Cycle Show 2011: Getting shocked

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While at the Cycle Show in Birmingham, we were drawn out from our stand and asked to try out some ‘muscle stimulation’. When we’d stopped giggling like teenagers, we headed over to the Compex stand to find out what it was all about.

Singletrack Premier subscribers can check out the full video below – it does have some slightly upsetting scenes (think Bambi stepping on a mains cable) and a little bit of bad language…

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Jon takes up the story:

I’ve always been a little bit averse to training. I like riding my bike, don’t get me wrong, but suffering for the sake of suffering seems a bit pointless. I’d rather go pedalling for fun as often as possible and if that gets me fit then that’s a rather nice side effect. No hill reps and heart monitors for me, thank you very much. Of course, when the tasty carrot of getting better without trying (or just trying less) is dangled, then who am I to refuse?

Nothing good starts with the phrase "Attach the electrodes" does it?

Compex don’t exactly claim to be a get fit quick scheme, but they do reckon that by using electrostimulation of muscles you can get a greatly increased training effect from a short period of exercise, a sort of ‘get something for a bit less than you’d usually get it’.

Their muscle stimulation device is used by none other than World Champion road cyclist Mark ‘look at my rainbow stripes’ Cavendish and accordingly it’s a little bit more advanced than the electrostimulation devices that promise buff abs while you’re sat on the sofa.

The main difference is the use of a sensor on the electrodes of the device. The sensor can be used for a range of functions including automatically scanning which muscle group is being targeted, adapting the settings of the device to the physiology of the wearer. It basically learns your muscles and decides how hard it’s going to make you work, depending on whether you want exercise or recovery. The machine takes over.

We’d been asked to take part in their ‘three minute challenge’ and Sim and myself bickered over who was going to film and who was going to be shocked but I lost, so after having the main sensor stuck to my (hairy) thigh, it was on with some gel and then a gentle bit of probing about to find the correct spot for the other electrodes. To see your muscles move without any input from yourself is a little bit disturbing but there was no pain or any pronounced feel of getting a shock.

Not the natural state for my thigh.

Of course, that was just the setup. The ‘warming up’ programme got it a little twitchier but felt relatively normal for having your body ignore your brain. Going for a proper pulse was bizarre. I’ve never seen my thigh muscles tense up so much – usually because something that requires that much effort tends to make you concentrate on what you’re doing, which makes the fact that I was just sat on a sofa in some rather short shorts rather strange.

The warm up and display of the trickery on show was just a starter – there is an ‘Action’ mode on the device to make it trigger an electrostimulation as you voluntarily contract your muscle. This, they claim, means that if you exercise while hooked up to the device increasing the effect of the workout on the muscle group is massively increased, so it was onto a turbo trainer to get livened up while I pedalled.

How did it feel? Well, if you can imagine the feeling of having massive cramp but without the pain, then that pretty much sums it up. My spinning style isn’t the smoothest but when the device was switched on I went from pushing my usual octagons to some kind of weird twitching parallelogram shape. Once I’d got used to the feeling, which was especially odd as it was just in a single leg, then it felt like the resistance to pedalling had gone up quite a lot and I was having to work hard, although the turbo trainer was still on minimum resistance.

Tapping it out - man vs. tiny currents...

A minute of that was more than enough and as they helpfully pointed out that the machine had only been set to level 70 out of a possible 999 I felt somewhat deflated.

I’m not sure I’d fancy much higher than that, although they say that with time you learn to cope with higher inputs, to quote “the higher setting are popular with the rugby boys” which isn’t a massive surprise.

It felt like a cross between having done and awful lot of squats or lunges and having been given a dead leg. That feeling continued quite well and despite it having been three days, I’m still a bit tight and sore in my right leg, much like the after effects of having done a lot of circuit training, but all on one leg and very specifically in my thigh.

On that basis, it seems to work as a training aid. I’m still unlikely to beat Cav in a TdF stage but Compex certainly makes you hurt and in a very small space of time too.  It’ll probably help with augmenting any training you do but I think that for my part I’ll stick with my current regime of riding my bike as frequently or infrequently as I can.  Then again, doing that is – and always has been – about more than mere fitness.

Where I think the Compex device would be useful for someone like myself is in the targeted repair and strengthening of damaged bits (eg building muscle around ankles etc) and maintaining a bit of muscle if you’ve had broken bones or damaged ligaments and been unable to get out on the bike. If you are going to use this device, I can highly recommend shaving your legs too – the electrodes are quite sticky and getting them off will take you back to Elastoplast removal as a child, but with your mum replaced by a muscular ex-rugby coach that makes people hurt for a living and has no place for your weakness.

If you like a bit of intensive suffering and you want to get strong this winter then head to to find out more…

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