ems workouts

Heavy weights and EMS Workouts?

Is it a good idea to use heavy weights during an EMS Workout?

The short answer, as the Germans say: “Jein!” (Yes and no!)

You might have recognized Blanka from the Street Fighter video game for this blog’s image. It’s what I think people will become if they use heavy weights in their EMS workouts – Brazilian! (Get it? Because Blanka represents Brazil in the game…). I loved playing the game growing up, but how it gets a huge pass about their gross stereotypes is a debate for another day.

This is the B-side of the blog entry called EMS with or without weights. In that previous entry, we went over why we mostly use light weights and only briefly mentioned the issue with superimposing whole body electro muscle stimulation with heavy weights.

In resistance training, we talk about absolute load (5 lbs., 135 lbs., 225 lbs., etc.), and relative load: which is how heavy the absolute load is relative to your one rep max. One rep max is the amount of weight you can lift only once and then need to rest. Your one rep max is 100%, six repetitions is 85%, 10 repetitions is 75%, 15 repetitions is 65%, and so on. You can find charts online (here’s one). They may vary a bit in exact percentages, but the principle remains.

As an example, if you can squat 135 lbs. for 10 repetitions, the relative load is 75% of your one rep max (1RM).

Note: Since the point of reference is one rep max, meaning, you can only lift the weight once, it also means that at 10 repetitions, you shouldn’t be able to do 11, or more. This is called “training to muscle failure.” In practice, the recommendation is typically to leave “one or two in the tank” for safety.

Note 2: Lifting at 75% of your 1RM doesn’t mean it’s 25% easier, it means you’re working at an intensity of 75%, which can feel just as hard. This will make sense in a bit.

In EMS fitness, we use the rate of perceived exertion (read more about RPE scale here) which is a subjective measure between 0 and 10, with 10 being maximal effort and 7 or 8 being a good target for most of the workout.

Cool, so what’s the problem?

Lifting heavy uses an objective method to measure intensity, which is a percentage of your “one-rep max” or 1RM. In EMS fitness we use a subjective method to measure intensity. The combination of using both methods of measure is nothing new, we often do it with cardiovascular exercise because there’s an equivalence. For example, running a sprint is going to be close to maximum heart rate (90%-100%), and that’s clearly a 9 or 10 out of 10 RPE.

However, that equivalence doesn’t exist between lifting close to your 1RM and using high stimulation levels.

During an EMS workout we aim to maintain the rate of perceived exertion around 7 or 8 for most of the repetitions in a set. This makes each individual repetition subjectively challenging.

When using weights, each repetition is going to feel increasingly more difficult, so on a set of 10 repetitions, the first 3-4 reps are going to feel much less challenging than the last 2 reps.

It makes sense that as you get closer to the target repetitions it starts getting harder. Physiologically you are recruiting more muscle fibers in order to complete the exercise. The closer you get to your maximum fiber recruitment the higher your RPE will be.

With EMS fitness, all the muscle fibers under the electrode will be recruited immediately, which is why we can achieve a high RPE starting with the very first repetition. Here’s our blog entry about how electro muscle stimulation recruits muscle fibers.

Applying electro muscle stimulation to the same exercise with 10 repetitions will make every repetition much harder, fatiguing the muscle a lot more and, if done correctly, will most likely not allow the person to get to their usual 10 repetitions.

Ok, but what if we adjust the weight or lower the stimulation?

You can, but then what principle are we following to determine overall workout intensity? RPE or 1RM? We could aim for a bit of both, but it quickly gets confusing as to how to progress the program over time.

That said, binary thinking has its flaws. I know it’s called WHOLE BODY EMS, but we don’t have to turn on everything, everywhere, all at once (great movie).

I do see some specific benefits of combining heavy weights with electro muscle stimulation. For example, if training a heavy deadlift, we could have the glutes, hamstrings, abs, and upper back set to a light to medium stimulation level to help with activation but leave the arms and quads off. EMS fitness allows us to individually set the stimulation level of each muscle group, so we can also envision turning the abs very high if the person has a weak core for example.

WB-EMS is still a fairly new concept, especially in this country, so there are going to be plenty of creative applications to be discovered.

There’s a study that compared a 10-rep max with a 10-rep max superimposed with EMS, but that’s an interesting story for another blog.

In summary, I do not recommend using heavy weights with whole body electro muscle stimulation due to a lack of control over determining intensity levels. However, I believe there is a gray area where the combination of heavy weights and EMS fitness may make sense and deserves more exploration.

Do you have experience lifting heavy? Would you want to combine it with EMS fitness?

Book a 30-minute call with me to see if EMS would be right for you here: https://calendly.com/conradfitness/30min


Director of Education and Technology



Bodybuzz combines Certified Personal Training with Electrical Muscle Stimulation, giving your body a deeper, safer, and more effective workout. 20 minutes twice a week is all it takes!

Our personal trainers will guide you through a custom EMS workout designed specifically for you. Whether you’re looking to build strength, lose weight, get toned, or recover from an injury or illness, we offer a safe, low-impact solution to help get you there.

EMS has now been FDA-cleared for use in the US and we are proud to be one of the first companies to introduce this technology. It is a full-body workout that uses a special muscle stimulating suit that sends low-level impulses to your major muscle groups to trigger muscle contractions. It’s a unique sensation that is painless and invigorating. EMS workouts are designed to achieve optimal conditioning, burn fat, develop strength, build muscle, tighten skin, combat cellulite, jump-start your metabolism and restore your body’s natural balance.