If you’re serious about your training, you likely already have an exhaustive post-workout recovery routine. (Between massage guns, foam rollers, weighted blankets, and infrared sauna blankets, you have a lot of choices.) But at-home electronic muscle stimulators claim to offer another way to speed up muscle restoration, minimize soreness, and enhance performance.
Wondering if your regimen is due for yet another upgrade? To find out if electronic muscle stimulators are actually worth the investment, I spoke with a physical therapist who broke down the potential benefits and pitfalls of the devices. I also tested five of the most popular muscle stimulators, spending several post-workouts and rest days using them on my own body to determine which models offered the most comfortable experience, easy setup, and best personalization settings.
After all of my trials, the Therabody PowerDot 2.0 Uno took the top spot. It offers plenty of individualized programs and has minimal wiring, making it comfortable to wear. Still, there are other muscle stimulators that are worth considering, depending on your needs and budget.
The Best Electronic Muscle Stimulator
Therabody PowerDot 2.0 Uno
- FDA cleared
- Offers NMES and TENS
- 100 intensity settings
- 1-year warranty
- Compact, travel-friendly, and aesthetically pleasing
- Highly customizable programs
- Minimal wiring
- Visual guides for electrode placement aren’t very helpful
Based on looks alone, the Therabody PowerDot 2.0 scores top marks. The firetruck-red device is smaller than the palm of your hand, is nearly wireless thanks to Bluetooth capabilities, and comes in a small, hard-shell case. (It also comes in navy blue, if firetruck red isn’t your thing.) The PowerDot itself even snaps onto the side of the case, so you don’t need to worry about it tumbling around while traveling. Aesthetics aside, the PowerDot is a powerful electronic muscle stimulator that’s simple to use. Best of all, it’s packed with more than a dozen NMES (stimulation that causes muscles to contract) and TENS (therapy that’s intended to stimulate sensory nerves and minimize pain) programs that can be customized for your unique needs.
Setting up the device is pretty straightforward, albeit a bit time-consuming. After charging the muscle stimulator, I downloaded the accompanying PowerDot app, created an account, and reviewed the health and safety check, which spelled out the instances in which you should consult a doctor before use. After I read the detailed instruction manual, I was ready to try my first stimulator session.
From the homepage, you can choose from six workout programs: performance (which contains the subcategories muscle endurance, strength endurance, resistance, strength, and explosive strength); wellness (to massage specific muscles); smart pain relief; smart recovery; period pain relief; and “focus on” (which gives you recovery, massage, warm-up, and performance programs for particular muscles).
For both of my post-workout PowerDot tests, I used the smart recovery program designed for strength training. (You can also choose recovery programs for running, cycling, mountain biking, swimming, high-intensity workouts, and “freestyle.”) To determine the best settings for my needs, the app asked me to rate my workout’s intensity on a scale of very light to “all out,” as well as select my workout’s duration, one to two muscle groups that I used the most during my training, and my level of fatigue. From there, the app concocted a customized program. This personalization element is what makes the PowerDot stand out from others on the market.
I was pleasantly surprised at how compact and minimalistic the device is. The PowerDot itself has just one button (which turns it on and off), clips directly into one of the electrode pads you place on your body, and is equipped with just one cable port. The two accompanying cables are short (just 10 and 30 centimeters), so you’re able to move around without accidentally ripping them out. Essentially, you don’t feel like you’re hooked up to an EKG machine in a hospital bed.
While using a level 3 intensity (out of 100!), the muscle contractions in my deltoids and hamstrings felt like a strong heartbeat. When I jacked the intensity up to 3.7, it felt as though my muscles were being rapidly flicked by a finger. The experience wasn’t necessarily comfortable, but it wasn’t painful, either, and I ultimately got used to the sensations during my 24- and 23-minute sessions.
I used the same electrode pads during both sessions, and they were just as sticky as when I pulled off their plastic film backings. Unlike a bandage, my skin didn’t sting when I removed the pads post-session. While I can’t say if the electrodes will hold up for the estimated 25 uses, the device itself feels like it’s made of high-quality, sturdy materials, and its storage case will surely keep all the equipment well-protected.
Before each session, the app shows a photograph of the suggested electrode placement on real models. But the images’ angles made it tough to tell where, exactly, I should put them on my body. Since my pads were also going on the back of my shoulder and leg, I wasn’t sure if I was applying them in the correct spot. I had my partner double-check my electrode position ahead of both uses.
