What It Takes To Become An American Ninja Warrior
One Bodybuilding.com writer went behind the scenes to uncover the physical and psychological hurdles of the world's most challenging obstacle course.
Name: Jim Vaglica
From: Boston, MA
Occupation: Strength and conditioning specialist, police sergeant, cast member of Mark Burnett's 'Expedition Impossible'
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'd 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 "Sasuke." The show had a simple 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 were 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.
As it turns out, there's an entire Ninja Warrior subculture. These followers are far from the typical TV show superfan couch potatoes. The show has had such an incredible impact on their lives that many have built their own ninja obstacles. Some ninjas are famous for replicating full-size ANW obstacles in their back yards.
"I installed finger grips above a doorway in my living room," admits Mike Ciardi. Mike, an electrician, is among the fast-growing audience that has caught Ninja Fever. He also started the Facebook group Boston Ninjas to meet up with similar-minded people. "Each time I walk through the door I do a few pull-ups," he continues. "But that's nothing compared to what some of my friends have built. We share ideas and we carpool to different venues for training and competitions."
I found that all the ninjas share a common bond: They compete against one another, but there's a prevailing team spirit that makes them one giant family!
BECOMING A NINJA
What is the path to becoming an American Ninja Warrior? Each year the show receives thousands of online applications. A hundred lucky hopefuls from each of the five U.S. regions get invitations to attempt the qualifying course. Those not given a coveted invite may choose to take their chances as a walk-on. The producers choose another 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.
Tony Torres caught Ninja Fever in 2011, and he's tackled the qualifying course four times now. "I was invited twice and I was a walk-on two other times," he says. Tony's first time on the course, he fell victim to every ninja's worst nightmare. Tony laments, "I didn't make it past the first obstacle."
The show generally switches 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 over a pool of water. Tony recalls his setback: "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 5,000-square-foot training facility in White Marsh, Maryland, dedicated to ninja training and similar athletics. "At least 50 of my athletes will apply to the show each season," says Tony. But ninjas don't have to wait for the show to compete. Tony runs four of his own ninja warrior competitions each year, as do many other similar facilities around the country.
ATTRIBUTES OF A NINJA
"We look for people with big personalities and lots of good energy," explains Anthony Storm, an executive producer for ANW who also 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 such questions as: "Why would the fans want to see you on the show? What inspired you to apply? Do you have an interesting life story?" The bottom line is that 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 air.
NINJA WARRIOR TRAINING
You won't find many ninjas pumping heavy iron. They prefer bodyweight training and calisthenics. There's one exercise in particular ninjas have in common with the average gym trainer: the pull-up. As one ninja put it, "If you can't easily pull up your own body weight, you have no business on the course."
Ninjas perform endless sets of every variety of pull-up including pronated (overhand), supinated (underhand), neutral (palms facing each other), and vertical grips from cylinders and ropes, as well as fingertip pull-ups from boards and rock wall climbing holds.
One thing you'll never see is a ninja using his wrist straps to aid his grip. Their ability to grab and hold on to 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 are also necessary, so exercises like hanging leg raises and all forms of planks are part of a typical trainer's routine. Finally, they need superior balance, so maneuvering across beams, vertical posts, and horizontal straps is a common element in their training.
SMALLER MAN'S COMPETITION
The average size of a successful ninja is about 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds—not large by any means—but there are exceptions. At 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, Rob Moravsky was one of the largest to make it through the qualifying round.
Rob says 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 says 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." It certainly won't hurt that his handle is Rob "The Adonis" Moravsky.
What was the biggest thing to happen to ANW since the show began? A 5-foot-tall former collegiate gymnast named Kacy Catanzaro. In 2014, Kacy was the first female to make it through the qualifying course. The mainstream media replayed Kacy's run for millions of people who'd never heard of ANW. "After Kacy completed the course, the memberships at Alternate Routes went through the roof, especially among women," says Tony.
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," says Becca. "Women tend to be shorter than men, which means the space between each obstacle is that much farther away, not to mention reaching up to grab the top of the 14-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 entered a couple of triathlons two years ago 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 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. Today she's hoping to be invited for another shot.
MY EXPERIENCES BECOMING A NINJA
I wanted to experience the obstacles for myself, so I drove down to TA Fitness in Weymouth, Massachusetts. The owners, David Cavanagh and Jenny Lawler, are hardcore ninjas, and they gave me a crash course on their obstacles.
I found that some of the obstacles present more of a psychological challenge than a physical one. Here are my experiences on some of the apparatus.
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 into their training.
The Quad Steps
The Salmon Ladder and Jumping Bars
I believe anyone with a decent ratio of strength to body weight 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 Salmon Ladder
The Warp Wall
There is definitely 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 began 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 4 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."
The Warp Wall
NINJA JIM TRIES OUT FOR THE SHOW
In 2013 I was fortunate enough to be invited to the qualifying course. The show was to shoot on April 19 in Baltimore. But just four days earlier, 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; it was the exact time I was due to be on the course in Baltimore. At that time, my SWAT team was surrounding a boat that sat in the back yard of a residential home in Watertown.
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 is already in for the 2015 ANW season, and now I'm play the waiting game. In the meantime, I'll just continue my silent low crawls behind the couch, followed by a sneak attack on my unsuspecting wife. It's nothing she enjoys, but for me it never gets old.