If you were to walk into a gymnastics training facility in the 19th century you would see two handles hanging suspended from an apparatus. Gymnastic rings were used by male gymnasts in contest as a show of great upper body strength. The rings were developed by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, who is often referred to as the “Father of Modern Gymnastics” . It’s an unsophisticated tool really; two rings hung from a pull. The gymnastic rings first appeared in the Olympics in 1924. The gymnast exercises consisted of everything from swings to head stands, holds and muscle ups. The rings were also incorporated in strength and conditioning programs in schools and for other sports. They were removed from NCAA events after 1961. Familiarity with the rings has been subsequently very poor since then.
Very few people train, or are even posses the strength to use rings like a gymnast. However many people choose to incorporate rings into their normal exercise programs, and do many popular exercises, such as push-ups, pull-ups, and other bodyweight type exercises. Aside from pull-up movements, as a tool for strength training the rings are actually not a very effective tool because of the limited ability to increase resistance and limitations of stability. Some coaches have been more creative using weighted vest and other methods to use rings more effectively, but they still represented a small portion of a strength and conditioning program that consisted mostly of weight training.
The main appeal to today’s fitness enthusiast is the versatility of exercise selection and low cost. It is similar to the appeal and marketing of kettle-bell training. It’s an old idea brought back through marketing because it’s cheap and you can do many exercises using one piece of equipment. This makes them a cheap addition to a training studio, or convenient in home exercise equipment. As you can see, cheap and convenient are the main benefits here, not effectiveness for strength or fat loss. A new spin off of the rings has been heavily marketed much like the kettle-bell again. One such spin off is the TRX.
The TRX consists of padded handles with straps attached rather than rings, and an adjustable strap. Basically more pleasing to the eyes than the traditional rings but not as functional. This makes its use for traditional gymnastic exercises impractical, but more for what is now marketed as “suspension training”. The TRX owes much of its popularity to its use in the military. Being the lightweight, versatile, and portable piece of equipment it is, I can’t argue for its use in this context. You could however bring up the fact that a pair of rings for strength training with adjustable length and function will cost you in the neighborhood of $50, and the TRX will cost you 3 times that much and up. Not a very good financial move by Uncle Sam, but still likely more cost effective than flying sets of traditional weight training equipment around the globe.
Another thing to keep in mind here, is the goal of the TRX use in the military. It’s not the goal of the military to make the strongest, fastest, leanest, or most muscular men and women. In fact many of the exercises done by traditional rings for athletes can’t even be performed on a TRX. It simply needs to get them in condition to perform their duties. This consists of moderate strength and endurance when compared to athletes and physique competitors. No one is going to be setting any strength or speed records, or stepping on a stage from doing suspension training. The reason it gets such good press is once again, simple economics. Low cost device = more money to flash market.
So why is the TRX so popular? Most trainers today are probably completely unaware that rings were being used way before the TRX came along, and represent a much more cost effective option in my opinion. Even still, it is much cheaper to make a studio filled with devices like the TRX, where you can have multiple people working in a small area, and make the claim to functional training, when in reality, it’s cheap limited training. The other thing is, it takes years of educations to be a great strength coach or personal trainer, and only a 30 mind DVD to be well versed with the TRX. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about using your money wisely. But don’t sell me a 4 cylinder and boast about how much horsepower it has because you were to cheap to get some V8s on your lot.
Here is my take on the reality in terms of its effectiveness. I won’t buy a TRX when I can get a set of rings that will likely last longer and cost less. I also wont use suspension training when training someone for fat loss, building muscle or strength other than doing pull-ups, push-ups, rows and dips. Anyone doing a squat, lunge, fly, bicep curl etc. with rings or a TRX is simply wasting their time and giving a few good trainers a laugh. A person new to exercise could get some benefit working with a suspension device, however there are some stability and structural balance concerns that could increase injury in some cases. See my article on functional training for more information about that. Either way, after a few weeks, it’s time to move on to some real weight training exercises.
There you have it, you can do suspension training for beginner level strength and conditioning, but it’s not necessarily your most effective option. It’s still much better than sitting on a treadmill or any other piece of cardio still. Remember though this again is a piece of equipment designed for convenience. So if you have access to a whole gym, don’t suspend your results by only using one piece of equipment and if you like your money, buy yourself a set of rings and save some of it.
The picture on the right is a guy that does real olympic suspension training. This is a elite level athlete performing in a sport, not a fitness class. The tool should match the goal.