Strength sports are awesome, but let’s be honest, it’s still pretty hard to get the average American excited to watch them on TV. They’re still sports that require a pretty intimate understanding of what’s happening onscreen — what a 400 pound deadlift might feel like, how the athlete’s hamstrings must be sore going into those cleans, and so on.
That’s why the American Ninja Warrior™ phenomenon is so interesting. This is undeniably a competition of strength and fitness, and it’s important to note that because the course isn’t the same every year your training can’t be too specific. You just have to hone a lot of areas of your fitness, like grip and back strength with heaping doses of agility, accuracy, balance, coordination, stability, and muscular endurance.
It’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch and if we’re categorizing it as a strength sport — which is debatable, but let’s just do it — it’s got to be the most popular strength sport on television, with the last five seasons averaging well over five million viewers per episode.
We spoke with four-time American Ninja Warrior and occasional “Ninja Vs. Ninja” competitor Nicholas Coolridge to get a glimpse of what training looks like for a modern Tarzan. (Watch his latest performance below.)
American Ninja Warrior Is Just Rock Climbing, Right?
“There really is a lot more that goes into it,” says Coolridge. “Rock climbers have a really good base as far as strength goes, but the thing a lot of people have experience with is parkour. If you have parkour and rock climbing dialed in, you’ll probably do really well.”
[Learn some super advanced grip tips in our interview with strongman legend Odd Haugen.]
Also called free running, parkour is sort of considered a complement to martial arts: if the latter is the art of fight, the former is the art of flight. In other words, it’s about moving through space (usually urban areas) as quickly and creatively as possible, although Coolridge minimizes the “creatively” part.
“My parkour style has always been a little bit more slow and strategic than explosive and twirly,” he explains. “So instead of jumping and bounding, I’ll find the most efficient way to move and stay light on my feet.”
The Forgotten Skill of Precision
Of course, there are many other ways to train for this game, and athletes with backgrounds in gymnastics, dance, or martial arts often find themselves at an advantage. That’s partly because they’re skills that require extreme precision: precise technique, balance, and awareness of where one is situated in space.
That can be hard to train with basic gym lifts and while gymnastics provides a relatively accessible method of training this quality, Coolridge is a big fan of slacklining for American Ninja Warrior.
That’s basically a less tight version of tightrope walking.
“It’s become very popular in the rock climbing world because it’s used with their extra rock climbing equipment,” says Coolridge. “You can set it up between two trees and you have to be so precise to hold and maintain your balance, it hones your control like crazy. I would recommend it to anybody who wants to do ninja stuff.”
Get Your Head In the Game
Funnily enough, the biggest mistake with new competitors isn’t a lack of physical fitness, but a lack of mental fitness.
“I see a lot of people who appear stronger than me, but they don’t have the mental experience to get ready to be under so much pressure,” adds Coolrdige. “They’re under the spotlight with the cameras and the crowd and all the energy that come at them, they get too much adrenaline and by the time it starts they’re already exhausted.”
Practice breathing and try to train in front of people as often as you can.
4 Exercises to Train for American Ninja Warrior
Here are some basics that Coolridge suggests you master before you even think about applying to compete.
Surprise, the sport that largely consists of climbing and swinging requires pretty serious pulling power. Incorporate towel grip, neutral grip, supinated, weighted, and high-rep, every kind of pull-up you can think of — there are a lot of different things to hang off of in a ninja challenge.
[Women should try to train pull-ups too — read our ladies’ guide to your first pull-up!
Whether you’re carrying bags of groceries or heavy dumbbells, this is an excellent way to train not only your grip strength (and remember that’s an insanely important part of the sport) but also postural strength and control, core stabilization, balance, coordination, and work capacity, plus they’re another way to train your pulling power.
[Learn the finer points of farmer’s walks in our step-by-step guide here.]
As mentioned above, an excellent way to build stability and precision.
Precision Broad Jumps
“Broad jumps would be great, but what’s even better is setting up markers so you can broad jump to precise spots and so you can learn to stick it without falling over,” says Coolridge. “When you land, stick it for like three seconds to get your balance, and make sure you’re getting a feel for how far each of your jumps are you so you can estimate distance in the game.”
Swing for the Fences
A final piece of advice is to train weird: try different ways of lifting weight or doing pull-ups that will hit lesser-trained parts of your body. This aspect was emphasized so heavily by the athlete we interviewed that we got the impression strongman exercises could be useful supplements for the sport.
Just don’t forget your mental game and you’ll be ahead of most of your competition from the get go.