Training for the World’s Most Famous Obstacle Course: American Ninja Warrior
It’s that time of year again: Barbecues. Pool parties. And, best of all, American Ninja Warrior on NBC! If you’re as enthusiastic about the show as I am, then you’re probably found on Monday nights grinning wildly in front of your TV, watching athletes attempt the mother of all obstacle courses.
For those of you who tuned in last year, you might have caught my appearance on the Northwest Regional round. I owned the course right up until I dislocated my shoulder on the last obstacle. I made it up that gigantic ramp in true warrior fashion, heaving myself with one arm, cradling a dislocated shoulder on the other side.
Oh well. What can you do? At least I made it up!
You’ve probably noticed that two classes of athletes typically do well on the course: rock climbers and parkour practitioners (traceurs). That’s because the competition demands an incredibly high degree of upper body strength, as well as balance and coordination. Rock climbers and traceurs excel at both those two skill sets. Thus, if you dream of getting on the show and making it all the way to the last stage, then you would be wise to take up the training styles of these two athlete groups.
Let me suggest a few workout features that you should definitely be focusing on to hone your ninja skills:
Crazy Grip Strength
Forget squeezing those iron spring-loaded grip trainers. You need to spend an insane amount of time hanging from your arms with your hands in a variety of grip positions. Suspend your body off the ground while holding onto a mixture of horizontal and vertical obstacles. Ledges, rings, pull-up bars, PVC pipe, cloth curtains, and rope of different widths should definitely be in your training arsenal. If you have a few dollars to spare, Metolius Rock Rings are a great product to help build grip strength and are fairly cheap.
Practice swinging through a jungle gym and across rows of rings like the ape that you are. Get comfortable hanging from one arm, while you swing and reach with your free hand. Don’t just swing in a straight line - challenge yourself to zigzag and even move through different elevations.
Get a membership at a local bouldering or rock climbing gym, and try to train there at least twice per week. Work on long traverses as well as fast vertical ascents. Mix things up by carrying extra weight for a greater strength challenge. One of my favorite techniques was to wear a fanny pack loaded with 10lb ankle weights, but you could also just wear a weight vest.
As with any sport, you need to drill the specific movements that will be found in the competition. You’ll want to train on a large inverted quarter pipe, slanted walls, a cargo net, and a wide variety of balancing and hanging obstacles. Many parkour gyms now offer replicas of the same obstacles that are on the competition. Likewise, if you have a big backyard, it would be worth it to have your buddies chip in and build as many features as you can. Or, if you get the invitation, try to make it out to David Campbell’s property in California. He has built a whole course for training!
Being light on your feet is an absolute prerequisite for dominating an obstacle course. In parkour, the tic-tac is a skill where you strike the surface of an obstacle with one foot and change directions to land somewhere else with your other foot. You can practice this by making a series of targets on the ground and striding between them, almost like a spread-out hopscotch grid. Once you are comfortable on flat ground, take it higher and try to run across a series of boulders or boxes. Make it harder by changing the surface from horizontal to slightly angled.
The greater you can refine your balance, the better prepared you will be for overcoming dynamic obstacles. Start by getting comfortable walking on a balance beam, then a rail, and finally a slack line. Wobble boards, skateboards, and stability balls are other tools that you can use to challenge yourself. And, don’t stop with just standing or walking across balance challenges. Work on jumping from one unstable surface to another, forcing rapid balance adjustments.
Explosive Upper Body Strength
The muscle-up and climbing dyno are two upper body strength skills that must be in your obstacle course toolkit. You should spend plenty of time drilling these movements, until you can whip them out accurately and without hesitation. Similarly, legs-free rope climbing and campus boards should be worked on periodically. Clapping pull-ups are another good skill to develop the explosive upper body strength needed to succeed.
These are just few suggestions. Your main focus should be to get creative in your training and shoot for a mix of hanging upper body strength and lower body balance/coordination skills. And finally, don’t neglect the mental training needed to prepare for competition. Hone your mental focus. And, use visualization to see yourself making it all the way to the end of the run.