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TRX – The Science of Suspension Training

Evidence that something works is what we all look for before we make a purchase -- especially a major purchase. With everything from the cars we drive, the food we eat, to the homes we live in, we like to make sure when we buy something that it works, it is good for us, and that it can help us reach our short and long term goals. Of course, there are many other reasons why we make purchases, and not all of them obviously have science based evidence to prove effectiveness.

I have been using the TRX since its development nearly ten years ago and have noticed significant core strength gains as well as extremity increases in muscle stamina and strength. However, after years of the TRX Suspension Training System being on the market, here is what the exercise scientists are saying:

TRX Suspension Training: Stable vs. Unstable

The revolutionary training applications of adding instability to your workout exercise choices has been proven to stimulate core musculature such as this study demonstrates on testing stable and unstable exercises. Though the study is testing a variety of skills, it found that the TRX outperformed many of the stable exercises with regards to core muscles (abdominals, obliques, lower back) and found to be comparable as stable exercises on other muscle groups (chest, shoulders, lats, shoulder girdle, bicep, triceps). (Stable vs. Unstable)

TRX Muscle Activation Studies

Muscle Activation studies are popular within the exercise science world and have classified certain exercises better than others by measuring the electric impulses on a particular muscle or group of muscles during a specific movement or exercise. The use of Electromyography (EMG) has been instrumental in detecting activation levels and muscle recruitment order in a given movement. However, just because the activation of a muscle is increased, it does not mean that will equate to given adaptations like strength, power, muscle stamina, flexibility, etc. The EMG reliability in fine motor movements is limited in scope, but it is reliable in major muscle group movements.

The TRX was tested using EMG and was found to activate the muscles of the core and torso, and offers a variety of training options to achieve these results. The research shows that muscles are more active compared to the regular calisthenics or weight training options -- especially the stabilizing muscles of the core. However, if your goals are higher level strength or cardiovascular training, traditional weight training and cardio events are superior. But if you do not have elite strength/cardiovascular training goals, the TRX is effective in developing strength and cardio gains when creative with the device.

TRX Core Exercises Tested One of the reasons why I started adding the TRX to my variety of exercises was specifically the challenging planking movements and varieties it offered. This study measured muscle activation in the rectus abdominis, external oblique, rectus femoris, and serratus anterior muscles using the EMG like the study above. Compared to the normal plank pose, which is a useful exercise and should not be dropped, the TRX muscle activation was greater using a variety of methods than the normal plank pose with stable feet and arms. By placing the arms in the TRX and having feet stable, feet in the TRX and having the arms stable, and by using two TRX devices to suspend both the arms and the feet, the EMG showed a greater use in all muscles tested. Your first plank pose in the TRX will tell you that in about 10 seconds. My favorite Core TRX exercises are the Atomic Pushup and the TRX Rollout -- these two for me make all other abdominal exercises second or third place options.

TRX Use in Aging Populations A feasibility study on a group of eleven 60+ aged men and women living in a retirement community was recently conducted as well. Though the study showed that a training program using the TRX is feasible for use with the aging population, it is a challenging course. Follow-up studies can be developed to show growth in strength, muscle mass, core strength, balance, and mobility. From the study, "All participants noted positive effects. In comparison to gait and balance improvements, strength gains were mostly reported. This might be due to the program that primarily focuses on strength. Slight balance improvements can be explained by increased core muscle activation and advanced balance abilities during sling exercises." A relatively low number of participants stated they will be likely continue using the TRX after the study. Suspension training is difficult and is an acquired taste to even the most avid of exercisers.

A Thorough Exercise Study on the TRX

The American Council on Exercise did a thorough study taking in a number of baseline measurements from health data as well as performance data. Both body composition (fat loss / muscle gain) and cardiovascular health were improved by adding the TRX into a sixty-minute workout routine three days a week for six weeks. This study included the results of full-body workout circuits that included upper body push and pull muscle groups, core, lower body exercises with the TRX, and added cardiovascular exercise variety (running, speed, agility, other non-impact cardio options).

Final Remarks

There is a reason why I replaced a 400 pound weight set, bench, squat rack with the TRX – it works. Plus, as I age, though I still like to lift, I am not lifting as heavy as I did in college 25 years ago. I have found that keeping a barbell, kettlebell, a pullup bar, and a TRX was all I needed to build above average strength, power, muscle stamina and a stronger back and core, similar to what I had when I was 25 years old.

Standby for results of using the TRX in place of heavy weight lifting cycles during the Winter Powerlift cycle of my Periodization program. The goal is to stay lean, stay strong, and not have to go on a diet when I run again in the Spring.

Referenced Studies List:

Stable vs. Unstable - Analysis of Pushing Exercises: Muscle Activity and Spine Load While Contrasting Techniques on Stable Surfaces with a Labile Suspension Strap Training System

Evidence Based Practice - Suspension Training (EMG Test)

The Effect of Using TRX testing Muscle Activation During Plank Pose - Core test

TRX Testing In Older Adult Population

ACE Sponsored Research on the TRX - American Council on Exercise

TRX Training Effects in Untrained Men - Effects of Instability Versus Traditional Resistance Training on Strength, Power and Velocity in Untrained Men