What does it take to be an American Ninja Warrior?
This writer went deep into the world of the modern day ninja to uncover the physical and psychological demands of the world’s most challenging obstacle course.
As a kid you probably imagined yourself as a deadly Ninja assassin, silently lurking in the shadows, poised to leap upon an unsuspecting sibling. You would deliver a secret death strike known only to the select few trained at a mysterious ninja dojo.
Well, modern day ninjas have traded those head-to-toe black outfits for gym shorts and tank tops. Gone are the Samurai swords and throwing stars, replaced by salmon ladders and warp walls.
In 2009 the G4 network began airing American Ninja Warrior (inspired by the Japanese show Sazuke.) The show had a basic premise: Make it across a series of athletically challenging obstacles without falling. Each week viewers were mesmerized by athletes who managed to traverse seemingly impossible obstacles and amazed by the imaginative minds who created these structures on some maniacal ninja drawing board. In its third season it became so popular that NBC picked it up to air on primetime TV.
Who are these modern day ninjas?
While researching this article I discovered there’s an entire Ninja Warrior subculture. These ANW followers are far from the typical TV show super fan couch potatoes. The show has had such an incredible impact on their lives that most have built their own ninja obstacles. “I installed finger grips above a doorway in my living room”Mike Ciardi admits. “Each time I walk through the door I do a few pull-ups. But that’s nothing compared to what some of my friends have built.”Ninjas are famous for replicating full size ANW obstacles in their back yards. Mike is an electrician and one of a fast growing population who have caught Ninja Fever. Mike also started the Facebook group Boston Ninjas to meet up with similar minded people. “We share ideas and we carpool to different venues for training and competitions.” I found that all the ninjas share a common bond and while they compete with one another there is a prevailing team spirit. It’s one big family!
Becoming a ninja
What is the path to become an American Ninja Warrior? Each year the show takes on-line applications. One hundred lucky hopefuls, from each of the five US regions, will get invitations to attempt the qualifying course. Those not chosen to be awarded a coveted invite may choose to take their chances as a “walk on.” The producers choose 20 people from the “walk on” line from each region. Hardcore competitors will wait in line for up to a week for a chance to attempt the course. You would imagine some conflicts brewing in a situation like this but according to Tony Torres “The first couple of people in line set the ground rules and everybody pretty much co-operates. We’ll end up with about 50 people waiting in the line.”
Tony Torres caught ninja fever in 2011 and he’s tackled the qualifying course four times.”I was invited twice and I was a “walk on” two other times.”Tony’s first time on the course he was the victim of every ninja’s worst nightmare. Tony laments “I didn’t make it past the first obstacle. ” They generally switch up the obstacles but the first is always the quads. The quads is a series of boxes, mounted at a 45 degree angle (the show added another box so now this is known as the quints.) You must jump from one box to the next to traverse a pool of water. Tony recalled his nightmare moment “I was solid until I stepped on a wet spot on the third quad and I went right in the drink.” Tony developed such a passion for ninja warrior that in 2012 he opened Alternate Routes. A 5000 sq ft training facility in White Marsh, Maryland dedicated to ninja training and similar athletics. Tony told me â€œAt least 50 of my athletes will apply to the show each season.â€ But ninjas donâ€™t have to wait for the show to compete. Tony runs four of his own ninja warrior competitions each year and so do many other similar facilities around the country.
What does ANW look for in a ninja?
“We look for people with big personalities and lots of good energy” Anthony Storm explained. He’s an executive producer for ANW and takes part in the casting process. “Of course we want people with the physical abilities to succeed on the obstacles but we also want the audience to be drawn to the contestants.” Anthony asks Ninja hopefuls “Why would the fans want to see you on the show? What inspired you to apply? Do you have an interesting life story?” Let’s face it! ANW is not just a sporting event. It’s a TV show designed to entertain an audience so your physical ability may not be enough to get you on the show.
Ninja Warrior Training
You won’t find many ninjas pumping heavy iron. They prefer bodyweight training and the growing popularity of calisthenics. But, there’s one exercise ninjas have in common with the average gym trainer and I bet you can guess what that is. Correct! Pull-ups! As one ninja put it “if you can’t easily pull up your own bodyweight you have no business on the course.” Ninjas perform endless sets of every variety including: Pronated, supranated, neutral, vertical grips from cylinders and ropes, as well as finger tip pull-ups from boards and rock wall climbing holds. One thing you’ll never see is a ninja using is wrist straps to aid their grip. Their ability to grab and hold onto various shapes is essential and diverse forms of bare handed pull-ups will build that essential dexterity. Ninjas also like other bodyweight moves like push-ups and dips to round out their upper body strength. The courses also require ninjas to have plenty of quick leg power to propel them forward and upward. To build this type of explosive strength most ninjas perform dynamic movements like sprints and squat jumps. Core strength and endurance is also necessary so exercises like hanging leg raises and all form of planks are part of the routine. Finally, they need superior balance so maneuvering across beams, vertical posts and horizontal straps is commonplace in their training.
