spaces, since they’re mostly standing exercises that involve a lot of moving around. does not On the other hand, though, I found the relatively complex set-up a bit too boring to fit into one session.
Is it legal?
Dr. Gallagher says Catalyst and other EMS workouts may work well for those looking for a more efficient workout, but more research is needed on the technology before he can give it a ringing endorsement.
Still, he says EMS’ low impact on the body—no external loads like jumping or weights—makes it an attractive option for those recovering from injuries, living with arthritis or suffering from joint problems to still get a challenging workout.
Use the Catalyst or any electro muscle stimulation device with caution, he says, because too much intensity can cause muscle breakdown. Do not use it if you are pregnant, have heart problems, a pacemaker, or any other medical device, and talk to your doctor if you are not sure if it is safe for you to use it.
Although the FDA says Catalyst is safe for home use, it’s wise to try using EMS in a private studio first, both to get hands-on instruction from an expert and to make sure you like it (especially considering the $2,385 Catalyst). (It comes with a big price tag).
One thing’s for sure: Catalyst and workouts like it are only getting more popular. “We’re going to see these types of devices grow,” Dr. Gallagher said. “We’re going to see people want to use it and get that edge.”