The Compex might be a good idea. As in, if you have an extra $200, 30 minutes a day of down time, are nailing every other aspect of recovery, and still feel like you could use the extra recovery bump, give the Compex a try. Otherwise, spend your time and money elsewhere first.
One of my goals is to be proactive in my aging process. I want to continue pushing the limits in the gym well into my later years without paying a horrendous price in my ability to move and be pain free. Part of that is obviously correct technique, paying attention to my body, sleep, nutrition, etc. But if I can find a few tips and tricks and tools here and there that can help me on that journey, well then, I’m all for it. From mobility tools to compression wraps to various gadgets here and there, I’m often willing to take the plunge in the name of longevity in the sport.
In the past I’ve used a TENS machine to help with any pain, particularly in the lumbar region, with mixed results. The key limiting factor here, is that the TENS is meant to relieve pain, but I really wanted to avoid pain entirely. Pair that with the TENS not really supporting recovery, but instead just focused on pain relief, and we aren’t moving the body in the ideal direction of “fixing” itself. So, when I see an EMS like the Compex, I start thinking about adding it to my arsenal. Below is my experience with the Compex over the past year.
I bought the Compex as an early birthday present for myself and figured I would use it for three things. First, was active recovery after hard workouts. At night, sitting on the couch and watching TV, I’d toss it on and get some blood flow. Second, was pre-workout activation. Toss it on before a workout and get everything started. Third, would be weak point training on off days. So maybe my right bicep is bigger than my left, I could hook it up to the left on a Saturday and get in some additional volume so to speak.
Wanting these three options led me to buy the Performance model. I strongly considered the wireless unit, but Bluetooth seems to be REALLY dodgy in my house. The last thing I wanted to do was spend $600+ on a unit that would jump in and out of working.
Compex vs. Life
I first started using my Compex when I would come home from work. I’d change clothes, toss it on, and eat dinner. I’d let it run for 3 or 4 rounds while we ate and relaxed and watched some TV before taking it off and heading on a family walk, then bed time.
This worked great until my daughter became mobile and wanted to play. Trying to chase a 1.5-year-old around the house with a bunch of wires dangling all over and your muscles pulsing wasn’t very safe or effective for anyone. I quickly started using the Compex right before bed after my daughter had gone to sleep and I was eating my yogurt and watching a few shows. It works well, moves some blood around, and seems to keep some of the DOMS away.
I’ve found that the Compex doesn’t work well when you are sweaty. Since I start my day every morning with a walk with my dog, using the Compex for warm-ups hasn’t been successful. The pads just don’t stick well and it ends up being more work than I want.
I’ve used it once or twice for the actual training effect, but again, life intervenes. Trying to wear the Compex at any point during the day is just not practical in my current life. Maybe in a few years when my daughter is in school things will change, but right now it ONLY gets used before bed.
That said, I have friends and family with slightly different needs, lifestyles, and abilities.
I have a friend and his wife, who often share one unit while watching TV or a movie at night and on the weekends. No kids, so its just lay back and relax and let it do its magic. They can easily make it a lazy Sunday and let the thing roll all day long.
I had a coworker awhile back who was an active trail runner and lifter. He would do full body workouts during the week in the gym, but needed to be ready to hit a few miles on the trails on Saturday, and then do it all over again on Monday. He also lived in the city, so traveling to a trail meant, at minimum, a 30 minute car ride. Not an ideal “warm-up” for running on rough terrain. He used the Compex after his workouts during the week, especially Friday night to make sure he was as close to 100% for Saturday. He would then toss the unit on the warm-up mode as he drove to his trail and he said it cut his warm-up time in half and often led to better performance. He would also toss it on AFTER the trail, since sitting in the car after being nice and sweaty isn’t the best recovery process. Again, this limited his stiffness and helped him get ready for the coming week. I believe he often towel dried off before getting in the car, sometimes even jumping in a nearby lake or river, so the sweaty + Compex issues didn’t have as much impact on him.
I have another coworker who frequently travels for bike races. We are talking driving 15 hours on Friday, competing for 50 miles+ Saturday, and driving 15 hours back Sunday. That is a HORRENDOUS environment for recovery and long term success. I actually recommended she check out a Compex the other day. It would be super easy to hook up on the way there to keep blood flow to the legs, then toss it on the day after for the same reason.
Okay, so we know that I only use it for active recovery. I think that’s likely fine because I believe that MOST people will do the same, and it is likely what the units are best known for.
