It wasn't until the seventh season of "American Ninja Warrior" that a competitor conquered the entire course, but the hit TV show nonetheless inspired legions of followers to seek their own outlets for the rising sport of ninja obstacle training.
"I competed on 'American Ninja Warrior,' and I actually became the first American Ninja Warrior," says Geoff Britten, creative director at Ninja Nation, a ninja facility franchise with locations in Colorado and Texas. "There wouldn't be ninja training as a sport without the TV show."
Britten's success on the show made him the subject of a number of business inquiries from people wanting to launch ninja-specific gyms, but it wasn't until he heard about the Ninja Nation concept that he was convinced.
"Our goal at Ninja Nation was to just jump right in," Britten says. "It's clean, well-lit, beautiful buildings and well-trained staff. Parents feel safe and it has the look."
There's no doubt that ninja training is experiencing a surge in popularity right now. If you're curious about implementing ninja programming, or are ready to ride the wave, here are a few things to consider:
Setting up your space
Despite having been on the scene for a relatively short time, the Obstacle Design Group, a firm dedicated to obstacle course facilities, brings a wealth of experience to the facilities it helps design and equip.
"We're a design company," says Obstacle Design Group founder and head of design Jason Huewe. "We figure out how many pieces and parts and everything a facility is going to need, we place all the orders for them, we submit the drawings for approval, and we help set that up. If they need us to install, we'll do installation as well. And we do some manufacturing."
The firm has consulted with ninja/obstacle-specific gyms, including Ninja Nation, as well as more traditional fitness facilities. Even family entertainment businesses — think trampoline parks and the like — have turned to obstacles as a way to revitalize themselves.
While each program is different, Huewe suggests that clubs looking to incorporate ninja/obstacle training turn first to easily recognizable, popular obstacles such as the warped wall, the salmon ladder and the quintuple steps. Likewise, the amount of space clubs are willing to dedicate will vary based on how they plan on incorporating the program, but Huewe suggests a minimum of 1,500 square feet.
"That's what I would say is the bare minimum," he says. "That can get you a simple rig and some of the basic, need-to-have obstacles, and you'll still have an open floor space, which you're going to need for stretching out, other types of movements, basic bounding techniques and learning ground-based body awareness."
Ninja/obstacle training inherently means falling, so building a safe environment will require the use of padding or mats. According to Britten, every square inch of Ninja Nation's "inside the fence" area is padded with a carpet-bonded foam.
"In any kind of fall area, there's additional matting on top of it," Britten says. "And then we have airbags, as well."
Terms in ninja/obstacle training
Obstacle Design Group's founder and head of design Jason Huewe says that ninja/obstacle equipment can be broken down into two categories:
Element: "Elements are single-muscle, single-movement functionality," Huewe says. "It's something that's extremely simple that can be repeated, and is great for training specific muscle groups and actions for an obstacle."
Obstacle: "An obstacle is either a combination of the elements that create an end goal — so let's say a trapeze bar to a cargo net, those two elements combined create an obstacle," Huewe says. "Or the other definition is a structure or unit that a person interacts with that has multiple functions, where a person is engaging multiple muscle groups to complete it."
From couch to ninja
It's not a secret that inactivity — particularly among children — is an area of great concern. Between the multitude of screens and other distractions, getting kids to take an interest in physical activity is one of the great challenges the industry faces.
"Obesity — coupled with the reduction in physical education in schools — has led to a lot of inactivity," says Steve Cook, the director of sales and marketing for American Athletic Inc., which manufactures a line of ninja equipment targeting children.
Ninja/obstacle training offers a great solution for kids who may not otherwise be interested in traditional sports and fitness activities. By deploying mobile obstacle courses at festivals and community events, or by hosting open gyms and daycare trips at their facilities, ninja gyms can attract more young people and generate new revenue. At Ninja Nation, 80 to 90 percent of members are children under the age of 13, and Cook points out that adding ninja programs can boost enrollment even at more traditional facilities.
"We've just had tremendous success getting kids involved and seeing fitness facilities, gyms and YMCAs build enrollment through ninja activities," Cook says. "It's been a lot of fun."
Unlike more structured activities, ninja encourages participants to jump right in — regardless of fitness level — and, importantly, pushes them to fail and work their way up.
"I like to say, if it's too easy, we can make it harder. If it's too hard, we can make it easier," says Cook. "We'll adapt it to anyone, and anyone's welcome."
Once participants are engaged, the next step is to develop programs that will help them grow in the sport. Many facilities offer class curricula aimed at doing just that, and some manufacturers, like American Athletic, develop their own.
"The curriculum is laid out so they're teaching skills and there's obstacle course time toward the end of every single lesson," says Stephanie Savas, American Athletic's southeast account manager. "It's really turnkey for the facilities."
Curricula that coaches and instructors can follow is key to operating a class-based program, which Obstacle Design Group's Huewe recommends for most facilities.
