Fitness7 Steps to Becoming an American Ninja Warrior
From a man who almost sorta kinda was one.
This spring I flew to Atlanta to tackle the American Ninja Warrior obstacle course for the September issue of this fair magazine. Now, the reason why I got to do this is because the producers will sometimes let stunt journalists like me, along with other assorted folks, take what’s called a “guest run” on the course. These runs aren’t part of the formal competition, and are (thankfully) not televised. So if YOU would like a chance to experience the sensation of bungling your way through ANW’s fabled torture devices, and you are not a Very Important Dipshit like me, you gotta qualify. Here are some tips for how to do it:
1. BELIEVE IN YOURSELF!
Remember our pal Geoff Britten, the first man to ever conquer the final ANW course? (Quick backstory: Britten beat the final Vegas course, only to lose out on the million dollar grand prize because the second man to finish the final course, Isaac Caldiero, Ninja Warrior Jesus, had a faster time. But Britten, along with many fans, believes he still deserves the title of First American Ninja Warrior. Caldiero believes otherwise. As a result of the ensuing controversy, the two men, once friends, are no longer on speaking terms.) Training with Geoff is an exercise in humility because Geoff is nothing but lean, agile muscle: 5’10”, 150 lbs., with the majority of that weight concentrated in his forearms. The man could squeeze an orange into fucking dust.
He is also not the sort of man who allows for self-deprecation, even from neophytes like me. Self-deprecation is the precursor to legitimate self-doubt, and Geoff did not want to see me fail. Despite the fallout with Caldiero, ANW is famous for its camaraderie between ninjas. They want each other to succeed, because beating the course is challenging enough on its own. And so Geoff trained me as if I were legitimate contestant, as if I could really win the thing. He does not fuck around, and if you would like to make the show, you shouldn’t either.
“You can't be timid,” he commanded me while training. “I understand that you're learning stuff, but mental note: when you're out there, don't be like, 'AHHH!'”
Got that? Don’t be like AHHH!
Geoff explained the benefits of hanging to me as he swung around on a set of iron bars at the gym, looking like a goddamn spider monkey. He’s as agile swinging from bars as you and I are walking around town. Hanging is the key.
“I just have stuff I hang on at home. Upper body strength.”
What do you do while you hang? Like, watch a miniseries or something?
“Probably. The hanging stuff's hard. Most people can't even hang. It's much harder to train your upper body. It sucks more.”
That it does. After our first grueling session, Geoff gave me a homework assignment: train myself to hang for sixty seconds. Keep in mind that I can’t do a single pull-up, so sixty seconds represented a legitimately difficult end goal. In fact, you will never understand how long sixty seconds can feel until you’re in a gym, hanging from a pull-up bar, watching your fingers gradually weaken and slip as you look over at the timer and realize that only ten seconds have passed.
I felt conspicuous hanging in public. Everyone at the gym was moving and active. Meanwhile, here I was, hanging like a toddler clinging to his mommy’s leg. I could feel the meat of my palms tearing away. I could smell my own armpits. They smelled god awful. I wondered if everyone else could smell them and then trace the scent directly to me, a man hanging from gym equipment because he seemingly doesn’t understand how gym equipment works.
And yet, I improved. Soon, I was hanging for twenty seconds, and then thirty. At one point, I even made it to fifty seconds. My forearms swelled. My grip felt stronger and more virile, so much so that I made a point of shaking hands with people just so I could dazzle them with my hand strength. I felt like I could punch through concrete. Even my wife noticed the difference.
“You look bulkier in places now.”
Is that good or bad?
“Hmm… I don’t know.”
Once you get the hanging part down, you are now ready to try climbing up stuff. Geoff and his wife, Jessica (she also competes on ANW) took me to a local climbing gym to prepare me. Geoff was a veteran rock climber before he got into the ninja life, and years of wedging his feet into proper climbing shoes shrunk them by 2.5 sizes.
You deformed your body for the sake of it!
“I had it fit to my foot.”
We started off in kiddie area. My task was to climb across a series of footholds over to a little alligator. The footholds were pretty and colorful, all to disguise the fact that they were merciless. They sloped and crimped and jugged, and were generally designed to make your hands and feet miserable. By the time I was halfway across the wall, I tapped out.
