What’s the point of learning and teaching about optimal performance if you don’t put it into daily practice? This is the story of why I kicked myself just when I thought my ninja warrior training was going so well.
Getting prepared for your most important performance doesn’t feel good.
Or at least it shouldn’t.
You should feel uncomfortable. In fact, you must become at peace with being uncomfortable. Josh Waitzkin, of Searching for Bobby Fischer fame, said it best:
“We cannot calculate our important contests, adventures, and great loves to the end. The only thing we can really count on is getting surprised. No matter how much preparation we do, in the real tests of our lives, we’ll be in unfamiliar terrain.” – Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning
I know this to be true. I live and breathe this philosophy. I preach it to my wrestlers.
But, right after submitting and re-watching my audition video for American Ninja Warrior, I realized my training wasn’t making me uncomfortable.
My ninja warrior training has been focused on a few things I enjoy: bouldering, wrestling and muay thai. And sure, bouldering is fantastic for grip strength, muscular endurance and a specific type of balance. Plus wrestling and muay thai help me build cardio, flexibility and overall balance.
However, my current training approach is broad. Too broad. The day I submitted my video, I realized I wasn’t focused enough.
I wasn’t following my own advice on how to be awesome at any skill. Specifically, here’s what I’d been doing wrong:
I hadn’t broken American Ninja Warrior down into sub-skills in order to practice each little, sub-skill efficiently and measure improvements quickly.
No more! We won’t fall victim to training without a plan. Let’s get to that in a minute. But first—
A Little Bit about American Ninja Warrior
American Ninja Warrior is a sports entertainment competition spin-off. The original show, Sasuke, was developed in Japan. The goal for the competitors is to complete a series of obstacle courses in a set of increasingly difficult stages.
So far, no one has won the grand prize.
American Ninja Warrior Rules Analysis
In my research on AWN obstacles, I found a fantastic discussion on the rule differences between Japanese version of the show and the American version. What’s really interesting is that these rule changes can be used as a proxy for understanding some of the differences between Japanese and American culture.
The basic takeaway is the following:
These [rule] changes shift the overall goal [of American Ninja Warrior] from a contest of strength, an exploration of man vs. the limits of his own endurance, into a competition between men for victory.
Hey, I’m alright with that. Whatever gets me to the top of Mt. Midoriyama.
Now, let’s take a look at the stages and obstacles.
Vegas Qualifying Stages
Hosted in 5 American cities each year, ANW Vegas Qualifying rounds test a variety of skillsets. The structure of the 5 courses are the same but the obstacles vary from city to city. The key skillsets to train for in both Vegas Qualifying rounds are balance, upper body power & endurance, and speed.
Key Round 1 Obstacles:
Balance – Rolling Log, Dancing Stones
Upper Body Power – Floating Steps, Peg Board, Ring Traverse
Speed – Time = tiebreaker for advancement
Round 2 of Vegas Qualifying is an extension of each respective round 1 course with 4 additional high difficulty obstacles. The first of the four additional obstacles is typically the infamous salmon ladder (same in all cities) which transitions into a second consecutive upper body/grip intensive obstacle. The majority of people will fail on one of these two obstacles which makes them crucial for advancing to the next round. The 3rd and 4th obstacles are less important given that those that make it that far are virtually guaranteed a trip to vegas.
Key Round 2 Obstacles:
Canon Ball Alley
Vegas Stage 1 of 4
The first stage is primarily a test of speed, flexibility, and overall athletic ability. A persons height can be a limiting factor on stage one as it includes the jumping spider and a warped wall with limited running space.
Speed is also crucial as the stage must be completed in a predetermined amount of time. Completion times also dictate the running order for subsequent rounds.
This past year when ANW favorite Brian Arnold approached the stage one buzzer he decided to let the time run down in an effort to be one of the first to run stage 2. The thought process is that running early in stage two would allow for additional recovery time going into stage 3. His plan ultimately backfired as a new obstacle was introduced at the start of stage two (rope jungle) which zapped his upper body strength and ultimately caused his early and disappointing exit. Had he ran later in the round, he would have been afforded the luxury of watching others attempt the obstacle improving his ability to game plan a sequence through the ropes. Although his plan didn’t work out, I think Brian has a potentially valid point and am interested to see if he elects the same strategy again this year.
To get a sense of the show’s level of difficulty, you should know that the typical elimination rate on this stage is 90%. Due to an overwhelming number of auditions, this stage has recently been redesigned to be much more difficult in order to further reduce the number of completions.