I’ve found that for the heavier days where I’m squatting, deadlifting, or benching and pushing the weight, the unit does a good job of just moving some of that lactic acid and metabolite build up out to help with recovery. I definitely notice a difference the days I do and don’t use it. For lighter days, I’m not sure its doing much. Its just the heavier days with lots of tension, maybe some drop sets, high volume, etc. The days where we get sore and pay for it for a few days, the Compex seems to reduce that recovery time frame.
My wife, a nurse, has used it several times as well after a heavy day at work. She works on Cardiac, dealing with a lot of people after Open Heart Surgery, so the rolling and moving of people can take its toll. The Compex has come in handy on several occasions, helping her relieve that tension and go to bed without being in pain, and be fresh again for the next day of work or lugging around the kiddo.
My mom has had a few back issues in the past and tends to do a lot to try and keep herself from heading back in that direction. She was also an active TENS unit user, but has since bought her own Compex after using mine one day. She’s used it for a few chronic pain issues in her wrist, ankles, and back with some success. Again, these are chronic life-long-not-going-away problems, so she isn’t expecting them to be fixed, just looking for that little extra relief at the end of the day. The Compex helps again with moving blood and just making things feel better.
You need about 30 minutes of down time (on the couch, in the car, etc.) to get in a round. One round is often good, multiple is better at reducing the stiffness from a tough workout or long day of work, chores, and activities, or preparing for one coming up.
About 3 years ago, I had fractured my heal bone in the left foot, which meant 4 months of a cast from toes to knee, and 6 months before I was walking around again. I think the Compex could have helped in a few ways. I still had access to my left quad and hamstring, and by hooking the Compex up there, I likely could have fought some of the woes of atrophy. Also, the ability to increase some blood flow to that leg potentially would have expedited the healing process. Then after the cast came off, I could have been using it on my calve muscle to try and expedite the PT process. This is all a guessing game because I didn’t own the Compex at the time, but I look back and wish I did.
One other note, I’m still on the same pads as when I bought mine. I clean them after every use with some baby wipes and reapply the plastic sheets that came with them. They are FAR superior to the pads my old TENS had. The battery also has excellent life, as in, I think I’ve charged it only a few times total. You could definitely get through an extensive competition weekend with a lot of use and not have to pack a bunch of extras. Also, not having to buy new pads over a year has significantly cut the cost of the unit compared to my original expectations.
The pads are just kind of a pain to apply, clean, put away, and then reuse over and over. I’ve more than once skipped my Compex session because I just didn’t have the time or mental energy to hook everything up. (The wireless model might solve this issue, but we are back to the cost and consistency aspect). Sometimes in that last 30 minutes or so of the night I just want to lay there. I don’t even have the mental fortitude to hook up the unit. I know we’ve all been there. Set-up and take-down is a few minutes each time.
If you are like me, and you sweat doing pretty much anything, you likely can’t do anything but sit and use the Compex. In fact, if you plan to use it on your back you likely need to lay on your stomach. Any sweating and movement will encourage those pads to move, scrunch up, and then stop working. This means you are likely stuck to doing what I do, watching TV and relaxing while using it. The few times I’ve moved around, tried to cook dinner, or even just laid on the couch on my back, the pads navigated somewhere other than where they started. Not only could this be dangerous, it’s just annoying.
The final con is the cost. Compared to say, a foam roller, or a tub of protein powder, this is expensive. You could buy a decent barbell for the cost of a Compex unit. While not the most insanely priced item in the name of recovery, it certainly is up there.
Make sure your life gives you the opportunity to maximize the Compex. You need at least 30 minutes for set-up, use, and clean-up to get a round in. Whether that is a commute to work or the gym, at home on the couch watching shows or banging out emails, or on a plane or car ride to or from competition, you just can’t use this effectively without that dedicated time. This is absolutely the number one aspect of success.
From there, for the athlete, if you are on a budget, skip the Compex. If you haven’t figured out your nutrition yet, skip the Compex. If you aren’t prioritizing sleep, skip the Compex. If you aren’t feeling sore and beat up after some heavy days, skip the Compex. If you aren’t doing the things you know you should and prioritizing the basics, the Compex is not going to circumvent that and give you a magic bullet. Get everything else in order, and then think about a Compex.
If, however, you have some extra cash to toss at a new toy, you are realistic in what it will bring to the table, and you have about 30 minutes a few days a week to give the recovery process a little boost from your active lifestyle, then the Compex may be the next iteration of your game.