TRX: Strength Hangs in the Balance

It’s just a pair of nylon straps, but the TRX Suspension Trainer offers hundreds of strength-building exercises – and it fits in the corner of a suitcase.

Most do-it-all fitness gadgets make exercising way too easy, way too hard or way too boring. Try as manufacturers might, they simply can’t provide as effective a workout as you can get using your body weight and a little imagination, much less what you can get in a well-equipped gym.

So when I first heard about the TRX Suspension Trainer, I had my doubts. In online videos, I could see that the TRX was basically a pair of adjustable-length nylon straps with cable-column-style handles that attach to a single, thicker strap. You clip the end of the thicker part to an anchor point — such as a power rack or tree branch — 6 or 7 feet off the ground. By gripping the handles or placing your feet in them and leaning your body at various angles beneath and around the anchor point, you can perform a range of body-weight exercises for the upper body, lower body and core.

I had to admit the exercises looked interesting, and the design was simple and elegant. But it’s a pair of nylon straps, I thought. How innovative, challenging and exciting can that be?

Then I tried the TRX for myself and found that it was pretty darn innovative, challenging and exciting. Familiar movements like rows, pushups and lunges felt solid and natural, as did many of the nifty new exercises I’d never tried before. Better still, I could make nearly any exercise as hard or as easy as I wished, usually by simply moving my feet a few inches forward or back. The TRX made body-weight training more interesting and opened up a whole realm of variations and progressions. And although I collapsed in the grass at the end of my workout — OK, maybe because I collapsed in the grass at the end of the workout — I had to admit, it had been fun. A lot of fun.

Fitness From the Front Lines

Navy SEAL Commander Randy Hetrick cobbled together the first Suspension Trainer from a karate belt and some spare parachute webbing while deployed in Iraq. He then dreamed up a few basic exercises and started using it with his soldiers. He found that the workouts helped the soldiers build and maintain the high levels of functional strength, coordination and endurance their jobs required and their lives depended on. Hetrick’s contraption is now used by high-level athletes in just about every sport, including New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and UFC champion George St. Pierre.

At the other end of the spectrum, physical therapists across North America are prescribing TRX movements for their injured patients, and recently the University of San Francisco initiated a study to test the efficacy of TRX exercises in helping to prevent falls in elderly populations.

“The key to the effectiveness of the TRX is that you’re using your own body weight as resistance,” says Fraser Quelch, director of programming and development for Fitness Anywhere, which manufactures the TRX. “It’s a simple idea, but it’s very powerful.”

Body-weight exercises such as squats, lunges and pushups have long been staples in the smart exerciser’s workout program because they work many muscle groups at once and resemble movements that crop up regularly in life and sport.

Most of these movements are what exercise physiologists call “closed kinetic chain” exercises — movements performed with one or both feet or hands planted on the ground — and are known to reinforce healthy muscle-firing sequences, creating not just stronger muscles but overall coordination and athleticism, as well.

“The TRX develops the body as a single unit: the legs, the arms, the torso, the shoulders, the pelvic floor — everything gets stronger,” says Jolie Kobrinsky, TRX-certified trainer and owner of Prime Personal Training in Monterey, Calif.

The downside of many body-weight training exercises is that the weight you’re lifting isn’t usually adjustable. Many people find chin-ups too hard, for instance, and body-weight squats a bit too easy. With the TRX, however, body-weight exercises become easily scalable to the needs of the exerciser. If chin-ups are too hard, you can perform TRX back rows, a scalable exercise that gradually increases your ability to pull your entire body weight. If you’ve mastered body-weight squats, on the other hand, you can progress to the TRX single-leg squat, the suspension-training version of an exercise that most people find too hard to do unassisted.

The TRX even makes it possible to reduce the load of certain body-weight exercises previously thought too advanced for the average trainee. Robert Dos Remedios, MS, CSCS, director of speed, strength and conditioning at the College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, Calif., and author of Cardio Strength Training (Rodale, 2009), likes to use the TRX to take the pressure off his bigger, heavier athletes’ joints when they perform explosive movements like jumping and bounding. “There’s really no other way to unload these types of movements,” he says.

TRX work also automatically engages your core (the musculature on the front, sides and back of the torso), meaning that, for once, you don’t have to remind yourself to “tighten the core” — because it happens on its own.

“With some strength-training movements, you can cheat on form,” says Alwyn Cosgrove, MS, CSCS, co-owner of Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, Calif. “That’s not generally possible with the TRX. If you don’t fire up the core when you’re doing inverted rows, for instance, you can’t do the exercise. You’re either doing it with good form or you’re not doing it at all.”

All You’ll Ever Need?

So, the TRX teaches great movement skills and provides a killer workout that’s adjustable to the user’s needs. Does that mean it’s time for the average gym-goer to shred his gym-membership card, deep-six the kettlebells and turn his jump rope into a clothesline?

