What Is BionicGym?
BionicGym is a neuromuscular electrical stimulation device that promises to deliver intense cardio fitness training and calorie burning while you work, lay on the couch, or even play video games.
In fact, one of the company’s taglines is that BionicGym can help you “do a marathon on your sofa!”
Involving only a smartphone app and a thigh wrap, BionicGym claims to mimic shivering, which nature’s way of burning calories without any physical activity.
This way, whether you're an athlete, a regular guy or gal, overweight, or suffer from existing injuries or diabetes, the company tells us you'll be able to quickly put BionicGym on and improve your aerobic fitness, without moving any potentially painful joints like your hips, knees, or ankles.
What’s more, the company claims that BionicGym is well-researched, proven, completely safe to use unsupervised.
You probably just visited the BionicGym website or watched the device’s Facebook live video. Now you have some questions. Here, we’ll address the following three core concerns, all aimed at helping you make an informed decision:
- What is NMES?
- Is NMES effective for improving cardiovascular fitness?
- How does BionicGym compare to other NMES devices? Is it clinically proven to work as advertised?
How Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation (& BionicGym) Works
What is Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation?
Some quick basics: Your body moves by contracting and relaxing muscles, which then pull on bones. These contractions are caused by electrical impulses sent from your brain to nerves in your muscles.
The cool thing is that a type of technology known as neuromuscular electrical stimulation (also commonly called electrical muscle stimulation) bypasses the brain and directly stimulates muscles using electrodes placed on the skin.
Depending on the intensity and pattern of these impulses (known as a program), NMES is often used in physical therapy settings for preventing muscle atrophy, relaxing muscles spasms, increasing localized blood circulation, and maintaining or increasing range of motion.
The Details About BionicGym
Compared to other NMES devices, BionicGym claims to use breakthrough technology, developed over 10+ years of research, to deliver complex electrical impulses and patterns at 7-8Hz to the muscle fibers. In short, it mimics shivering.
In our interview the device’s inventor, Louis Crowe, he mentioned it’s true that natural shivering was the foundational idea behind BionicGym’s specific impulse patterns.
However, since normal shivering only increases metabolic rate two- to- three-fold, it was up to Louis and his team to create sophisticated patterns that are able recruit more muscles—and do so comfortably. Why?
These contractions make the muscle require more oxygen, resulting in increased heart rate and breathlessness—or, “operating at an optimal rate for cardiovascular impact,” as Louis told us.
In turn, cardiovascular exercise, when combined with healthy eating habits, can result in weight loss, increased stamina, improved immune response, a stronger heart, and decreased LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.
Each L-shaped BionicGym wrap attaches to the thigh using secure Velcro closure mechanisms. Inside the wrap are four different electrodes that remain in place using sticky gel pads.
Each L-shaped BionicGym wrap uses four electrodes to stimulate muscle contraction, which the company claims can deliver a cardiovascular workout. Image credit: BionicGym
Each wrap is controlled using a companion smartphone app that will eventually feature different programs and zones that can hone in on various muscle groups (e.g. glutes, quads, hamstrings, etc.).
At release, we’re told BionicGym’s app will only feature a single one-hour program, although you’ll be able to increase or decrease intensity as needed. Your heart rate will be monitored in real time.
It’s blurry, but this screen capture from BionicGym’s Facebook Live session shows how their companion app might look, which will allow you to increase or decrease intensity, monitor your heart rate, and eventually allow you to select muscle zones. Image credit: BionicGym
While the electrodes in BionicGym's wraps don't extend to the calf muscles, they'll still be active at higher intensities since the nerve that runs through the thigh also runs through the calf. Your buttocks will contract as well.
Inside the app, you’ll find pause and stop buttons, while the wraps feature emergency stop buttons.
We’re told that the overall number of calories you’ll burn per session depends on the intensity and your current level of fitness. If you’re very fit and use high intensity, BionicGym claims to burn as many calories as running.
Planning to use BionicGym at work? The company’s careful to note that you won’t be able to sit at higher intensities, since the muscle contraction will cause your legs to kick out.
If you haven’t yet, we’d strongly recommend watching BionicGym’s prerecorded Facebook video. While the production quality isn’t the best, we learned much more there than on the company’s Indiegogo campaign.
Now, let’s tackle the big question!
Is There Clinical Proof That Electrical Muscle Stimulation Improves Fitness?
NMES technology has been around for decades and as a result, has been studied intensely. It’s been featured in all kinds of get-fit-quick technologies over the years, including abdominal belts, wraps that work arm and leg muscles, and even in butt-lifting devices.
In fact, Louis mentioned that this “get-fit-quick” reputation for fitness-related NMES devices remains one of his largest obstacles to overcome when trying to convince customers that BionicGym is the real deal.
As far as NMES’s ability to boost fitness, this largely depends on what you mean by “fit.” For example, a 2010 world congress of researchers editorial summary noted: “Strength training by NMES does promote neural and muscular adaptations that are complementary to the well-known effects of voluntary resistance training.”
In layman’s terms, NMES might mimic working out with weights.
However, remember the programs we discussed earlier? The effectiveness of NMES technology appears to largely depend on the programs, or patterns/protocols, used.
Here’s where the “sophisticated” patterns Louis discussed earlier come into play. According to him, this is the fundamental aspect that differentiates BionicGym from other NMES devices, and what allow it to deliver real-world results.
Similarly, ab belts have been shown to help tone and strengthen muscles—but since these muscles are covered by fat, they won’t make a difference in your appearance.
Bottom line? While EMS has been shown to provide some fitness-related benefits, whether or not it will get you ‘fit’ largely depends on your overall goals, as well as what you’re doing to supplement your EMS training. This includes additional workouts and cardiovascular exercise, as well as adhering to a healthy diet.
