I recently interviewed Garrett Salpeter, founder of NeuFit on my recent podcast episode, “The Most Powerful Electrical Muscle Stimulation Device Known To Humankind (& Exactly How To Use It).“
While I highly recommend you listen to that podcast, I also thought it would be helpful to walk you through how the NEUBIE device we discuss in that episode actually works, and how to use it. NEUBIE is an acronym for “Neuro-Bio-Electric-Stimulator”. This high-end device can quickly find neurological deficits in the human body with incredible precision and has two very unique features that make it stand apart from other electrostim units, specifically:
- It provides direct current (DC), allowing for very high end electrostim without skin burns (yeah, that's probably important!).
- It precisely matches the signals your nervous system already sends to your muscles naturally on its own.
Using DC is important because it has numerous, positive biological effects. DC fields accelerate the body’s own physiological processes of healing, repair, and regeneration. Although this has been known in exercise science and therapy for a long time, most devices out there are still using alternating current (AC). These devices are cheaper and easier to engineer, and unfortunately, most people don’t know the difference. But they don’t have anywhere near the effect at the cellular level. The NEUBIE is admittedly expensive (often used in a professional setting, but available for anyone to buy too), and incredible for rehab or for training – especially if you have a nagging injury that just won't go away, muscles that need “re-learning” or the need to build muscle or maintain muscle in the absence of traditional strength training, and my own NEUBIE device now holds a hallowed place in my gym. I use it three to four times a month for a full body workout (it's so tough I simply can't grit my teeth to use it anymore than that!) and whenever I have an injury or muscles that seem to have forgotten how to “turn on” (e.g. glutes, inner quads, upper back, etc.).
Let's jump into the science behind how this thing works, shall we? As usual, leave your questions, comments and feedback below and I promise to reply!
The Neurological Origins of Health and Performance
Whenever I am talking about performance and recovery, a primary important topic I like to address is the nervous system. After all, virtually all internal processes related to health are under the control of the nervous system. The brain and nervous system have access to every single cell in the body, directly stimulating every bodily organ.
Direct neurological control has even been discovered for processes that were thought to have no neurological connection, like bone formation and immunity. Likewise, athletic performance depends entirely on the nervous system. When working to create movement, muscles never do anything on their own. Their every action is simply a response to the neurological commands they are given.
Working on the nervous system, which includes the brain, provides a portal to simultaneously enhance both recovery and performance. This is new information for many exercise enthusiasts, athletes, trainers, and coaches, who are unaware that the function of the nervous system can be developed – and perhaps more importantly, do not understand the extreme degree to which it can be trained and developed.
The Nervous System is a Big Loop
If you are going to work on the nervous system, you must first know how the nervous system works. In this section, I will cover the basics of nervous system function. You will see how the nervous system influences everything that happens on the inside (internal health) and the outside (physical and athletic performance). And you will see a few examples of what outcomes can look like when the nervous system is working effectively, and when it is not.
At its essence, the internal function of the human nervous system really is an information processing loop. The brain and nervous system are constantly perceiving what is happening in both the external and internal environments. Then they create and carry out the appropriate responses to act on that information, often without any conscious awareness. Most often, these responses occur at the level of the brain; sometimes they occur at the level of the spinal cord.
Considering this aspect of neurological function leads us to a new definition of health: the ability to effectively respond to the environment. The more dynamic the function of this information loop, the more effectively the body can respond to its environment to promote high levels of health and performance. Enhancing your nervous system’s ability to monitor your environment and effectively respond to it is one of the main benefits of proper training methods and recovery techniques.
For any effective response to occur, the brain must first become aware of the situation so it can determine how to respond. The first step is always sensory information being transmitted through the nervous system. These input signals inform the brain about what is possible in the moment and what risks are present. Upon integrating this information, the brain then makes decisions about what actions to take, and, ultimately, how to protect the body.
This information-processing function is essentially a four step process that is called the Input-Output loop:
- Sensory receptors perceive information from the body and external environment.
- Information is transmitted to the brain via the nervous system.
- Brain receives, integrates, and processes that information.
- Brain sends down a response to the body.
You'll discover what an effective response looks like in the next section.
The Input-Output Loop in Action
The human brain’s #1 priority is survival. It wants to be sure you live to see tomorrow, even if it means sacrificing performance. Because the brain is primarily set up to protect the body, it is constantly monitoring all of these inputs for potential risks. When it perceives a change or deviation, it should act immediately to manage that change in a positive way.
