It's just common sense that if you're short on time, a 20-minute workout is better than nothing. You can take a run, or hop on a cardio machine, maybe even do some calisthenics or a quick circuit of weights. But it might be surprising to you if I said it's possible to get a better workout in 20 minutes than in an hour. If you really want to maximize your time and get the benefits of a full length workout in the half the time or less, then I've got the workouts for you! Meet the TRX (or a similar suspension training device) and kettlebells. They're not for timid exercisers who don't want their mascara to run or to feel sore or, heaven forbid, get a callus. However, they're both completely modifiable for any level of fitness - you gotta start somewhere. But of course, as with all forms of exercise, not everything is going to be appropriate for everyone.
Kettlebell and suspension training workouts (such as the TRX) are nothing new, but they're not mainstream yet. I find this odd since one of the reasons I moved to L.A. was to be in the fitness trend capitol of the world. (Then again, when I think back, it did take a while for yoga, Pilates and spinning to become gym staples and commonplace in the fitness sphere. So I'll give it a few more years.)
The TRX, invented by an entrepreneurial former Navy Seal, is the most widely-marketed brand of suspension trainer. More and more gyms are offering group classes in this type of training and it is gradually gaining popularity amongst personal trainers. Suspension training works by using the resistance of your own body weight and gravity. By changing the length of the adjustable heavy duty, nylon webbing straps and the angle of your body, you can create more or less resistance for dozens of exercises that will strengthen your entire body, improve your balance, flexibility and increase range-of-motion. Since suspension training requires you to stabilize your body to perform most of the exercises, it forces you to constantly engage your core muscles. Many of the suspension trainers on the market, including the TRX, are light and portable so you can take them with you anywhere, making this the most excuse-proof piece of equipment I've ever owned (aside from resistance bands which are, let's face it, a bit passé if you've been in the fitness game for a while). The TRX, for example, can either be affixed to a chin-up bar at the gym, a strong tree branch outside, or anchored behind a door. Not surprisingly, the company that developed the TRX is called Fitness Anywhere. Some other brands of suspension trainers are the Jungle Gym, the Jam Gym, Blast Straps and InkaFlexx.
Kettlebells look more like a medieval weapon when compared to the military-inspired design of the TRX. Kettlebells are cast iron, cannonball-shaped weights with a handle on top. They were developed by Russian weight lifters in the early eighteenth century as a way to build strength, endurance, flexibility and balance. At first blush, even to a seasoned fitness professional like me, the workouts looked precarious - even downright dangerous. I shied away from them at first thinking they would wreak havoc on my back which already has a few bulging discs and stenosis. But in my continual quest to find the best, most effective workouts to improve my fitness level and prevent my body from hitting those hard to avoid plateaus, I was soon hooked on the kettlebell. Kettlebell classes can be found at various gyms across the country and are a staple in many boot camp style workouts like Cross Fit. The beauty of kettlebell training as opposed to traditional weight training is that kettlebell exercises give you an intense cardiovascular workout in conjunction with strength training. In other words, no need to do half your workout on a cardio machine and the other half on the weight room floor.
But don't take my word for it: recently the American Council on Exercise (ACE) decided to do a study to analyze the energy cost and exercise intensity of kettlebell workouts. The results of the study showed that kettlebells can provide much more bang for the buck than standard weight training as far as improving aerobic capacity.
Now, I'm not advocating that everyone run out and buy a suspension trainer or a rack of kettlebells. Neither workout is one I recommend for a beginner without supervision. If you are a beginner, you should definitely work with an experienced, certified trainer who can monitor your form and prevent you from getting injured. Or, see if a gym in your area offers classes in these types of workouts. Both methods take some time to master.