Few pieces of equipment are as valuable to the mountain biker as a suspension trainer. I'll admit that when they first came out I was a bit skeptical and thought they were more of a gimmick, like standing on a BOSU Ball, than actually filling a genuine need.
However, since getting my hands a couple not a day goes by in my facility that they are not being used.
"Suspension trainer" is the term coined for long nylon straps with handles that you can hang from a chin up bar, a door jam or even a tree. The most common ones on the market are the TRX and the Jungle Gym, with the TRX being a higher quality version and easier to adjust. Whichever one you choose to use the basic idea is the same – by suspending your upper or lower body in the straps you can create some very challenging variations of common exercises.
I really like suspension trainers for a few reasons:
1) They allow you to make basic body weight exercises harder. As a mountain biker one of the most important things you can pick up from strength training is body awareness and control. These qualities are best trained through body weight exercises like push ups, inverted rows, split squats and planks, just to name a few.
Using a suspension trainer allows you to take exercise that you have grown strong on and add a degree of instability, which increases the core and body control demands. While free weight exercises like the deadlift will always be important, finding ways to make the basic body weight exercises harder is a great way to get more mountain bike specific results from your program.
2) They are extremely portable. Perhaps my favorite aspect for the mountain bike racers I coach, the ability to throw a single, lightweight piece of equipment in your bag which gives you access to dozens of high quality exercises can not be overstated. Maintaining your strength levels throughout the season is important in making sure that you finish strong and without a consistent strength training program you can not do this.
A suspension trainer makes it far easier to be consistent with your training since you can design an entire workout around it. This means that you are not dependent on what equipment you can find where you are staying and don't have to piece together a workout everywhere you go. Finding ways around excuses is a hallmark of great riders and this is an easy way to get around the excuse of not being able to train during the season.
3) They are fun to use and keep you focused. Perhaps the best part is that they are far removed from the mindless exercises that so many riders are used to. Even something as "easy" as a push up becomes a new adventure as you try to keep yourself from swinging around. If you break concentration for even a second the suspension trainer will smack you back into reality quickly and effectively – you literally can not complete the exercise without staying tight and focused. This not only keeps you engaged while training but it also works on the focus and mindset you need on the trail as well.
While I obviously think a lot of suspension trainers I do have to offer a few words of caution. First, a piece of equipment if not a "training system" and so you need to watch out for TRX Fanatics who will tell you that they all you need. While they are great tools, they are not the only tool you need.
Second, the temptation when starting out with them is to learn and try as many different exercises as you can. This is a big mistake and you should choose a few exercises to start out with in order to master some of the basics first. There are very advanced exercises that look cool but don't do much for you unless you have the basic core strength and body control developed with more basic exercises.
Here are 4 of the exercises that I use with new riders to teach them those basics.
- Assisted Single Leg Squat
- Push Up
- Single Arm Inverted Row
- Lateral Fallout
I recommend doing the exercises in a circuit (one set of the first exercise, one set of the second exercise and so on) and going through the circuit 3 times. Start with 8 reps and add a rep or two each week until you build up to 12.
Once you've got those exercises down you can start exploring some of the other great exercise options and seeing which ones work well for you. Suspension training is one of those popular fitness trends that can actually live up to the hype if you use them properly. Hope fully this article and video have sparked your curiosity enough to check one out and see what they can add to your training program and results on the trail.
James Wilson is the owner of MTB Strength Training Systems, the world's only company dedicated to developing strength and conditioning programs for the unique demands of mountain biking. James owns a training facility in Grand Junction CO and is the strength coach for the Yeti World Cup Team. Visit his blog www.bikejames.com to sign up for your free mini-course 10 Steps to Instantly Improve Your Riding and body weight workout.