Jumping Spider- Flexibility, Mini Trampoline, Shoulder Strength;
Silk Slider – Grip Strength, Mental Focus;
Warped Wall- Jumping, Speed/Acceleration, Grip Strength
Vegas Stage 2 of 4
In “stage 2” ninjas are tested with a high concentration of grip and upper body intensive obstacles in rapid succession. To top it off, stage 2 also has a time limit which is bad news for your pumped-out forearms. At the conclusion of stage 2, virtually all participants are typically eliminated. The few left standing have the chance to attempt “Stage 3” which has never been completed on American soil during standard competition.
Rope Jungle, Double Salmon ladder, Unstable Boards, Spinning Bridge
Vegas Stage 3 of 4
The third stage is a test of two things: upper body stamina (especially grip stamina) and mental fortitude. There is no time limit, it’s just you versus your physical limits. This stage is best suited for rock climbers and smaller/lighter competitors.
Floating Doors- Grip and Flexibility;
Ultimate Cliff Hanger – Grip Strength;
Inverted Rock Climb- Grip Strength and Technical Climbing;
Flying Bar – Upper Body, Core, and Grip Strength
According to Wikipedia and in reference to the Ninja Warrior Japan:
The third stage is so grueling that, on average, someone passes it only every other competition.Only 22 individuals have ever passed it, and only four have passed it more than once.
I think the third stage embodies the heart of American Ninja Warrior and everyone wants to be the first to complete it during standard competition.
The final stage (aka Mt. Midoriyama) is a straight shot up with a time limit of 30-45 seconds. This stage has changed 6 times, starting with a vanilla rope climb to the most recent inclusion of a spider wall and a rope climb. The height of the tower is now at 24 meters.
Typically, only one or two people make it to the final stage, if any make it at all.
As Josh Waitzkin taught us, we must expect “unfamiliar terrain.” The *American Ninja Warrior *production crew is a good example of an unexpected obstacle. Even on stages without a time-limit, word has it that the production crew is in your ear telling you to hurry up, getting on your case if you take a break.
Be prepared for unfavorable conditions. We must be prepared to tune out real and artificial distractions in order to do what gives us the best chance of winning.
So, that’s a nice overview of the stages and all, but what I really care about are the obstacles.
Sure, each stage has a different broad focus, but obstacle types can repeat across stages with little to no obvious pattern. Just because stage two has more strength obstacles than stage one, doesn’t mean you won’t have to run over a rolling log at any point.
Plus, we want to become an expert Ninja Warrior, instead of just becoming an expert on a particular stage. So we have to break the total contest down into sub-skills.
I did this by first organizing the obstacles in a way that made sense to me.
I put together a spreadsheet listing every obstacle, the number of times it was used and a brief description copied from Wikipedia. You can get that spreadsheet here –
This listing made it much easier for me to break the total collection of obstacles into a more manageable set of skill categories:
- Arm Traverse and Dynamic Grip Strength
- Jumping Dexterity / Unstable Running
- Explosive Strength
- Chimney Climb Catch and Movement
- Wall Run
Using these categories and my qualitative analysis of the individual obstacle descriptions (aka watching every season of Ninja Warrior), I can identify 5-10 of the most important sub-skills.
Even this list can be broken down further, but that’s not the point. When breaking a challenge down into sub-skills, here’s what matters:
In prepping for any contest, the goal is to practice efficiently and measure improvement quickly.
That being said, here are, in my opinion, the most important skills for beating American Ninja Warrior.
|Arm Traverse||Moving from one location to another using just, or mainly, your arms.||Delta Bridge/Grip Hang, Swing Ladder, Unstable Bridge, Arm Rings, Rumbling Dice, Spider Flip.|
|Jumping Dexterity / Unstable Running||Jumping or running to and from unstable or small, awkwardly positioned surfaces.||Sextuple Step, Downhill Jump, Stick Slider, Long Jump, Cone Jump, Dome Steps, Log Dangle, Drum Hopper|
|Dynamic Grip Strength||Control the momentum of your jump, identify the type of grip that’ll work best when you catch yourself and be very precise with where your hands land on the “target.”||Crazy Cliff Hanger, Hang move/chain swing, Ultimate Cliff Hanger, Floating Boards, Chain See-Saw|
|Explosive Strength||Your success on these obstacles will be dependent on your power and strength, mainly in the legs. So get those squat muscles ready.||Wall lift, reverse conveyor, passing walls, tackle machine|
|Chimney Climb Movement||Once you are wedged between two parallel walls, being able to move around without falling is key to many obstacles.||Spider Walk, Spider Climb, Body Prop, Spider Jump|
|Chimney Climb Catch||Not a lot of obstacle here, but the one that trips everyone up – the dreaded Jumping Spider. You have to jump from a trampoline into a shaft of parallel walls 5ft apart and catch yourself there by wedging your feet and arms between the walls. This obstacle trips so many people up that, that I’m dedicating special focus to it.||Spider Jump|
|Running Trampoline Jumps||Many ANW competitors neglect this sub-skill. But hitting that trampoline just right is key in many obstacles||Jumping Spider (of course), Reverse Fly, Jump Hang|
One thing you have to realize is that I’m developing my own vocabulary here. I’m developing a way to define and refer to the sub-skills we need to be successful as a Ninja Warrior.
