TRX Review: Don’t Believe the Hype

OK, here’s the deal:

I’ve owned and used a TRX Suspension Trainer on and off for over 6 years, and it’s the first thing I pack when I’m on the road.

But it’s far from perfect…

(And at $180 or thereabouts, it’s not exactly cheap, either)

So, if you’re thinking about getting hold of one, check out this no-holds-barred TRX review first.

That way you can decide if it’s really for you.

The TRX Suspension Trainer: Born by SEALs

The TRX story reads almost like a script for a Hollywood movie…

Navy SEAL Randy Hetrick had been experimenting with ways to keep in shape while on deployment.

Using an old jiu-jitsu belt and some parachute webbing, he pieced together something that allowed him to do a wide variety of bodyweight exercises and stay “mission fit on the road”.

Seeing the potential, Randy worked tirelessly to develop that something into the TRX we know today.

The TRX Suspension Trainer in action

And it hasn’t stopped there…

His company now has a whole range of different products, exercise classes, trainer certification courses, and a huge number of devoted followers.

So it’s been a huge success story that all began with one man’s idea of how to solve a practical problem.

Awesome stuff.

But let’s dig a little deeper and see if the TRX is as almighty as their marketing machine makes out.

TRX Review: Pros

The coolest thing about the TRX is how small and light it is.

It weighs in at a tad over 2 pounds and is about the same size as a six pack of Sapporo Classic

So you can squeeze it into a bag, rucksack or suitcase without any problem.

Win!

TRX Review: Packs small for traveling

Even better, you can use it pretty much anywhere.

I’ve exercised with the TRX on a beach in the UK, a hotel room in California, and a park in Tokyo.

This was taken in summer 2013, just a few months before I started my year-long “eat as much as you can” odyssey.

Exercising on the beach with the TRX

And yes, I’ve had more than my fair share of odd looks from passersby who must have wondered what the hell I was up to!

What else?

Well, I just love the fact that you can do “upper-body pull” exercises with it, like this:

Fitness anywhere with the TRX

Think of that as an alternative to chin-ups for folks who can’t yet do chin-ups…

…or for folks who can, but don’t have access to a chin-up bar.

(For me, that’s almost the deal maker in itself)

The TRX also has a low barrier to entry, meaning that pretty much anyone can do some kind of exercise with it.

So if you can’t yet do single-leg lunges or the incline shoulder press (the exercise I’m doing hanging upside down on the beach), don’t worry.

There are always easier alternatives that are just right for your current level of ability and strength.

In fact, guess what piece of equipment we used during the early part of Simon R’s incredible comeback after a horrifying skiing accident?

Yep, the TRX.

And let’s also keep in mind how important appearance can be when you’re just starting out…

To some folks, a barbell and power rack can seem pretty intimidating at first – kind of like learning to drive in a HUMVEE.

The TRX is less intimidating than free weights

By comparison, the TRX comes across as much more user friendly.

And, as you’d expect for something developed by a Navy SEAL, it’s also pretty much bombproof.

(Mine’s still going strong after 6+ years, and more travel than I can remember)

So, here’s the bottom line:

The TRX is a light, portable and convenient piece of equipment that will allow almost anyone to do some kind of exercise pretty much anywhere.

TRX Review: Cons

As with most things, the TRX is far from perfect.

Like any tool, how useful it is really depends on the task you want to use it for.

A Swiss Army knife or a Leatherman could help to save your life in some situations but in others (rebuilding an engine, mowing the lawn) they’re essentially useless.

And here’s what that means for you and me:

The TRX is NOT an effective piece of equipment for folks that want to train for strength.

Sure, exercises can be made harder or easier, but it’s not possible to do that with the fine degree of precision that training requires.

After all, strength training ultimately comes down to accumulating small increments of progress (think just 1 or 2% per workout) over weeks, months and years.

Unfortunately, that’s impossible with a TRX since “easier” and “harder” can’t be quantified.

And if they can’t be quantified, how do you know if you’re really getting stronger?

You can’t.

Which means the TRX isn’t an effective way to build the kind of strength that will take you close to your ultimate physical potential.

(And, to be honest, I don’t think it was originally developed with that in mind)

Remember how TRX inventor Randy Hetrick talks about “staying mission fit on the road”?

“On the road” implies doing the best you can with what you’ve got rather than being optimal.

So, while using a TRX results in some modest strength gains, there are much more effective ways.

Check out this video with UDT/SEAL instructor Lt Dana Decoster demonstrating the exercises he recommends…

You’ve got it:

The barbell squat, standing press, and deadlift.

So, here’s the upshot:

Getting as strong as our physical potential allows is something that happens just a few pounds at a time.

And it’s simply not practical to do that using the TRX.

TRX Review: How Did it Work Out for Me?

Now, I’ve got firsthand experience of the shortcomings of the TRX when it comes to building strength.

How?

Because throughout 2008 I exercised pretty much exclusively with the TRX…

…but could never do the incline shoulder press.

(That’s the one we saw earlier)

Exercising on the beach with the TRX

Seriously, it was just impossible.

And it wasn’t for a lack of trying…

I did all the suggested progressions, sweated a lot, swore even more, and put in a TON of effort.

But doing a full-on incline shoulder press seemed beyond me…

(Check out this video of  TRX’s Director of Training & Development, Fraser Quelch, and Director of Human Performance, Chris Frankel, struggling to perform even a single repetition of this very exercise)

Man, it’s hard!

But get this:

Within a year of concentrating exclusively on barbell training, my standing barbell press steadily increased to just over 70% of my bodyweight.

(During that time I didn’t use my TRX at all)

But on summer vacation, I tried the incline shoulder press on the beach…

…and was able to do it easily!

In fact, within just a few days, I could bust out 5 solid repetitions with my body pretty much vertical.

And here’s what I realized:

Just because something is an impressive way to display strength doesn’t mean it’s an effective way to build strength

In reality, the best exercises I’ve found for improving my TRX performance are:

Barbell squats, deadlifts, standing presses, bench presses, and weighted chin-ups.

So, keep that in the back of your mind when you see folks doing all kinds of incredible stuff with their TRXs…

Extreme TRX rows

The TRX: Should I Get One?

Ultimately, the TRX is just a tool.

For some jobs (like building a strong back), a TRX is going to be of marginal benefit.

For other jobs (like getting in some exercise when you’re on the road), it’s hands down the best thing out there.

So, here’s what it boils down to:

If you have a gym membership or a fully-equipped home gym, and rarely miss a workout through travel, keep your money in your pocket.

But if you spend a lot of time on the road or are looking for an easy and convenient way to get started with exercise, it’s well worth getting hold of one.

A TRX that you use consistently is way better than a world-class gym that you don’t.

Now, if you do decide to get hold of a TRX, the plain vanilla TRX Home is the one I’d go for.

The TRX I'd recommend

The PRO and TRX Force Kit: Tactical are significantly more expensive, and I can’t see that they’re worth the extra cash.

And their much vaunted Rip Trainer?

Well, let’s just say that isn’t going to be on my Christmas list anytime soon.

Ultimately, it’s best to think of the TRX as a Leatherman or a Swiss Army knife.

You can get by without it…

…but when you’re stuck, you’re glad that you’re carrying one.

I’ll be sure to pack mine in my bag before my next vacation.

– Tim

 

Images: 

BigstockThe U.S. Army

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