Strength training utilizing suspended bodyweight began more than 150 years ago. Since then, generations of acrobats and gymnasts have used their own bodyweight and gravity as resistance, suspended from rings, ropes and trapeze bars to generate tremendous strength and the astonishing physiques that are a hallmark of these athletes. During the dawn of the modern fitness era, body builders adopted some of these suspended training techniques, hanging on rings suspended from chains in places like the old Muscle Beach in Venice, California.
With the shift toward isolation training in the 60s and 70s, suspension training largely disappeared, lost to all but a few classes of athletes (acrobats, gymnasts, wrestlers and climbers) who continued to strength train on ropes and rock in the practice of their craft.
The recent change in fitness programming toward traditional functional training styles has ushered a reawakening to the value of strength and body awareness (e.g., the ability to move one’s own body mass through space efficiently and powerfully). Recent design developments toward user friendly equipment for suspension training have also expanded the depth and breadth of exercises within this unique genre of functional conditioning. Programming adaptations have also broadened the population of users capable of integrating this amazingly effective old but all new style of training. No longer is suspension training limited to the highly advanced athletes whose manoeuvres continue to astonish and delight legions of fans of the Cirque du Soleil.
So why would you want to incorporate this genre of exercise into your training practice?
The trend of the new millennium in sports programming is inarguably functional training. This trend has had tremendous impact not only in how we go about training but in the modalities we are using to achieve our goals. With this departure from isolated action, there has been an increased demand for exercise modalities that are movement based and that require coordination and engagement from the entire body. Pros and amateurs alike recognize that while looking great is important, the ability to apply those aesthetics to performance is even more essential to long term performance and quality of life. This is what true functional training is all about. So how does suspension training help to meet these goals?
The strength required to generate and control movement in a destabilized environment is a type of strength unlike any other. In many suspension training environments, the center of gravity is displaced outside of the base of support. This setting requires that the core is in a heightened state of activity to maintain postural alignment and exercise position. Additionally, suspension training presents a slightly unstable environment from which the subject has to work. This is proven to produce increased muscular activation and proprioceptive demands on joint stability. This kind of full body muscular engagement is most apparent when performing some of the very demanding bodyweight exercises that can be employed to build strength using suspension training.
An interesting benefit of suspension training is the ease at which the intensity of this destabilization can be controlled by varying body position. In this way, the style of training becomes appropriate for a wide variety of clients with differing abilities.
While the example above is a highly advanced exercise, suspension training is not limited to the highly conditioned. As mentioned earlier, adjustments in body position can very quickly and easily change resistance levels across an incredibly broad spectrum of abilities, making this system of training appropriate for everyone from the very advanced to the very deconditioned. This factor makes suspension training accessible to the elderly client who needs added balance and security as they move through basic motor patterns that will keep them strong enough to continue to enjoy life in an unassisted manner but still interesting for the general fitness enthusiast working to look great and enjoy an active lifestyle. This same element also makes suspension training relevant to the high performance athlete whose primary interest is performance enhancing movement and high challenge exercise.
An inextricably linked “cause and effect” relationship exists between balance, body awareness and joint stability. Balance is the ability to control the center of gravity over our base of support. This simple statement becomes complex and challenging when different variables are applied to the equation such as movement, speed, acceleration, deceleration, external forces, a limited base of support, unstable surfaces or limiting visual feedback. Suspension training places the body in a state of destabilization under load. This creates a challenging position where body or kinesthetic awareness must be developed to enable the core and other joint stabilizers to manage movement and control support the center of gravity over its base of support or as is often the case outside of it. As this ability is enhanced, it allows us to control our body position and produce smooth and efficient movement in increasingly more challenging postural situations. This increased ability to generate power and stabilize in unbalanced positions correlates directly to increased performance in virtually every sport.
When any part of the body is destabilized in a suspended movement, there are instantly increased muscular demands. To counteract this instability, the chain of muscles must cooperatively adapt at a much higher level than in an exercise where position and range of motion are restricted and controlled by a defined and supported path of travel, as with most traditional machines. Increased demands on joint stability challenge stabilizer muscles to maintain joint integrity as neutralizer muscles work to produce smooth movement, while simultaneously managing thousands of tiny disruptive forces. Suspension training also necessitates increased levels of spinal stabilization in order to maintain proper exercise position and body alignment. Training under these conditions of loaded instability generates complete muscle activation of the prime movers.
Suspension training can be highly athletic. It creates proprioceptive challenges that reinforce muscle firing sequences and motor patterns that transfer directly into movements commonly found in sport and life. This style of training demands coordinated and integrated body movement and offers challenging, sport specific variations that require power and agility, the mainstays of athleticism for any sport.
Recent design evolution also makes suspension training one of the easiest and most convenient ways to strength train as the required equipment is minimal, highly portable and can be done virtually anywhere.
Some of the world’s best endurance athletes and competitive fighters are now integrating suspension training into their training regimens. Suspension training is also becoming a permanent fixture in the training rooms of the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL. Also, many of the world’s most elite military units such as the US Navy S.E.A.L. teams now employ suspension training to maintain peak physical performance at home and abroad.
Suspension training represents the evolution of functional training and is a tremendously effective way of integrating closed kinetic chain, body weight based movement into any training plan. This additional training modality will enhance program functionality and effectiveness and bring your clients to peak results.
Basic Suspension Training Exercises
Provided below is a basic suspension training program that includes a sampling of nine exercises to integrate into your client programs. Some of these exercises are basic while others are more advanced. Experiment with them and also see the suspension training exercises in the PTN Exercise Library (search under Equipment “TRX System”).
Suspended Hamstring Curl
High “Y” Shoulder Raise
Kneeling Tricep Press
Side Plank with Floor Taps