There are many examples of this phenomenon in action. For example, when receptors report that the environment is cold, the brain perceives this information and causes a reduction in blood flow to the skin to conserve heat and also an increase in metabolic rate to generate heat and warm the body. The body perceives a challenge and has to mount a response, and this response is why cryotherapy and cold thermogenesis can have important health benefits.
Another example is blood sugar regulation. When receptors report that blood sugar is low, the brain receives this information and can cause two responses. First, it can trigger the adrenal glands to release cortisol, which will stimulate the release of stored energy to raise blood sugar. Second, it also can trigger other brain centers to cause us to feel hungry, attempting to influence our behavior so that we will consume food to bring in more energy. If food is not taken in within a certain period of time, then the brain may stimulate the body to lower its metabolic rate. This is, of course, influenced by the body’s ability to access stored fat for fuel.
When a person sees a potential attacker coming his way, the brain will trigger a global stress response to mobilize the energy resources necessary to fight or run away. This leads to the breakdown of energy stores, and increased heart rate and blood pressure to move that energy around the body and fuel the muscles needed to fight or flee. This is a perfectly healthy response – as long as it is temporary and the body recovers afterwards.
How The Loop Limits Performance
There are also many examples of how this loop functionality can reduce health and performance. In terms of performance, the nervous system will often limit or reduce output of the muscles as a protective mechanism. This “arthrogenic inhibition” (“arth” = joint and “genic” = emanating from) phenomenon often shows up around an injured joint.
When there is swelling or inflammation in the knee joint, for example, the activity of all the quadriceps muscles will be reduced. Upon perceiving that this joint is compromised, the brain and spinal cord will limit activity of the muscles around that joint in order to attempt to reduce movement of that joint.
We also know that most people are only able to engage 20 to 30% of their muscle at any one moment in time. Even top weightlifters and athletes may only get to 60% engagement (if you’d like a fabulous review on muscle recruitment, check out this article). This limitation is again held in place by the nervous system and the input-output loop. When the input side says “danger: load increasing past a certain threshold!” that message gets interpreted as threatening and signals a need to protect, which in turn triggers the output signal to inhibit, or reduce the activity of the muscles. This inhibition may often happen more at the spinal cord level or the brain, but the Input-Output loop functionality still applies.
An Example of Dysfunction in the Loop and How it Affects Health
An interesting example of how this processing loop affects health is seen with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). After eating food, sensory information from the intestinal organs is supposed to tell the brain that food has been taken in, giving the brain an opportunity to stimulate the digestive processes to occur.
Yes, the brain has direct control over the visceral organs, which work to break down food, absorb the food’s nutrients, remove toxins that came in through food or other avenues, and eliminate waste. Through the vagus nerve, the brain stimulates contractions of the stomach and intestinal tract and the release of digestive fluids. In people with IBS, it has been shown that there is reduced activity in the areas of their brains that receive and process the sensory information from internal organs.
Based on the Input-Output loop model, there is clearly a problem with the inputs. Perhaps the sensory receptors in the stomach or other organs are not working correctly to perceive that food is present, or perhaps the nervous system is not accurately or clearly enough transmitting that information up to the brain.
Wherever the malfunction is, the deficit of sensory information is preventing the brain from sending the appropriate output signals down to the digestive organs. If there were a way to provide those sensory signals, perhaps we could improve the condition of patients with IBS. There actually is an opportunity to do so by stimulating the vagus nerve, which has 80% of its fibers devoted to sensory input and only 20% for motor output. An example of this would be the use of a Circadia (code: GREENFIELD will save you $100 off one of these bad boys) vagus nerve stimulator device, which I discuss here.
Enter Electrical Stimulation
Traditionally, electrical stimulation uses alternating current (AC), which is used to cause muscles to contract, or create a motor output. And there is certainly some value here. AC devices can be beneficial to get some light-to-moderate stimulation for muscle activation and mechanical pumping of blood, lymph, and other fluids.
However, when you turn such a device up to a high enough level to really make a difference in neuromuscular function, this signal causes muscles to co-contract. Co-contraction describes the situation when opposing muscles contract against each other. Try to flex your arm as hard as you can, and you’ll feel your biceps and triceps both contract. In this state, your arm is going to be stuck because it’s resisted in both directions. If you stay in this state for too long, eventually you train the body to stiffen and fight against its own movements. This leads to reduced efficiency in the same way as if you were driving your car and hitting the throttle and brake pedals at the same time. In the car, some of the energy that should go to forward propulsion is being wasted overcoming the resistance of the brakes.
