If you’re a fitness buff, or live within earshot of one, you’ve probably heard of TRX, a “suspension trainer” composed of a pair of thick straps dangling from above with handles at the ends. The TRX (short for “Total Body Resistance Exercise”) equipment takes fitness to the next level—off the ground—allowing users to lean, twist and, yes, suspend their weight to work against the body’s own resistance.
It sounds intense and looks impressive: Imagine steely midair plank positions, eye-popping aerial yoga poses or ultrafit spokesman and NFL quarterback Drew Brees holding an effortless lunge with one leg suspended off the ground. Even the backstory is intimidating: Navy SEAL Randy Hetrick fashioned the first suspension trainer in 1997 to stay fit on deployments. It’s been used in Marine Corps training since 2007.
Despite the intimidation factor, suspension training has caught on. Since TRX’s commercial launch a decade ago, its suspension trainers are now used at more than 1,000 gyms nationwide and at dozens of fitness facilities in the Seattle area. In fact, you may have trouble finding a spot in the region’s more popular classes, says certified TRX senior course instructor Elizabeth S. Andrews, who teaches TRX at Elite Performance Center on Lower Queen Anne and trains instructors across the United States and Canada.
“More and more clubs and studios are adding TRX suspension classes to their class programming and personal training. But even with new classes coming online, the courses I teach here in Seattle are typically sold out,” explains Andrews. Pro athletes, of course, don’t have to worry about waiting lists—the Seahawks use TRX suspension trainers at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center in Renton.
The versatile TRX system can be set up in a gym, at home or wherever there’s a sturdy place to hang the straps
The surge of interest isn’t expected to slow down anytime soon. TRX dovetails with two of 2016’s top fitness trends identified by the American College of Sports Medicine: body weight training and functional fitness.
Functional fitness involves exercise designed to strengthen muscles used in everyday movements, such as walking, bending and lifting. It strengthens core muscles to make the body more resilient, less prone to injury and better equipped for tasks such as lifting kids and pets, hefting groceries up the stairs and sitting for long stretches without slouching.“Functional fitness encourages a full range of motion so the muscles and joints can react like they’re supposed to,” says Susan Kleiner, Ph.D., who advises elite athletes as owner of Mercer Island’s High Performance Nutrition. While weight training might isolate one group of muscles, functional fitness works muscles in tandem, engaging the body’s core to build strength from within.
The focus on functional fitness is what makes suspension training work for nearly anyone, says certified TRX instructor and group fitness coordinator Vicki Hatch-Moen of The SeattleGym, a fitness hub with locations in Queen Anne and Laurelhurst. One of her clients—an 80-year-old—uses the TRX suspension trainer to work on balance. “People are scared to try suspension training because they picture these aerial poses off the ground, but the truth is, you’ll almost always have one or two limbs on the floor,” says Hatch-Moen.
“To lose weight, I know I need strength and cardio, but weight training is intimidating. TRX had a fluid feel, and it was easy to modify the movements to my strength level. My whole body was engaged for the entire 45-minute class.”
TRX user Lisa Olsen of University Place signed up for classes to build strength—and because learning TRX under an instructor’s watchful eye seemed less intimidating than going it alone in the weight room. “To lose weight, I know I need strength and cardio, but weight training is intimidating,” says Olsen. “TRX had a fluid feel, and it was easy to modify the movements to my strength level. My whole body was engaged for the entire 45-minute class.” TRX training can make some exercises easier for those who are less fit or overweight because it helps absorb their body weight, according to Hatch-Moen. At more advanced levels, “it’s the ultimate challenge for your core strength,” she says. “You’re pretty much planking the entire time.”
But you don’t need to hold a permanent plank pose to get fit. Functional fitness can be found outside a gym, and exercises that promote alignment and balance—such as squats on the bouncy, dome-shaped BOSU Balance Trainer, available at Costco and on Amazon—are a good place to start, says Kleiner. Inexpensive resistance bands can add challenge to classic moves, such as bicep curls and lunges. And for the gym-averse, TRX equipment can be used at home, overhanging a door jamb for support.
Ultimately, suspension training is a progressive, personalized workout that gradually ramps up intensity as fitness improves. It isn’t about intimidation or impressive poses—it’s about functional fitness that translates to better living, says Andrews. Years of training, competitive aerobics and building strength on a weak foundation left her with five herniated disks, but TRX delivers core strength that keeps her symptoms at bay. “We help people move better, and it’s exciting.”