How to Use the TRX as an Alternative to the Body-Weight Bench Press

Fitness challenge includes atomic push-ups.
Capt. David A. Keltner, the assistant operations officer at the Adviser Training Cell with I Marine Expeditionary Force, does atomic push-ups during a fitness challenge at the 21 Area Fitness Center at Camp Pendleton, California, March 6, 2012. (Lance Cpl. Joshua Young/I Marine Expeditionary Force)

How many times can you bench-press your bodyweight? Even building your strength to press your own bodyweight can be a process, but pushing through to double-digit repetitions is a good standard for anyone with above-average training goals.

If you are preparing for any of the military tactical fitness tests, or even if you just like to bench press, you may find yourself working hard to crush a bodyweight bench-press test for max reps.

Of course, there are other lifts and carries you should be practicing as well, since the new tactical fitness tests are quite diverse in the elements of fitness that they test. Depending on the situation, you may not have a bench press or weights to use if gyms are closed or you may have a nagging injury that may prevent some movements.

If you are looking for a substitute that can help you improve your bodyweight bench or at least maintain it, check out the test we did over the past six months during our typical winter lift cycle. We used the TRX atomic push-up as our replacement exercise for bodyweight bench-press development and maintenance.

After I injured my forearm during an awkward power clean several months ago, I had difficulty gripping the bar while doing bench presses, pull-ups and dumbbell exercises. I could do reverse grip chin-ups on the pull-up bar and had no problem doing push-ups. For upper-body days, I worked around my problems with the bench press and other grabbing and gripping exercises by changing grips and focusing more on the TRX movements.

From November to May, I stayed off the bench press. When I finally tried to press in May to see whether the pain had subsided, it had, but I was shocked that my bodyweight bench of 200 pounds at 15 reps was the same after almost six months of not doing any bench press. But I was doing a lot of TRX atomic push-ups.

Here is how I worked around the pain:

Pyramid Version

Typical workouts, such as pull-ups and bench-press combination super sets, were replaced with chin-ups and TRX push-ups, focusing on form and slower eccentric and concentric (up and down) movements.

My goal each day when doing upper-body workouts (2-3 times a week) was to accumulate 100 TRX push-ups within a workout. Some days, I did the pyramid workout from 1-10-1, which yields 100 reps of any exercise you do in 19 sets. That was an easy way to build up the volume of total reps of pull-ups and TRX push-ups (aka, my bench press replacement).

Even though we were not doing the volume that we'd get from bodyweight plus bench press (5 x 5 or 3 x 8-10 reps), it did not seem to matter when I replaced that with TRX. I maintained strength even though I was focused on building my TRX atomic push-ups muscle stamina.

Add a Weight Vest

One day a week, we dropped the repetitions for each set by adding a weight vest of 20-25 pounds for what we call Weight Vest Wednesday. The workout required multiple sets to hit the kind of volume needed to reach a goal minimum standard each upper-body lift day for TRX push-ups.

The Max-Rep Set version

This workout was the hardest, and we performed it once a week. The goal is to get 100 reps of TRX push-ups in as few sets as possible. Five sets of 20 reps were a good standard to shoot for at the beginning. After a month or so, four sets x 25 reps became possible.

We then pushed to get a few sets of 30-40+ each round, which made it possible to get the 100 reps in three sets. By this point, we started to notice other positive results, such as core development, stronger hip flexors and hip mobility in addition to the expected improvements in the chest, shoulders and arms from the push-up and bench-press movement.

Murph Workout

The Murph workout is a one-mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups and 300 squats, followed by another one-mile run. It's a Memorial Day Weekend favorite among veterans, active-duty and civilian fitness enthusiasts each year. After pushing a few 100+ rep days these last few months, hitting 200 TRX push-ups for the Murph push-up component was this year's goal. I got it and completed the Murph in eight sets using this max rep method.

After a few days' rest after pushing high reps on the TRX atomic push-up exercise, I gave the bodyweight bench press a test. It helped that I did not gain any weight over the winter, but I was able to do the bodyweight bench press with a goal of 15+.

My good maintenance program did more than just maintain bench-press repetitions. It helped me stay leaner. The core and hip work also has transferred into swimming with fins, running and lifting heavy weights off the floor again.

If you do not have a TRX, it is not difficult to hang a rope off the pull-up bar and place your feet in it. I also have created my own TRX by using a swing set, since the pendulum effect is the genius behind the TRX and the hundreds of exercises you can do with it.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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