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Your first glance at a suspension trainer—a long nylon strap, with handles on both ends, anchored to the ceiling with a carabiner at its center—probably won’t tempt you away from the iron-forged familiarity of a heavy barbell or dumbbell in your grasp. It seems more suited to gymnasts and Peter Parker wannabes than serious bodybuilders.
Well, we’re here to set you right: A suspension workout would kick Spider-Man’s ass. It did ours, after trying the workout below, stimulating muscles in a whole new way. It includes movements for legs, back, chest, delts, and arms, with nothing more than gravity and our own body weight as resistance. We suggest you take a second look, because this training tool can make your workouts harder and more effective.
The original suspension exercise apparatus was designed in 1997 by a Navy SEAL squadron commander, Randy Hetrick, who was seeking a way to stay fit in the field. He later brought his invention to market, calling it the TRX (short for “total-body resistance exercise”). “It reflexively activates your core in all planes of motion and connects your torso and limbs as a coordinated system—which is how it works in real life,” Frankel says. By altering your body position, you can make exercises easier or harder, meaning there is no shortage of options for beginners to more advanced athletes.
A suspension trainer can hit every muscle in the body and leave you just as sore as any typical bodybuilding workout—yes, even leg day. But perhaps its signature benefit is that no matter what body part you’re focused on, your midsection gets plenty of attention. (And, let’s be honest, most of us could use more ab work.)
Numerous studies have proven this core benefit, including an EMG (electromyography) study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in November 2014 that showed increased rectus abdominis, external oblique, and erector spinae activation when a plank was performed with a TRX versus on the floor. Another study— published in the same journal in 2014—measured increased abdominal muscle activity during a suspended pushup compared with the move on a stable surface.
“A beginner or deconditioned individual can get a great workout using body weight,” Frankel explains. “But at some point you’re going to need additional external resistance to continue to see gains in strength and size.” That may mean combining free-weight moves with suspension exercises in one killer session.
“With a prime mover like pecs, for instance, performing a suspended chest flye paired with dumbbell or barbell chest presses will stimulate extreme fiber recruitment due to the range of motion and integration of the core, shoulders, and back, which have to actively stabilize on the straps,” Frankel says.
Numerous types of suspension movements can be slotted into your workouts, whether as a warmup, a finisher, or anywhere within the meat of your routine. “It will be a real ‘oh, damn’ moment for anyone who thinks these straps can’t build muscle,” Frankel adds. “Adding in some instability and focused high-tension, full-body activation is no joke.”