It’s 8:30 on a Sunday morning. Twenty personal trainers from the Virginia and Washington D.C. area quietly congregate on the second-floor of the University of Richmond fitness facility around a large, metal frame with ten hanging nylon bumblebee straps limply dangling from it. I have seen people use this adult-sized playground, their legs suspended midair as they perform cirque du soleil exercises. But, I had never used the TRX. I felt clueless about what to expect from today’s 8-hour training course.
Paul Knapp, a TRX representative and proctor, arrives at exactly 9:00 a.m.. His punctuality and appearance provides the tired, travelers with a refreshing, enthusiastic display of TRX training and its military history.
Building a Multimillion Dollar Corporation from Parachute Scraps
Stashed away in the confines of wharf-side sea houses, urban safe houses, on ships and in submarines, Randy Hetrick, a former squadron commander for the U.S. Navy SEALs, grew restless while deployed on another secret operative mission— this time to South East Asia.
Without proper space or equipment to exercise, Hetrick’s team weakens, losing the of their military-trained bodies. The SEALs’ camouflaged cargo pants hang baggier around their waists; their tight brown shirts no longer defined the contours of their once perfectly sculpted bodies. Beyond aesthetics, and far more worrisome, Hetrick feared that after months of waiting for action, that his crew would not be as physically prepared to engage in combat as they had been when they first left the base.
Hetrick devised different creative alternatives to traditional training, but it was on this trip to South East Asia that he developed the first TRX prototype ten years ago.
“Now, talk about innovative. This commander took a few lengths of parachute webbing, and hand-stitched it together with rubber boat repair tools,” Knapp’s interjects, “A little secret for the ladies, all military men are trained to be excellent seamstresses, seriously,”
Hetrick attached the parachute straps overhead, by anchoring them to buildings, beams, and military tanks. This allowed him to perform a variety of exercises with half of his body suspended off the ground, which challenged his body to work against gravity and with greater intensity to prepare for the demands of combat.
Within a month, SEALs assembled and adjusted hundreds of other traditional exercises work with the new fitness harness and its popularity quickly spread to different military units. The SEALs converted the traditional push up to work on the TRX machine. In one variation, the inclined press, the TRX suspended the troops’ legs vertically in the air while their hands supported their body in a handstand position on the ground. From this position, the troops bent their arms to 90 degrees, lowering their crew-cut scalps to the ground, and straightened them to return to neutral handstand.
Another variation is the atomic push up, a high intensity full body progression that suspended the troops’ legs horizontally off the ground in a starting plank position. From here, they crunch, driving their tailbones up and bringing their knees into their chest. They straighten back to the plank position to perform a traditional push up, and then repeat the exercise.
Within five years of inventing his first TRX model, Hetrick retired from the SEALs, earned his masters degree in business, released the first commercial model of TRX, and became the founder and CEO for his corporation, Fitness Anywhere Inc., Knapp says.
And the release of the commercial TRX in 2005 couldn’t have been more perfectly timed to match the fitness industry’s paradigm shift away from the traditional methods of isolated, machine-based muscle training and towards more functional, total-body muscle movements.
Isolated exercises are limited because they only target a single muscle group. A traditional bicep curl only works the bicep muscle. A seated leg press only recruits the quadriceps to push against the resistance and the machine dictates exerciser’s motion.
“You make your body your machine,” Knapp repeats he company’s slogan. “Functional training requires the recruitment of multiple joint and muscle groups to perform the motion. In essence, the exerciser controls his or her body to move the machine, rather than the machine controlling the exerciser to move his or her body.”
Athletic trainers adopted the suspension training technique from the military to train professionals in the NHL, NFL, NBA. Super Bowl quarterback Drew Brees named it “the greatest piece of functional equipment that exists.”
Elite skiers, snowboarders, swimmers, golfers, and triathletes also began incorporating TRX into trainings and workouts. The TRX marched down the industry hierarchy to celebrity personal trainers for Hollywood A-listers like Mary J. Bliege, Ellen Pompeo, Jenifer Lopez and Giselle Bundchen. The TRX gained the most public interest after it premiered on the reality series “Biggest Loser.” It is now available for personal or professional purposes and has spread to fitness facilities and physical therapy studios nationwide.
“Basically, TRX gives results, not promises. We provide a functional workout to challenge your body’s movement, flexibility, strength, coordination, power, and cardio from a single apparatus. From the battlefield to training studios, the goal of the Total Body Resistance (TRX) Suspension Trainer is to democratize the fitness industry, bringing fitness anywhere, for anyone, at anytime.”
TRX has generated $20 million in profits in the past five years for Fitness Anywhere, Inc. . Men’s Health magazine named the TRX the best total body workout tool, and America Inc. magazine rated it 108 of the top 5,000 fastest growing private companies, outranking popular brands, like Pandora Radio.
The Anatomy and Principles of Suspension Training.
