Big wins and big wipeouts are par for the course on American Ninja Warrior, the TV competition series where contestants must sprint, swing and jump through crazy obstacles, testing their athleticism and strength. Picture an adult-sized playground perched above water, complete with flying bars, rolling logs and a super steep, 14-foot ramp known as the Warped Wall.
As the seventh season of American Ninja Warrior gets underway, we caught up with veteran competitors Kacy Catanzaro and Brent Steffenson and POM Wonderful, this season’s sponsor, to learn what it takes to climb their way to the top. And these ninja sweethearts certainly know the ropes when it comes to ANW — Steffensen has been competing since season two and Catanzaro since season five. Just last season, Catanzaro, a former NCAA gymnast, blew the crowd away by becoming the first woman to qualify for the finals.
But there’s a long road — and plenty of travel ahead for the fit and fearless duo. And that’s where rigorous bodyweight training comes into play. Steal their favorite no-equipment moves here, and below, get the scoop on Catanzaro and Steffensen’s game plan.
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4 Bodyweight Moves for Ninja Warrior Training
Whether your goal is to make it up the Warped Wall or get toned for summer, these bodyweight moves from Catanzaro and Steffensen will put your strength and endurance to the test.
Targets: Quads, abs, glutes
How to: Start by standing with your feet hip-width apart with your hands at your sides (a). Quickly lower your bottom to the floor, tipping backwards and rolling onto your back (but not past your shoulder blades). As you rock backwards, your arms should swing back above your head (b). Swing your lower body towards your upper body as you roll backwards. When your legs become perpendicular with the ground, engage your core to lift your lower back off the floor (c). Next, reverse the movement. Use the momentum from swinging your legs away to roll yourself quickly onto your feet, so you are in a low squat position (d). Jump straight up with arms overhead, making sure to bend your knees as you land (e). Repeat as fast as you can for 60 seconds.
2. Jumping Lunges
Targets: Quads, glutes, endurance
How to: Start with your right leg forward in a lunge position, with both knees at 90-degree angles. Your shoulders should be pulled back with your chest up, and hips facing forward. Arms should remain by your sides (a). Explode off the balls of your feet and launch yourself upwards. Midair, bring your right leg back and your left leg forward (b). Land in a lunge, with your left foot forward and both knees at 90-degree angles (c). Repeat for 60 seconds.
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How to: Lie on the floor with your arms stretched out above your head. Quickly swing your hands over your body so they are at your sides (a). Engaging your core, lift your legs and arms off the ground at the same time, keeping your back straight and your shoulders pulled back. Reach your arms towards your toes without hunching your back (b). Lower your legs and upper body down to the ground. Bring your arms so they are once again over your head (c). Repeat for 60 seconds.
4. Handstand Push-Ups
Targets: Shoulders, abs
How to: For this advanced move, start roughly a foot and a half away from a wall with one foot pointing towards the wall and a back foot perpendicular to it (a). Use momentum to swing yourself into a cartwheel, placing your hands about six inches away from the wall (b). Once your feet hit the wall, turn your body so you are facing the wall, and pull your shoulders down away from your ears (c). Bend your arms and slowly lower yourself to the ground until your head almost touches the floor (d). Push yourself up slowly until your elbows are nearly locked (e). Repeat steps c through e for 5 sets, or however many you can complete with good form.
Ninjas Tell All: What It Takes to Beat the Course
What type of training prepares you for obstacle-style competition?
Brent Steffensen: We want to be light and lean so we don’t lift heavy weights. For strength training, the best thing is functional bodyweight circuit training. [We like to make it] as intense as possible to keep our endurance up. But then on top of the strength training, you’ve got to be training with free running, parkour… and a gymnastics background or climbing background can help.
Kacy, you come from a really strong gymnastics background, so that’s a strength of yours. What are your weaknesses?
“In the middle of it, I’m like ‘This is misery!’ But I tell myself to keep going — this is making you stronger.”
Kacy Catanzaro: My legs and lower body are a lot weaker than my upper body, which, for obstacles and for American Ninja Warrior is not that bad because most things are upper body. But you do have to do explosive jumps to get up the Warped Wall or complete those balancing [obstacles] that require a lot of lower-body strength. Whenever I was rehabbing [lower body injuries] I was always training pure upper body.
BS: I also have chicken legs! It’s not my strongest area. We’re always trying to figure out how to work on that.
What types of training exercises do you dread most?
KC: Oh, gosh. We always try and get bodyweight circuits out of the way first, and then at night we can do obstacles, or free running, or whatever else is coming up. For jumping lunges, Brent does almost 60 and I do like 30 per circuit. In the middle of it, I’m like “This is misery!” But I tell myself to keep going — this is making you stronger.
BS: Yeah, I would say jumping lunges are my worst nemesis. Another one is push-ups.
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And what obstacles excite you most on American Ninja Warrior?
KC: It’s tough [to choose] because they’re all so fun in their own way! I love doing the cliffhanger just because every time you do it, it’s so hard. No matter how much strength you build up, it hurts your fingertips. But you’re jumping — you’re basically flying through the air — and it’s just a really cool obstacle.
BS: I like the salmon ladder just because it’s so explosive and powerful, and you’re just cranking up this thing. And I also like the flying bar. The salmon ladder goes up but the flying bar, it’s a similar obstacle where you move forward. You’re just kipping, flying through the air, but you’ve got to have the precision.
At the most challenging parts of the course, how do you psych yourself up?
KC: I think gymnastics has helped a lot because you do have to get into that zone where you’re kind of zen. You’re relaxed but you’re also pumped up. Before an obstacle, I usually take a deep breath and tell myself, “You can do this, you’ve got it.” If it’s an obstacle that’s super technical, I definitely will remind myself of certain things when I’m stepping up to it. But you don’t want to think about an obstacle before you get there because then you might mess up.
BS: I would say kind of the same thing. The only reason I’ll stop on the course is if my forearms are torched. Most of my mental and analytical stuff happens before. So when I’m on the course, I want to keep going. If I’m looking at that next obstacle and I’m like, hmmm, that’s when you trip yourself up. So I try to keep just a good, steady pace, but if I do need a rest I’ll just shake it out, play with the crowd and try to recover. I like to keep moving.
We love that you guys are there for each other through each stage of competition. Any special ways you show your support?
KC: Luckily, we get to run by each other on the course so we get to cheer. I know Brent sometimes gets distracted, though, when a lot of people are yelling at him…
BS: Well, just when I’m on the starting block. I love that they’re showing support, but at the same I’m trying to get into my zone. So it’s not that I don’t appreciate it! I think the thing that we kind of do is, whenever I hear her say, “Keep breathing, Brent,” I’ll look over and blow her a kiss. That type of stuff gets us through the course.
How will the fearless duo fare this season? Watch Catanzaro and Steffensen compete in the Houston qualifying round this Monday at 8 p.m. EST on NBC. To keep up with them off the course, you can find them on Twitter at @KacyCatanzaro and @BrentSteffensen, and with the tag #POMNinjaWarrior.