What’s cooler than being a ninja? Pretty much nothing, if you ask me, and I am now one-step closer to being cool. Over the last six weeks, I completed a challenging, but extremely fun, workout program at a new Ninja Warrior gym in Chicago called Ultimate Ninja Chicago.
The gym is owned by Ethan Swanson, a well-known American Ninja Warrior competitor. Their fitness training program for adults is run by Brian Redard and called ultiFIT. For those of you who don't know American Ninja Warrior, it is a show on NBC that follows contestants as they try to conquer obstacle courses over a series of stages. The final obstacle is the climbing the feared Mount Midoriyama.
Since its inception, it has become more than a TV show. It’s now a full-fledged athletic phenomenon with Ninja Gyms popping up all over the US.
Ethan has done an amazing job with the Ultimate Ninja, having already launched two additional facilities in Naperville and Libertyville. He also recruited some incredibly talented ninjas, including Jessie 'Flex' Labreck, Brian Redard, and Kelsey Fitzpatrick (who was my primary coach).
I've been watching ANW for 4-5 years now, first on G4 and then NBC as it became more popular. The athletes on the show are incredibly inspiring. Not only are they in ridiculous shape, they are unbelievably positive, supportive, and encouraging of each other. The competitors formed a healthy, growing tribe of ninjas across the country and the world.
It is always amazing to me to see how people can turn around their lives and truly transform when they:
a) have an audacious goal
b) commit themselves completely
c) support (and get support from) others along the way
Here are three things I’ve learned on my Ninja journey.
#1: Humility is Key
My journey with Ninja Warrior started several years ago when I've visited one of the first ninja gyms in the area, called Chicago Ninja Academy. Sensei Nate, the owner, has a true passion for health, fitness, bodybuilding and Ninja Warrior.
I started slow, trying out the easier obstacles like the quintuple steps and balance obstacles. Then I worked my way up to the Salmon Ladder and Warped Wall. I was able to climb a couple rungs on the Salmon Ladder before busting open blisters on my hand. I was also able to conquer the warped wall, but not until after many failed attempts.
My most epic fail happened a couple years ago when I landed head first into an object called the 'cannonball', which is pure metal and does not have any 'give'. Here was the result right after and a few days later.
The sport is incredibly humbling, in that you can fail easily if you do not have full control of your body. This is why the top contestants are in such ridiculous shape. It’s not that they can bench press a million pounds, or squat ‘til they drop. It’s that they know the ultimate ninja, like our ancestors in the paleolithic tribes, can balance strength, flexibility, mobility, balance and power to conquer their surroundings.
Trying to navigate an obstacle like the Ultimate Cliffhanger, delivers that hard truth immediately. If you don't have the grip strength, core strength and mobility to swing across the obstacle, you will not last long.
#2: We’re built for obstacles
One of the craziest things I've experienced while at the ninja gym, is just how good kids are at the obstacles. They can easily hold up their body weight with one hand, swing from bar to bar, stretch out their legs for the spider climb, and many other tasks that most adults simply cannot perform. It seems that our bodies are built to move in this way, and that makes sense given our evolution and shared ancestry with our closest relatives, apes.
It seems that as we get older, move less, work at desks more, we lose this natural strength and mobility. This is a huge problem in modern life and is one of the main reason why I love ninja training and decided to take the 6 week course this year.
Over the last few years, I've been making steady progress on strength exercises (pull-ups, pushups, squats, planks), as well as lots of slow movement (walking, biking, hiking). However, my mobility and flexibility is still lacking, even after incorporating frequent yoga into my practice.
This is where the obstacle training at ultiFIT fit perfectly. I could combine strength training, interval conditioning and obstacle course training (lots of fun) in one workout!
Each session is hard. I sweat, I grunt, but I also have a ton of fun and flow through the circuits with ease. My mind is sharp, focused on the obstacles, and the outside world fades away.
The results spoke for themselves.
Body weight, Muscle mass, mobility, and strength all improved significantly in six weeks. And this is all after years of strength, high- intensity interval and yoga training!
#3: If you want it bad enough, you can do anything
Part of the reason I achieved success is that I wanted to go to the gym and I built a new habit around the perceived future reward of a fun challenge and sense of accomplishment. I think this quote from Mark Sissons' book The New Primal Blueprint, says it well:
“Pursue the challenges that turn you on instead of worrying about what the magazines say is the 'best' workout, or the marketing hype that glorifies extreme events.”
The key takeaway here is that our bodies are made to move, we are adapted to interact and contort to our surroundings. We are not made to flatten and demolish our environments. This is how our ancestors were able to climb trees to find food, hunt down animals, and avoid being eaten.
Embrace nature. Embrace the obstacles. Learn to conquer them, not to avoid or remove them.
That is a key life lesson right there.