Gymnasts and rock climbers have been using suspension training principles for years. But, the TRX is the first apparatus that practically applies suspension to exercising.
Suspension training refers to any exercise where the entire body or different body parts hang from an overhead support point, like a rock climber anchored to the climbing wall by his harness. Suspended exercises are more intense because users have to resist against their own body weight and displace their bodies’ centers of gravity (COG).
Center of gravity works like this. Your body’s natural COG is located at a point right below your belly button and above your hips. This places all of the body weight and resistance on your legs, the strongest and most stable muscles. When you change your position, you alter your COG and activate the core muscles in your back and abdomen to balance and stabilize your body. The more your COG shifts, the more muscle groups you activate to respond.
“When your body is suspended, the COG moves from your stomach area and seeks the lowest point to the ground,” Knapp continues. “Think about it. When you hang from a pull up bar, your body feels heavies with the weight concentrated in your legs.
The TRX suspends either your upper body or lower body during the exercises, while the opposite have remains on the ground as a secure base. This places a higher demand on the body and recruitment from muscles to stabilize and adjust.”
The TRX suspension machine packs into a less than two-pound sack of industrial grade nylon, metal calibers, and neoprene-padded handles to offer a portable, strong product that can support up to 350 pounds. It is available in two colors: Professional (yellow and black) or Tactile (military khaki). We used the Professional Model.
The Anatomy of a TRX
The Professional TRX is shaped like an upside down “Y.” The trunk of “Y” is the suspension anchor, consisting of a carabineer, three-feet of nylon webbing with intermediate attachment loops, and an equalizer that supports the rest of the TRX machine. This yellow portion of the machine allows you to wrap it around a secure anchoring point, like a tree, a fence, or a ceiling rafter, when setting it up.
Two black straps branch out from the yellow anchoring, each with tabs and buckles to adjust the height of the handles and foot cradles. Adjusting the length is like fastening an airplane seatbelt, to shorten, push the metal buckle and pull on the strap; to lengthen, push and pull the metal buckle down the strap. The handles are cushioned for comfort, and foot cradles are loops under the handles to support the heels or toes when performing exercises on the ground. The foot cradles should be eight to 12-inches above the ground for most exercises.
Setting Up to Anchor Down: How to TRX-ercise
The TRX takes no more than five minutes to set up.
First, find a flat stable surface indoors or outside about six-by-eight feet wide. if you are exercising outside, Make sure to avoid mud, rocks, gravel or slippery surfaces, always bring a towel or mat for lying down exercises.
Second, find an anchor point seven-to-nine feet above ground level. The anchor must be sturdy enough to support your body weight as it moves through motions like squats and pull-outs. A bar, tree branch, ceiling beam or chain linked fence can be used. Fitness Anywhere Inc. sells different anchoring hardware, like group suspension frame or individual wall and door mounts.
But, Be careful if you buy the door anchor. I bought one, anchored to my front door . . and broke it right off the hinge!
Once you locate the anchoring point, attach the yellow anchor strap on the TRX by wrapping it around and clipping the carabineer in one of the intermediate loops. Be careful to only hook the carabineer to the yellow strap, and not the black equalizer loop underneath. Another anchoring option is to directly clip the carabineer to the anchor point if it is skinny enough to fit.
Once the TRX is set up and anchored down, you can begin to TRX-ercise.
There are six different positions that you can perform exercises on the TRX. The three standing variations are: stand facing the anchor, facing away from the anchor, or facing sideways to the anchor. The three lying down variations are: lying face down, lying face up, or lying sideways.
Hold the cushioned handles to suspend your upper body.
If you aren’t using a personal TRX, you need to ask two important questions: Am I performing a single handle or double handle exercise? Is this model single-handled safe or unsafe?
Double handle exercises are when you use both hands to hold on the handles to support the body. Single-handled exercises isolate the exercise to the left or right arm. The newer models come with a single-handled safe apparatus, a tiny black loop under the anchoring strap, which allows you to simply drop one strap and continue to exercise.
Older models do not have this black loop, so if you drop one strap and pull on the other, you will fall. To create a single handled safe strap, hold the handles in both hands. Dip the left handle through the loop of the right handle. Separate your hands again. Dip the right handle through the left handle loop, let go of the right handle, and pull on the left one, so a knot forms and secures the straps. The knot resembles an upside down handle bar mustache if finished correctly.
Use the foot cradles to suspend your lower body.
The TRX lets you to suspend your lower body for sitting or lying exercises by placing your feet or toes into the foot cradles. This is easy for standing exercises, like lunges or squats, but it is more difficult to position yourself when you’re supine.
“When you are positioning clients’ feet in the lying down exercises, make sure you don’t call the foot cradles ‘stirrups,’ especially to women. It might remind them of their yearly exam, if you know what I mean,” Knapp advises. “I made that mistake once. I was so embarrassed when one lady called me out, ‘What is this, a gyno exam?!’”
