The fitness test: Weightless weightlifting is quite a workout

Leah Oatway tried out the TRX training system, weightlifting without the weights.

The National's Leah Oatway has a go at TRX suspension training under the watchful eye of the instructor Danny Bartlett.
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I would do anything for Madonna-esque muscular arms and surfboard-flat abdominals, aside from spending time lifting weights in the gym - which has of course made it all but impossible for me to obtain either. I find weight areas in gyms intimidating, so when I first spotted the TRX suspension training system in a net bag at Go Sports - its promise to increase strength, flexibility, power and seriously work core muscles, all without me going anywhere near a dumbbell or leaving the apartment - filled me with hope.

The TRX is a set of height-adjustable, heavy-duty nylon straps with handles that can be anchored to any weight-bearing platform - from a tree to an apartment door - allowing you to perform more than 300 exercises using your own body weight as resistance. Depending on which package you buy, it comes with an instructional DVD and either a basic circuit workout or 12-week fitness programme, and you can buy additional DVD workouts that are sport-specific.

After reading online about its origins in the armed forces - it was invented by a former US Navy Seal named Randy Hetrick, who first came up with the idea while on mission using scrap parachute material - and how various Ultimate Fighting Championship fighters use it, I bought the Forces Kit. If I was going to do this, I wanted it to be as challenging as possible. But after several attempts at looping my feet in the handles had me hanging precariously from the door while, on my television, Hetrick moved on to the next exercise, I accepted that the 12-week training programme that accompanies the Forces Kit was probably beyond my capabilities. I called for reinforcements - namely TRX's Middle East master trainer Danny Bartlett, of the Dubai-based fitness company MeFit Pro.

Once a month Bartlett conducts a day-long course at the Aviation Club, Dubai, to show fitness instructors how to use and anchor the system properly. He holds a list of Abu Dhabi and Dubai-based trainers who have passed the course. "This system is for anybody, anywhere," he says, adding that it can hold up to 1,200lbs. So as long as I keep hold of the handles I should be fine. "The exercises will give the same benefit as lifting a dumbbell with the benefit of being suspended in an unstable condition, activating the core muscles - which refer to every muscle from the neck to the hip."

Bartlett explains that by simply stepping closer to or further away from the TRX, or by widening or narrowing my leg position, I can alter the intensity of the exercise. He then shows me simple ways to adjust the height of the straps according to which muscle area I am working, and how to get my feet easily in and out of the cradles. Feeling more confident, I take hold of the handles and lean all the way back, feet firmly planted on the floor. My arms now fully extended, core engaged automatically, I pull myself up until my hands are chest level, before releasing them slowly back down.

"You're smiling; that looked too easy," Bartlett says, ordering me to move my feet together and further forward before attempting the same exercise again. This time I feel it working. "Keep looking at the anchor point," he tells me. After 12 repetitions - Bartlett suggests generally doing two or three sets of 12 repetitions per exercise, with the final few in each set tough enough to make you grimace - we move on to a chest exercise.

Handles grasped, I allow myself to lean forward until the straps are fully extended and my hands are shoulder level. I breathe out and use my arms to return to standing, arms fully extended in front of me. Bartlett explains that as it becomes easier to do, I should work my feet closer to the anchor point, closer together. A further challenge would be to raise one leg, which I try shakily. It activates the core immediately as the body attempts to stabilise and, while it's going to take some time for me to progress that far, I can feel the potential.

"I don't need to tell you to engage your core because it does it automatically, doesn't it? Otherwise you'll just fall down," he points out. TRX, Bartlett says, is part of a "functional exercising" approach. The muscles you use and the movements you make help reduce the risk of injury carrying out daily chores and can improve technique in specific sports - there are DVDs available for golf and tennis, for example. And it only weighs 2.5lbs so you can take it on holiday or on business trips.

After an hour of arm, chest and leg exercises under Bartlett's supervision, I feel confident enough to attempt the Forces DVD again and this time I manage to complete the upper body workout, albeit a tad slower than Hetrick demands.