An hour after my sessions, my muscles actually felt more tired than they did before use. But I saw some improvements by the next day: My tested shoulder felt slightly more mobile than my right, and my tested hamstrings didn’t feel as stiff during forward folds and leg circles on the Pilates reformer. I also used the PowerDot on my left calf muscles after a second lower-body workout, and they weren’t as sore as my right side. While my body felt overall more comfortable 24 hours later, none of my tested muscles felt like they were ready to take on a workout at that point.
Despite those snags, the PowerDot has rave reviews, with an average 4.8-star rating with 1,131 reviews. You can return the device for a full refund within 60 days. It also comes with a one-year warranty.
Other Great Electronic Muscle Stimulators
Compex Sport Elite 3.0 Muscle Stimulator with TENS Kit
- Stashes in a hard-shell case
- Offers four independent stimulation channels
- FDA cleared
- Offers NMES and TENS
- Quick initial setup
- 10 program options
- Bulky with long, cumbersome cables
- Unclear electrode application instructions
This electronic muscle stimulator is so painless to initially set up, you’ll be able to kickstart your first session just moments after your cooldown ends. Just charge it, input the time and date, and you’re ready to go.
Just like the Therabody PowerDot, the Compex Sport Elite 3.0 is packed in a zip-up travel case and offers multiple program options for your needs. You can choose from pain management, muscle building (with specific modes such as endurance, resistance, strength, and explosive strength), and warm-up and recovery programs (including pre-warm-up, training recovery, competition recovery, muscle relaxation, and potentiation options).
After my workouts, I tried the 24-minute training recovery sessions, and I was prompted to increase the intensity until I saw “pronounced muscle twitches.” Keeping that pointer in mind, I amped up the intensity level until my hamstrings and deltoids were clearly trembling—and feeling as though they were being stung by dozens of bees. My tested muscles felt a bit looser an hour after the sessions. By the next day, my tested hamstring wasn’t as tight during forward folds, though my tested shoulder felt the same as my control.
While the Compex has similar program options as the PowerDot, they didn’t factor in elements such as your workout type, intensity, and duration. The sheer size of the device, which is as bulky as a Game Boy, and its long cables also made using it a hassle. Not to mention, I had to continuously push my cats away to prevent them from playing with the cords. The final flaw: There wasn’t clear guidance on how to apply the electrodes in the included manual. For both of my uses, I had to look up instructions on the company website.
Ultimately, this NMES- and TENS-equipped muscle stimulator is a good investment if you’re looking for personalized programs but don’t want to feel overwhelmed with dozens of options. It’s also a good pick if you’re hoping to target multiple body parts at once, as the device is equipped with four independent stimulation channels.
AUVON Dual Channel TENS EMS
- Offers 10 hours per charge
- Easy to select programs and change intensity
- Recommended modes in the instruction manual
- Looks and feels cheap
- Unclear if it offers NMES capabilities
The AUVON muscle stimulator gets points for having a total of 24 modes, split up between TENS, PMS (though it’s unclear what this setting is), and massage programs. It also has an instruction manual that breaks down exactly when to use each setting, depending on the body part you’re targeting—but your goals and workout quality aren’t taken into consideration. After my lower body workout, for example, the guide instructed me to use PMS mode 15 for my legs (there wasn’t a specific recommendation for my hamstrings). It also described exactly what the setting will feel like, such as “a low-frequency slight beating.”
The device was pretty simple to use, thanks to its separate intensity gauges for each channel, and offers 10 hours of use per charge. However, the muscle stimulator’s design is lackluster. It looks like a cell phone from the early 2000s and has a bright blue backlight, which makes it difficult to read the screen. Rather than button snaps, the pads have headphone-like jacks to connect the cables to the electrodes, which sometimes require a bit of wiggling to secure. Finally, it’s described as a TENS machine in the manual, so it’s unclear whether it actually offers NMES capabilities.
Ultimately, its program options, ease of use, and affordable price make it tempting. The AUVON muscle stimulator is worth considering if you’re balling on a budget and want a low-stakes piece of tech to incorporate into your recovery routine.
What Is an Electronic Muscle Stimulator?
An electronic muscle stimulator (EMS) is a device that sends electrical impulses to your muscles via electrode pads placed on the skin, says Grayson Wickham, PT, DPT, CSCS, a physical therapist and the founder of Movement Vault. The devices employ either transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) or neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES), which have different effects on the body.
TENS is designed to stimulate sensory nerves. This, in turn, could minimize pain. NMES, on the other hand, mimics the electrical impulses your central nervous system naturally creates to contract a muscle, says Wickham. Electrical stimulation Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine “Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation for Skeletal Muscle Function ” View Source improve muscle strength, increase range of motion, reduce swelling, minimize muscle atrophy, heal tissue, and ease pain.
