Like most of us, I was forced out of the gym over (valid) concerns about covid-19. With less than 800 square feet to work with, a home gym was out of the question, no room for that. Ceilings are also low, so a pull-up bar not happening either. So, I turned to something I’ve never done before: suspension training. Relatively new, compared to lifting weights anyway, suspension training involves hanging some harnesses and then pulling, pushing against them.
That’s right, it’s calisthenics, folks. The workouts included with the purchase of a TRX (the original suspension training equipment makers) are high intensity interval training (HIIT) type work. It’s big on cardio and body weight movements, but not so big on hypertrophy or progressive overload. So, progress is difficult to track as I have traditionally done it (one rep maxes), so let’s just keep with body measurements:
- Body weight: 190 lbs -> 187 lbs
- Body fat: 16.1% -> 15.7%
- Arms: ~15.5 inches -> ~16 inches
- Legs: ~25 inches -> ~25 inches
Don’t look too much into these numbers, this is a review of only two weeks of just goofing around with suspension training and the boutique of workouts included in the app that comes with the TRX. Coming up next, and for the foreseeable future as social distancing continues, I’ll review the full programs that are packaged with the purchase of straps as well.
What Is TRX Suspension Training?
While the first public use of suspension training was back in 2005, I wasn’t really made aware of it until about five years ago when my gym got a bunch of TRX equipment in and talked about it like it was the next big thing. The marketing people like to constantly remind you that it was invented by a Navy SEAL. The literature says he invented it because he wanted to do some bodyweight exercising that was more than just push-ups.
I’m guessing he developed it in part for the same reason I got a TRX: so you can work your biceps.
Traditional bodyweight workouts have a tough time hitting the biceps without extra equipment. The back and hamstrings are also tough to workout without something else. So, TRX gives you a full body workout that is portable/small; the straps roll up and travel easily. You don’t need to set up two chairs with a broom on them just to do rows. You don’t need a bench or weight set.
An important note: basically every movement in suspension training taxes your core. It’s not really a my-first-routine type of training because if you don’t have a strong core, you could hurt yourself fairly easily. Luckily, I have been working my core regularly years, so I felt OK giving it a shot. But be aware that if you’re relatively out of shape, especially if you have extra pounds on, this type of training may not be for you.
When you buy a TRX, you get a year’s use of their app included. It’s a slick little thing that has a lot of workouts and a handful of programs to choose from. It tries to be your complete fitness boutique, with workouts built in for not just suspension training, but also running, HIIT, cycling, flexibility and functional work. You download the programs ahead of time and then an audio-visual guide takes you through the whole workout. These instructor voices are a bit cheesy, and it keeps repeating the exact same recordings of these cheesy lines, but my tolerance for that turned out to be higher than I thought. It was helped by the fact that you can play your own music in the background if you’d like, which is another nice touch to the app.
One minor complaint I will give is that the app cleans out its cache way too much. In less than a week, it had removed downloaded workouts I had added to the “My Workouts” section and I had to re-download them. Not a huge deal, but if you have limited data, or are in a time crunch, it’s not ideal.
These workouts are HIIT in nature. Do as many reps as you can within some small amount of time, usually 45 seconds, then rest for 20 or so seconds and then do another movement. You circle back around to the top and do everything again at least once more in most programs. The “rest” is usually not restful, as you’ve got to wrangle your TRX and yourself into the new position for the new movement. Getting feet in and out of the straps when your heart rate is 140+ is not easy.
In other words, this is exact opposite of the type of training I’m used to doing. As someone that just finished Deep Water before doing this, and did powerlifting based 5/3/1 for years, and then did powerbuilding next, my type of training was 8+ or so sets of the same, complex barbell movement with two minutes break in between or so.
I structured my suspension training workouts to always get about a half an hour of activity in. Usually I went 2–3 days in a row and then 1–2 days of other activity. My goal with all of this wasn’t to necessarily have a true “program,” but to experience an entirely different style of training and try a lot of new things while being active during a time where it was difficult to be active.
The specific workouts I did are as follows:
Tough Level 1 by Miguel Vargas: A good beginner program. I wish I would have run this one first. Some arms, chest and legs work.
Tough Level 2 by Miguel Vargas: Do not do this one the same day you do Tough Level 1, it’s mostly the same movements, but more.
Lean Body by TRX Coach: One of the most balanced included workouts in my opinon. It pushes hard with half burpees (or up-downs, as we called them at my high school), but has great movement for a full body workout.
