My goal is to compete on American Ninja Warrior. There is something wildly enticing about attempting to tackle those seemingly superhuman obstacles. To compete against the course itself, in a physical and mental challenge that favors nimble athletes — frequently the everyman — and often those beyond the age limits of traditional organized sports.
Note: Sharing my pursuits/obsessions is my meta pursuit/obsession. Hence this page.
Three key areas of conditioning
To achieve this goal will take lots of training (and a great demo reel or multi-day walk-on line, but more on those later). What kind of training? I think it boils down to three essential areas of conditioning:
- strength – particularly upper body strength, grip strength, and core strength for the many, many climbing, hanging, and swinging obstacles. Leg strength for jumping obstacles, and for running up the warped wall
- balance – foot balance for running across rolling logs, leaping/landing balance for small landing areas, hand balance for transfers mid-obstacle, and full-body balance/control for trampoline jumps, inverted rock climbs, and the like
- flexibility – wingspan for reaching far handholds, straddle stretch for sticking and climbing, such as on the spider wall, front stretch to reach far off landing areas, and spine/core/torso flexibility for making tough twists and good swings/dismounts
There are many exercise disciplines that work these three areas. My earliest conditioning in these areas came from martial arts, physical contortion/body control/isolations for comedic purposes, climbing, and a bit of dance. AWN has shown us a wide array of competitors from a range of backgrounds including parkour/free-runinng, stunts, tree pruning, electrical pole maintenance, bodybuilding, rock climbing, martial arts, swimming, marathon running, breakdancing, football, pole vaulting, and on and on. There is clearly no single, correct path.
I’ve chosen the disciplines I enjoy the most today, that are somewhat flexible time-wise, and that are highly focused on the three key areas. These are my training disciplines:
- Calisthenics/body weight fitness/gymnastics
- Aerial and acrobatic circus arts
- Rock Climbing/bouldering
- Obstacle training
It’s a somewhat eclectic mix, but here’s how I think each of them contribute to strength, balance, and flexibility. I’m not going to list out a training regimen here, but I’ll give a few examples of typical exercises in each discipline.
Calisthenics/Body Weight Fitness/Gymnastics
Loads of strength training here, with some balance, and flexibility in lesser amounts. It’s easy to fit in this kind of training in short amounts throughout the day. Minimal equipment needed — a playground or outdoor fitness park covers most needs, other than some gymnastics rings and/or training straps.
Unlike weight training, body weight fitness doesn’t greatly increase muscle size, but earns you the functional strength to move your body around, a critical skill for obstacle courses. My exception to this is sometimes wearing a weighted backpack for added difficulty.
Pull-ups, chin-ups, l-sits, dips, muscle-ups, front/back levers, can all be done on a horizontal bar and some parallel bars. Loads of room for variety, too, such as one-arm push-ups, wide fingertip push-ups, uneven push-ups, decline push-ups, and so on.
Get some gymnastics rings and you can do all of those with increased instability to call many more secondary muscles into play. Drop the rings down low for unstable push-ups, too.
Achieving a solid iron cross seems like a far off goal, but it’s fun to train for it a get gradual bits of progress.
Crunches, sit-ups, v-sits, and dragon flys for core and obliques.
Squats, jumps, scissors, calf raises, and lunges are great for working on leg strength. I use Mark Lauren’s Bodyweight Training app to guide my intervals and tabatas. His book, You Are Your Own Gym, is an excellent resource on bodyweight training, and includes some good, simple, rational advice on nutrition as well.
For extra/different grip strength training, I switch to chains or the GripSling raw fabric training straps for pull-ups, dips, etc. I really like the Grip Slings; I’ll do a full review of them soon. By the way, they have an affiliate program going — you’ll get a discount and I’ll get some kind of super awesome kickback if you use the code JPIXL20 at checkout. //end moment of shilling
Stall bars/ladders at the fitness part or any vertical pole are great for training clutch flags and full human flags. This is also an excellent party trick.
Also, using equipment in odd ways to increase difficulty is fun. Such as, gym rings with no straps for pushups.
I give huge credit to Pilates for kickstarting my strength, balance, and flexibility. If you are coming from injury and/or lack of fitness, there is something about doing Pilates with a good instructor on the machines that seems to work miracles. Nearly every exercise engages the core at all times, while the low-impact resistance isolates and works specific muscle groups.
