Steven was already buzzing by the time I arrived.
Hour Detroit’s junior art director, Steven had agreed to join me at Body20, a fitness studio
in Royal Oak that offers a new type of workout in which clients don superhero-style suits that electrically stimulate muscles during a workout, intensifying the results over less time — 20 minutes, to be exact. It’s called electrical muscle stimulation (or EMS), and it’s not easy.
Steven and I were in the midst of a colleague fitness challenge, which involved several Hour employees logging our workouts and scoring points.
Steven is in his mid-20s and I just turned 40, but I was crushing the younger competition and feeling smug. I had dropped almost 10 pounds, and my diet was dialed in. Steven’s diet, from what I could gather from watercooler convos, consists mostly of Red Bull, vodka, and Panda Express. His workouts include dancing till 2 a.m. and walking home from the bar.
Body20 manager Cynthia Gleich works with clients in her Royal Oak studio, one of many Body20 franchise locations around the country.
When I walked in, I saw Steven fully suited up, looking like a male Black Widow with Iron Man flourishes. The suit’s electrified pads correspond to the large muscle groups, causing the muscles to contract 36,000 times in a single workout. Steven was sitting on a stool and extending his legs straight in front of him, and he was struggling. Leg extensions don’t make for the hardest workout, unless you have electricity surging through your quadriceps.
And that’s the whole Body20 philosophy: more intensity, and more results, in less time. The idea that electricity can stimulate muscles is not new.
In the 1970s, Russian athletic coaches were using EMS technology, claiming it almost doubled their athletes’ muscle strength. Today, companies like Body20 are opening studios throughout the country following the Food and Drug Administration’s approval and regulation of EMS training. Gleich says it’s a safe way to get an intense workout.
“The electric current hits the muscles deeper than any weight workout can,” Gleich says. “It’s the equivalent to four to five workouts in a traditional gym. There’s no stress on the joints. We’re not putting heavy weights in their hands or a barbell on their back,” she says, adding that it’s a workout “for everybody.” (That means everyone over 18 who is not pregnant, is not chronically ill, and does not have a pacemaker.)
The FDA limits EMS training to eight times per month. Clients change into a lightweight underlayer; get suited up with the custom-fitted, electrode-padded suit; do the workout; and leave.
I wondered if it would hurt. I’ve been zapped by electricity doing house projects — an experience I’m loath to repeat — yet here I was, putting on an outfit that plugged into its own special outlet (never exceeding 60 volts). After spraying the electrode pads with water to promote conductivity, Gleich strapped and buckled my upper and lower body into the suit as tightly as possible. It reminded me of having a parachute strapped to me when I’d tried skydiving a couple of years ago. I was a little less nervous here.
There was no mirror, but I hoped I looked like a superhero. I sure didn’t feel like one, even less so when she gave me a stress ball for each hand. The stress balls are intended to make it easier to contract your muscles, thus increasing the effectiveness of the workout.
Gleich activated the electrodes hooked up to my back muscles, biceps, triceps, quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and abs. The sensation was less of a bare-wire shock and more of a full-body tingle. She led me through a series of leg raises, lunges, squats, push-ups, sit-ups, and biceps curls, always calibrating the intensity, telling me she’d stop when I couldn’t handle any more.
It wasn’t too bad. As the intensity ramped up in my legs and glutes, I felt the increased flexing and tension in my muscles that went far beyond a normal workout. She wasn’t lying — by the end of 20 minutes, I felt like I’d worked out hard with heavy weights for an hour.
As a fitness hobbyist, I was glad to try something new. Maybe I’m old-school, but I still prefer running under the trees, hitting weights in the basement, or my longtime martial arts hobby. But I understand the appeal and how Steven became a convert, planning to sign up after we finished. It’s certainly a better workout than walking home from the bar.
Body20 offers memberships at four, six, and eight 20-minute sessions per month. Go to body20.com/royal-oak/ for more info. Body20 has studios across the U.S. More Michigan locations are planned for Birmingham, Troy, and Bloomfield.
This story is from the September 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.