Strength & Core by Austin Way: I did this one first and it really pushed me hard and I had a tough time finishing. I went back it regularly because I felt it was tough enough to challenge me. A full body workout, with an emphasis on core work.
Burn & Build by Tahneetra Crosby: A hard circuit that includes two trips into burpees. This one takes a while and burns a lot of calories.
On the Go by Miguel Vargas: A handful of super-sets done twice a piece with very little rest. There’s a lot of straight body weight, no suspension, work in here too. More of a cardio blast than a strength activity.
Upper Body by TRX Coach: Looking to give myself a break on “easy” days, I did this one that was just some upper body work with a little bit of core work on top of it. This is also a good supplemental workout to tack on to most other workouts if you’re looking for more.
My Lifting Background Up to This Point
I have been program lifting for over four and a half years. First six months were Stronglifts 5x5, then a year of Greyskull LP (during which I injured my back and spent months in recovery, losing a lot of deadlift and squat progress). I started 5/3/1 in February of 2017, switching to Forever style 5/3/1 in February of 2018. Then in 2019 I started various powerbuilding programs. 2020 was originally going to be a year of “extreme” programing, Deep Water being the first, but the covid-19 pandemic closed down and gyms and encouraged social distancing. So, I had to improvise.
Before all that, I had been on fuckarounditis for two years of varying intensity and absolutely no progression plan in an apartment building gym similar to a hotel level gym. I spent my 20s largely an out of shape obese guy after being an athletic teenager.
Work Outside of Suspension Training
During this program, I continued to take a daily creatine supplement of 5g, D3 5,000 IU vitamin supplement and Fish Oil for Omega-3 1000 mg. I do also supplement about 1/3 of my daily protein from a shake.
Suspension training practically is a cardio workout. Which is good, because my cardio outside of that was way down due to social distancing and eventual shelter-in-place orders. Normally, I biked about 2.5 miles four times a week and walking 2–4 miles a day. Instead, I biked about 2.5 miles a week and walked 1.5–2.5 miles a day. I did, on occasion, get out the weighted vest and go for a walk, but I’ll be honest: this didn’t happen as often as I would have liked. I don’t do cardio much more demanding than this because I suffer from asthma.
Like Deep Water, this program has a lot of ab work, virtually every movement taxes the core and most programs I did had direct core work on top of that. So, my usual at home routine for abs hasn’t been usual for all of 2020 so far.
Basically, like most people during social distancing, I found I had to really work at being physically active.
After addressing this a bit in my Deep Water review, I decided to start keeping a diet section in all my future reviews.
For the most part, I kept with the Deep Water diet because it worked so well for me. That meant very limited carbs, outside of fruit in my case, with 1–2 cheat meals a week. I found my percent of the time eating at home going up from like 80% to 95% with social distancing becoming the norm.
While TRX generally burned more calories than my average workout, especially pre-Deep Water, I also was way less active outside of working out. Add in that calisthenics doesn’t really build muscle and I know I didn’t want to have too many calories; bulking season is over, folks. But the fight with social distancing was there in this regard too. It’s easy to eat when you have extra time at home and a bunch of food just ready to be consumed.
Impressions of the Program
Unlike a lot of other reviews I’ve done that are of specific programs, this is more an overview of a style of training with some thoughts on some of the workouts I did. The TRX app does have some full programs in it, and I plan on doing some of those programs (and reviewing them), but I wanted to get out my initial thoughts on suspension training as a guy that did a lot of powerlifting and general weight training for everyone else stuck without a gym.
This whole experience was very different for me. If you’ve taken fitness classes or had personal training, I think the TRX app workouts will feel more at home for you. But I’m not used to a “coach” guiding me through a workout, nor with how fast paced this was. Two minute rest times are very normal for me, not 15 seconds. Doing the same work over and over again was what I thrived on, not a new exercise every minute and a half.
That said, I went whole hog in trying new things. I figured I’m already mostly out of my comfort zone in a totally new style of training, so why not just do a bunch of new movements? Sometimes even with focus on body parts I probably don’t to focus on. And I have to say, even if suspension training doesn’t sound like your thing from this review, trying something new is still a great idea. I’d been powerlifting as a base for four and a half years coming into 2020. This is because A) I learned how to powerlift in high school and liked it and B) most internet forums are just full of folks that got big and strong by powerlifting. Expanding my horizons a bit felt good to me. I feel like I can talk to more people about their fitness journey and what getting in shape is like because I have more in my toolbox. When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. When all you know is powerlifting, anyone that asks you for advice, which many people have, you’re gonna give them powerlifting whether it’s good for them or not.
