I’ve had a regular exercise habit for more than 20 years, and across the decades, I’ve gone through more phases than the moon.
The elliptical/Nautilus machine workout combo that was hot in the late 90s, early 2000s? Check. Boot camp? Kickboxing? Spin classes? Yup. I ran a couple marathons. When I got injured running, I trained for and completed a two-mile swim in the Hudson. (No mutant illnesses yet!)
Next, I discovered barbell training — deadlifts, squats, overhead and bench presses — combined with Iyengar yoga to keep my strong muscles lithe.
I loved lifting heavy things, but sticking to my routine got complicated when I started travelling regularly (in the Before Times). Gyms with free standing barbells weren’t easy to find, they were often located far away from my lodgings and the sites I wanted to visit, and day passes were expensive.
I needed an affordable and accessible workout that would keep me strong enough to ease back into strength training when I returned to my home gym. Even after the pandemic tanked my travel plans, I still needed a gym alternative — thanks first to lockdown, and then to my immunocompromised status.
Enter suspension training: the use of hanging straps to add greater resistance and instability to bodyweight exercises.
It’s been over a year since I started my WOFH (Working Out From Home) regimen: three 20-minute suspension training workouts per week, plus daily walks.
To my surprise, I’m now 5 kg lighter and leaner. I’m functionally strong in ways I hadn’t anticipated. Even better, I get injured while working out less often and recover without the need for regular physical therapy sessions, unlike when I was lifting.
As with all exercise programs, individual results will vary. However, if the Delta variant is making you wary of using the gym, or you can’t afford or don’t have the space for a well-stocked home gym, or you’re just looking for a quick, effective workout you can do almost anywhere, no matter your fitness level, consider adding suspension training to your workout regimen.
What to look for in a suspension training kit
Using suspended straps or ropes as workout equipment is nothing new: Check out the charming illustrations and instructions on pages 43-50 of the 1866 book Athletic Sports for Boys: A Repository of Graceful Recreations for Youth.
Nowadays, however, people conflate suspension training with TRX training, the brand that popularised the system for the general fitness market. However, multiple companies make suspension training kits for a variety of prices. (Mine, which I purchased a couple of years ago and which seems to have been discontinued, cost about A$41; Amazon currently shows a range of prices, from A$61 to A$339.)
Most kits weigh a pound or two (mine is 0 kg), bundle up to fit easily into luggage, and can transform most any room and a variety of outdoor spaces into an impromptu gym.
The basic system includes:
- a long adjustable strap
- two handles that you attach to each end of the strap
- multiple anchors for different set-ups, from hanging it over a door to looping it around a branch, bar, railing, lamp post…whatever holds your weight, really
- a drawstring bag for storage
- instructions for assembly and a basic workout guide demonstrating various exercises you can do
The more expensive versions, from what I can tell, use sturdier materials, such as rubber handles for outdoor workouts instead of the standard foam; have sleeker or lighter designs; and/or offer access to online workout programs and apps. One feature that my version lacks is a seam that holds the two ends of the centre strap steady so you can pull on only one handle at a time without the entire strap flying through the D-ring. (Similarly, when doing hamstring runners with my feet in the handles, the centre strap seesaws up and down.) It’s a minor quibble, requiring me to grasp both handles when performing one-arm exercises. Still, had I known, I would have purchased one with that feature.
Another factor to consider when purchasing a suspension trainer, of course, is how much weight the straps will hold. As long as you use it correctly, most trainers should hold your weight just fine; if you’re concerned, though, this affordable option claims to have been tested to hold 181 kg of body weight. (158 kg appears to be the max body weight limit across the various TRX versions.)
While most trainers come with a basic workout guide, “basic” is the key word. I have an online fitness coach, so she does a great job of switching up my workouts every six weeks or so.
However, a quick YouTube search pulls up loads of suspension training exercises for you to combine into a good workout. You can even buy something like this very affordable stack of cards that offers 52 separate exercises for you to mix and match. (For my workouts, I complete as many rounds of a 5-exercise superset — a blend of arm, leg, and core moves — as I can in 20 minutes.)
You can anchor your suspension trainer just about anywhere — as long as it will hold your weight
I anchor my suspension straps over a door — make sure the door opens away from you — or by looping it around a door fame pull-up bar. Far more enterprising people than I, however, have looped them around sturdy tree branches, pull-up bars in outdoor parks, and even bridge railings and lamp posts. Here’s a good video on how to set up your equipment safely; remember to give a good tug on the straps before starting your workout to make sure your setup will hold.
Suspension training increases the versatility and intensity of bodyweight workouts
We’ve discussed the value of bodyweight workouts before. If done with good form and an intensity that challenges your muscles, exercises like pushups, squats, dips, bridges, lunges, planks, and burpees build strength and stamina, can increase bone mass, and provide other benefits. Bodyweight workouts are the running of strength training: no equipment necessary, easy to start anytime, and, when done safely, great for all levels of fitness.
