Be a Ninja Warrior

“When you get there, it’s just absolutely surreal. You don’t get to practise on the course and you’re literally thrown into the deep water. A mixture of adrenaline and fear can mess with your mind. You don’t think clearly, and things go wrong.”

That’s Amie Jenkinson (below) talking about her first attempt at the Australian Ninja Warrior course on TV. She’d been training for the show for a year, but all her preparation went out the window when she stood on the platform and came face to face with the obstacles for the first time.

If you want to know why Australian Ninja Warrior has become the most popular sports entertainment competition on TV — each episode easily outrating the AFL and Rugby League — look no further than how Amie felt when she faced the course for the first time. Like the other contestants, she would be tested in a way that prevented her from relying on past experience, lots of preparation or deep knowledge of the rules. And when she launched into it, she had to constantly make split-second decisions under overwhelming stress and extreme physical duress.

Another Ninja, Fitness First trainer Aurelien Apport, says that when you face the Ninja Warrior course, you have to expect the unexpected. Aurelien made the semi-finals of the show in the first year, but in the second fell in the opening round. “I screwed up. It shows that you can be more prepared, more ready, more experienced, but if you make one mistake, you’re out,” he says.

What’s different about being a Ninja Warrior is that you have to train and prepare in a radically different way to how you train for traditional sports and even life.

What most of us consider challenges — such as that weekend netball match, a university exam, or a presentation to the board — come with predictable rules and a probable outcome. You know exactly what’s coming and how to prepare for it.

Ninjas instead have to prepare for the unexpected. It takes a completely different mindset to shine in a hostile scenario that requires you to think on your feet and deal with obstacles you’ve never seen before and not had time to prepare for.

This is why a Ninja Warrior sub-culture has arisen in Australia — a kind of sisterhood and brotherhood of people who’ve competed or want to compete on the show and help each other develop strategies for surviving an unpredictable environment that challenges you from every angle.

“The whole Ninja community are supportive and help you out,” says Amie (below). “There’s some Ninjas that are obviously better than others in certain departments, and they actually step up and help.”

With this cover story, we want to tap into that Ninja knowledge, because if you’re able to work out like a Ninja and tap into Ninja values, you’re better equipped to handle any surprise that life throws at you.

Think like a Ninja

We tracked down some of the Ninja Warriors who’ve appeared on the show and asked them for their secrets. Aurelien was originally in the French Army and a national judo champion. He has designed our big Ninja Warrior starter workout, which will give you the base conditioning to move like a Ninja (or to begin specialist Ninja training, if you want to try out for the show).

What makes Aurelien’s workout very different to a normal functional workout — which is designed to help people better perform daily tasks — is that it’s the first step to preparing you for a hellish environment in which you’re expected to move like a gymnast between various obstacles and moving surfaces designed purely to trip you up. Well, either that, or it prepares you to be the fittest, strongest, most agile badass in your neighbourhood.

Aurelien performs the workout with Brisbane-based Amie, who is also a published author of young adult fantasy (The Harris Sisters, authorajane.com). She got the Ninja bug when she watched her partner on Australian Ninja Warrior last year. Amie loved the lack of gender segregation on the show. If her boyfriend could do it, why not her? She might even be able to beat his effort. So she embarked on an intense fitness program and was selected for the show this year.

The third Ninja we spoke to was Jordy Papandrea (below), an Australian gymnastics champion who was still in contention for the Australian Ninja Warrior semi-finals at the time we went to press in late July. Jordy might be only 22, but behind his fresh face is a warrior with an outrageous power-to-weight ratio and a singular ability to perform under pressure.

Our fourth Ninja was Masa Yamaguchi, a Fitness First trainer like Aurelien. A NIDA graduate, Masa doubles as an actor in Hollywood, where he plays action heroes and villains. He has appeared in movies such as Ghost in the Shell with Scarlett Johansson, major US TV series such as Strike Back, and has literally played Ninjas in other movies. He regularly takes breaks from coaching clients at Fitness First Bondi Platinum to
fly to LA to take up his movie roles.

Win mentally first

Our Ninjas say that the secret to doing well in a challenging, high-pressure environment is to first conquer the mental obstacles.

This is something the show’s producers understand, and they go to great lengths to fray the contestants’ mental strength before they even take to the stage.

Jordy says the Ninja Warriors get taken out to the set on Sydney Harbour’s Cockatoo Island early, where they spend the morning filming promos for the show. Then, the fun begins. “You get walked through the course, so everyone there is like, ‘OK this is what we’re dealing with.’ You go back to a green room and wait there for several hours.

