Neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES) has been in practice since the eighteenth century for the treatment of paralysed patients and the prevention and/or restoration of muscle function after injuries, before patients are capable of voluntary exercise training. More recently NMES has been used as a modality of strengthening in healthy subjects and highly trained athletes, but it is not clear whether NMES is a substitute for, or a complement to, voluntary exercise training. Moreover the discussion of the mechanisms which underly the specific effects of NMES appears rather complex at least in part because of the disparity in training protocols, electrical stimulation regimens and testing procedures that are used in the various studies. It appears from this review of the literature that in physical therapy, NMES effectively retards muscle wasting during denervation or immobilisation and optimises recovery of muscle strength during rehabilitation. It is also effective in athletes with injured, painful limbs, since NMES contributes to a shortened rehabilitation time and aids a safe return to competition. In healthy muscles, NMES appears to be a complement to voluntary training because it specifically induces the activity of large motor units which are more difficult to activate during voluntary contraction. However, there is a consensus that the force increases induced by NMES are similar to, but not greater than, those induced by voluntary training. The rationale for the complementarity between NMES and voluntary exercise is that in voluntary contractions motor units are recruited in order, from smaller fatigue resistant (type I) units to larger quickly fatiguable (type II) units, whereas in NMES the sequence appears to be reversed. As a training modality NMES is, in nonextreme situations such as muscle denervation, not a substitute for, but a complement of, voluntary exercise of disused and healthy muscles.