DIY GYM EQUIPMENT GUIDE – The Suspension Trainer

determined sportswoman squatting with suspension straps in modern gym

I first came across the concept of the suspension trainer in the late 2000’s. At the time, I was spending much of my time living in the woods, teaching bushcraft and wilderness skills. We would get plenty of walking and carrying in throughout our day’s work, and on occasion would bring a punchbag with us, mainly to disperse the tensions of living in close quarters with each other on minimal sleep.

I then discovered the TRX product, designed by a US Navy Seal, Randy Hetrick. Made out of a Jiu-Jitsu belt and some parachute webbing, it boasted the ability to train the body just as well as any gym machine with the added benefit of extra core strengthening. And the beauty was that it was small, stowable and just about usable in any environment.

“I gotsta get me one of them!” I hollered. And so, charged up with the enthusiasm everyone has at the prospect of getting some new gear, I eagerly started trawling the interwebs.

And at this point I hit my all too familiar speed bump in the road to new aquisitions.

“HOW MUCH?” I can’t remember the cost, but it hasn’t changed much. At the time of writing, the cheapest TRX is around £100, going all the way up to £225 if you want it in groovy army green.

This led me to study any picture I could find, at every angle possible, to try and figure out how I could make a functioning suspension trainer.

Armed with luggage lockdown straps, bits of water pipe, some rope and a book on knots (never my strong point), I managed to fashion a perfectly workable, if ugly, suspension trainer. The ‘Gym-in-a-Bag’ was born.

Since then, many people, more talented than myself, have produced great tutorials on making a DIY TRX. Just googling that term brings up nearly 5 and a half millions results, some good, some awful.

So why do we need another suspension trainer tutorial? You don’t really. However, the one that follows is slightly different to the trx design and, in my opinion, better and more versatile.

But first…

What is a suspension trainer and why use one?

The traditional, TRX style suspension trainer, normally consists of two adjustable straps with handles (and often foot loops), joined together by another strap that attaches to the anchor point.

You can anchor your suspension trainer by looping the top strap to a sturdy support; a tree branch, a swing-set, a purpose made wall anchor, etc. Many suspension trainers come with a door anchor too. This simply sits on top of the door and when closed is trapped between the door and the frame (see photo below).

Height adjustment is usually made by moving the buckles on the handle straps and/or lengthening or shortening the anchor strap. Depending where you anchor it, you will typically get lengths between waist and ankle height.

The benefits of using a suspension trainer are many.

  • It allows you to scale all your bodyweight exercises – Just by altering the angle that you hold your body at, by moving your feet towards or away from the anchor point, creates differing amounts of weight that you are trying to move. Take the classic inclined row. The further away your feet are from the anchor point, the more upright your body is and the less effort is needed by the arms. Conversely, the closer to the anchor point the more horizontal your body is, the more force is required to move your body up and down. This makes a whole host of movements available to everyone, at multiple levels.
  • It can also be used to assist you in bodyweight movements if mobility is an issue. For example, if you struggle with range of motion or balance when trying to get into a bodyweight squat, holding onto the straps can give you both stability, a sense of security from falling, and the ability to use your arms to assist in the movement.
  • The flip side of this is the suspension trainers ability to turn a relatively stable movement into a decidedly unstable one. For example, an inclined push up from a fixed platform will feel far easier than a push up from the same angle/height on the suspension trainer. The reason is because now your hands are not on a single, fixed surface, they are free to move about independently from each other. This is not a bad thing. By adding in this instability you start to recruit a whole host of additional stabilising muscles that are normally left out of the equation, making your overall system and joints much stronger. Which brings us on to…
  • Core activation – As with the stabilising muscle of the joints being used, the core muscles are recruited on pretty much any exercise. Take a classic bicep curl. This is an isolation exercise, just working a single joint movement, great for the ‘guns’ but does little for anything else. Do that same movement, but this time using a suspension trainer and suddenly, loads more muscles are activated throughout the body, but in particular, the core. Because of the angled position that you hold your body whilst using the suspension trainer, the core muscles are brought into play far more than with many other versions of the same exercise. That is providing you are using good form, of course.
  • It helps to fix muscle imbalances – Because the arms, or indeed legs, are supported independently from each other, they are forced to do equal amounts of work. This helps to buoy up any asymmetrical weaknesses.
  • It trains cardio as well as strength – Whether you are using it for low intensity, high intensity, or as a circuit, the suspension trainer covers most bases.
  • It’s a great step up for those wanting to continue the bodyweight training progress – As mentioned before, due to it’s scalability you can keep making it more difficult. This is useful for those unable or unwilling to start adding weight to their programmes.
  • It’s versatile – A veritable Swiss army knife of fitness. There are a huge number of variations in movements and difficulty levels. Add to this the versatility of where you can use it. If you have a door or anything to tie it around, you are good to go, providing it’s all sturdy enough! I also use them in conjunction with a sled/sandbag as handles for pulling/pushing.
  • It’s portable – I love kettlebells. They would be my desert island training equipment. They also have handy carrying handles, but you don’t want to stick one in your suitcase for a 3 day business trip. But the suspension trainer is light, compact, and easier to run with when you get chased out of a kiddies play-park for working out on the play equipment. And the one we are suggesting to make is even more compact.