“You’re only hearing the sounds of other people competing. You don’t get to watch them. When you walk up and you’re standing before the obstacles, it’s really the first time that you’ve actually seen them from that angle.”

When you finally get on stage, says Amie, “Your adrenaline starts to have a tug-of-war with your mind.” That’s because when you finally meet the course, it seems bigger and scarier than you expected.

So, what does the Ninja community say you should do in this scenario?

GO WITH YOUR INSTINCT

The number one rule for dealing with the pressure of a sudden challenge or crisis, Jordy says, is not to overthink your response, but trust your instincts. “Like when you go for an obstacle, do the first thing that comes to your mind and don’t hesitate, because if you do hesitate, you’ll screw something up and then you’ll miss something and you’ll fall in the water,” he says.

“The problem is some people freak out so much, they set themselves up to fail — they’ve convinced themselves they’re going to fall before they even fall.”

Jordy recalls several contestants who were unable to sit still before their turn on the Ninja Warrior course, running through the course in their mind and trying to anticipate what was going to happen.

“And they’re the ones that the pressure got to, and they screwed up,” he explains.

“So I reckon the biggest thing would just be not to overthink it and when you’re up there, don’t hesitate.”

The other Ninjas also put this near the top of their lists. “Listen to your first instincts,” Masa (below) said, while Amie added. ”Stay focused and follow your intuition.”

DON’T GET DISTRACTED

Focus on the next goal and don’t get distracted by the bigger picture. Deal with each challenge as it comes, say Aurelien and Amie.

“Because if I’m doing this obstacle and my mind’s somewhere else, I’m going to fall and make a mistake,” Aurelien says.

VISUALISE WINNING

Visualise starting and finishing your objective, but don’t sweat on the details, says Jordy. The visualisation is more about putting yourself in a confident frame of mind.

“I picture myself doing it the most perfect way possible. Just briefly imagine yourself starting and then finishing, not how it’s done,” he says.

“That’s almost the hardest part: to see and believe that you’re actually going to finish the course before you even start it.”

YOU ARE ANYONE’S EQUAL

Don’t ever assume others have inherent advantages over you, mental or physical.

In Amie’s case, she was a woman in an event that theoretically should favour men because they’re stronger, but she wasn’t intimidated — she adapted.

“I’m like 164cm, so I’m quite tiny and my arm span isn’t very long, so I knew my laches had to be more powerful and longer than somebody else’s,” she says. “I adapted, focusing on grip strength and how to give myself momentum to get the swing to get across to the right destination.

“I would never say that girls have a disadvantage because of their body shape compared to men or anything like that.

“You just have to adapt and train yourself to how you can get the job done. “

The workout

Aurelien’s (above) conditioning workout for Fitness First mag readers provides a functional base for you to be an athlete in daily life. It also makes you fit enough to start specialist Ninja training in case you actually want to apply for Australian Ninja Warrior one day.

“For Ninja Warrior, you need enough grip strength and core strength to be able to hold onto the obstacles,” says Aurelien. “You also need to be able to move to the obstacles properly or your body towards the obstacles, or backwards or sideways.”

The workout is divided into four routines, which get progressively harder. Unless you are super-fit, you won’t be able to do them in one go so you start with the first and work your way up. Perform each routine in this workout three to five times, depending on your fitness level.

“This workout is the physical conditioning that you do in a Fitness First gym, and when you’re able to do all the exercises, you can go to a specialist Ninja gym (one that has all the specialised Ninja Warrior equipment) where you will learn specific exercises for the course, like a lache,” says Aurelien.

A lache is a bar swing jump, in which you fly from one bar to another.

“You have to create momentum and use your body to stabilise yourself in the air and to land properly on the other side. A lot of the obstacles are based on that.”

In case you’re wondering whether you could pass the Australian Ninja Warrior selection test, try it, below:

  • Hold a front plank for 5 minutes.
  • Do one push-up and one chin-up every 7 seconds, for 5 minutes.
  • Dead hang for 5 minutes, with 3 minutes gripping with both hands, and then 2 minutes gripping with alternate hands.
  • Do five sets of 4 x 10m sprints (back and forth) plus 10 burpees.

For Aurelien’s Ninja Warrior warm-up, click here.

For Aurelien’s Ninja Warrior workout 1, click here.

For Aurelien’s Ninja Warrior workout 2, click here.

For Aurelien’s Ninja Warrior workout 3, click here.

For Aurelien’s Ninja Warrior workout 4, click here.