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The Electrical Athlete

It has been a long time since the use of electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) has started to be an integral part of the training programmes of very smart coaches worldwide but still there is a poor practical and scientific knowledge as well as a misunderstanding of the role of the EMS in the training process.

Online image: Muhammad Ali and Franz Beckenbauer depicting EMS.

In my experience one of the main reason for this misconception is the fact that the majority of sports professionals as well as the athletes were used to thinking about EMS just from a medical perspective and purely as a method of rehabilitation after injury. Despite the rehab component being a very important part of the EMS equation, it represents a very limited point of view compared to the enormous advantages and methods of applications of EMS in sport performance.

The world of sport science and strength & conditioning is growing every day from a technological standpoint thanks to science and coaching inputs together. The high demand of reliable biometric data in order to modify training load, rest and recovery techniques is challenging the way we ever thought about training periodization and biological adaptations.

Christie Mokotupu - Australian Olympic volleyball player

The concepts of Sports Biometry and biometric feedback represents a very exciting new way to look at the process of athletic development through highly individualisation based on individual biometric responses and profiles.

In my opinion, electricity as a neuromuscular stimulus can help coaches to improve the athletic capabilities of an athlete as an integral part of this biometric approach.

Besides the application in rehabilitation and strength training, my approach with EMS has evolved over the years toward a more global and comprehensive idea of the interaction between electrical external stimulus and internal perception and sensory feedback: as humans, we have the ability to control and modulate our motor system based on stimuli provided by an external event.


Using EMS as a means of proprioception training has been a staple in the process of performance development of all my athletes over the last years. Proprioception and proprioception training in strength & conditioning has received lot of attention recently because of the rise in popularity of unstable surfaces, bosu ball and the so-called “functional” training. All these fads, which are cyclical in appearance, have created a lot of confusion and even misconception about the word "proprioception" in strength & conditioning field today. In first instance, proprioception is not "balance" nor "equilibrium" and training on unstable surfaces doesn't necessarily mean "proprioception".

In strictly physics and biomechanics terms, balance actually describes a person’s ability to control their body position relative to some base of support whereas equilibrium occurs when the forces and torques acting on an object (in this case a human body) sum to zero (Knudson, 1995).

Proprioception is the process of obtaining information by the brain about the body and its environment  from specific musculoskeletal receptors in order to produce proper muscle action and movement. Proprioception training for sports performance is aimed to improve movement quality skills through the complex interplay between kinesthetic awareness, neuromuscular control, neuromuscular coordination, proper muscle sequencing and agility.

Using EMS integration with basic movement patterns and sports-specific skills, can dramatically improve both the athletic development of the athletes and the ability of a coach. In my next article i will share some useful protocols and how to practically use PainPod modalities and settings to improve proprioception and quality of movements.


What I’ve noticed in my experience is that some athletes, even those more experienced, got some problems with perception of position of their various body segments. This is especially the case of those athletes that haven’t been properly trained in kinesthetic awareness during their years of athletic development as young athletes.

This represents a performance-limiting factor as the ability to perceive proper position of body segments (thoracic and lumbar spine, hip joint) and right activation of the right muscles at the right moment is what makes the difference between elite athletes and low-profile ones. 


Lots of coaches talk today about "activating" specific muscles, even with no trace of an electromyographic analysis. But it is not humanly possible to detect the amount of muscle activation with naked eyes. Muscles work in kinematic patterns and you can't activate them in isolation, the threshold of firing, synchronization and recruitment order needs to be integrated in specific kinematic patterns: this is the right way to teach the brain how to properly use muscles. There are no such things like "activation drills" to compensate for lack of proper function, perhaps they are just "warming-up drills" for movement preparation.

I’ve had success using EMS to teach athletes how to re-educate and re-integrate proper muscle firing into the right sequencing and complex movement skills.

Sometimes athletes experiences lack of proper activation due to inhibition mechanisms after injury and postural compensations (functional shortness of the lower limbs, hips and shoulder tilting and rotations) and using EMS in association with movement can enhance muscle activation, muscle firing and even the magnitude of training adaptations.

The difficulty in finding out how to manage EMS settings, parameters and the ratio between work and rest is the main reason why coaches still haven’t started to use bioelectricity as a part of the training program.

In my next article i will focus on how to practically use the PainPod device, which modes and intensity application for proprioception training as well as a muscle activation teaching tool.

Article by

Antonio Robustelli

PainPod BioTechnology advisory board - Head of Sports & Technical Science. International Sports Performance consultant

Home Nation: Italy / Sport: Multiple / Date Joined: 2017

Antonio is a widely sought after International Sports Performance Consultant & Applied Sports Technologist. He works around the world with Olympic athletes and professional sports teams in Europe, Asia and the USA. He is a prominent speaker and contributor to international sports magazines including Athletics Weekly.

His area of expertise includes injury prevention, sports technology, strength training programming, speed development and recovery monitoring. He works with advanced technologies in the field of performance monitoring, injury prevention and improved performance that includes infrared thermography, foot pressure mapping, myotonometry and tensiomyography

A regular speaker and lecturer at International Sports Science conferences, he is currently writing ‘Sports Biometry: application of technology for Sports Science’.