Nowadays, you can pick up a suspension trainer for less than £15, although quality is variable. The other alternative are the gymnastic rings. I love these things. I like nothing better than chalking up my hands and preparing to perform that stunning extravaganza of the Iron Cross, as seen in the Olympics.

man in white crew neck t shirt standing

‘Preparing’ is as far as I have got to date. But, they are a great alternative for pull ups, especially if like me you have existing shoulder or elbow issues (too many attempts at the aforementioned Iron Cross) as they allow your hands to rotate to a comfortable position, unlike a bar.

The straps of the rings are independent of each other, unlike the suspension trainer, meaning they can be positioned with varying widths. You can also shorten the straps a lot more making the handles much higher. This makes pull ups and dips much nicer than on the suspension trainer. They are a little less versatile when using your feet in comparison to the suspension trainer. They are also a bit more bulky.

The cheap and easy hybrid trainer

No nonsense, quick and simple. This trainer will cost less than a tenner and will fit into a coat pocket or most modest of manbags. You also get the benefits of using it like a suspension trainer (straps joined at the anchor) or like gymnastic rings (straps attached independently).

You will need:

  • 2 x Tie Down Straps – 3-5m. Check the strength rating!
  • 2 6″/150mm pieces of plastic pipe – I’ve used free off-cuts of blue water pipe and electrical conduit 20-24mm diameter.
  • Optional bicycle handle bar grip if you want to make it fancy. I used one of these but the tape kind works too.
  • A shop bought door anchor, extra bit of pipe, or an old 1980’s style ankle weight if you want to use it on a door.

First, cut the pipe handles to size and fit the foam grips. This is an absolute ball-ache. I tried a bit of dishwashing soap on the inside of one, and then the old hairspray trick on the inside of the second. Both required copious amounts of swearing. If you have a better method please leave it in the comments. Handlebar grip tape may be an easier option.

Then feed the end of a strap through the pipe handle, find a sturdy anchor support, throw it over and connect the end of the strap through the cam buckle. Tentatively test both your handymanship and the anchor, then have at it. Iron Cross by tea time! Or months of rehab, so go careful.

To create a door anchor you can do a number of things.

Buy one like this for a fiver.

Or if you are thrifty (cheap) like me you can make one using an extra bit of pipe that you feed both straps through. I used a slightly larger diameter pipe.

Simply throw over the top of your door and close the door. Ideally, you are pulling the door into the jamb (yes, this is how you spell it) when you use it, ie pulling the door closed, rather than pulling it against the latch.

If your door has a lock then lock it. There is nothing worse than some well meaning member of your household opening the door because they can hear you struggling, only to end up crippling you in the process. If not then tell them or leave a ‘DO NOT OPEN’ sign where they can see it.

BE WARNED. Due to the hard nature of the plastic there may be a chance that it could damage your door and door frame paintwork. You could stick another foam grip on it, though after last time I’d rather scratch my eyes out.

Another quick and easy technique is to use an old 80’s, Jane Fonda style ankle weight. Just thread the straps through it and use it instead.

Whatever you use as an anchor point just be sure that it will take your weight, and do this each time you use it. Don’t assume that tree branch etc. is as strong as it was last week.

The one thing it lacks is loops for your feet. I don’t really find this an issue and can do most things as they are, but if you really wanted them, you can just feed some strong cord through the handles to make a handy stirrup loop.

There are a mass of videos online showing good form, and giving good workout ideas, so have at it. This one is my favourite though.

Lock that door, people!

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