My vocabulary might be different from your vocabulary, and that’s okay. But, the big mistake we must all avoid is developing no vocabulary at all. Until you define the sub-skills, it’s impossible for you to design a training program around them.
There are other common movements and skills used in American Ninja Warrior and we won’t be able to devote equal time to every skill on this list. So as a next step, I would go through and prioritize each sub-skill based on my personal strengths and weaknesses.
My training partner has a different skillset than I do, so even though we speak the same vocabulary, he may focus on a different set of sub-skills than I do.
Speaking of my training partner, here’s a little compilation of him getting prepared for American Ninja Warrior.
So, how can I turn my learnings into actionable training advice? Well, here’s where it gets fun.
Dynamic Grip Strength / Arm Traverse
I’m going to ignore rock climbing and bouldering as training exercises. Yes, they are some of the best ways to challenge yourself and improve your grip strength, but I’m looking to find focused exercises to do the same thing.
Plus, not all of us have easy access to a rock wall.
Jumping to an obstacle and catching yourself with your hands isn’t just about grip strength (although that helps a ton). You also have to control the momentum of your jump, identify the type of grip that’ll work best when you catch yourself and be very precise with where your hands land on the “target.”
Beginner Grip Exercises
- Two Hands Pinch Lift for holds.
- Finger curls with an Olympic Bar, overhand grip. Hold it on the last set when you can’t do anymore finger curls.
- Two Hand Wrist Curl. Normal, with a comfortable range of motion. Do not let the bar go into your fingertips like some bodybuilders do, also do them with your thumb under the bar as you are training your wrists and don’t want to fight against the thumb digit on top of the bar.
- Two Hands Reverse Wrist Curl.
Do the Pinch holds for 10-15 seconds, and the other exercises for 15-20 reps.
Jumping towel catch: hang a towel from you pull up bar or anywhere high enough that you have to jump to catch it. Hold for 5 sec. Repeat.
Rope/ring pass: Two climbing ropes or ring, as wide apart as you can hang them. Start on one, without a swing. Without touching the ground, get the rope swinging until you can grab the second rope. Transfer to the second rope.
Rinse and repeat to failure.
Jumping Dexterity / Unstable Running
Force yourself to work with narrower targets; it will help the precision of your landings.
To be honest though, I probably just need one of these bad-boys.
Good old Olympic and power lifts are best here.
- Clean and jerk
Chimney Catch and Chimney Climb
Stretching and flexibility are your friends.
Two-legged jump to a measured distance of 4.5 feet. My training partner, Tommy filled me in on his secret: measure a 4.5 ft gap on your bed or couch.
(Before you try this at home, make sure the bed or couch won’t move and break your wall. I take no responsibility if your girlfriend kills you.)
Start back about 3-4 ft and broad jump so your feet hit the tape marks.
We should also work on some strength building.
Cross-over cable extensions:
Or … find two buildings built really close together.
Insider Technique Tip: For the spider jump, have your thumbs point down and away from you for the catch.
The wall doesn’t have to curve to practice running up it. Find a brick wall, put some tape about 12-14 feet up and practice touching it with 2-3 steps on the wall.
Skate parks are a great place to find warped walls.
If you want to get real science-y though, Ethan Seigel has a great writeup on the Physics of the Warped Wall.
The Devil Is in the Execution
The hardest part, of course, is not in the planning but in the execution. I’ve found that even though I know what skills I need to train, it’s been all too easy to fall back on generalized training. Generalized training is much simpler and, honestly, it’s less uncomfortable to spend an hour climbing versus spending 20 minutes working on pinch grip strength and 30 minutes on chimney catches.