Electronic Muscle Stimulator Benefits
Take part in an electronic muscle stimulator session post-workout, and you might be able to kiss muscle soreness and fatigue goodbye. In a small study of 28 rugby and football players, researchers found that using an NMES device after a sprint workout Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport “The impact of neuromuscular electrical stimulation on recovery after intensive, muscle damaging, maximal speed training in professional team sports players ” View Source , and the athletes were more recovered 24 hours later compared to the control group.
TENS devices may also assist with pain relief. A 2022 meta-analysis of 381 studies found moderate-certainty evidence that BMJ Open “Efficacy and safety of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) for acute and chronic pain in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis of 381 studies (the meta-TENS study) ” View Source the application of TENS compared with placebo, and there aren’t any serious adverse effects.
Some research suggests NMES Physiotherapy Canada “Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation for Treatment of Muscle Impairment: Critical Review and Recommendations for Clinical Practice ” View Source after critical illness, ACL repairs, or total knee replacement. This type of electrical muscle stimulation Exercise and Sport Science Reviews “Enhancing Adaptations to Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation Training Interventions ” View Source and improve maximal voluntary strength, but to a lesser extent than traditional strength training, according to a 2021 article published in Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews. That said, traditional parameters for NMES create rapid muscle fatigue, stifling its ability to create moderate-high forces for long periods, per the research.
Electronic Muscle Stimulator Drawbacks
Anecdotally, electronic muscle stimulators can be a bit of a hassle. The sessions take about 20 to 30 minutes, during which time you need to sit completely still. I had to lie on my stomach on the floor while using the devices on my hamstrings, which left me feeling stiffer in the immediate aftermath than a traditional recovery practice of stretching would have. The devices also caused discomfort, ranging from a “flicking” sensation to a “jackhammering” feeling.
Plus, electronic muscle stimulators may not be as helpful as advertisements claim. In a 2014 systematic review, the researchers concluded The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research “Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation During Recovery From Exercise ” View Source NMES as an effective way to enhance exercise recovery and subsequent performance. In my 10 individual tests, there were only two times that I observed even a slight improvement in my soreness and tightness the day after use.
Are Electronic Muscle Stimulators Safe?
Generally speaking, electronic muscle stimulators are safe to use. But it’s important to take some time to learn about the treatment you need based on your goals and use them with caution, says Wickham. The good news: Most at-home, consumer-based machines come with set guidelines (including frequency, time of session, and pulse width), so you don’t have to worry about using incorrect or potentially dangerous settings.
Still, electronic muscle stimulators shouldn’t be used during pregnancy, on certain areas of the body, such as the carotid artery on the neck, or if you have certain medical conditions or devices (think: a pacemaker), says Wickham. “If you have any intense pain, numbness, tingling, or burning while you’re doing it, then you would definitely want to either stop or use a different parameter,” he suggests.
You should also be wary of devices that aren’t cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates electronic muscle stimulators. The Administration U.S. Food & Drug Administration “Electronic Muscle Stimulators ” View Source of “shocks, burns, bruising, skin irritation, pain, and interference with other critically important medical devices (e.g. pacemakers) associated with the use of unregulated products.”
Are Electronic Muscle Stimulators Worth It?
TENS has benefits for short-term pain relief, says Wickham. But it’s more of a Band-Aid solution than a cure-all, he says. “You’re not really getting to the root cause of why someone’s in pain,” he adds. “It could just be due to a structural component, a ligament tear, cartilage injury, torn muscle, a fracture—all of that stuff is going to lead to inflammation as well as pain that your brain and your nervous system detect.”
On the same token, NMES can be useful in rehab settings. When a patient is struggling to contract their muscle themselves, using an electronic muscle stimulator will help the person get used to the feeling of contraction and allow them to focus on the muscle at work, says Wickham. Over time, EMS tools can help them learn to perform the contraction on their own, he notes. “If somebody’s in the hospital for long periods of time and they’re bedridden, their muscles atrophy—they just start to waste away,” he adds. “They’ll use that [NMES] in rehab in certain scenarios to stimulate the muscle, and it’s been shown to help decrease the amount of muscle atrophy. But it won’t replace movement.”
Professional athletes may also use NMES devices at strong frequencies while resistance training (think: placing electrodes on the quads while doing squats) to improve strength, but the average person won’t need to use them for this purpose, says Wickham.
Overall, most people don’t need to invest in an EMS device to take their performance and recovery to the next level, says Wickham. “There could be some marginal benefits, but there are far better techniques you can implement when it comes to [building] athletic performance, strength, or power, like following a well-structured training program,” he notes. “From a recovery standpoint, there are other modalities that, in my opinion, are just a better bang for the buck and will be more effective long-term, [such as] using the sauna and doing some light cardio if you’re sore to increase blood flow to muscles—some of these basic things that aren’t as cool or sexy.”
