I’m about to attempt an extremely makeshift Mount Midoriyama course at Pittsburgh Kettlebell & Performance, a small gym where elementary school teacher and two-time American Ninja Warrior competitor Mike Shuck teaches fitness courses. “If you can handle the monkey bars, maybe we can talk,” Shuck, who reached the Cleveland City Finals during Season 9 of the show, tells me.
I am indeed able to handle the monkey bars — and even manage some of the holds — but that’s where it stops for me. I’m 240 pounds, and a stint on ANW surely isn’t in the cards. “Well, there’s always the salmon ladder outside,” Shuck adds. “Did you see that?”
I did, and it’s not something I’m eager to try. Pegboards in middle school were fine, but the confidence to jump upward while holding a pull-up bar isn’t something I possess. “A lot of this is about confidence,” explains Season 6 American Ninja Warrior Stage 1 finalist Joel Brady, a graduate school colleague of mine at the University of Pittsburgh, when I ask him about salmon ladder technique. “If you miss a rung with the bar, the tendency of many people is to try to walk the other side up, when you should just try to leap up evenly with the bar.”
Confidence: maybe that’s all anyone needs. Brady, a competitive climber, and Shuck, a lifelong fitness fanatic who had participated in various team and individual sports over the years, both sort of meandered into the Ninja world in their 30s. Like Dan Severn and Gary Goodridge in the early days of professional mixed martial arts, they became professional athletes and television stars, or at least television semi-stars, slightly past their athletic primes.
That’s what led me to Shuck’s gym, too. I’ve spent the better part of the year covering pro sports that still open their doors to motivated amateurs, from arm wrestling to hand-gripper squeezing. For some of these fields, like the world of grip, the competitive pool is still small and the prize money is minuscule. MMA is at the opposite end of the spectrum, a formerly niche activity that now provides solid payoffs for the top 1 percent and nurses the fantasies of the remaining 99 percent of has-beens and wannabes.
But American Ninja Warrior, NBC’s popular spin-off from the Japanese game show Sasuke, is somewhere in the middle. The show has a solid prime-time viewership and an ever-increasing number of applications, rising from 1,000 applicants for the first season to nearly 80,000 for its ninth. And Ninja Warrior-style gyms, with their capital-intensive obstacles, are either opening across the U.S. or being incorporated into existing climbing-oriented training centers. A National Ninja League boasts several thousand YouTube subscribers and runs both “elite” and “recreational” events.
Ninja might not be as big as mixed martial arts, but it’s obviously much better-known than arm wrestling (an arm wrestling-themed show failed on cable television) or grip sports, perhaps even more recognizable than the World’s Strongest Man, which serves as filler programming on the CBS Sports Network in much the same way that it once did for ESPN.
And yet Shuck, the son of a high school strength and conditioning coach, segued from Spartan Races and Tough Mudders to ANW in around two years. “I needed a bigger challenge than events like Tough Mudders,” he tells me. “But you can’t forget that Ninja Warrior is a show as well as a sport. I made an audition tape that emphasized how I was an elementary school teacher, so I had a good story for the producers.”
“For competitive climbers, it’s almost like American Ninja Warrior serves as a kind of ‘senior circuit,’” adds Brady. “And there were many climbers far stronger or better than me, but I appealed to the producers’ interest in spectacle. I was a college professor who taught courses about vampires and competed in a sweater-vest.”
Shuck’s training consisted of building his own small Ninja course inside Pittsburgh Kettlebell & Performance and preparing for as many possible obstacles as he could imagine. Given the decidedly unprofessional nature of some of the construction, Shuck expressed reservations about me and his brother Matt hanging on some of the more loosely attached pieces. “I did what I could here in the gym, but there’s plenty I couldn’t prepare for,” he says. “Climbing is a great foundation for this, but that wasn’t my foundation: I was an explosive, agile athlete, not someone who could dead hang on a bar or a cliff for 10 minutes straight.”
