Electricity: your new workout partner

Tested: Marc Pro Muscle Conditioning Device

Sports and Outdoors : Health & Fitness By Photo by Henry Phillips

There’s no shortage of products being pitched for athletic recovery; in fact, you can pretty much outfit yourself head-to-toe, outer layer of skin to innermost layer of the soul, with products and services designed to help you recover better from workouts: compression socks for your feet; kinesiology tape for your thighs; shorts that align your pelvic region; powders to rebuild muscle and powders that optimize fluid absorption; online coaches, stretching apps and Buddhism. Is it possible that you need one more — an electrical device to stimulate your muscles? We tested the Marc Pro ($650) to find out.

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The Marc Pro is a conditioning device that works by sending electrical signals to muscles, causing them to contract. This technology isn’t fundamentally new, but the way that it works and the desired outcome are different compared to other manifestations of electric muscle stimulation (EMS) that you may be familiar with.

For example, TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) units are used to relieve pain by stimulating nerves, and these machines can be had for about $25. They may help with pain, but they aren’t marketed for muscle recovery or conditioning. Then there’s the Slendertone, an ab stimulation belt that’s very much marketed for muscle toning, which is available at your local Target and that you can wear on vacation between beach visits and frozen margaritas. We haven’t tried this one, but next time we book a shirtless modeling contract we probably will.

Finally, there are medical-grade muscle stimulators, which, like the Marc Pro, use electrical impulses to cause muscle contractions. And while these have been used in sports applications before — contracting a muscle with weights is theoretically similar to doing it with electricity — their real purpose is to rehabilitate atrophied muscles, kick-starting them and getting them working again.

“The problem with those devices is they create a pretty harsh reaction, grabbing the muscle and fully contracting it, over and over”, says Marc Pro CEO Ryan Heaney. “After a short period of time it causes fatigue for the muscle, which isn’t bad if you’re trying to bring the muscle back.” But if your goal is to recover faster from exercise and improve performance, then tiring out your muscles again won’t do any good. What you want is repeatable stimulation, which improves circulation to muscles and, according to Heaney, activates the lymphatic system to clear waste from the site.

“We get a really good muscle contraction”, he says. “But we’re able to do that without any fatigue of the muscle, without putting any stress on it, so you can do a lot of it and get a whole lot of increased nourishment and removal of waste — and that’s the foundation of recovery.”

The device is straightforward and simple to use right out of the box. The small console looks more like a gaming system than a medical device, with two knobs and two displays corresponding to two independent channels (for targeting different muscle groups). You simply plug the lead wires into the device, attach the electrodes, place them on your body and adjust the level of intensity using the knobs. You know it’s working when your muscles start contracting, which should be pretty obvious.

But how do you know that it’s working? We tested it on two people, an endurance athlete and an athletic person who was experiencing muscle pain in the low back and legs that visits to the chiropractor and regular stretching wouldn’t resolve. The endurance athlete used the Marc Pro intermittently after long runs, mostly on the feet and calf muscles, finding, predictably, less soreness and swelling the following day. But the real surprise was the second tester, who used the device almost daily for several weeks, resolving the pain in her low back and legs entirely.

Of course, this anecdotal evidence isn’t proof that it’s a miracle cure, but anyone who’s no stranger to the pains of working out — whether that’s Ironman training or weekly golf outings — knows that, frankly, going to the doctor only occasionally yields the results you were hoping for. What the Marc Pro offers is another tool in the arsenal for feeling and performing better — right up there on our list with vipassana meditation, chia seeds and relaxing vacations in the Caribbean.