Suspension training has grown rapidly within the last few years. It has caught on alongside the other tools associated with functional training. Brands such as the TRX and its imitations have succeeded in the market.
They have a low cost versus most other pieces of equipment. The portability and limited space requirement helps too. It looks fairly simple to use and versatile, at least at first glance. They capture the appeal of training in a way seemingly more relevant to daily life. This mindset dominates the fitness world today.
A suspension trainer consists of two nylon straps or ropes with a handle at each end. These join together and the unit attaches to an anchor point overhead. You can use a door, branch, or just about anything that can keep it fixed. You slip your hands or feet onto or over the handles in various combinations. You then usually keep some part of your body connected to the ground to perform the exercises.
Forms of suspension training, such as gymnastics rings, have existed for quite some time. A former Navy SEAL invented and made famous the TRX that dominates today though. His company designed an exercise system with guides and videos revolving around the tool. This helped to form a big business around the suspension trainer.
The bodyweight exercises suggested aim to challenge you in multiple planes. It delivers a full-body workout arguably for someone of any fitness level, especially incorporating the stabilizers and the core.
Many esteemed personal trainers, athletes, and celebrities swear by it. Military organizations and other groups that require fitness have latched on to the benefits of functional training in general, further driving its appeal.
Like most success stories, the zeal behind it comes in part from a genuine place. Many successful people really do have a desire to help others. They use their passion and work ethic to spur the growth of their products and services. This creates powerful businesses that further push these tools. Have no doubt though, these revolutions grow for reasons beyond just fitness concerns.
Consider that the right equipment can make working out feel more fun, engaging, and athletic. It meets the needs for group fitness instructors, giving them a cost-effective tool with an easy setup. Fads such as BOSU balls and the other balance-based equipment have become old news. When a trend develops, many companies, organizations, and individuals rush toward the financial opportunity. This exponentially spurs its growth.
Flaws exist in suspension training though and with many popular tools and methods in general. Remember that those that endorse any fitness product often built their body through other means. They also almost always possess a rare potential to look better than average. Avoid letting endorsements cloud your thinking.
The TRX and others like it definitely work. Getting fit is actually a rather simple process. Any exercise that develops some tension in the muscles over a range of motion will develop them. Move enough using large muscles and your heart rate will climb. Stretch a muscle over all its joints and flexibility will develop.
Does suspension training work better and more safely than the alternatives though? I argue it develops no aspect of fitness best compared with more effective and safer options.
Let’s view suspension training from a pure fitness perspective. Many of the reasons against it overlap with kettlebells. Consider these reasons why it works poorly.
The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.
– Edmund Burke
- It fails to provide enough resistance in the long run.
Using your bodyweight alone as resistance for the best and safest exercises on a suspension trainer can only work for so long. As you grow stronger, you need to add weight. You can use a weighted vest but this only works up to a point. Exercises like inverted rows will feel far too easy depending on your advantages in leverage. At the least it makes no difference versus using just your bodyweight.
Too many reps for strength training induce fatigue in the energy systems that compete with creating tension, the main stimulus for more muscle strength and size. The burn you feel or getting out-of-breath overwhelm the exercise.
Suspension training systems will compensate for this flaw by changing your leverage. This brings about the worst problem of all.
- Changing leverage is unsafe and creates a new, worse exercise.
Advocates will call this making your bodyweight scalable. They argue that by changing leverage and positioning, you can create more than 300 exercises and also match your strength level. Unfortunately, many of these variations make a negligible difference in the muscles used. Most will instead endanger the joints.
Everyone knows that an overhead press feels completely different than a bench press. Why would a push-up feel the same as a handstand push-up? Using steeper angles shifts an exercise toward a vertical position. Both the overhead press and the handstand push-up cause shoulder impingement. This also shifts the load across the working muscles in a way that works less muscle overall.
Anything away from a horizontal push and pull for the upper body can harm your joints. Barbells and dumbbells work best because they allow you to overload the same exact good and safe movement patterns as you get stronger and add weight. Changing your leverage turns it into a new exercise entirely.
Consider that this method makes standardization difficult as well. Did you position your body at 45° relative to the floor or at 48°? This would matter in how heavy your bodyweight feels. When you add 5 lb. to the bar for a bench press, you have an accurate idea of how much you increased the overload.