Brady, a climber, agrees. “There are many parts of the competition that favor climbers, such as Stage 3 of the finals. Isaac Caldiero, who completed the entire four-stage course and won the $1,000,000 prize [during Season 7 of the show], is a climber and friend of mine. The challenge is getting through the parts that don’t [favor climbing]. I never trained particularly hard for the show. ‘Jumping Spider,’ the event that eliminated me in Las Vegas, was something I practiced in an elevator at the hotel.”
“You need to have a gym that’s designed for that sort of thing, which would cost a million dollars or more to construct,” says Shuck.
Ninja, much like powerlifting or Strongman, has, however, seen massive advances in equipment and training in the past half-decade. “It’s like anything else: you need access to a top-tier facility, and you need to start early enough in life to build the necessary muscle memory,” Shuck says. “You’re seeing this in other niche sports where athletes are making major leaps forward. Everywhere you look, the quality of performance is improving dramatically versus what you and I would have considered high-level as teenagers” — Shuck and I are both in our 30s, as is Brady — “and that’s going to continue.”
Ninja Warrior also provides an environment in which women compete directly alongside men. “There’s a continuing uptick in the number of women who are participating on the show, and they’re impressive,” Shuck explains. “There are women out there who are stronger than some of the male competitors, or who are able to get further than some of the male competitors. You don’t really see a playing field that level in other gender-segregated competitions.”
Even the training, which presents obvious dangers such as falling to the ground, is far less labor and time-intensive than spending hours bodybuilding in a gym and a good deal less dangerous than knocking helmets during football practice or heads in a boxing ring. “At worst, you fall down,” says Shuck. “And maybe, like in my setup here at Pittsburgh Kettlebell, the floor you’re falling down on isn’t all that soft. But given the demands on your grip and the focus needed for each challenge, it’s not as if you can train for much longer than 15 to 20 very strenuous minutes. You have to maximize the value of that short amount of time.”
“I’d never train for Ninja Warrior by doing Ninja Warrior training,” says Brady. “That wasn’t something that interested me. Like other competitors, I’d study the course and brainstorm ways through and maybe practice some of those approaches, but the training I did was mostly climbing-related and similar to what I always did. I certainly wasn’t as dedicated to this or as obsessive about it as others are.”
Speaking of obsessive, while both Shuck and Brady love the sport, they’re uncertain about its ceiling, at least in terms of mass participation. “These obstacles aren’t something most people can do,” Shuck explains. “You’re in reasonably good shape, and I don’t feel comfortable with you doing them here. A gym with lots of Ninja obstacles is going to eliminate a lot of folks right off the bat. I’m currently 170 pounds, and I’m honestly on the heavy side for this type of activity.”
“I’m not sure where exactly American Ninja Warrior fits in terms of sport and spectacle,” adds Brady. “It’s a spectacle for the sizable viewing audience at home, which is the reason they do the show and pick all these marketable contestants to watch. But the live audience for the competition was a handful of friends and family mixed with random people off the street that the producers have hold up signs with our names on them, as if we’ve got ‘fans.’ And the National Ninja League, which some friends of mine participate in, is an expanding but still very small operation. I will admit, though, that it’s much more interesting to watch than climbing, which is about as interesting as watching paint dry even if you’ve been assigned to do the color commentary for the event.”
Brady ended his stint as a professional Ninja Warrior after Season 7. “I even hid a lot of that Ninja stuff on my social media feeds,” he says, noting that his real sport was already climbing. Shuck, however, auditioned for a third season on the show. “I didn’t get it,” Shuck admits, “because it’s very hard to keep your personal brand fresh. So I suppose I’m retired, at least for now.”
“You could come back as the ‘Dogfather’ and incorporate your dogs in the audition video,” interjects his wife Ashley.
Shuck shakes his head, a sad smile playing across his face. “No, there are some things I’m not willing to do, some lines I won’t cross,” he explains. “I won’t do the ‘Dogfather’ thing, even if that’s what it takes to remain a professional athlete.”