Not quite, cautions trainer Mike Robertson, owner of Indianapolis Fitness and Strength Training. Nearly all TRX movements challenge balance and stability, Robertson explains — something that’s not appropriate for every client. “You need to learn to be stable in a stable environment before you can hope to be stable in an unstable one.” A TRX pushup, for instance, requires a lot of subtle neuromuscular control through the shoulders and core, and full-body stability on top of that. “I certainly wouldn’t start a client on a movement like that,” he says.

Moreover, Robertson suggests, even people with good balance might not be optimally served by TRX movements: “When you challenge the stabilizing muscles, the stimulus to the prime movers [the larger muscles of your arms, legs and torso] is reduced. Consequently, those muscles won’t work as hard, so you don’t get as strong on the TRX as you do with old-school barbells and dumbbells.”

Dos Remedios isn’t ready to jettison his well-equipped gym, either: “I like the TRX, but I would never get rid of kettlebells, Olympic lifting, barbells and dumbbells. For athletes, the lower body, in particular, needs an external load to build optimal strength.”

Everyone seems to agree, however, that it’s hard to beat the TRX as your go-to home gym or gym-away-from-home. It weighs all of 2 pounds, fits in a grapefruit-size mesh bag, and offers hundreds of exercise variations and progressions you simply can’t do without it. “Comparing most other portable exercise equipment to the TRX is like comparing fast food with home-grown vegetables,” says Kobrinsky. “It works balance, strength, core activation, posture — you get a lot of bang for your buck.”

The TRX Trifecta Workout

Got access to a TRX and no idea where to start? These six exercises will work your upper body, lower body and core. (Watch the the full workout video here.)

Key:
“Medium” length:
Move adjustment tabs so the handles are hanging approximately 2 feet from the floor.
“Long” length: Move adjustment tabs so the handles are hanging approximately 1 foot from the floor.

Upper Body

TRX Back Row

Simulates: Variations of row

How to do it:

  • Set the straps of the TRX to “medium” length.
  • Stand facing the anchor point, feet shoulder-width apart, holding the handles of the TRX with the wrists in a neutral position.
  • Keeping your body straight and your shoulder blades pulled down, lean away from the anchor point, positioning your feet so your body forms about a 45-degree angle with the floor.
  • Pull yourself toward the handles, keeping your elbows close to your sides and forcefully retracting your shoulder blades as your body rises up.
  • Lower yourself under control, allowing the shoulder blades to wing (pull away from the center of your back) at the bottom of the movement.
  • Repeat for 2 to 4 sets of eight to 15 reps.

Coaching points: To properly retract your shoulder blades, “rotate the wrists upward, turning your hands from the thumbs-neutral to a thumbs-up position as you pull yourself up,” advises Robert Dos Remedios, MS, CSCS, director of speed, strength and conditioning at the College of the Canyons and author of Cardio Strength Training (Rodale, 2009).

Make it harder: Walk your feet forward, making sure to shorten the straps so that you can extend your arms fully at the bottom of the movement without your back touching the ground. You can also elevate your feet on a bench or box.

Make it easier: Step your feet backward so that your body is closer to vertical.

The experts say: “This is a great way to do ‘descending’ or ‘drop’ sets, where you work to — or close to — failure with a given weight, then use lighter weight to squeeze out a few more reps,” says Fraser Quelch, director of programming and development for Fitness Anywhere, which manufactures the TRX. “Only on the TRX, instead of picking up lighter dumbbells, you just move your feet.”

TRX “Y” Deltoid Fly


Simulates: Prone “Y” dumbbell raise

How to do it: 

  • Set the straps of the TRX to the “long” position.
  • Hold the TRX handles and face the anchor point.
  • Extend your arms in front of you and turn your hands so your palms face each other.
  • With your feet hip-width apart, lean your body backward into about a 45-degree angle with the floor.
  • Keeping your eyes on a point just above the anchor point, your body straight, and your elbows locked, raise your arms backward and up over your head, palms facing forward so your body forms a “Y” shape.
  • Return to the starting position and repeat for 2 to 4 sets of 12 to 15 reps.

Coaching points: “Think of leading this movement with your hips,” suggests Quelch. “Keep your head nice and high, and try to maximally engage the shoulders in the top position.”

Make it harder: Perform the exercise with your feet slightly farther forward.

Make it easier: Perform the movement with your feet slightly farther back.

The experts say: “To increase exercise efficacy, set the hips back slightly in the bottom position, and drive them forward to help initiate the movement,” says Quelch.