"You don't just want to throw obstacles in there without some kind of curriculum or coach who's considered an expert in the area, because your injury rate will not be satisfactory," Huewe says.
"The owner's ability to adapt their class structures for different skill levels and age groups is what the industry is looking for," says Huewe, himself a four-time "American Ninja Warrior" competitor.
Versatility and customization are major benefits that obstacle course and ninja training provide. Obstacles, by their nature, require the body to adapt and engage different muscle groups, and even rig installations have some degree of flexibility with regard to the obstacles they incorporate.
"It allows the person and the gym to actually change how they interact — whether to make it easier or harder or to change the different muscle groups or different types of body awareness they want to train," Huewe says.
At Ninja Nation, change is part of the policy. According to Britten, two "obstacle bays" are changed out each week with different challenges for members to try. "My job really is just keeping fresh obstacles coming, keeping up to date, and then really pushing vendors to stay on top of this and not just sell the same old obstacles," he says. "And as the sport grows, really coming up with new ideas that can fit into the ecosystems that gyms have."
Flexible equipment that allows for varied physical challenges is one piece of the broader puzzle, but when incorporating ninja or obstacle-course-style equipment for the first time, one concern some facilities will have is space. After all, it can be difficult to dedicate space on a fitness floor to a piece of equipment or a program that may not always be in use.
The need for space was actually integral to how American Athletic developed its G2N line of ninja equipment, according to Savas, who played an important role in development. "I owned a gymnastics school for many years, and I knew space was an issue," she says. "So we really focused on building a unit that didn't take up a lot of space and doesn't require dedicated space. It can actually fold up against a wall."
This kind of design enables facilities to pull out their obstacle course equipment, run a class, and then put it away again, which provides facilities the opportunity to incorporate a new kind of revenue-generating program at relatively low risk.
"The wall-mounted version has been the most popular because it's so easy," says American Athletic western regional sales manager Andy Timm, who also had a role in developing G2N. "We have a few gyms that do it every day. Basically, it takes two people 12 or 13 minutes."
With ninja and obstacle training entering the mainstream, more facilities are adapting their programs and spaces to meet demand.
"It's very exciting, seeing it progress and grow," says Huewe. "It's about just understanding the market, understanding the industry, seeing what's needed, listening to everyone and creating the future so that this sport can continue to grow."
A case study in obstacle course training
At ORTHDX Natural Fitness in Madison, Wis., co-owners and class instructors David and Sarah Welther have incorporated ninja/obstacle course training in a way that serves their mission.
"Part of our mission is to bring natural fitness to the masses," says David. "We want to show it doesn't matter what age you are, you can always improve your flexibility, your mobility, you can always learn how to move better."
The choice to incorporate an obstacle course rig was inspired by David's interest in events such as the Spartan Race. The rig is the first thing members see when they walk into the 12,000-square-foot space, and although it generates a lot of interest from certain members — "the teenagers and the kids are the ones that really take to it," says Sarah — other demographics can be intimidated at first.
"Most people look at obstacle course racing and they think it's only for the one-percent, they think it's only for ninjas," David says.
Many of the club's classes, including the natural fitness class that Sarah instructs, are located within the same space as the obstacle rig, which the duo incorporates into more traditional classes, as well.
"We try to find little gateways to get people excited about training in different ways," says David. "With boot camp classes, we'll slowly get them to try out different things on the rig."
Allowing members to interact with the rig in a non-ninja context can break down barriers that might otherwise have kept them from trying it out. At ORTHDX, it's not uncommon for members to test themselves on the rig, either in a formal class or in a fit of inspiration, which then provides them with the chance to recognize the benefits brought by all the hard work they put in at the gym — not by a number on a scale or how they look in a mirror, but by how well they perform at a physical challenge.
"Some people see the benefit of their fitness, and they go to apply it and then they get hooked," David says. " 'Look at all these cool things I can do with myself now!' "
Engaging members in different ways is part of ORTHDX's approach to fitness — which incorporates a variety of disciplines and encourages fitness as a lifestyle, rather than as a solution to a problem.
"Adventure and fun is how you stay involved in fitness," says David. "My hope is that people will come in for fitness, and they will get bored of fitness and they'll stay for obstacle course. They'll get bored of obstacle course and they'll start kickboxing. They'll get bored of kickboxing and go to yoga."
The club's obstacle rig is a representation of the kind of variability and change ORTHDX fosters in members. The owners regularly tweak and change up the course to offer new and different challenges for varied skill levels. David admits to having fun designing his course for those super-fit members he calls "the one-percent," but Sarah says that being able to ratchet the difficulty to a level that allows for success while still offering a challenge is the sweet spot.
"The puzzle just keeps changing, and it evolves with peoples' skills," she says. "Surprisingly, people are stronger than they think. And so, when people see that they can do it, it's a major win for the ego. And they want to try again."
This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Ninja training on the climb in mainstream facilities." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.