In contrast, what I’m proposing here is a new, sensory-based paradigm for electrical stimulation. Here’s an experiment to describe what I’m talking about:
Imagine you have a traditional AC device (like a “Russian Stim” or “Interferential”) on one arm, and then a device like the NEUBIE, a DC device, on the other arm. If you turned them both up to the same level of current (50 mA, for example), you would notice a difference. The AC device would cause that arm to lock up, rendering it unable to move. On the other arm, even though the NEUBIE feels just as intense, you would still be able to move through it. For the same amount of current, there is less motor output from the NEUBIE and less contraction – so more of that current is preferentially going to sensory input.
Using Electrical Stimulation to Tap Into the Loop
Fact is, you can provide inputs directly into the nervous system, and access this Input-Output loop in a meaningful way. The folks at NeuFit, designers of the NEUBIE, have seen incredible outcomes happen clinically from this new paradigm, and there are already glimpses of this new paradigm in the published research, too.
- The sensory signals from electrical stimulation can activate the same, far-reaching reflexes as movement. For example, stimulation of the foot triggers activity in the arms and opposite leg, and stimulation of the lower leg triggers reflexive activity in the spinal erectors.
- Sensory signals from electrical stimulation can cause neuroplastic changes, including increasing the area in the brain that monitors the stimulated area.
- Electrical stimulation can have profound effects on tactile sensitivity and motor control of the hands and fingers.
- The inputs from electrical stimulation can actually increase the activity of spinal circuits, resulting in increased force output even after the stimulation is removed.
- Sensory signals from electrical stimulation can drive the changes in motor cortex excitability that facilitates the learning of new tasks.
Next Level Neuromuscular Re-Education
One major way to use the NEUBIE to apply these concepts is via a “mapping” assessment process. In this process, you literally use the NEUBIE to scan around over the body and create a map of where problems show up.
For the scanning process, think of an electrode moving around the body like a Zamboni cleaning the ice between periods of a hockey game, or a vacuum cleaner maneuvering around the floor. As you or a practitioner scan an electrode around on the body, the NEUBIE can send the same types of inputs (sensory and afferent signals) as if the body is moving and its various structures are being loaded. When the Input-Output loop is functioning well, this input is easy to handle and the signal feels pleasant. When there is dysfunction, however, the body responds differently.
You already read about a few examples of how the Input-Output loop limits function in the body, and this “Mapping” process allows us to find exactly where those patterns exist in the nervous system. Recall the example of arthrogenic inhibition from earlier. In that case, an input signal from the joint causes a particular output. Specifically, the input signal causes the inhibition/shutting down of certain muscles that would move that joint – and sometimes this signal lingers even after healing has completed and the muscles should be back “up and running.”
If those inhibited muscles are scanned over, sending a signal that they are being loaded, there is a conflict. The brain is seeing load or challenge in an area where it is trying to shut down the muscles, and it makes a protective response. This usually manifests as a really intense contraction, accompanied by a feeling of discomfort that is very similar to the sensation of hitting a trigger point.
As a person's body is scanned, these “hot spots,” or areas where it feels noticeably more intense or uncomfortable will show up. Just like when one finds a trigger point, this provides a meaningful insight into where dysfunction is present and where the body needs work in order to improve. The good news is that, when these spots are worked on, clients and patients almost always see improvements in pain, range of motion, strength, and/or quality of movement.
Normally, for example, you’d think that it would require a weeks-long, periodized training program to improve strength. And to make changes in range of motion you would think it might take months of stretching and mobility drills. In an output-based approach, these assumptions are all correct. With an input-based approach, however, sometimes inhibitory signals can be changed and strength and/or range of motion can be increased in just a few minutes. This is a very powerful type of neuromuscular re-education!
Obviously a few minutes is an impossibly short period of time to see muscle hypertrophy. Instead, when strength increases, what you're seeing is enhanced neurological activation, allowing a person to tap into strength that was already there, just lying dormant and waiting to be accessed.
The same reasoning applies with improvements in range of motion. Rather than taking months to remodel the joint capsule, neurological inputs reduced the need for protective tension, which changed the outputs (less signal of tension, more signal of ‘relaxation’) so the nervous system allowed the body to move farther. You are tapping into the range of motion that was already available, but you just couldn’t access because the inputs you were receiving caused you to have a hypersensitive/protective/guarding pattern in those areas of the body.