“When I was on Stage 3 (of ANW),” Geoff told me, “I completely pumped out on the bars, and it hurt so much, but I forced myself to hold on. I could barely do it, it was skin-of-my-teeth, you know? But it happened. That's what I like about climbing: you get used to it, you push yourself through that. And you're going to feel that on the course, hopefully."
We moved to the grown-up area, with climbing walls that went forty feet high and had designated route maps that ranged in difficulty all the way from Beginner to Crazy Free-Climbing Stoner. Geoff and Jessica hooked me into a snug harness that put a death grip on my cock and balls, and then attached me to a belaying rope. I was ready to climb.
What if I fall to my death?
“I'll spot you,” Jessica said.
Have you guys ever gotten hurt doing this shit?
“I busted both of my ankles within three weeks of each other.”
I made it thirty feet up the wall before remembering that I was afraid of exposed heights. Deathly afraid, actually. I turned mute. Before scaling the wall, Geoff had instructed me to give him a thumbs-up if I wanted come down. But I was now unable to do this, because I was too scared to let go. My nuts began to ache. Geoff and Jessica stood below me, encouraging me to push through the fog of can’t and reach for the next hold.
“You're doing great!” Geoff shouted. “Get those feet on and trust them!”
I think I'm cramping! I think I've got to come down.
“OK, you can lean back,” Geoff said.
Take my hands off?
“Yeah, just lean back, put your feet on the wall.”
I think I'm afraid.
“It's OK. You'll be fine, I promise.”
“You're safe,” Jessica reassured me. “There's no safer place. Except for maybe the ground.”
The ground seems safer.
Eventually, I let go and they lowered me back down to the ground like a piano hanging from the side of a building. I tried to take notes after the fact but I couldn’t write because I was still shaking. The pen just skittered across the paper. Hanging is a bitch.
“Now we have to do it again,” Geoff said. “But you're not going to be scared this time.”
I tried again. I failed to make it even thirty feet up. You, dear reader, will need to be braver.
4. DO DRUGS!
Of course, there are… things you can do outside of training to help alleviate your fear. Fact: They don’t test for PEDs on American Ninja Warrior. You can’t wear gloves out there, but you can take all the steroids and growth hormone you want. Although, as host Matt Iseman told me, “I don't think any of our competitors could actually afford it.” You can apply for the show and run the course without any fear of being drug tested.
“But what if a dude takes HGH and it gives him super hanging powers?” I asked the Brittens.
“Then he should do well,” Geoff said.
“Then there's no excuse,” Jessica said.
So should I inject HGH to help train?
“You should probably stick with hanging,” she replied.
I shouldn’t, like, snort creatine before running the course?
“I'd like to see how that works out.”
5. VOLUNTEER TO BE A TESTER!
Okay, so we’ve trained. Time to come with me to Atlanta. Before the formal taping begins, ANW producers have to make sure that the course is set up just right, and that nothing is out of place or malfunctioning. The best way to do this is with test runners. That’s right: human guinea pigs. So, even if you don’t qualify for the real competition, you can still be one of the brave souls who run the obstacles to make sure they won’t kill other, more important people. YAY!
The testers I meet in Atlanta do their runs without compensation, and they do it gladly. Everyone wants to run the course because it LOOKS fun, like an adult playground. Who the hell doesn’t want to be a ninja for a few minutes? That’s both the allure and the trap. I sit with the testers as one of the production heads explains the rules and regulations to them all.
“The water is the safest place to fall,” he tells them, “The water is there for a reason.”
One by one, the test ninjas attack the course and, one by one, they get drenched. I see a girl tester fall and completely submerge. Just a splash and she vanishes. I ask a few testers how they felt about their runs:
“There's so much water in my nose right now.”
“It felt like defeat.”
“I would have liked it more if I didn't fall on the very second step. I'm pissed.”
“I should have just maintained momentum.”
“It's unlike anything you dreamed of.”
I meet a tattooed, scarified lady named Lauren Matters whose knees are all chewed up and bloody from her test run because they got caught on the tacky pinball steps.