How To Use an Electronic Muscle Stimulator
Ready to test out an electronic muscle stimulator for the first time? Once your device is fully charged, read through its included instruction manual to review contraindications and setup instructions. Then, decide which muscle group(s) you want to target in your session. If you just finished a heavy, squat-filled strength workout, you might consider using the device on your quads, for example, to support your recovery. Next up, reference your manual’s electrode placement recommendations. Every device is different, so pay careful attention. To apply the electrode pads, clean and dry your skin, place them in the suggested areas, then connect the cables via the headphone jack plug or button snaps, depending on the model.
Since most consumer-focused electronic muscle stimulators—including the five in this review—offer pre-set programs, you typically won’t need to tinker with the settings. Instead, choose the program that best suits your goals, whether that’s pain management, recovery, or pre-workout prep, and the muscle groups you’re targeting. The device will automatically start with the correct frequency, pulse width, and session duration. Once you begin the session, increase the intensity until you’re able to see visible muscle contractions—so long as it’s not painful—or follow your device’s instructions. Sit comfortably for the duration of your session, avoiding touching the pads. When you’re finished, turn off your device, remove the electrodes, and place them back on their plastic film sheet.
When in doubt, chat with an expert, such as a physical therapist or certified fitness professional, to make sure you’re using the device correctly, says Wickham.
How We Found the Best Electronic Muscle Stimulators
Meet Your Guinea Pig
I’m Megan Falk, an experienced health and fitness journalist whose work has appeared in publications such as SHAPE.com, LIVESTRONG.com, mindbodygreen, Well+Good, Women’s Health, and POPSUGAR, among others. I have served as the assistant editor on Equinox’s content team and at SHAPE.com, where I primarily covered exercise tips, fitness modalities, workout trends, nutrition, and more.
I’m a graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, where I earned a bachelor’s degree in Magazine Journalism and a minor in Food Studies. To inform my writing, I became a certified personal trainer through the American Council on Exercise in 2023.
Our Testing Process
To find the best electronic muscle stimulators on the market, I first spent two hours researching popular products available through Amazon and other online retailers. For each device, I read the features available and the customer reviews and looked for FDA clearance, which was a top priority.
Then, I sent the Ness team a list of 10 potential contenders, which we ultimately narrowed down to five. The selected electronic muscle stimulators offered NMES and/or TENS technology, were designed for pain relief and recovery, and varied in price.
To ensure my findings were consistent, I tested each device on a specific muscle group—the deltoids and the hamstrings—on just one side of my body within 30 minutes after an upper-body and a lower-body strength workout, respectively. By testing just one side of my body, I was able to compare the level of soreness to a baseline. In total, I spent three hours and 45 minutes doing EMS sessions. Before my first use of each device, though, I spent 15 minutes reading through the included instruction manual and exploring its settings, programs, and personalization abilities.
If the device had an accompanying app, I used the built-in guides to place the pads and pre-set programs to control the pulse width, duration, and frequency. With the devices that didn’t have an accompanying app, I used the device’s written instructions to determine where to place the pads and the settings to use.
With each session, I took note of how easy (or difficult) the device and programs were to set up, the number of wires involved and if they felt burdensome, the number of settings offered for personalized pain relief and recovery, the quality of the electrode pads, and what the experience felt like. 24 hours after use, I recorded how my tested muscle group compared to the control in terms of soreness, tightness, and preparedness for another workout.
The Electronic Muscle Stimulator Buying Guide
Before springing for an EMS device, consider these factors:
- FDA clearance: The FDA regulates the sale of electronic muscle stimulators in the country, and a device that’s been cleared by the Administration U.S. Food & Drug Administration “Electronic Muscle Stimulators ” View Source to be as safe and effective as other devices that are already legally marketed. Essentially, choosing an FDA-approved EMS device ensures your high-tech recovery sessions aren’t so risky.
- Ease of use: If your EMS tool is complicated to set up and equipped with long wires that are constantly getting tangled and in the way of your session, you’re going to be far less likely to use it consistently. Your best bet is to look for an electronic muscle stimulator that has straightforward instructions for use, minimal wiring, and a long charge. A travel-friendly case is another plus.
- Settings and personalization options: To ensure you get exactly what you want out of your electronic muscle stimulator, opt for a device that can be personalized to your needs. Look for devices that offer programs designed for different parts of the body, workout types, and goals.