Inputs in Action
I hope by now you are starting to see some of the differences between an output-based paradigm and an input-based one.
I will share another example to help clarify the distinction.
Imagine you are a trainer, coach or therapist working with an athlete, Matt, who is squatting 5 months after having an ACL surgery in his right knee. Although he is trying to do so, Matt is not squatting as much weight as he could before the surgery. He also shifts his body over to the left, in a subconscious attempt to deload the right knee.
A traditional, output-based approach would look something like this: if he isn’t squatting as much weight, coach might tell Matt to “Try harder!” or “Visualize your glutes contracting!”. This instruction is asking him to change the outputs. Similarly, a coach might tell Matt to shift over onto his right leg. Maybe after thousands of reps, this new pattern might start to stick, but there might also be a more efficient way to make those changes.
If, instead of instructing Matt to try harder and shift over to his right, the coach could have put Matt through the “Scan & Treat” process described above. If he did, there’s a good chance that the coach would have found some dysfunction in the muscles of that right leg. And in stimulating those dysfunctional areas, there’s a good chance the coach and Matt would have seen some changes – perhaps even in the first session.
By working on people in this same sort of situation, the folks at NEUBIE have seen them start to subconsciously put more weight on the surgical leg. Instead of thousands of reps focused on output, a few minutes focused on the inputs has made a profound difference for some of these clients and patients.
Similarly, when inhibition is still lingering so long after surgery, they have seen people increase the weight in their squat by 10-50 lbs – just by changing the neurological inputs to tap into the strength potential that was already present.
Another Example: Spinal Cord Injury
One final example I’ll share with you is seen in the story of Brian. Brian had a spinal cord injury and was partially paralyzed in his legs. If he was lying down on the table, with extreme effort he could lift his right knee to his chest. But he could not lift his left leg at all.
For two years, he tried FES (“Functional Electrical Stimulation,” an output-based approach in which the therapist is trying to use the stimulation to “hi-jack” and contract muscles that the patient cannot activate on his/her own). He stimulated his left hip flexors with FES 2-3 times per week, and still had no activation after two years.
In his first session, NEUBIE scanned his hip flexors and also saw no response or movement. But, since the practitioner using the device was focused more on inputs, they kept going. They continued to scan his body, and finally found something in the lower leg. As they scanned over a spot on his foot, all of a sudden he lifted his left leg for the first time in 10 years!
There is no muscle in his foot that caused his leg to lift. Instead, the neurological input from the foot caused him to create the output to lift his leg on his own. It probably was a reflexive, withdrawal response, because at first it was not under conscious control. Even so, after 5-6 sessions of using that input to help him drive the movement, he regained the ability to lift his left leg under conscious control!
Overall, what I've described here is an update to both technology and methodology. The two go hand-in-hand: because of some improvements to existing electrical stimulation technology, it is possible to affect the body in new ways.
In today's article, I mostly discussed the effect on the nervous system and how that allows us to take a different approach to neuromuscular re-education. Because of that unique effect, it opens up new doors to assess the body in new ways and also to do electrical stimulation treatments that are much more active (as in applied in combination with movement, whereas traditional electrical stimulation treatments are passive and a person or patient typically just lies down on a table the whole time).
One thing that I didn’t even touch on is the effects of DC on tissue healing (as opposed to AC, the effect of which is much less), and perhaps that can be fodder for a subsequent article. I also touched upon it in my podcast about NEUBIE last week. For more on NEUBIE, be sure to check out that podcast: “The Most Powerful Electrical Muscle Stimulation Device Known To Humankind (& Exactly How To Use It).”
If you're interested in adding this technology to your home, medical, P.T., chiropractic, or fitness business, just click here. Mention my name, and receive $1,000 off your purchase of a NEUBIE. You can also go ask your chiropractic doc, physical therapist, physician, coach or trainer about adding one to their facility for you and others to use.
If you're not quite ready to take the plunge and purchase one, there's a network of practitioners around the United States who would be happy to share theirs with you. Check out Neu.fit/locations to find a practitioner in your area.
I hope this has been helpful! This really is a shockingly effective device (ha!). Do you have questions, thoughts or feedback for about the NEUBIE? Leave your comments below and either myself or Garrett Salpeter, the owner of NeuFit will reply!