If you’re never heard of the sports competition American Ninja Warriors, ask the next nine-year-old you meet and you’ll likely get an earful about salmon ladders, the warped wall, and the importance of using your biceps to keep “Ls” in your arms as you navigate intense upper body fitness obstacles.
The American counterpart of this Japanese-born athletic competition (called Sasuke in Japanese) just entered its eighth season, capturing the imagination of many fitness-minded folks who enjoy the diverse, unlikely athletes that compete and the creative, parkour-style physical challenges faced by competitors. Additionally, the show features a joyful, supportive ethos that leaves many spectators inspired and wishing they could join the fun.
As a result of the show’s popularity, backyard obstacle courses and “Ninja gyms” are springing up across the nation as fans of the show get up off their couches and start to explore Ninja training. So what does it take to train like a Ninja?
The Ninja Warrior obstacle courses reflect and pay homage to a few sports, most notably rock climbing and parkour, an athletic activity that evolved from military obstacle course training. Parkour athletes engage their environment, often but not exclusively an urban environment, as an obstacle “playground.” They use running, climbing, swinging, vaulting, and any number of other actions to navigate through the environment in the most efficient way possible.
Like the Ninja community, parkour enthusiasts assert that parkour provides more than just exercise. Training in parkour encourages practitioners to not only move in different and challenging ways, it changes their relationship with their environment into one that is more playful, as they consider each new landscape a potential obstacle course.
Research shows that parkour training builds high levels of physical fitness. A recent study looking at traceurs (the name for parkour competitors) found that, compared to gymnasts and power lifters, parkour athletes performed better at vertical and long-jump tests, loaded leg extension exercise and jump-landing. If you’ve ever watched a competition, you’ll know how handy this skillset is!
Balance/Spatial Awareness: Ninja-worthy fitness requires more than just strength. Spatial awareness, or the ability to interact with and understand the environment around you, is essential to successful obstacle training. Balance beams, wobble boards and jumping from one unstable surface to another train the body to maintain balance in shifting circumstances.
Flexibility: The aforementioned ability to balance depends upon maintaining muscular flexibility. Many training regimens (powerlifting, running, cycling) focus on just one kind of strength and over-emphasize certain muscle groups at the expense of others. This creates a pattern of overuse and underutilization that impairs the body’s ability to function in activities that require whole-body coordination and strength.
Flexibility training, including practices like martial arts, creates a balanced, limber physique that employs muscle groups in natural movements t0 promote a full range of motion and balanced muscular action.
Grip Strength: Two kinds of athletes, climbers and gymnasts, excel at Ninja training, largely due to the ability of these disciplines to foster grip strength. Pull-ups using varied grips and handles, walking while carrying buckets filled with water or other heavy items, and rock climbing all support grip endurance. Hand grips would also be a great way to build hand strength when you’re on the go.
Agility: Almost every obstacle course includes challenges that require quick, sure footing. From running across logs, floating steps, or beams, learning how to place your feet is a big part of Ninja training. Ladder and cone drills, often used by football and soccer coaches, can help to develop fast, accurate footwork.
Whether or not you’re looking to compete in the next season or just looking for a new fitness routine, consider some of these Ninja techniques to add some fun to your workout!