Knapp instructs on the the correct way to place our feet in the cradles. We looked like adult infants waiting for a diaper change, lying on our back with our feet up in the air.
For face up exercises, place your heels in the cradles.
For face down exercises, crisscross the straps and place your toes in the cradles. Determine whether the right or left strap is crossed on top, and flip onto your stomach towards the direction of the front strap.
“Because each exercise requires different body positions, it is important to create a workout plan with a purpose and script in mind,” Knapp said. “This allows you to select exercises to target your fitness goals, and also helps you order the exercises so you can easily transition from one exercise to the next.”
“A lot of people make the mistake of alternating between different body positions, so they lie on the ground face up, then stand up, the lie on the ground face down, and so on,” Knapp said. “It would make much more sense to categorize the exercises and order them based on the body position category—for example, all standing facing the anchor exercises first.”
Once you select your exercises, choose between a rep-based or time-based workout. The rep-based means that you define the number of times you repeat an exercise consecutively before resting and moving to the next set. Rep-based workouts are good for beginners because they provide more structure in progression and time to rest in between sets, and also provides a finite number of repetitions.
Time-based workout means that you perform the exercise for an allotted amount of time, for example, you perform squats for 1 minute and take a 30 second break before moving on the next exercise. This allows you work your body as hard as possible, which often results in more repetitions and more calories burned… but you have to be motivated.
Rules and Regulations
Maintain a neutral spine with hips, knees, shoulders, and ears in alignment. Engage your core by sucking your belly button into your spine. This position, the drawing-in-maneuver, ensures that the body is moving in correct patterns and activateS more muscles to help stabilize and support the body’s movement.
Tension all the time.
Keep the straps tight by applying constant pressure throughout the entire exercise motion. Droopy straps means that you are not applying any pressure to the machine, giving your body a temporary rest in the motion. This leads to a less effective workout.
Do not “saw” or “rub” the straps.
“Sawing” the straps is when you apply more pressure to one handle more than the other, so your arms move in a sawing motion that creates friction on the equalizer loop. This creates premature wear on the anchor and can possibly break it.
“Rubbing” on the straps is when you rub your arms against the straps to help you stabilize difficult movements. The straps can act as a lean-pole to distribute some of the weight, so the exercise is less effective. To prevent rubbing, move your hands to a higher position.
Adjusting the exercise for difficulty or intensity
Sawing and rubbing are two indicators that the exercise might be too hard for you. Other signs that you’re overworking are white, purple, or blue colored cheeks, incorrect form or excessive shakiness and an angry constipated puffer fish face. It is important to recognize these are signs so that you decrease your intensity.
It is also important to know when things are too easy. If you can a timed-based interval without feeling your muscles tiredness, you’re not working hard enough.
Difficulty or intensity is equivalent to resistance and stability. The TRX is unique (and confusing) in the way you vary the intensity or difficulty level. Here are some tips to adjust the exercise difficulty:
1. The Vector Resistance Principle
By changing your body angle, you adjust resistance.
Easy: Standing straight up.
Your body’s base is directly beneath your center of gravity, so the resistance is limited to your actual body weight and concentrated on the support of your legs.
Harder: Positioning your body at a steeper angle by stepping your feet forward, or closer to the TRX anchor.
Your center of gravity shifts outside of your base of support and the weight transfers onto the TRX, which adds resistance to the exercises.
Main Point: The steeper your body angle, the more resistance and more difficult the exercise will be.
2. Pendulum Principle
Change your starting position relative to the anchor point. The TRX naturally hangs straight down from the anchor in a neutral position.
Easier: Move your starting position to the far-side of neutral, so gravity will cause the TRX to swing in the direction of your movement.
Harder: Position your feet on the near-side of neutral, so gravity will work against the movement and make it harder.
3. Stability Principle
Change the stability provided by your base, or the half of the body that is not suspended and working on the ground.
Easier: A larger base. Stand with your legs spread farther apart, or in a split squat with on leg in front and one behind. Perform plank positions on your elbows.
Harder: A smaller base. Stand with your legs close together, or perform the exercises balanced on one foot and then the other. Perform plank positions on your hands in a push up position.
Main point: As your base become broader your exercise becomes easier. As it becomes smaller it gets harder.
Product Review and Wrap Up
After several hours of learning and practice, we received our certification to teach the TRX exercises. The TRX is a form of suspension training that works by displacing the bodies’ center of gravity. It facilitates functional, integrated motions where you body works as your machine. The TRX is compact so it is great for people who travel or do not have the room for traditional equipment. It is also great for people who do not have a lot of time to exercise because it provides the same level of effectiveness in minimal amount of time. It is important that people with injuries to take caution using this machine because it taxes all muscles at all times, so you cannot isolate your strong from your weak or injured muscles. There are thousands of exercises available on the TRX website that you can choose from to match your goals and purpose. Refer to the videos to learn how you, too, can enjoy Fitness Anywhere.