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What is ninja? It is a sport which involves a number of athletes competing one at a time on a set obstacle course. The goal is to complete the most obstacles in the shortest amount of time. For the sake of a beginner’s understanding, consider ninja a brother to parkour, and cousin to gymnastics.

I sometimes forget that many people outside of the ninja community don’t know what ninja is. No, I’m not talking about the covert agents garbed from head to toe in black of feudal era Japan. Ninja is a sport that has been on the rise worldwide since its introduction as a televised competition in Japan.

What is Ninja? Origins Of The Sport

Sasuke - what is ninja?Kinniku Banzuke

This site is dedicated to the evolution of ninja as its own sport. Still, it would be impossible for me to explain to you what ninja is without giving mention and due credit to its beginnings as a televised athletics competition.

Ninja was first introduced to the world in 1997 when the producers of the Japanese program Kinniku Banzuke decided to host a segment on their show. In this segment, competitors made their way through a series of increasingly difficult obstacles in hopes to be the last man standing. The segment was named Sasuke (Ninja Warrior). It was so popular that it became a regular part of Kinniku Banzuke with semiannual airings.

It was so well received in fact, that even after Kinniku Banzuke was canceled in 2002, Sasuke continued to air as its own televised sporting event. Here we are 21 years and 35 seasons since conception, and Sasuke is still going stronger than ever.

Ninja Goes Global

ANW Warped Wall - what is ninja?

It didn’t take long before Sasuke had gained a worldwide following. Airing in a number of countries, the US TV station G4 picked up the show, and gave it English subtitles, renaming each obstacle for their English-speaking audience.

But soon merely watching was no longer enough for Americans. G4 hosted their first ever American Ninja Challenge in the summer of 2007. In this competition, athletes got their chance to win a competitor spot on Sasuke. It continued for 2 years until 2009 when it was renamed American Ninja Warrior. And now, 10 years later, various international forms of Ninja Warrior competitions have taken root all over the globe.

If you want to keep up to date with news specific to American Ninja Warrior, keep tabs on American Ninja Warrior Nation

Ninja Outside Of Television

Aside from these televised competitions, many athletes saw the value, excitement, and downright fun in these timed obstacle courses. Gyms dedicated solely to ninja began to pop up all over; first slowly, and then rapidly. Many tried to set up leagues. The National Ninja League was created in 2015 as a means of competition open to all, and there you have it. The sport of ninja.

How To Train For Ninja

Replicating Movements Used In Competition

Ask 1000 athletes of any sport their preferred training programs and you’ll get 1000 different answers. But there is one universal truth. In practice, you need to replicate the movements you’ll be making on game day. Ninja is on of the few sports in which you use nearly every muscle at one point or another. And the only sport in which you never know until the day of the competition exactly which muscles you’ll be taxing the most. That means that in training you have to train everything.

Pull up Training - what is ninja?What is Ninja… Non-Standardized

I’ve been to my fair share of ninja gyms, and while there are a number of obstacles that any ninja gym will have (i.e. the warped wall), it would be extremely rare to find two identically built versions of an obstacle anywhere. That’s because it is not a standardized sport.

Obstacles are not made with required dimensions, weights, or materials. There is no list of every obstacle that may or may not appear in competition. On the contrary, ninja gyms are encouraged to try to come up with their own unique obstacles.

Split Second Body Positioning

When training ninja, its not about mastering a specific obstacle, its about learning body awareness from any position you’re in. You must be able to make micro adjustments at any given moment to keep yourself from falling.

Learn, What is a Ninja? Through Videos

If you’d like to see what training at a ninja gym looks like, feel free to follow my personal Instagram account @thebobbyoneill.

Parkour speed vault - what is ninja?Where To Train

The best place to learn this type of body awareness is in a ninja gym. Depending on where you live, this may or not be a viable option. Ninja gyms are indeed a rapidly growing industry. Check out this Ninja Locator Tool to see if there is a ninja gym near you. I live in New England, where a lot of the big name ninjas just happen to come from. There are 3 ninja gyms within an hour drive of my apartment. There are at least another 3 gymnastics gyms, parkour gyms, or trampoline parks that incorporate ninja obstacles. However, there are many areas where it isn’t so easy to find ninja obstacles. Fear not.

Long before ninja existed, people interested in mastering body control got free practice using public playground equipment. Nowadays, you can even learn all kinds of cool tricks via the internet! Just make sure to be safe.

Other Sports That Build A Great Ninja Base

A number of sports mimic the body control and muscle groups most commonly targeted in ninja competitions. In particular, you’ll notice that the most successful ninjas have a background in one of three sports:

  • Rock Climbing - what is ninja?Rock Climbing – Even though obstacles vary widely from one another, nearly all of them involve some type of grip strength. You may be capable of tackling the majority of these obstacles individually. But string them together and you’ll find that the amount of muscle endurance needed in your fingers, wrists, and forearms is immense. Rock climbing is the perfect sport to develop such a skill set. Try some of this equipment to build up your grip strength.
  • Gymnastics – A ninja needs exceptional body awareness. In addition to being an amazing base for just about any sport, gymnastics teaches the type of control you just can’t get from most sports.
  • Parkour – Similar to gymnastics, parkour teaches you to move your body with precision.

How Competitions Are Run?

Competitions aren’t always run the same way. But most of them follow a similar format. Sasuke, ANW, the NNL, and every other international iteration of Ninja Warrior that I have ever seen follow these rules:

Minimum 6 obstacles

This rule isn’t set in stone, but aside from practice speed courses, I’ve never seen a course with less than 6 obstacles. The qualifying rounds of ANW have 6 obstacles. Competitions held by the NNL run 10-20 obstacles. Where an obstacle begins and ends is left up to the course maker(s), so this rule may be a bit vague.