Spiderman would make a better ninja than the Hulk
The average size of a successful Ninja is about 5’8″ and 155 lbs but there are exceptions. At 6’4″ and 205 lbs Rob Moravsky was one of the largest to make it through the qualifying round. Rob told me his height was both a blessing and a curse. “I definitely had a reach advantage but some of the obstacles hang pretty low and I remember having to crunch up to keep from touching the water. Even if your shoelace breaks the surface you’re disqualified.” Rob is a personal trainer who came from a basic bodybuilding background. He told me ANW completely changed his training program. “Once I started focusing on Ninja training I put aside the heavy weights. I started doing tons of calisthenics and monkeying my way across the rafters in an old barn behind my property.” ANW impacted more than just Rob’s training. “After my appearance on the show I started getting offers for modeling and movie roles so I moved out to Cali and I’ll see where it takes me.” Also, it doesn’t hurt when you have the handle Rob “The Adonis” Moravsky.
The biggest ninja?
What was the biggest thing to happen to ANW since the show began? A five foot tall former collegiate gymnast named Kacy Catanzaro. In 2014 Kacy was the first female to make through the qualifying course. The main stream media replayed Kacy’s run for millions of people who had never heard of ANW. “After Kacy completed the course the memberships at Alternate Routes went through the roof, especially from the women.” Tony Torres told me.
Another glass ceiling?
Why did it take five seasons for a female to make it through the course? I asked ninja, Becca Tacy her opinion. ‘To the show’s credit, the course is the same for every competitor, regardless of age, size or gender. Women tend to be shorter than men which means the space between each obstacle is that much further away, not to mention reaching up to grab the top of the fourteen foot warp wall.”
Becca is one of a trending group of women interested in ninja warrior training. “I was 38 before I started any kind of physical training.” Becca told me she entered a couple of triathlons in 2012 and did surprisingly well. “The family was watching ANW one night when one of my sons said I should be on the show. My husband fired back with “mom’s too short.” That’s all Becca needed to hear. The very next season her application was accepted and the entire family went to St.Louis for the 2014 qualifiers. She recalled waiting for her turn at the course. “We were all standing around freezing. I was one of only a few women and it was intimidating being surrounded by so many incredible athletes.” She didn’t make it through the course but she did catch Ninja Fever and she’s hoping to be invited for another shot.
I turned on ANW one night and the co-hosts were narrating over the action when it struck me that one of the voices sounded too familiar. Suddenly I realized that one of the hosts was my old friend Akbar GbajaBiamila. In 2011 we spent a month in Morocco racing against each other in Mark Burnett’s epic adventure race Expedition Impossible. I gave Akbar a call and after we caught up a bit we spoke about ANW. “Game day is all together different than practice. You need to understand, we start shooting when the sun goes down and we generally don’t wrap until about 5am. Most venues the temperature really drops so the competitors are waiting around in the cold for hours and that could have some effect on their performance.” Akbar added “But more so, some competitors will show up very capable of completing the obstacles. But when they’re actually standing there, with the course in front of them and all the cameras are rolling and the crowd is cheering, they can’t concentrate. They get so nervous that they lose focus and make a mistake on an obstacle that they’ve practiced on a hundred times.”
The body achieves what the mind believes
I wanted to experience, first hand, what the obstacles were like so I drove down to TA Fitness in Weymouth, MA. The owners, David Cavanagh and Jenny Lawler are hard core ninjas and they gave me a crash course on their obstacles.
I found that some of the obstacles are more about getting beyond a psychological barrier and less about physical ability.
The Quad Steps: What surprised me most about this obstacle was how fast I lost forward momentum. With every step my speed dropped drastically. Each time I attempted to traverse the steps I needed to concentrate on pushing off strongly to accelerate to the next step. At that point I realized why ninjas incorporate dynamic leg movements in their training.
The Salmon Ladder & Jumping Bars: I believe anyone with a decent strength to bodyweight ratio could perform these moves. It’s a matter of realizing what you need to do in that split second movement but the real challenge is overcoming the fear and actually making the move. Once you get beyond the mental barrier climbing a salmon ladder is no more physically demanding than a set of pull-ups.
The Warp Wall: There definitely is technique involved in this obstacle but the first thing you need to do is believe that you can summit the mountain. I was instructed to sprint to the wall and as I begin to ascend I should time my explosive vertical leap on my third step up the wall to virtually fly up to the ledge. Consider the effort involved in jumping up to grab a 10 foot basketball rim and then imagine raising that rim another four feet. Looking up at that ledge, 14 feet off the ground and convincing yourself that you can jump up and grab it is half the battle. You need to fully commit and throw caution to the wind. There can be no overthinking or second guessing yourself. I can’t believe I’m saying this but you need to “believe in yourself and reach for the sky.”
Was Ninja Jim ever meant to be?
In 2013 I was fortunate enough to be invited to the qualifying course. The show would shoot on Friday evening April 19th in Baltimore. On Monday, April 15th, two bombs rocked the Boston Marathon and my SWAT team was called in to assist with the unknown aftermath. We worked 12 hour shifts all week and at the exact time I was due to be on the course in Baltimore, my team was surrounding the boat in Watertown, MA.
The following ninja season I was recovering from shoulder surgery after trying to convince myself I could still compete in the bench press.
My application went in for the 2015 ANW season and after playing the waiting game I realized I was not one of the chosen few. If I never get the chance to be a real ninja again I’ll just continue my silent low crawls behind the couch followed by another sneak attack on my unsuspecting wife. It’s nothing she enjoys but for me “it never gets old.”