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Wearable Tech

This workout suit gave me a buzz but left me worse for the wear

The VisionBody Powersuit uses electrical stimulation to get your muscles vibrating rapidly while you exercise to increase the intensity of the workout.

If the workout suit fits, try it out.

Aloysius Low/CNET

Want to work out but don't have the time? How about an exercise suit that promises to let you do four hours of exercise in a mere 20 minutes?

The trick: It uses electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) to get your muscles working harder.

The $300 VisionBody Powersuit covers your torso and then some, stopping at the neck and just above your elbows and knees. Inside the suit are 20 pads that send electrical currents to your muscles, causing them to contract and expand super fast.

EMS technology is more commonly used in physical therapy to prevent muscle atrophy or when there's a prolonged period of inactivity following surgery. It makes your body feel like it's buzzing all over when the suit's turned on.

The whole thing is powered by a battery pack that sits on your hip and connects via Bluetooth to an iPad. A trainer uses an app to specify which parts of your body start buzzing. Exercise routines can also be selected, as well as the intensity of your muscle contractions.

While EMS isn't new -- it's been around since the 18th century -- studies conducted in the 1960s and 1970s on athletes showed conflicting results that meant more studies were needed on its efficacy.

To test the claims out, I popped by the VisionBody Gym in Singapore, which charges about $60 per session and put on the Powersuit for a quick workout. I almost never work out apart from the occasional bicycle rides, but I was sure it wouldn't be too difficult...

The author tries out the VisionBody Powersuit (5-second animated gif)

It's really hard to maintain your balance when your muscles are all twitching.

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So does it work?

After that tryout, I spent the next two days on wobbly feet, barely able to descend a flight of stairs without feeling absolutely wretched. It's possible the suit did help my workout, but I decided that checking in with a medical professional was the smarter thing to do.

The battery pack has enough juice to last for 6 hours.

Aloysius Low/CNET

"In the general population, little benefits have been observed or proven in research," said Anna Tong, an exercise physiologist from the Singapore Sports Medicine Centre. "In high-level or elite athletes, EMS may help reduce excessive muscle atrophy following injury by stimulating specific muscles to assist strengthening."

Tong added that while studies have shown that using EMS for strength enhancement along with training have brought improvements to athletes' jump height and sprint times, more research is still required before it can be recommended for general use.

EMS-based workouts, Tong said, provide "very little health benefit in terms of improving cardiovascular fitness, bone mineral density, flexibility and useful (functional) strength." She added that if you have heart-related problems, and especially if you have a pacemaker, it's best to stay away.

Meanwhile, VisionBody says that while that's true for the older wired systems, its wireless Powersuit makes it possible to do workouts you couldn't complete without being strapped in. While the company admits that there aren't enough case studies on wireless EMS yet, it believes that there could be health benefits to using its systems.

So make of VisionBody's promise what you will. The suit may leave an impression, but I can't tell you it'll fast-track your workouts.

First published March 23, 05:20 a.m. PT.

Update, March 24 4:30 a.m. PT: Added responses from VisionBody.

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