I’ve been working as a ninja coach for over 3 and a half years now, and it’s no secret coaching method that newbies learn the fundamentals before they learn the hard stuff.
Ninja Fundamental #1 – Building a Swing
Building and maintaining a swing is arguably the most important skill for a ninja to have. A great deal of upper body obstacles, perhaps even the majority, require you to swing.
It is important to understand that every swing has two vertices (the highest point of your swing); one on the front swing, and one on the back swing. The center of your swing is the position your body would hang freely if your were at a dead hang (if you were hanging with no swing at all).Regardless of what you are hanging from, the general mechanics of building a swing are as follows:
- As your body travels from the center toward the front vertex, pull your body in as tight a ball as possible.
- Just as you approach the vertex, elongate your body quickly and forcefully. Remain elongated as you swing back from the front vertex to the center.
- At the center, pull your body back into a tight ball until your reach the back vertex.
- From the back vertex, again elongate your body as you fall forward toward the center.
This process is the same whether you are swinging on a rope, a stationary bar, a trapeze, etc. To learn how to turn your swing into a lache (bar hop) click here.
Building a Swing Example: Trapeze
I prefer to teach swing technique on a trapeze, because it gives you the most time from either vertex to the center. If you want to build a swing from a stationary bar, you can view the trapeze as the same thing if your arms were the length of the ropes. Here’s how to apply the formula for building a swing specific to a trapeze:
- Starting from the center and until you reach the front vertex, pull your knees into your chest and pull up on the bar. This puts your body into as tight a ball as possible.
- There is a point at the end of your front swing in which your body stops moving just before you fall into the back swing. This is the vertex. Just before you hit the vertex, kick your legs out and up. For maximum height kick your feet toward the ceiling. Simultaneously pop the hips up and relax the biceps so that your body is as long as possible. Remain completely elongated (or as long as you can without kicking a mat) until you return to the center.
- From the center to the back vertex, again pull up on the bar and pull your knees into your chest.
- At the back vertex, just before you start the forward swing, kick your legs back, relax your biceps, and arch your back. Remain elongated until you return to the center.
Return to a Dead Hang
A time may come when you have to kill your swing on an obstacle. Example: You are on a ring swing or rope jungle and you released at the wrong time or from the wrong angle. Now you’re spinning out of control and need to redirect your swing.
The process for stopping or slowing your swing is the exact opposite from the process for building a swing. Elongate your body as you travel from the center to either vertex, and pull into a tight ball as you travel from either vertex to the center.
Ninja Fundamental # 2 – Balance/Agility
The majority of lower body obstacles can be categorized, at least to some degree, as either balance or agility. Both are very similar. Contrary to popular belief however, they are different.
Balance obstacles require strong stabilizer muscles and low center of gravity. In other words, when your feet are together. your chest is directly over your feet. When your feet are spread apart, your chest is centered between the two. This is general technique for keeping balance. This requires focus, and therefore is usually done very slowly.
The stronger the stabilizer muscles in your ankles are however, the less you need to worry on keeping your body in equilibrium. That is to say, your ankles can keep you from falling if your body isn’t perfectly balanced. The less you need to worry about keeping your body in equilibrium, the faster you can move while maintaining balance.
Most people, even most athletes, don’t often exercise in proprioceptively enriched environments (environments where they need to maintain balance). As such, balance is often difficult for people new to ninja. The good news is, once you begin training balance, your body will quickly adjust by learning how to use the neural pathways more efficiently.
Agility obstacles may be considered a type of balance, however they are to be approached using a completely different method. As such, agility obstacles are often mistaken for balance. In fact, most obstacles that they call balance on American Ninja Warrior are actually agility.
Agility obstacles go in a straight line so that they can be done quickly without having to switch directions. The components of agility obstacles are usually very difficult to maintain balance on. The safest way to get across an agility obstacle is to move quickly and confidently with precision. Because you aren’t actually balancing, if you hesitate mid obstacle you become much more likely to fall.
Ninja Fundamental # 3 – Explosive Power/ Body Control
Many upper body obstacles require a great deal of either explosive power, body control, or some combination of the two. Both methods offer distinct advantages.
Many athletes use raw power to push their way through obstacles, and sometimes, that alone will be enough. Explosive power is trained using large dynamic movements. The upside of using all muscle is that not much technique is required. Unfortunately, when athletes capable of explosive power start training ninja, it can become difficult to learn proper technique.
Body control is required for any high level ninja. Understanding how your body will react to certain movements allows you to plan your exact positioning on an obstacle, and make adjustments in an instant should you find that plan isn’t working. An expertise in body control is the reason ninjas with a background in gymnastics and parkour tend to do so well.
Explosive power used by itself can’t get a ninja as far as it can when used in combination with good technique. In many cases, muscle endurance can be saved for a later part of the course by using advanced body control.
Example: Salmon Ladder
My favorite obstacle to illustrate this point is the salmon ladder. The salmon ladder can be done using either explosive pull ups, or a gymnastics kip. Many ninjas use a technique somewhere between the two.
When first learning how to do a salmon ladder, most try using strict pull ups. However, a pull up by itself is not enough to move up a rung. The pull up has to be explosive enough that when you remove the bar, your body is still traveling upward. As they realize this, most ninjas add a little bit of a swing, using the momentum generated to get higher above the bar. The upside of using an explosive pull up without a swing is that you can go immediately into your next explosive pull up without having to time the swing. This way, you can fly up the salmon ladder in a matter of seconds.
On the other hand, if a ninja is not yet strong enough for explosive pull ups, they can still do the salmon ladder by kipping. A kip is a movement in which the legs are raised, and then snapped down by the hips, throwing the body upward. A kip done on a bar is most widely known as a gymnastics skill, and allows an athlete to get very high above the bar using little to no bicep or back strength. The pros to using a kip are that it conserves muscle strength for later in the course. The cons are that each kip begins with a small swing, and must be timed correctly, therefor taking longer to complete the obstacle. Additionally, a gymnastics kip can be difficult to learn even with an experienced teacher.
Ninja Fundamental # 4 – Warped Wall
That’s right, even though the warped wall is one single obstacle, I named it a top fundamental skill for all ninjas, and here’s my reasoning. Most upper body obstacles require some combination of a swing and explosive power. Most lower body obstacles require strong stabilizer muscles and confidence. The warped wall, however, is unique in that it is lower body intensive with a focus on explosive power.
Because of this, the warped wall is the most iconic ninja obstacle, and a staple of any legitimate ninja gym. Not only is it in every qualifying and city finals course of American Ninja Warrior. It is the obstacle most likely to appear in any given ninja competition.
Here’s the most important technique for warped wall:
- Always face the wall. Never turn around.
- Wear shoes with a grippy outsole.
- Generally speaking, most people take three steps on an 14’6″ foot wall.
- Get your first step high on the wall.
- First and third step are on your dominant leg.
- Jump upward off the third step. Since you can’t load your jump, most of the power comes from the calf.
- Keep your chest upright perpendicular to the ground. Don’t lean in or away from the wall.
For more safety and technique information, check out my post, Warped Wall – Everything You Could Ever Know.
How do you think I did with my top 4 fundamental skills for a ninja? Are their any that I missed? Or did I add something you wouldn’t consider a fundamental? How would you rate your mastery of these fundamental skills as a ninja? Let me know in the comment section below! Follow The Sport Of Ninja on Facebook and Instagram for an update on new posts and giveaways!