- It encourages other poor exercises and habits.
Suspension training makes it too easy to hyperextend your back. This occurs since your hips can drop.
Many exercises suggested will create movement with the spine. You should never train the core through movement. It exists as a stabilizer and should remain in a neutral position that promotes good posture. Mobility exists for repositioning, not to load the entire range of motion.
To provide enough resistance for the lower body, you often have to use unilateral exercises over bilateral exercises. These reduce the strength stimulus.
- There is a high risk of hyperextending the joints.
The hands placed on the ground will hyperextend the wrist. This fails to occur when they wrap around a barbell or dumbbell.
The sharp angles involved when changing leverage also overextends many joints.
- There are safer, more efficient ways to build cardio.
Some defend suspension trainers as a tool mostly for high intensity cardio. Just like many kettlebell programs, the most popular suspension training systems encourage circuits and repping for time.
These poorly develop strength. They also can lead to poor form since the goal of getting more reps for time supersedes safety. This replaces the better practices of training to failure with heavy enough weights or performing intervals to raise the heart rate efficiently.
Resisted sprinting, stairclimbing, and jumping work far better. They involve more intense activity for all the muscles involved. The key to efficient and effective cardio is involving as many muscles as possible at once.
- Core and stabilizer work is overrated.
While the concept of working muscles as a unit makes sense, this does not justify the small, stabilizing muscles dominating the movement. Functional training experts often tie the two together. You can still agree with the first concept and not support functional training.
The core and the stabilizers exist to support the powerful and large muscle groups. The core merely transmits forces and the small stabilizers possess great leverage to help with bracing. The athletic options given above for cardio develop these stabilizers more naturally.
By focusing on stabilizer and core work, you just harm the prime movers.
- It lacks stability.
They always tout this as an advantage. Like many functional training rationales, the improvements they claim just cause problems.
Many trainees will shake and convulse when first learning to use a suspension trainer. This never completely goes away and limits the weight you can use. This instability can harm vulnerable joints like the shoulder. To create stability, sometimes trainees will flare their elbows or develop other bad habits to feel stiffer. This also harms the shoulder.
The programs often change up exercises by removing a limb. For example, on a push-up you may lift one leg off the ground. This just makes it that much harder to use the large muscles. At best it makes no big difference.
It also clearly increases your risk of falling or losing your balance. This sort of risk should never belong in proper training. Changing your base of support is foolish. Use a medium stance, grip, or position on all exercises. Strike the right balance between stability and mobility while spreading the load across all the joints and muscles involved.
This instability can distract you. Instead of worrying about form, you should focus on working hard.
You need stability to express and build great strength. Would you feel safe squatting 400 lb. while worrying if you may fall? Never choose exercises that let balance, skill, and coordination limit you.
- The closed-chain vs. open-chain distinction is overblown.
Advocates mention how many open-chain exercises become closed-chain when using a suspension trainer. Closed-chain exercises are often hyped as better than open-chain choices for the same movement pattern. This status is not a main determinant of the value for an exercise.
- Skills do not transfer.
Balance learned on a suspension trainer does not make you a better martial artist, firefighter, soldier, police officer, or athlete. Improving the skills involved in these professions requires you to practice drills that mimic the exact activities expected.
Keep training general and safe then work your sport or activity to transfer the fitness you gain.
Avoid Suspension Training
I admire anyone that forms a business around their passion. A consequence of writing articles that condemn other viewpoints comes from the discomfort in appearing as if I am attacking the people behind the ideas.
I have good intentions. If these poor tools and methods are popular, then it makes sense that mentioning them could attract trainees here. They will find plenty of information out there already in their favor. Perhaps a lone dissenting but compelling view will capture their interest and question their assumptions.
If I can attract users that got hurt or failed to achieve the great things they hoped for and expose them to a sensible point of view on fitness that helps them become better people, then it seems worth it. Despite my appreciation for the business acumen and the go-getter, well-meaning attitude of the people behind some popular trends, I do know the benefits of my approach. It remains rooted in basic science and common sense meant to keep you working hard while staying safe.
Some will argue suspension training could serve as an addition to more conventional exercise. This is redundant though. The moderate position is not automatically correct. If one side brings about problems, which suspension training does, then including it even just some of the time is a bad compromise.
Avoid suspension training.