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Why Does Everyone Want to Become an American Ninja Warrior?

Kacy Catanzaro competing on American Ninja Warrior.
Kacy Catanzaro competing on American Ninja Warrior.
Bob Levey

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The Warped Wall at Alternate Routes gym in Maryland is 14 feet tall, built to nearly the same specs as the real one on NBC’s obstacle course reality show American Ninja Warrior. That means it’s basically vertical and looks impossible to scale. Alternate Routes owner Tony Torres runs straight up the wall, grabs the top of the wood structure with one hand, and then pulls himself up.

Next to the Warped Wall is a replica of the show’s Cannonball Alley, where rubber balls hang suspended from a metal pole, sort of like the monkey bars. A 10-year-old kid is working his way through this section of the gym’s obstacles, with no problem. This is a hardcore training gym for athletes who want to be American Ninja Warrior contestants, but fans of any age can drop in to an open session and try their hand at the Salmon Ladder, American Ninja Warrior’s demented version of a pull-up.

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Alternate Routes' Warped Wall. Image: Adele Chapin

Seven seasons into American Ninja Warrior, 3,000 athletes have competed. Still, no one has claimed the $1,000,000 grand prize at the finals round, inspired by the original Mt. Midoriyama course in Japan. American Ninja Warrior was just renewed by NBC, and even if you’re skeptical of a sport where adults call themselves ninjas with a straight face, it’s easy to get sucked into following the competitors taking on city-qualifying and city-finals rounds nationwide. The triumphs are so spectacular — how do these people make clinging onto a spinning log suspended above water look even remotely possible? — and the falls are just as entertaining. Just try not to gasp out loud at some of these stunts.

American Ninja Warrior executive producer Kent Weed told Racked that it’s a show that sparks interaction among viewers. "They say, ‘I can do that, or I can do it better, why did they fall?’" he said. "I see a lot of people talking back to the TV."

He has a theory about why the show is so popular. "It has a broad audience because it is something that touches us in a childlike manner, in a place where we all were young and used to jump off of jungle gyms and build little forts on the couch and jump from couch to couch."

"It’s a very feel-good show, people with aspirations fulfilling the goals they set out to achieve."

At the end of season six of the show, Weed says a call for ninjas yielded 5,000 applicants. "At the end of season seven, we had 50,000 applicants. It has grown exponentially," Weed reports. Ninja Nation is truly a grassroots sort of following. "It has such a broad reach, families, kids, workers, blue collar, white collar, everybody’s interested. It’s fulfilling a dream. It’s a very feel-good show, people with aspirations fulfilling the goals they set out to achieve. It’s what, as a society, you need," he said.

Accordingly, gyms with ninja-style obstacle courses are popping up across the country. "When I first started, we were the 12th ninja gym to open. Now I’ve lost track," Torres, a five-time Ninja Warrior competitor said. He offers parkour and tricking classes at Alternate Routes in addition to running in-house obstacle competitions — many gyms also focus on parkour as well as obstacles.

Chris Wilczewski, owner of the Movement Lab gyms in New Jersey and Ohio and a six-time competitor on the show, is also the president/founder of the National Ninja League, a non-profit formed by ninja gyms across the country to help grow the sport. This year, the National Ninja League will host competitions at the gyms, culminating in a national championship. "The real aim is to be an off-season competition to prepare athletes for the show and to give them something to train for in the meantime. The end goal is still always going to be the show because that’s like the World Series of it, that’s the biggest and best thing you can do with this," Wilczewski said.

Four-time American Ninja Warrior competitor Sam Sann opened his 17,000-square-foot Iron Sports gym in Houston six years ago to help others learn how to compete on the show. "It was a longshot," he told Racked. "People were laughing at me when I first built it. Who would do this kind of exercise? I don’t know. I have a vision. There’s nothing here in the US, so I would go ahead and keep building." Today, he has over 100 obstacles, leads three ninja classes a week and says 30 of his students have gotten to compete on the show since the gym opened. "People say at first, I just want to be in better shape, so they come to class. Basically after they hear my story, they find it really inspiring and think maybe one day I can do that also."

Sam Sann

Sam Sann on American Ninja Warrior. Image: NBC

Sann insists that you don’t have to be a superhero to do this sport, but it's hard to believe when you watch him compete — all the while keeping in mind that, at the time, the guy flying through the course was 48 years old. "I would say this sport is a sport for the small guy, like myself. I’m 5’8"," he said. "Back in the day I thought I would never be good at any sport but then Ninja came around and I was like, wait a minute, I can do this."

No doubt, this kind of training puts you in insane shape. It’s not enough to just be strong or have amazing endurance or grip strength or balance. You have to have all of those things to be able to run the obstacle course.

"After they hear my story, they find it really inspiring and think maybe one day I can do that also."

"I think that they are some of the fittest people on the planet," Weed says of the competitors. "We’ve had professional athletes and Olympians try the course and they are always equally impressed about our athletes... They say, ‘Wow, they are really in shape, I thought I was in shape.'"

There doesn’t seem to be a "Couch-to-5K" style regimen for American Ninja Warrior. "I don’t have a lot of couch potatoes coming in," Torres admitted. But once you have that baseline of fitness, the workout feels more like play than work. "I put so many obstacles around the gym that you never get bored. You can do some climbing, you can do some jumping, some flipping, gripping, you can do swinging, anything that Ninja Warriors do we’re going to do ten times better, harder, stronger," Sann said.

The demographics in the gym definitely skew towards dudes, but that’s changing. Ever since phenom Kacy Catanzaro became made history on the show, Weed says the number of women applying to be on American Ninja Warrior keeps growing. "Once Kacy Catanzaro broke through the ceiling in season six and completed not only a qualifying course but a finals course, she just opened the door for women to see that they can do it. We definitely had a bigger increase [of women applicants] this year and expect even more," he said. "You see a lot more women in the gyms now, especially ninja-type gyms, which is a good sign for what’s ahead in the future."

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An American Ninja Warrior contestant. Image: NBC

Could ninja-style workouts be the next CrossFit? "I can see the parallels to CrossFit because it started out as an underground thing that only a few people knew about. Now, it’s kind of exploding onto the scene. The workout level, the intensity level of some of the exercises is similar," Wilczewski said.

Torres compared the rise of ninja gyms to rock climbing gyms and skateboard parks in the '80s and '90s, which went past fad and broke into the mainstream. "We’re revisiting old-school training styles," he said, drawing a comparison to military obstacle courses that build strength, balance, and endurance. "I think this is the next level of fitness."

The fact that no one’s ever been able to scale the 80-foot Mt. Midoriyama and finish the course isn’t slowing down the sport’s appeal. "We’re still looking for our first American Ninja Warrior. We’re still looking for someone who can complete the course," Weed said. "Every year I wonder: is it going to be this year? I think that, when that day comes, I don’t think the popularity will wane, I think it will increase even more. It’s like Kacy. If someone does it, it gives people more impetus to go out and try it themselves."