“I teach yoga and acro-yoga,” she says, “so this is foreign to me.” (NOTE: I do not know what acro-yoga is.)
Do you have any advice for people before they run?
“Don't get wet.”
6. HAVE A COOL BACKSTORY!
Okay, so you’ve worked out religiously and built up your forearms and become a real-life Peter Parker. Maybe that’s enough to get you on the show. Maybe you’re quick and strong enough to be like Chad Hohn, one of a cadre of ANW veteran contestants I meet in Atlanta… a man who has scouted out the course the day before using a pair of binoculars and his smartphone, so he can get a sneak peek at what obstacles are in store for him (even though producers discourage sneak peeks at the course prior to taping, no one stopped him). I watch Chad run through every obstacle without falling, leaving only a small amount of fat on the clock. He may as well have been sitting down for Sunday Brunch, he makes it look so easy.
But even if you’ve got the athletic goods, that still may not be enough. This is a television show, after all. It won’t shock you to learn that, since this is now an NBC venture, most Ninja Warrior episodes are modeled on the network’s Olympics coverage. Geoff Britten, who works by day as a TV cameraman and has covered the Olympics, says, “They literally just copy it. Like, ‘Let's take some people, tell their stories, and America will love them.’ And it works.”
So you better have a good story to go with those climbing skills. Want a few examples of what producers might be looking for on your application? Okay, here’s Chuck “The Chuckster” Mammay. Chuck fell on the first obstacle the prior season and is back for more. I should also note that Chuck is 73 years old and walks with a cane. He’s so conspicuously old that he tells me his age before I even have a chance to ask.
“I've got to get revenge,” he says of the Floating Steps. But he doesn’t. He falls right away and becomes so angry that he punches the water before sulking out of the tub.
And here’s social worker Jen Liam, another repeat ninja who brought her wife and daughter to the taping. It never hurts to bring your family along for both moral support and possible crowd shots. Since ANW is only filmed at night, aspiring ninjas are here from sunset all the way until dawn for their chance to humiliate themselves on national television. And their families come along with them, lining up for hours outside the stadium, many of them dressed in attention-grabbing t-shirts repping their loved ones: COOK, TEAM SKIP, #SEESHAWNRUN, etc.
Like virtually all of the other contestants, Jen trained by building her own replica obstacles at home, gradually colonizing the joint with salmon ladders and climbing walls and log rolls (7. BUILD YOUR OWN DIY OBSTACLES!). As a result, she can no longer fit her truck in her garage.
“It started off with a pull-up bar,” she says. “And then it went to a few holds, and then it went to some ropes, and then it went to a partner net. It grows. It takes over. It's like, Oh, I've got to have that toy."
Jen wipes out early but fulfills her expressed goal of not peeing or puking on the course—“So I was happy about it.” Other ninjas fail, but do so with the kind of flair that could still potentially get them onto the final telecast. One guy wipes out early while running the course in a two-piece suit. Deaf ninja Aaron Scott slips on a wet obstacle and wants another shot (he doesn’t get one). A practicing dentist running in full scrubs makes it to the Warped Wall, removes his shirt (BEEFCAKE!) and tries in vain to reach the top of the Wall three times, with his entire family standing right beside him, one of them holding a screaming child and yelling “EXPLODE!” at him.
There are more than a few costumed ninjas here, including Rico Rivera, who dresses like an ancient ninja and brought his own set of torches so that he could eat fire in front of everyone right before his turn (Surprisingly, no one on the set has any safety issues with this). By day, Rico plays Spiderman at Universal Studios. The rest of the time, he’s a ninja. “I train all the time. I never take a break.”
And here’s Army veteran Daniel Moreno, a walk-on who lined up at 4:30am three weeks earlier to audition and made it into the real competition. Daniel has a freshly shaved dome and a massive scar that does curlicues around his scalp, the result of being deployed to Ramadi, Iraq, from 2004 to 2005.
“Really bad time for that area,” he says. “Thirteen months, people trying to shoot me and blow me up.”
But they didn't fully succeed.
“Oh, no. No, I'm too good.”
Did war prep you for this?