Lower Body

TRX Hamstring Curl


Simulates: Hamstring curls on a machine or Swiss ball

How to do it:

  • Set the straps of the TRX to the “long” position.
  • Sit down and place the heels of your feet in the foot cradles.
  • Lie on your back and extend your legs (the TRX straps should hang straight down).
  • Straighten your body by engaging your lower back, glutes and hamstring muscles, so that your hips and lower back lift slightly off the floor.
  • Keeping your hips elevated and feet dorsiflexed (not pointed), bend your knees as far as you can toward your chest.
  • Slowly extend your legs and return to the starting position.
  • Repeat for up to 20 repetitions.

Coaching points: “Don’t drop the hips to the floor between reps,” says Jolie Kobrinsky, TRX-certified trainer and owner of Prime Personal Training in Monterey, Calif. “Keep your body straight and your hips off the floor even in the ‘down’ position.”

Make it harder: Slide backward and position your body farther away from the anchor point. You can also keep your body in a straight line from your knees to your shoulders, bridging the hips higher off the floor as you perform the movement.

Make it easier: Slide forward, extending your legs under and past the anchor point.
The experts say: The stability-ball version of this exercise has become a gym favorite, but it can be fairly difficult. “With the TRX version, resistance is much easier to adjust,” says Quelch.

TRX Suspended Lunge


Simulates: Bulgarian split squat

How to do it:

  • Set the straps of the TRX to the “long” position.
  • Stand facing the TRX and place the toes of your left foot through the foot cradles of both straps.
  • Turn your body away from the anchor point, allowing your left foot to rotate in the foot cradle so that the sole of your foot is facing upward.
  • Hop forward on your right foot until you feel a mild stretch in the front of your left hip.
  • Stand erect, settling your weight evenly on both feet.
  • Lower your body into a deep lunge, allowing the right knee to bend at least 90 degrees, and moving the left knee back and down behind you until it grazes or almost grazes the floor.
  • Keeping your body upright, drive your right heel into the floor and the top of your left foot into the foot cradles, pushing yourself back up to the starting position.
  • Repeat for 2 to 4 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions on each leg, completing all the repetitions on each side before switching sides.

Coaching points: Make sure your front knee tracks directly over your foot throughout the movement.

Make it harder: Add speed, performing the movement as fast as possible while maintaining excellent form. You can also hop your front foot off the floor at the top of each repetition for an added athletic and metabolic challenge.

Make it easier: Hold on to a stationary object for balance and support.

The experts say: “This is a fairly advanced movement,” says Kobrinsky. “It improves single-leg strength and stability in all three planes of motion, and
has a great carryover to running and athletics in general.”

Core

TRX Kneeling Rollout


Simulates:
Ab wheel or barbell rollout

How to do it:

  • Set the straps of the TRX to the “long” position.
  • Hold the TRX handles and kneel on the floor 2 to 3 feet behind the anchor point.
  • Lock your elbows, lean your weight forward into the straps and straighten your body as if you are in the top position of an on-the-knees pushup.
  • Keeping your arms straight, your hands at shoulder width and your body in a straight line from your knees to the top of your head, lower your body toward the floor by allowing the TRX handles to arc slowly forward as far as you can (advanced trainees will reach a position where their upper arms are near their ears).
  • With your arms still locked, your core still tight and your body still straight, push down on the handles and return to the starting position.
  • Repeat for timed sets of 30 to 45 seconds, or for 2 to 4 sets of up to 20 repetitions.

Coaching points: If you feel any straining in your lower back, or if the arch in your back becomes overly pronounced, shorten the range of motion on each rep.

Make it harder: Take a full five seconds to reach the fully extended position of each rep. You can also work up to performing this exercise on your toes (as in the standard pushup position) instead of on your knees. This is a very advanced variation!

Make it easier: Shorten the straps so that the body doesn’t come as close to the floor at the bottom of each repetition.

The experts say: “This is a great exercise for the transverse abdominis [the girdle-like muscle encircling the waist], which is also the target of many Pilates-style ‘drawing-in’ exercises,” says Quelch.

TRX Suspended Side Plank With Side Tap


Simulates: Side plank

How to do it:

  • Set the straps of the TRX to the “long” position.
  • Sit on the floor and place your toes in the foot cradles.
  • Roll onto your right hip and brace your upper body on your right elbow and forearm.
  • Extend your legs, aligning your feet so that the toes of your right foot touch the heel of your left.
  • Straighten your body fully so that your right hip comes off the floor.
  • Extend your left arm toward the ceiling, turning your head to look toward it.
  • Next, reach your left hand underneath your body and touch a spot on the floor a few inches behind your supporting elbow. Allow your hips to lift and rotate as much as necessary to allow your hand to clear your body.
  • Extend your left arm upward again, reaching the arm and shoulder as far behind you as possible while tracking it with your eyes.
  • Perform 2 to 4 sets of 12 to 20 repetitions, completing all your reps on one side before switching to the other.