Is BionicGym Clinically Shown to Work?
About BionicGym’s “train for a marathon on your couch” claim? The company tells us their claims are well-researched and that their wraps are scientifically proven to improve aerobic fitness. Some of this research, they claim, has been published in peer-reviewed publications.
Searching for Louis Crowe on the NIH PubMed returned 14 results at the time of our research. Of these, several specifically referenced aerobic exercise:
- A 2011 study showing how this technology can help achieve similar maximal heart rate and oxygen consumption, lactate threshold, and fatigue as voluntary exercise.
- This same effect was perceived in separate studies involving sedentary adults, patients with heart failure, in physically active adults, and even for those with spinal cord injury.
Does this validate the “train for a marathon on your couch” claim? We’re certainly not medical professionals, so we’ll let you be the judge.
However, we will say that it appears BionicGym has solid clinical support showing it can potentially mimic cardiovascular exercise in a broad cross section of the population, using only specialized electrical impulses.
Will you have to worry about any side effects, though?
Will BionicGym’s Electrical Muscle Stimulation Cause Any Side Effects?
As mentioned earlier, the company claims BionicGym is safe to use without supervision, although they recommend speaking with your doctor first, especially if you have any preexisting conditions.
As a technology, electrical muscle stimulation is thought to be safe for most individuals, with common side effects including skin irritation, headache, and pain or discomfort in the application area.
MedicineNet notes that the FDA has reported instances of shocks, burns, and bruising from defective devices. EMS can also interfere with implanted devices such as pacemakers and defibrillators.
How Much Does BionicGym Cost? When Will It Ship?
BionicGym’s Indiegogo campaign ended on January 15, 2017, where the fledgling company earned more than $615K on an original goal of just $20K.
Pledge options were still available at the time of our research, which ranged between $299 and $1,800, with an estimated delivery sometime in Nov/Dec 2017.
Any Shipping Updates?
In our conversation with inventor Louis Crowe, he noted that the company currently has a BionicGym prototype that works perfectly, although “it isn’t pretty.” Specifically, they need to shrink the size of the electronic components to make it ready for mass manufacturing, as well as further develop the app’s user interface.
As of now, they’re in contract negotiations for design and manufacturing and fully expect to meet the November 2017 shipping timeline.
Upon shipping, each BionicGym set will include everything you need to get started, including Wrap, Unit, Charger, Electrode Set, and app download code (iOS or Android). We’re told it will be available in three different sizes and two different models:
- Standard – Ideal for weight control, improving fitness, and moderate exercise. Louis told us this model will be ideal for those who don’t want to get breathless. In other words, its parameters are better suited for use while working or watching TV.
- Pro – Ideal for vigorous training with athletes, sportspeople, and “those who need a serious workout.” Here, BionicGym’s different parameters will allow the muscle to relax more between each impulse, while activating a different mix of muscle fibers, thereby providing higher intensity. Features a built-in warm-up phase, which mimics intensity of the standard version.
How Much Will Replacement Gel Pads Cost?
Most NMES devices require periodic electrode replacement, since they can lose their stickiness and ability to transfer an electrical signal to the skin, and BionicGym is no different.
According to Louis, they’re looking to redesign their replaceable gel pads prior to release and feature a cost of no more than $8 per set (plus shipping). Indiegogo customers will receive an additional set for free with their order.
How long can you expect these gel pads to last? Louis told us this depends on different factors like any skin issues you’re experiencing, total usage, and exercise intensity (and the related sweating). Even walking around for protracted periods of time (with our without stimulation) can hasten replacement.
In general, though, he claimed a set should last you a few weeks.
How Does BionicGym Compare to Other Electrical Muscle Stimulation Devices?
If you search online for electrical muscle stimulation devices, the vast majority feature a central unit, attached to which are anywhere between two and eight wired electrodes.
The main device will often implement some kind of screen where you can increase or decrease intensity. Higher-end models will also deliver multiple programs that will send different electrical patterns to your skin.
From a price perspective, most of these devices will run you between $100 and $200, although some can exceed $500. At a retail price of $349, BionicGym is certainly at the upper end of this spectrum.
Comparatively, BionicGym’s electrodes wrap completely around your thighs and remain in a fixed place. While this will certainly limit the body parts BionicGym can be used on, it might have a tendency to stay in place longer while you sweat.
From a fitness perspective, will BionicGym’s wraps and specific programs deliver better fitness results than other models? How about a better overall value? We’ll just have to wait until customer feedback starts rolling in to know for sure.
Who Invented BionicGym?
BionicGym was invented and founded by Dublin, Ireland-based medical doctor and researcher Louis Crowe. Louis is also owner of Medical Currents Ltd., previously a Medical Consultant, Medical Director, and Joint CEO of Cucoco Ltd.
In our interview, Louis noted that the company’s engineer used to work for PCH and manufacture for Apple.
Can You Train for a Marathon From Your Couch with BionicGym?
Based on the current level of clinical evidence for EMS technology in general, it would certainly qualify as a “breakthrough” if BionicGym’s app/wrap combo could reliably provide marathon training on the couch or while playing video games.
And given the available clinical evidence for BionicGym’s technology, this claim might be considered a bit of a marketing reach.
However, there certainly seems to be a lot publically available clinical evidence supporting BionicGym’s potential to help achieve aerobic-level exercise intensity and heart rate, without actually doing any voluntary aerobic exercise.
Based on our interview with Louis Crowe, it’s clear that he’s passionate about this technology and eager to see it improve customers’ lives.
Will BionicGym ultimately provide value for its $350 price tag, though? We’ll just have to wait until the end of the year for the device to be released. In the meantime, we’ll eagerly await the potential of this clinically validated technology.