“Yeah, pretty much. After spending a year or more with people trying to shoot at you, it takes a little bit more to rattle your nerves.”
Daniel goes out on the Block Run, slipping on one of the tilted cubes and doing a faceplant into the next one. Even though executive producer Kent Weed and his team have engineered these obstacles to prevent serious head and neck injury (a proposed human loop-de-loop was rejected for this reason), there are still plenty of gruesome falls in Atlanta because people are chaotic and you can’t predict what kind of bizarre and dumb positions they will contort themselves into. I am worried Daniel now has a second head wound. But he jumps out of the water and dries off, thankfully unharmed.
You might think a war vet like Daniel would be the most compelling participant to come out of this taping. But that’s not necessarily true, because the 120+ ninjas here tonight all have compelling human interest stories and were hand-selected by producers for that very reason. That’s why crowd favorite ninjas are invited (contractually obligated, actually) to return every season, and why showrunners crave a diverse pool of new talent, including grandfathers, and gymnasts, and male models, and news anchors, and middle-aged dudes named Bootie, and guys wearing crowns that say KING OF OBSTACLES, and The Chuckster. “There's a lady out here with Guillain-Barre Syndrome who's partially paralyzed,” says Iseman. “There's a guy who's burned over 55 percent of his body in a factory explosion.”
And there’s Corey Hammond. Corey is a goat breeder who suffered a catastrophic head injury years ago when a 15-year-old driver with a learner’s permit ran a red light and struck his moped. Doctors had to crack open Corey’s skull and remove part of his brain to save him. I know this because Corey shows me photos of the surgery on his phone, along with a picture of the extracted brain chunk. It’s not a small chunk.
I talk to Corey after he’s wiped out on the course and is walking around in jeans and wet bare feet. He’s got a bald scalp with a noticeable indentation along the surface, along with a huge and winding scar. He speaks softly. You can tell that it takes him a beat longer to process things than other people. He says his mind tends to wander. Sometimes he’ll forget why he is where he is. He takes 22 pills a day.
He shows me more gruesome photos from his brain surgery and I try not to look away because I don’t wanna be rude.
“This is the skull part they cut off. I've got a lot more pictures. They really wanted my story because I had the brain surgery.”
After that kind of ordeal, you must be jazzed you have the chance to do something like this.
“Oh, I'm thankful to the Lord every day that I'm so active. I love spearfishing in the ocean and surfing. That was part of my application video: me surfing. (And) I remember they were real excited having a brain picture.”
They were like, "That's good brain!"
“Yeah. I'm just so thankful to even be able to do this stuff.”
Behind Corey, the ninja procession continues unabated. When a new contestant steps up to the course, they’re formally announced with an ear-shattering gong, which is only mildly problematic. All of the contestants stand by to watch each other run, cheering whenever someone makes it through an obstacle and wincing whenever someone eats it. Every time someone lands on a floating step, they cry out OY! in unison. And when someone makes it all the way to the Warped Wall, they cry out BEAT THAT WALL! BEAT THAT WALL!
After my failed run, I melt back into the crowd of contestants and cheer alongside them, yelling “Come on!” and hoping every one of them makes it up the Wall and gets to smash the big red winner button in rapture. You can tell everyone here is soaking up the atmosphere, enjoying the anticipation BEFORE hitting the course because they know—whether they finish or not—that their time on it will be brief. The moment is always too fast.
And it’ll be too fast for you too, if you ever make it here. I made it three steps before drowning in failure, and I still desperately want another crack at it. THAT is what keeps aspiring ninjas training all year long, hanging and swinging around on bars and building obstacles in the basement and enduring audition lines, because they know they can’t do this any other place. They aren’t deterred, and you can’t be, either. You train, you fall, you get back up, you train some more, and then you repeat the process until one day, you don’t fall. You don’t make that one cruel mistake. Instead, you find yourself at the top of the mountain, King Of All Ninjas.
But it only happens if you keep at it… if you keep hanging onto the daydream. And so, with that in mind, I leave you with a final lesson from Geoff, my mentor: “You'll never get anywhere if you don't push.”
Drew Magary is a GQ correspondent and author, most recently of "The Hike."