Additionally, there is a nearly equal distribution of strength and flexibility training in most equipment Pilates routines, and foot/leg balance and core balance play a huge part, too.
A year of weekly, private equipment Pilates classes with the amazing Jaime Rutt at Personal Pilates Burbank is how my fitness was reborn. Since then I’ve been taking a mix of equipment classes, advanced conditioning classes (including mini-trampoline work) and mat Pilates classes.
Jaime also designed my go-to morning workout, which is a mix of mat Pilates and calisthenics, including oblique leg raises, oblique v-sits, canoes/teasers (a kind of mega sit-up), headstand leg-raisers, fist hip push-ups, diamond pushups, “Yoga” pushups (down dog to plank to cobra vinyasa flow), wall walk push-ups, and planche preps, followed by three killer leg stretches.
Yoga is many things to many people. I benefit from the mental calm and physical flow of Yoga. Obviously, there is a great emphasis on flexibility in Yoga. Twisting stretches, back bends, hip openers, shoulder/rotator cuff stretches, these are all amazing and feel like a great compliment to the tightening that can occur in other conditioning.
A further benefit is body awareness, particularly in a tree pose with eyes closed, attempting to keep a solid core, low breaths, and most of all — balance.
Due to a busy life, I try to take flow Yoga classes with the amazing Rachel Pagan once every week or two, and supplement that with morning sun salutation routines and Instagram Yoga challenges. (Pretty sure ninja Travis Brewer‘s Movember Yogi’s Instagram challenge was my introduction to this fun/weird pastime. I kinda miss the moustache.)
Aerial and Acrobatic Circus Arts
Circus skills are perfect for training strength, balance, and flexibility, many simultaneously. Expert circus arts performers are some of the most inspiring athletes I’ve ever seen. Fore example, I’ve watched performers on the lyra hoop and thought “they could totally crush most ANW obstacles.”
I think a combination of aerial and acrobatics/hand balancing training cover a huge range of the key conditioning areas.
Cirque School LA in Hollywood is fantastic. I’ve been taking aerial and acrobatics classes there. Aerial initially focuses on static trapeze and silks, and I love them both. Trapeze is a combination of upper body strength, grip strength, core strength, leg strength, and balance. Hanging upside down from the backs of your bent knees and doing sit-ups is difficult and wonderful. Mounting the trapeze with a pull-through is an excellent, fun full-body coordination/strength move. Poses such as the mermaid (merman for me?) that force you to combine strength and graceful lines tax nearly all muscles simultaneously.
The silks, on the other hand, seem to condition leg strength, arm strength, grip strength, core strength, and knot tying ability (only sort of kidding). You must keep track of a lot of things simultaneously to climb silks, wrap one foot in a friction lock in mid-air using the other foot, or safely wrap your body in the fabric, again while in mid-air.
My favorite, however, is the twisting leg-lock which resembles a b-boy flair move, and results in a rapidly made silk harness you test by letting go of you hands while splayed spread eagle above the ground. It rules.
At home I can practice some trapeze moves on a wooden pole suspended from the swing-set with carabiners and climbing webbing (over the soft, rubber mulch), and I replicate some silks grip moves on the raw training straps. I’ve also built a “fast rope” by braiding four lengths of climbing rope, but still need to build a higher point for mounting it.
Acrobatics classes focus on handstands, dive rolls, trampoline jumps, tumbling, handsprings, and so on. They are also a prerequisite for further hand balancing training — what could be more amazing than doing a one-arm stab or handstand on the balancing canes?
Grip strength. Period.
Sure, there are lots of other great things that come from climbing — figuring out problems on the fly, body awareness, core strength, leg strength, balance, mental calm — but if there is one key skill needed for ANW that climbers have in spades, it is grip strength.
I rock climbed, bouldered, and buildered (New England boarding school churches are great for this, as are Virginia college campus buildings) a good bit in high school and college, all outdoors. Now, I’ve begun to enjoy the convenience of the indoor climbing/bouldering gyms, including The Stronghold and LA Bouldering, both in downtown LA. They aren’t as “natural,” but definitely allow you to train in a very specific, repeatable way under good conditions.
Sometimes it’s fun to get out to nature, such as Yosemite.