I found a couple of movements I really enjoyed. The power pull was really fun because when fully extended I felt like Chris Evans in that famous helicopter scene from Civil War. The triceps press felt pretty good too, especially when alternated with the chest press. Being able to do curls, of course, is a huge boon, but you can also get some ok biceps work doing low rows.
And it definitely kicked my ass a bit. I like to think of myself as an in shape guy after lifting regularly for half a decade, so it was good to be humbled when I tried stuff like the atomic pike. Or when I tried a 50 minute workout, by the end I had enough sweat coming off me to have drops fall on my yoga mat as I worked.
All that said, this type of training doesn’t necessarily build a large amount of strength nor size, and those are two of my primary goals for working out. Because, at the end of day, this is a lot of calisthenics. For all the marketing, it isn’t really a revolution in training nor something that’s going to make you into a Marine. While you can get stronger, you’re not going to get 400 lbs squat strong. Suspension training will not get you yoked. It is fine for your health and to keep yourself from losing (too much) progress you’ve made in more traditional weight training. But it’s not gonna get you jacked.
Also, many of these workouts had movements that reminded me of cardio work my high school football coach would have us do as punishment, in full pads on a hot August day, for screwing up. Now maybe I just have the association in my brain of this type of working out being punishment, and so I find it a little tough to be excited about it. But, any type of exercising that can be used as punishment, may feel like punishment to anyone.
I don’t believe suspension training should be my primary mode of training during normal times. For people that are more looking for tone or cardio, this is might be for you though. However, I do usually engage in a bodyweight routine three times a week, mostly to work on my core, since a lot of the programs I run tend not to have direct core work. And well, ding-ding-ding-ding-ding, that’s exactly what suspension training delivers. As something that I can use in addition to gym work, suspension training seems like a the perfect compliment.
I also got a lot of stabilizer muscle work done. While I tend toward big barbell movements, rather than isolation work, some supporting muscles don’t get the type of work I got in while doing suspension work. My calves and my abs got the most DOMS, but I think I got them almost everywhere a bit.
So, when I’m traveling, social distancing (hopefully we never have to do this again) or looking for something on days off from the gym, I like suspension training quite a bit. It gives a full body workout without needing a lot of equipment, nor any equipment that can be difficult to store or move, like dumbbells, a bench, a pull-up bar or a gorilla bow.
That said, it’s not cheap. Especially these days. I saw the writing on the wall early March and ordered a TRX Go in prep for my gym shutting and that was only a hundred bucks. In less than a week, the TRX Go was discontinued, scrubbed from the TRX website and gone from sites like Amazon. Now the entry point is $150, which is quite a bit higher than a good, door frame, pull-up bar. While there are advantages to the TRX over the pull-up bar (included app, smaller, easier to store, easier to travel with), I don’t know if that’s all worth a $100 extra dollars. You can still get a full body workout with a pull-up bar, or hell, even some chairs and a broom if you’re really short on cash. Suspension training is a bit of a luxury, but that luxury comes with some of perks.
That said, $150 is basically two months of gym membership for me. Since it’s looking more and more like we’ll all be saving two months of gym memberships over this whole thing, this may be an investment that pays for itself.
On to results: my expectations were low. Not squatting heavy for two weeks, no matter what is done in between would probably lead to some loss in progress. But, with no way to test that, we just have to go by body weight, leg size, arm size and body fat. All of those are very influenced by diet in addition to exercise, so suspension training only gets half credit.
But, to its credit, suspension training increased my arm size while decreasing my bodyweight. Now, this was only two weeks and change is quite small. This could be more just noise in the data than actual progress. Still, the numbers are there and it’s tough to argue results. And the results were actually pretty good!
A lot of people are using this time social distancing to learn to play an instrument or write a novel. Trying some new type of training seems in line with what everyone else is doing, and so in that regard I consider suspension training a success. I have a new skillset, experience and ideas that I didn’t before. Plus, I feel I’m stronger in a different way, even if it’s not the way I typical try for.
As calisthenics, suspension training provides a full body workout away from the gym with some lightweight equipment that can be used basically anywhere and taken there easily. It’s not quick a revolution in working out, you can get the same type of work from a lot of different sources with their own pros and cons. But, the best type of program is the one you actually do, and suspension training just gets me more hyped about working out than just an empty spot in a room I can do body weight stuff in.
Good results mixed with actually being able to do it given the circumstances and I have to say that if you can swing a purchase, you should do it. Next up for me is some of the full fledged programs that TRX has bundled into their app.