Navy SEALs stand shoulder to shoulder with the best professional athletes in the world. These elite commandos must be able to run, jump, climb and swim with heavy loads anytime, anywhere, at times with only a few hours to prepare.
"You have to be in top shape," said Randy Hetrick, 46, who spent 14 years with the SEALs. "But when you are out in the middle of nowhere, it can be hard. It is not like you can just go to a gym."
So Hetrick decided he had to make do with training using what is always available — his own body weight. But you can only do so many variations of the traditional pushup, pullup and chinup.
Then one day, scrounging around an equipment shed, Hetrick came across some old parachute webbing. He stitched it together with some boat repair tools and launched a new fitness craze.
"Pretty soon all of the guys wanted them," he said. "I couldn't keep up with the demand."
Light and portable
The key to Hetrick's improvised fitness system was its size, weight and portability.
"If you are on a sub, ship or in some safe house in the middle of a city, you can't carry a lot of unnecessary gear," he said. "But you could just throw the straps in a rucksack and go just about anywhere."
The straps proved so popular, Hetrick left the Navy after 14 years and started his own business. Today, he employs more than 130 people at his San Francisco-based business called TRX Training, which is short for Total Resistance Exercise. "I'm ex-military so we had to have an acronym," he joked.
Unlike exercise bands that stretch, the TRX Suspension Trainer provides a solid base for leveraged bodyweight exercises. "There are literally hundreds of exercises that you can do," he said. "And once you learn how to use it, you can design your own sport-specific training program."
Hetrick's system is now in use by thousands of active-duty military personnel as well as professional triathletes, surfers, tennis players and even NFL quarterback Drew Brees.
Suspension training is nothing new. Gymnasts have been using rings for decades. But how do you get the same benefits outside of a gym? Just head to the nearest park and you will find all the help you need.
"I just look for a good, sturdy tree and set it up," said Brooke Warner, a trainer with Anytime Fitness on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg. "You can work on strength, endurance and flexibility, which are the three main components of an exercise program."
Several gyms, including Gold's on 34th Street S, have dedicated suspension training areas with the straps anchored to the ceiling or wall. But part of the allure of this training method is its portability.
"I just keep it in my workout bag and take it wherever I go," Warner said.
Industry leader TRX has the lion's share of the market, but its product is pricey at $189. Other companies make straps, including Freestyle Pro Trainer (for roughly half the price), or you can follow Hetrick's lead and make your own.
But Hetrick's straps will handle 1,500 pounds. And when you are hanging upside down from a tree, do you really want the cheapest equipment?
Get up and go
Chris Potter, with Balanced Fitness and Nutrition, keeps a "fitness survival kit" in the back of his pickup.
In addition to a suspension training system, Potter also packs a rollup mat, resistance bands, 10-pound medicine ball, hand towel and bottled water.
"I can meet my clients anywhere and squeeze in a great workout in as little as 15 minutes," Potter said. "It doesn't matter where it is . . . a park, the beach, even in the parking lot at work; all you need is a couple pieces of equipment and the right attitude.''
Most people abandon an exercise routine because it is inconvenient. That's a big reason why portable suspension trainers have become so popular.
"Getting in the routine is always the hardest part," Warner said. "But if you really want it to stick, find a buddy. You are 80 percent more likely to be regular with a workout program if you have a partner."