Functional Fitness and TRX®
The gym has weights. We like lifting weights. They make us feel strong and look good. Let’s be honest, we even like watching ourselves in the mirror as we lift. We see gains that are there and even some that aren’t. However, the gym ultimately should be about improving our overall quality of life and not just our image. Beauty is fleeting, but most of us will still have to function long after our beauty goes. Are we training in a way that will prepare us for that day? Unless we’re practicing functional fitness then the answer is, No.
What is Functional Fitness?
Functional fitness is about integrating muscle and joint movements to simulate real-life use of those muscles and joints. In nerdy scientific terms, it aims to increase functional efficiency, functional flexibility, and functional strength, all of which are essential for healthy, efficient day-to-day movements.
Functional efficiency is the ability of the nervous and muscular systems to move in the most efficient manner while placing the least amount of stress on the kinetic chain. (Clark, Sutton, & Lucett, 2014) In other words, functional efficiency is about getting the most out of our movement while expending the least amount of energy and placing the least amount of stress on our body as possible. It’s about our ability to function and adapt in our ever changing environment.
Functional flexibility is integrated, multiplanar, soft tissue extensibility with optimum neuromuscular control through the full range of motion. (Clark, et al., 2014) This means our ability to efficiently move each joint through it’s designed full range of motion without causing undue stress to the joint or its connective tissue and muscles. Bending, turning, reaching, lifting, hugging, snuggling, pushing, shoving, and so on all require functional flexibility.
Functional strength is the ability of the neuromuscular system to perform dynamic eccentric, isometric, and concentric contractions efficiently in a multiplanar environment. (Clark, et al., 2014) An example of this might be taking food items out of your refrigerator and twisting at the waist to place them on the island in the kitchen, or your ability to carry your suitcase down the stairs without throwing out your back.
A key benefit of functional fitness is that it strengthens the core stabilization systems of our bodies. At the core of all our day-to-day activities is, well, our core. It is from our core (comprised of the local stabilization system, global stabilization system, and movement system) that the rest of our movements have their beginnings. Functional fitness is about training and developing our muscles to make it easier and safer to perform these everyday activities.
This concept of core stabilization is so important to overall fitness, regardless of goals, that it comprises the foundation of the National Academy of Sports Medicine’s Optimal Performance Training model. (Clark, et al., 2014) Stabilization is the foundation for any and all endurance, strength, hypertrophy, and power training.
What is TRX®?
Functional fitness aficionados have many tools at their disposal. First and foremost is our own body weight. We’ve all seen the guy who can leg press 900 pounds strutting around the gym, but can he do a single leg squat without falling over? Most of us can’t because we haven’t learned to control our own body weight.
One of the most effective tools for functional fitness, and gaining control over our own body movement, is the TRX Suspension Trainer ®. TRX ® was designed by a member of the Navy SEAL team who had limited space and access to fitness equipment. Using an old jiu-jitsu belt and some parachute webbing he designed the first TRX Suspension Trainer ®.
The design of the TRX Suspension Trainer ® is simple. Two straps join and are attached to a single anchor point. Exercises are performed with hands or feet placed in the cradle or holding the grips at the end of each strap, standing facing the anchor point or away from the anchor point, or lying on the ground facing the anchor point or away from the anchor point. Instability (and therefore intensity) can quickly be adjusted up or down by simply changing our body’s angle toward the anchor point, adjusting our base, or changing our starting position.
How can TRX® help me stay functionally fit?
Suspension training uses one’s own body weight to perform exercises in a proprioceptively enriched environment. A proprioceptively enriched environment is an unstable (yet controllable) physical situation in which exercises are performed that causes the body to use its internal balance and stabilization mechanism. (Clark, et al., 2014) Exercising on the TRX Suspension Trainer® uses gravity and movement to generate neuromuscular responses to changes in body position and forces acting on the body. Exercising on the suspension trainer integrates strength, mobility and balance into a single dynamic format that exploits neuromuscular responses and maximizes the benefits of bodyweight exercise for faster results. (Fitness Anywhere LLC., 2013)
When properly used, the TRX Suspension Trainer® is a powerful way to practice proper movement patterns, enhance stability and core strength, and gain metabolic benefits. In addition, NASM cites the following benefits: increased muscle activation, low compressive loads to the spine, increased performance, potential increase in caloric expenditure, and improvements in cardiovascular fitness. (Clark, et al., 2014)
The TRX® system has hundreds of exercises that mimic and improve traditional exercises. Let’s look at the traditional bicep curl as an example. When we perform this exercise on a machine (cable or plate) the machine eliminates the need for our stabilizers to activate. We are simply isolating the bicep muscle. It does not learn to integrate with other muscles. When we perform this same exercise with dumbbells we see some activation of the stabilizing muscles, but the bicep is still largely isolated. Now, when we perform this exercise on the TRX Suspension Trainer® we activate the entire core and can easily incorporate multi-joint, multi-muscle movement into the exercise.
A Different Way to Train
Life is more than looking good from the outside in, it is about being healthy and functional from the inside out. Functional fitness training is designed to help people of all ages and conditions to strengthen their bodies in a way that meets the demands of daily activities of life while improving overall strength, balance, and cardiovascular performance. While not the only tool available, the TRX Suspension Trainer is an excellent means toward the ends of becoming functionally fit. With its proprioceptively challenging design, its vast catalog of exercises, and its efficiency of use it serves as an excellent tool for anyone looking to train different.
Clark, M. A., Sutton, B. G., & Lucett, S. C. (2014). NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.
Fitness Anywhere LLC. (2013). TRX Workbook: Trainer Basics Digital Course. San Francisco, CA: Fitness Anywhere LLC.