Along with actual climbing, there comes a host of excellent climbing training aids/exercises: rock rings, fingerboards, campus boards, door jams.
You need to train finger tendons very gradually and carefully (they don’t build up as quickly as muscles and are easy to injure) but I do a good bit of hanging from two or three fingertips to strengthen them.
Also, I keep an old racquetball at my desk and in my Jeep so that I can squeeze that whenever I’m idle.
I recently started slacklining. What’s that? A slackline is a balance beam divided by four and multiplied by evil. It is narrow, unstable, a bit stretchy, and varies in difficulty along it’s length. Foot balance, leg strength, and a stable core are all necessary, but even more so is the growth of your brain-to-spine-to-foot communications pathway. The first day of using a slackline is comprised primarily of your brain secretly whispering to your foot “move back and forth as rapidly as possible.” It is an impressive case of “sleeping on it” that causes your brain to come up with a better plan overnight — the second day on the slackline this overcompensation strategy seems to mostly disappear, replaced by using your arms overhead and free leg for balance.
Lock in your core, look to the end of your path, breathe, and practice, practice, practice.
A primitive slackline is simple to set up with two webbing anchors wrapped around trees, four carabiners, two rappel rings, and a long length of climbing webbing. Here’s more on the setup. I can now set it up in five minutes, so I go out to a park every day for a 1/2 hour break from work, as well as set it up in our back yard at home to practice with the kids.
In order to avoid rushing, and poor form, I dedicate much of my slacklining practice to simply standing on one leg for thirty seconds, and then transferring to the other leg for another thirty seconds. When I do attempt to walk down the line, I try to balance for five seconds on each leg before taking the next step. I don’t think I’ll ever become a trick-lining master at this pace, but I do think it’s a fantastic way to train for balance.
It’s also fun to try hand balancing tricks on the slackline, again because it’s so hilariously unstable.
You can’t predict the exact obstacles that will appear on a given ANW course, but you can do your best to train for the likely ones. Lots of swinging, leaping, catching, releasing, climbing, running, jumping, and landing are bound to occur. Training on the widest variety possible of strange obstacles can’t hurt. Much easier to achieve if you can train at a gym with ninja warrior obstacles, but it’s possible to improvise and/or build some, too.
The best thing going in LA is ANW7 competitor Arnold Hernandez’s 323 Training Grounds, an amazing backyard course he has built up. Most Sunday’s are open for training and he hosts regular competitions there as well. I’m competing in my first one there in September. I’ve never been on any of these obstacles, so it could be a
rude awakening great motivator to get out there and train.
Here’s a collection of things I’ve built or found, how I train on them, and some I am currently building, or plan to build.
- Cannonballs made from drilled out croquet balls and threaded steel eye bolts. I hang these from chains and swing from cannonball to cannonball. Also great for grip strength training is holding them from the sides or underneath and hanging/doing pull-ups.
- Grip Sling raw training straps. I loop them over the monkey bars and do dynamic release-and-catch pull-ups from rungs to straps and back. Also swing from them in combination with cannonballs and rock rings for variety. Which is the spice of life.
- Monkey bar release-and-catch at home or the fitness park. Using an open-handed grip, I work on getting an efficient, consistent rhythm as I progress from bar to bar, and then a lache-style swinging dismount. I don’t have a good distant bar to rematch, so may need to start going to use the fantastic gymnastics bars at Santa Monica Muscle Beach.
- Salmon ladder. I’m building a set of them with a 4-foot leap between. Sometimes, digging holes to build obstacles is a pretty good workout in and of itself. Ninja training is a gateway to carpentry and general contractor work.
- Doorknob arc. Would love to make one, or a pegboard. In the meantime, I use what I find at the fitness park.
- Warped wall. Hmm, it’s tempting to build one in the backyard, but there’s a nearby freerunning gym that has one, so maybe I should try that our first…
- Other. There are lots of other obstacles to build, such as hanging boards/doors to grip and climb under, tiny ledges to leap between and land on fingertips, bungee ropes, climbing walls, campus boards. And on and on. All I need is time. And money. And space.
In summary, I think these methods should help increase strength, balance, and flexibility. I also think real obstacles are much harder than they look, and I strongly suspect that while any given obstacle may look doable with some training, stringing them together one after another is probably brutally taxing, especially on grip and arm strength.
I’d better stop writing and go train.