The exercises that will set you up to succeed at any TV obstacle course — by a true ninja, Masa Yamaguchi.
When the smash TV hit Ninja Warrior captured the imagination of fitness addicts around Australia, there was a rush to define just what kind of workout would make you succeed on its challenging course.
Suddenly, gyms and training facilities around the country all offered ninja-style training, and ninja gyms arose out of nowhere — the only problem is, hardly any of this supposed ninja training had any science behind it, and often resembled a bunch of playground activities, rather than true training programs that would have you beating the TV course.
So we decided to call on one of Fitness First’s top personal trainers, Masa Yamaguchi, to create a workout that could give you a chance to succeed on a ninja–style obstacle course. When film directors want someone who trains and moves like a ninja, it’s Masa they to turn to. So we turned to Masa for a set of exercises that would be appropriate for a ninja-style obstacle course training program.
The workout he created for us is for beginner to intermediate trainers. “It’s a great introduction to ninja training, but it’s also great for all-over functional fitness,” Masa says. The workout covers the key components of being a ninja: agility, speed, power, endurance and conditioning.
Masa says that while his program is designed for two gym sessions per week, you should also include at least two indoor rock climbing sessions per week and one or two days of cardio or circuit type interval training to improve your endurance.
“It’s also essential to strengthen your wrist extensors and flexors to attempt ninja-style training,” he says. “This program targets these areas. But it’s just as important to spend time pre- and post-workout stretching and activating these muscles, otherwise you’ll end up with injuries.
“As you continue with the program, you can increase load rather than using just bodyweight, and shorten your rest periods.”
Masa splits his time between Sydney and Los Angeles, and when not on set he runs his fitness business, Samurai Health and Fitness at Fitness First Bondi Platinum gym.
A1. Kneeling overhead press with hip extensions
This exercise helps train your body to perform explosive, fast and powerful movements essential for obstacle courses.
Hold the weights so your elbows are pointing forward. Your hands should be on top of, or slightly inside, your shoulders. Press and drive the weight up, simultaneously extending and thrusting your hips up while keeping your elbows forward. Hold the weight at the top for 1 second. Control the weight and lower your arms and hips back to start position over 3 seconds. Remember to maintain a straight back, tuck your ribs in and engage your core.
A2. Mixed grip pull/chin up
Almost every obstacle in the course requires the strength to perform a chin up, at least. Hang from the bar using a mixed overhand/underhand grip, hands spaced slightly wider than shoulder width. Begin in a fully extended elbow position. Retract your shoulders then explode upwards, moving your chest towards the bar. Hold at the top for 1 second. Lower your body over 3 seconds. Do not pause before exploding into the next rep. Keep tension through the back of your shoulders at all times. If you can’t do chin ups, start on the assisted chin up machine in the gym or use a theraband on the chin up bar.
B1. Lateral 45° hop and stop
This helps train for quick stabilisation, which is essential for succeeding
in the course.
Stand with feet hip width apart. Hop outward on one leg in a 45° direction and pause for half a second. Hop out on the opposite leg in the opposite direction. The emphasis is on moving forward rather than up and down. When you’ve mastered the basics, increase your speed and eliminate the pause between reps.
B2. Dumbbell squat
Leg strength is paramount — ninjas need to be strong, powerful and fast without being too heavy.
Stand straight holding a dumbbell in each hand with palms facing your legs. Position your legs shoulder width apart with toes slightly pointed out. Tuck in your chin and keep a neutral spine. Begin to slowly lower your torso by bending your knees. Continue down until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Exhale and raise your torso by pushing off the floor with your heels as you straighten your legs back to standing.
C1. Walk out jumping pull/chin ups
Many obstacles require you to jump, hang and travel. This is a great exercise to start training for these conditions.
Stand under a pull up bar with feet shoulder width apart. Descend into a squat with a straight back and place both hands on the ground. Walk out with your hands into a plank. To make this exercise harder, perform a push up. Walk back with your hands into a squat stance, then back to standing. Jump up and grab the bar with an overhand grip at the peak of your jump. Pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar. Slowly lower yourself down.
C2. Alternating dead hang
The dead hang is perfect for improving grip strength, which is vital to being a ninja.
Grab the bar with both hands in an overhand grip and simply hang. When you’re ready, let go of one hand and hold for one second. Alternate arms for 30 seconds. Make sure your hanging arm is completely stretched and locked out at the elbow, with a slight posterior tilt in your pelvis, feet together, your legs lifted slightly in front of you with knees straight. As you progress, work up to hang longer. After a couple of weeks switch to an underhand grip to work all your forearm muscles. If you can’t yet do single arm hangs, start with double hands.
D1. Farmers walk with towels
This simple exercise will activate nearly every muscle group, and targets isometric grip strength in your hands, wrists and forearms that is vital for the course.
Loop mid-sized towels around the handles of the kettlebells and stand between them. With a straight back and braced core, reach down and grasp the ends of each towel. Keep your scapula retracted. Walk forward with short, quick steps. As you become comfortable with the weight, move quicker and lengthen your stride.
D2. Wrist roller with barbell
The forearm extensors are responsible for extending the wrist. We don’t work them often, let alone against a significant resistance. Make a habit of doing this exercise, release and stretch every week, before and after any grip work, to save you from repetitive strain injuries.
Stand straight with feet shoulder width apart. Grab a barbell with palms facing down, one-fist width apart with elbows fully extended. Start turning the bar in an upwards direction towards you in a fast motion, one hand at a time.
D3. Plate pinches
To train effectively, you need to experience a variety of different grips. This exercise will help you do just this.
Stand straight with feet shoulder width apart and knees slightly bent. Hold a plate in one hand in front of you in a pinch grip and raise it slightly. Quickly let go and catch it with your other hand. Don’t use your fingers to hook around the weight plate — the idea is to pinch it. For a greater challenge hold two plates together in one grip.
It’s important to spend time pre- and post-workout stretching and activating your wrist extensors and flexors, otherwise you will end up with injuries in these areas.
These are not static stretches. Rock your entire body back and forwards while you stretch out your wrists. Be careful not to put all of your bodyweight onto your wrists.
Masa Yamaguchi runs Samurai Health and Fitness at Fitness First Bondi Platinum gym. Find him on Instagram @masayamaguchi_, Facebook @masayamaguchiactor and Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about Masa’s acting career at his IMDB page.
Photography by Peter Suchecki.