Suspension Training

Lisa Maloney
functional suspension training

Have you ever seen a gymnast's arms tremble with the effort of holding himself up on the rings? That's an extreme example of suspension training, or challenging your body to not only move against gravity, but also stabilize itself against the inherent wobble in those rings (or any other dangling apparatus). If that sort of effort is part of what sculpts a gymnast's incredible physique, just imagine how much it can benefit you -- when scaled to suit your fitness level.

Equipment for Suspension Training

"Suspension trainer" is a generic term that applies to any sort of handle that dangles from a fixed high point -- it may be mounted at the top of a door, on a pull-up bar, or over an exposed ceiling beam -- that is designed to take your body weight. These handles come in pairs, and some are designed to accommodate your feet, too. The following are some of the most popular types of suspension training equipment.

  • The distinctive yellow-on-black color scheme of the TRX trainer is a common sight in gyms but also comes in a version designed for home use.
  • The LifeLine Jungle Gym XT is a heavy-duty suspension trainer for home use, but it also pops up in some gyms.
  • The Human Trainer is a lighter-weight version that's meant only for home use.

You'll also find some suspension trainers that are built to mimic gymnastics rings. Regardless of which suspension trainer you choose, they all have two things in common: First, they all pack down very small, which makes them a great choice for traveling exercise gear; and second, they hang from heavy-duty, adjustable nylon straps that let you tailor the height of the handles to suit your stature and the exercise you have in mind.

Benefits

When done correctly, suspension training offers some spectacular benefits. These include:

  • Increased activity in your core muscles as they work to stabilize your body
  • Functional training that mimics real-world conditions, since your muscles must work synergistically to move or stabilize your body against gravity
  • Mental challenge that's guaranteed to keep your workouts interesting

Scalability

Another benefit of suspension training is its scalability. In other words, you can easily adjust the difficulty of each exercise by adjusting the height of the suspension trainer's handles, which in turn affects how hard you have to work to move your body against gravity. For example, the higher you set the handles of your suspension trainer, the easier it gets to do a suspended push-up.

Drawbacks

With that said, like any type of exercise, suspension training also comes with some inherent risks.

  • Risk of injury: Because your muscles and ligaments are the only thing keeping your body in proper alignment, you can easily hurt yourself if you do exercises that are beyond your current level of fitness.
  • Risk of falling: Depending on what type of exercise you're doing, falling is a very real risk, too -- whether it's because of an equipment failure or your muscles giving out.

If you scale suspension training exercises to fit your current ability, however, they carry only the same risks you'd see from any weight training.

Basic Exercises

If you've never used a suspension trainer before, start with exercises that are already familiar to you, like push-ups, pull-ups, and hamstring curls. As you build strength, coordination and confidence, you can progress to more difficult variations and introduce multiplanar movements.

Suspended Push-Ups

Suspended push-ups work just the same as a regular push-up, but you rest your hands in the suspension trainer's handles instead of on the floor.

  1. suspended push-up
    Straighten your arms and position the handles in front of your shoulders -- just as they'd be for a regular push-up -- then walk your feet out behind you until your body is in a straight line from head to heels.
  2. Bend your arms, lowering your chest down toward the handles as far as is comfortable.
  3. Straighten your arms again, keeping your body straight all the while.

Notice that the floor isn't there to keep you from lowering your chest too far between the handles, which can hurt your shoulders; so it's up to you to restrict yourself to a comfortable, controlled range of motion. The higher you adjust the handles, the easier the exercise will be.

Modified Pull-Ups

If you're not quite ready to do full pull-ups yet, the suspension trainer is an excellent tool to help you build strength and endurance.

  1. modified pull-up
    Attach the trainer to a high anchor -- the taller you are, the higher it must be -- and position yourself directly underneath it.
  2. Grasp both handles and squat down, bending your legs until your arms are straight.
  3. Think of squeezing your elbows down against your sides as you use the muscles of your back and arms to lift your body straight up. You can press off the floor with your legs to assist the movement, but focus on using as little leg pressure as possible. The stronger you get, the less of a leg boost you'll need to complete each pull-up.

Hamstring Curls

Suspension trainers can be used for leg exercises, too as long as you can comfortably and securely rest your feet in the handles. Try this exercise to focus on your hamstrings.

  1. hamstring curls
    Adjust the trainer's handles so they dangle about 6 inches above the ground.
  2. Lie face-up and place your feet in the handles.
  3. Squeeze your glutes and core to lift your hips off the ground. Your body should make a straight line from shoulders to heels. Keep your hips motionless as you you bend your knees, curling the handles of the trainer closer to your butt.
  4. Slowly straighten your legs again to complete the repetition.

Tips

You can incorporate suspension training as a challenging element in your current workouts, or create an entire workout plan that revolves around your suspension trainer. No matter how what degree of suspension training you're doing, use these tips to get the most out of your workout.

  • Start with easy variations on the exercise and progress to harder variations as you're able. Even if you're already very strong, suspension training isn't just about building strong muscles -- it's also about teaching those muscles to work together.
  • Pay close attention to your joint alignment and range of motion. If a movement is uncomfortable, don't do it.
  • Always check the suspension trainer, and whatever it's anchored to, before you use it. If the suspension trainer seems in any way unstable or the anchor is in any way loose, don't use it.

Should I Try Suspension Training?

If you have some basic level of coordination and fitness and are focused on developing core strength, or you want to develop the sort of functional strength that'll make everyday movements easier, suspension training can be an excellent choice of workout. It's also great for people who want to spice up a few of their usual exercises, or who enjoy the mental challenge that comes with stabilizing your body and working multiple muscle groups at once.

Suspension Training