Coaching points: Check your alignment at the beginning of the set and each time your hand returns to the starting position. Your neck should align with your spine, and your hips should be fully extended, with no bend or sagging at the waist.

Make it harder: Perform the movement while balancing on the hand, rather than the elbow and forearm, of your supporting side.

Make it easier: Take out the side-tap motion and simply hold the suspended side-plank position, building up to sets of 30 seconds long.

The experts say: “The best core movements teach you to stabilize the spine while the extremities are moving,” says Alwyn Cosgrove, MS, CSCS, co-owner of Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, Calif. This movement trains that function, forcing your core to remain strong and tight while the entire body moves.

WEB EXTRA!

Bonus Exercises

Our experts recommended more TRX exercises than we had space for in the print edition! So, available exclusively online, are three additional exercises — one for your upper body, one for your lower body and one for your core.

Upper Body

TRX Chest Press


Simulates: Stability-ball pushup

How to do it: 

  • Stand holding the handles of the TRX, feet at shoulder width, and turn away from the anchor point.
  • Assume a pushup position with your hands at about shoulder width, leaning into the handles so that your body forms about a 45-degree angle to the floor.
  • Keeping your body straight, bend your elbows and lower your body as deeply as you comfortably can, allowing your shoulder blades to squeeze together at the bottom of the movement.
  • Push yourself slowly back up to the starting position and repeat for eight to 15 repetitions.

Coaching points: Keep your head and neck in neutral alignment as you perform the exercise, and don’t allow your hips to sag toward the floor. If the TRX straps rub against your arms or shoulders, simply push the handles a few inches farther out in front of you as you perform the exercise.

Make it harder: Lengthen the straps of the TRX so your body comes closer to the floor at the bottom of each repetition.

Make it easier: Walk your feet forward so that your body is closer to vertical.

The experts say: “This is one exercise where you might have to check your ego and move your feet,” says Fraser Quelch, director of programming and development for Fitness Anywhere, which manufactures the TRX. “Even if you’re good at pushups, you might struggle with these because of the added stability challenge. But if you’re patient and allow yourself to progress slowly, your core and shoulder stability will improve dramatically with this exercise.”

Lower Body

TRX Single-Leg Squat


Simulates: Single-leg squat, loaded or body weight

How to do it:

  • Face toward the anchor point and hold the handles with your arms slightly bent.
  • Shift your weight onto your left foot and hold your right foot a few inches off the floor in front of you.
  • Bend your left knee and drop your tailbone toward the ground, descending as far as possible while maintaining a natural arch in your lower back.
  • Push down through the heel of the left foot, returning to a fully upright position.
  • Perform up to 15 repetitions per leg, completing all the reps on one side before switching legs.

Coaching points: Keep your gaze fixed on the anchor point, and track the knee of your support leg directly over the toes of your left foot throughout the movement.

Make it easier: Place the heel of your free foot on the ground in front of you for additional balance and assistance.

Make it harder: Allow the straps to slacken slightly throughout as much of the movement as possible, relying on them less and less for support as you perform the exercise. You can also start to perform the exercise more quickly and explosively, descending just halfway into the squat and jumping as high as you can at the top of each repetition.

The experts say: “The single-leg squat is one of the most functional lower-body exercises out there,” says Quelch, “but it’s so hard that only really athletic people can do it properly. The TRX version teaches proper body mechanics and allows you to take some of the load off so you can work up to the body-weight version gradually.”

Core

TRX Pendulum

Simulates: Plank with alternate leg raise

How to do it:

  • Extend the TRX straps so that the handles hang about 8 inches from the floor.
  • Sit on the floor next to the TRX and slide your toes as snugly as possible into the foot cradles.
  • Turn your body over (the TRX straps will cross one another as you turn over) and assume the plank position, with your feet hanging in the TRX beneath the anchor point, and your upper body resting on your forearms and elbows.
  • Keeping your neck aligned with your spine and your lower back in its natural arch, swing your legs as far as is comfortably possible back and forth from one side to the other.
  • Continue the exercise for time intervals of 15 to 45 seconds.

Coaching points: “Try to ‘snap’ the hips toward the center from the far edges of the movement,” says Quelch. “If you ever feel this exercise in your lower back, slow it down and make the movement smaller.”

Make it harder: Perform the exercise in a pushup position, with the arms extended fully. You can also increase the speed and range of the motion, bringing the legs farther out to each side.

Make it easier: Reduce the speed and size of the movement.

The experts say: “This exercise trains the core to protect the spine during athletic movements,” says Robert Dos Remedios, MS, CSCS, director of speed, strength and conditioning at the College of the Canyons and author of Cardio Strength Training (Rodale, 2009).

Andrew Heffernan, CSCS, is a Los Angeles–area fitness coach. He blogs at www.malepatternfitness.com.

Photography by Steve Boyle

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