Suspension training adds extra “oomph” to bodyweight exercises in three primary ways. First, the anchored straps help you do upper body exercises that can otherwise be clumsy or impossible without equipment: rows, chest flies (flys?), tricep extensions, and bicep curls. (I’ve tried suggested workarounds like grabbing underneath a sturdy table for rows or using milk gallons for curls, extensions, and the like, but I’ve always found those hacks awkward. You can, of course, use dumbbells or other free weights, but that removes the element of lightweight portability.)
Second, you can change the level of resistance by adjusting the length of the straps and/or your stance. Take rows, for instance: If you’re just starting off, you can do them from an almost vertical, standing position to add a little bit of resistance when you pull. As you get stronger, you can steadily move your feet forward so you’re more horizontal in your stance and pulling more of your bodyweight.
I have scoliosis and other wonky biomechanics that often lead to overuse injuries, so I love how simple it is to modify an exercise. Just stepping forward or backward or slightly lengthening or shortening a strap can provide the necessary adjustment to make it possible to keep an exercise in my rotation. It’s a more nuanced fix than, say, switching to a lighter barbell plate or dumbbell, where you are usually limited to going up or down by 0 kg per rep at the least — and usually more.
Finally, you can use the straps to introduce instability that requires greater core strength and balance (like Bosu Balls or balance boards) to manage. Mountain climbers, hamstring curls, bridges, lunges, planks, and push ups are more challenging when your feet or arms are off the ground.
Your body will tell you if it’s working
Research on suspension training often focuses on the added elements of instability and balance, especially for older exercisers. Studies from 2014 and 2015, for instance, found that muscle activation in the torso increased if core and “pushing” exercises — standard and scapula push ups and shoulder protractions — were performed using suspension trainers as opposed to on the ground. (Activation is simply a fancy way of saying your muscles worked harder.)
How much harder is up for debate, however. A 2018 systematic review of 18 studies (not a whole lot) found greater muscle activation when using suspension training for hamstring curls, push-ups, and prone bridges; for upper body and core exercises, however, the data was all over the place, and ultimately inconclusive about whether there is a difference.
I’m honestly less interested in what the studies say than in the feedback my body gives me. I feel the burn more and complete fewer reps when I do side or front planks, bridges, and push-ups with my feet elevated in the strap handles than when my feet are stable. That’s enough evidence for me.
Moreover, as I age, I know balance will be increasingly important to maintain to prevent falls. Suspension training allows me to add a more challenging balance component to one-legged lunges and squats than if I were, say, holding onto a door frame or railing.
Suspension training can help you maintain strength, but it won’t increase it
My year-plus of suspension training has definitely increased my strength to a degree that I didn’t expect. In fact, a couple of studies suggest that bodyweight exercises are as effective for building bigger muscles (aka hypertrophy) as training with weights if you achieve a full range of motion.
That said, I’d never expect to walk into a gym, pick up a barbell, and start cranking out deadlifts with ease. If winning a powerlifting competition or Strongman-level drag-a-KIA strength is your goal, stable or suspended bodyweight exercises won’t help you get there, because, well, you max out at your bodyweight. You’d be better off focusing on deadlifts, squats, bench presses, and dragging KIAs.
How to know if suspension training is right for you
To me, the best gauge of a workout’s effectiveness is whether or not you’ll do it. That depends on a lot of factors, from your fitness goals, to your schedule, to what you enjoy doing.
While I used to love recording new deadlift PRs, my desire to travel and, later, the pandemic changed my priorities. As life got stranger, I sought short, effective workouts I could do anywhere to keep my body and my mind healthy. I wanted the strength to haul a 14 kg bag of cat litter up the stairs, the cardiovascular fitness to get out of the house for daily walks around my hilly neighbourhood, and the balance not to fall flat on my face when Mochi runs directly under my feet as I head towards his food dish with a can of Fancy Feast. (In short, I need to be strong and healthy so I can be a good cat mum.)
I can’t prove how much of my pandemic fitness is due to the suspension training, rather than my walks or any dietary changes. That said, I’m beyond impressed that the shortest strength workouts I’ve ever done have contributed to my being in the healthiest shape of my life: light, lean, strong, and — most importantly for me — not overwhelmed by injuries. As important, I’m not bored yet after over a year of using the same equipment, thanks to the endless variety of exercises available with suspension training.
No exercise is perfect for everyone, and suspension training may end up as another phase in my long list of short- and longterm workout relationships. If you’re looking for an affordable, portable, accessible, and efficient way to gain strength, balance, and endurance that you can do basically anywhere, however, give suspension training a try. I’m beyond glad that I did.