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August 21, 2017

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Got a little Ninja Warrior in you?

The extreme obstacle course competition is about pushing competitors to failure—and salmon


Sam Morris

A competitor races across red balls during the taping of the finals of American Ninja Saturday, April 21, 2012.

Everything you need to know about American Ninja Warrior you can learn from the Salmon Ladder. Okay, maybe not everything, but that one event—a single obstacle in a multi-stage course designed to test competitors’ strength, agility, endurance and mental toughness (designed, essentially, to make them fail)—epitomizes the obstacle course reality show in all its vein-popping, breath-stealing glory.

To complete the Salmon Ladder, ninjas must jump a horizontal pull up bar up a series of rungs. They use only their arms, doing a full pull up with enough force that they can lift the bar and raise it to the next rung above them. And then they do it again, and again, and again. Some make it look easy. In reality, it’s devilishly hard, as evidenced by the popping muscles of the people attempting it and a blog that examines the physics of the Salmon Ladder. I’d explain the conclusions in more detail, but they involved a lot of math. So here’s a link.

American Ninja Warrior was in town this April, the infamous course set up across the street from Mandalay Bay and 100 ninjas competing in the first ever finals on U.S. soil. The Japanese inspiration for American Ninja Warrior is Sasuke, a competition show that has aired in Japan since 1997 and seen plenty of muscled up men fall dramatically into the pools beneath every obstacle. Before the local shoot, only three of the 2,700 ninjas who’d tried the course in Japan had completed it. After the show’s weekend shooting here? Well, you’ll just have to wait and see starting May 20, when it returns to the G4 channel and NBC.

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A competitor tries to make it out of a half pipe during the taping of the finals of American Ninja Saturday, April 21, 2012.

“The action is so compelling,” says comedian and Ninja Warrior host Matt Iseman. “These aren’t professional athletes who do this year-round. So many of these guys have a job. When you’re sitting on the couch, you feel like, Man, that could be me. And then you see these amazing things that they do and you think, Okay, maybe that couldn’t be me.”

Iseman learned that the hard way. “Yes, I tried and I failed miserably,” he says, laughing. “Not only did they have to refill the pool after I splashed the water out of it, they then banned anyone else in the crew from testing it, since they thought I was so close to being severely injured.”

Now they leave the course to the competitors, people like Ninja veteran Brent Steffensen, a professional stuntman and parkour trainer who’s competed multiple times and can do incredible things on a trampoline. (Watch his 2010 stunt reel here.)

“My approach when I get on that starting block is just clear my head and take one obstacle at a time,” Steffensen says. “I definitely have a lot of upper body and grip strength. I have some chicken legs, so it kind of pays off in that sense because I’m real light and I still have the upper body to make it through a lot of those obstacles.”

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A competitor makes his way through the spider wall during the taping of the finals of American Ninja Saturday, April 21, 2012.

Hardly anyone makes it through all of them in the allotted time. For its first years, American Ninja Warrior staged preliminary rounds and then sent competitors to Japan for the finals, including Steffensen, who first attempted the formidable Mt. Midoriyama in 2010. He made a strong showing, surviving the first two stages of competition only to fail in Stage 3. Of the three people who’ve successfully completed the course in Japan, two have been fishermen and one has been a shoe salesman. None have been professional athletes. And that’s part of the beauty of the show.

“It’s so compelling to watch somebody try to do something so difficult,” says vice president of development Laura Civiello. “Because there’s such a high failure rate, it becomes this incredible rooting experience.” And that includes the other competitors. Civiello says Ninja Warrior is more man vs. the course than man vs. man. Some of the ninjas even train together on homemade courses built in their backyards or wherever else they can find the space.

After all, you can’t conquer the course, if you haven’t trained for it. And you can’t beat the Salmon Ladder without plenty of practice.

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