TRX: Strength Hangs in the Balance


By Andrew Heffernan |

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:

  1. 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: 

  1. 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:

  1. 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:

  1. 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, andhas a great carryover to running and athletics in general.”

Core

TRX Kneeling Rollout

Simulates: Ab wheel or barbell rollout

How to do it:

  1. 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:

  1. 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.

Looking for more of a challenge? Try these advanced exercises, recommended by TRX-certified trainer Jay Ross, MEd, co-owner of CrossFit 215 in Philadelphia, Pa. Before you begin, make sure to get form pointers from a qualified professional, because these moves aren’t for beginners.Bridge Lunge, Bulgarian split squat Variations of the pushup, bench press

More and more health clubs are starting to feature the TRX on the gym floor — in fact, some have even started offering classes dedicated exclusively to Suspension Training. But if you’d like to purchase a TRX for your own use at home or on the road, visit , where you have your choice of several training packages: Includes a TRX Suspension Trainer, 65-minute DVD, 35-page book and two detailed programs for $189.95.Home Training Bundle: Adds a door-anchor device, which allows you to attach your TRX easily to the top of any sturdy door; $199.95.Includes a TRX and DVD featuring an exercise program modeled on the military fitness workouts originally designed to get Navy SEALs ready for action; $219.95.

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.Stability-ball pushupKeep 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. Lengthen the straps of the TRX so your body comes closer to the floor at the bottom of each repetition.Walk your feet forward so that your body is closer to vertical. “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.”Single-leg squat, loaded or body weightKeep 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. Place the heel of your free foot on the ground in front of you for additional balance and assistance. 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 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.”Plank with alternate leg raise“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.” 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.Reduce the speed and size of the movement.“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(Rodale, 2009).

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