Your Run Ends when you Fail an Obstacle or Hit the Buzzer.

Some competition formats allow for runners to continue after a failed obstacle. Notable examples are most kid courses. Time stops after the first obstacle, but the participant is allowed to continue on. Competitions held by the Ultimate Ninja Athlete Association (UNAA) allow competitors of all ages to continue after a fail. Competitors are scored based on the number of obstacles they complete under UNAA rules.

However the majority of courses end after only 1 mistake. Some obstacles, such as the warped wall, may offer a limited number of attempts to accommodate for the fact that even if you can’t complete the obstacle, there is no way to actually fail it.

Time Limit/ No Time Limit

Some courses will have a time limit. Others will not. This is at the discretion of the course maker(s).

Standings are determined by who can get furthest the fastest

I have been to competitions in which nobody is able to complete the course. On the reverse side of that, some competitions have a completion Bobby O'Neill competing at the Action Athletics NNL - what is ninja?rate of 70%-80% or more. Regardless, no competition is too easy or too hard because your aim is to get furthest the fastest. This may seem straight forward, but it has a serious impact on how a ninja will run a course.

Example: If I step up to the starting platform and I know the majority of the runners who already went have completed the entire course, then my mindset is going to be set on speed. The competition becomes who can sprint through the obstacles the fastest without making a mistake. On the other hand, if nobody has completed the course yet, my plan is going to be to take my time.Focus all my efforts on just completing every obstacle.

So What is Ninja? It’s A Sport.

Some people don’t consider ninja a full fledged sport in its own right just yet. And that’s fine. The first time I heard it referred to as a sport, I was skeptical too. But I came to realize that the reason I was hesitant to title it a sport, was because every sport I have ever known has been referred to as a sport from the first time I discovered it as a child. But now, having been so involved in the community for the past four years; regularly training specific athletic skill sets in preparation for competition with a group of like-minded people, I can say it is undoubtedly as much a sport as any sport I have ever been a part of.

Have any more questions/comments on what is ninja? Leave them in the comment section below and I’d be more than happy to help!

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Bobby

Founder of 'The Sport Of Ninja'

12 Comments

  1. Kenny

    Reply

    Hi and thanks for the cool ninja training review. I think you have covered some really good starter points for people looking to take this up as a fitness program or more seriously. Please share more in this interesting topic and your experiences of it. Thanks Kenny 

    • Bobby

      Reply

      Hi Kenny!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post! I update the website regularly with blog poss, so please stop by to read more about the sport of Ninja!

  2. Garen

    Reply

    At first when I saw this article I thought it was going to talk about Ninjas and how they operate in Japan.  

    But, these timed optical courses are fun to watch.  I have watched them over the years.  However, I have a question about training to be a ninja.  How much does the training cost ?  Maybe, monthly and yearly.  I am guessing the specific ninja gym would cost more than a typical gym?

    Also, one more question how do you see this ninja sport growing in the next 5, 10, 15 years?

    • Bobby

      Reply

      Hi Garen!

      Cost varies from gym to gym, as you can imagine such is the case with any business, but it is typically a little more than your ordinary gym membership (though not necessarily more than the specialty classes a lot of those gyms offer). The ninja gyms I’ve been to usually offer drop in classes for $20-$25, but a monthly membership usually runs right around $100, so not too bad. 

      As far as where I see ninja 5, 10, and 15 years from now, I fully expect it to continuing growing. Consider parkour. Parkour is somewhat a sport, but given that it has no defined rules for winners and losers, I’d consider it more of a physical art form. 10-15 years ago most people had never heard of parkour. Now, nearly everybody knows what it is, and millions regularly train parkour. I see ninja as a sport very similar to parkour, albeit much more competition oriented. The concept of the sport of ninja started on a Japanese reality show over 20 years ago, and now it’s a worldwide phenomenon. The vast majority of growth has been just over the last 4 years, and shows no sign of slowing down! I realize some people see it as a fad, but based on the passion and sheer size of the ninja community, I fully expect it to be around for the long haul.

  3. Scott Hinkle

    Reply

    OK, I’ll be honest, I figured Ninja was either some sort of martial art to master or a form of entertainment on TV as in American Ninja Warrior.  I never really considered it a sport but did notice that you needed to be athletically inclined to participate successfully.

    One thing I can say is, it looks like fun.  Every time I see someone competing, they’re not grunting or making a stern face but rather concentrating, focusing and just going for it, all the while, looking like they’re having a blast.

    I’d love to check a Ninja gym out some time.  Do you know of any registry or list of locations that are dedicated Ninja gyms or even other facilities with some Ninja obstacle courses?  Do you know the average “membership” or one-time costs?  I’ll be up front, I haven’t used my California Family Fitness membership in over 2 years now but I think it’s due to the lack of fun and it actually being a workout vs getting a workout while having fun and wanting to beat that obstacle as a source of motivation.

    Again thank you for the great write-up.

    • Bobby

      Reply

      Oh, ninja is definitely a fun way to workout! It’s just like playing anysport you enjoy, where by the end of the game you’re dripping in sweat but you forgot you were working out because of how much fun you were having. The only difference is that ninja actually works nearly every muscle!

      I don’t have a registry (unfortunately the sport is still pretty new, and I don’t think any one has put one together yet, but that’s definitely a project I can work on for a future post!). I would suggest checking out the national ninja league website. They break competitions down by region, so you can figure out which gym in your region is closest to you, then visit their website for more information!

      Memberships (and how classes/open gym times are run) vary widely across all ninja gyms, but on average I’d say a one-time drop in is usually $20-$25, where as a monthly membership is about $100. I hope this helped!

  4. Daniel

    Reply

    I must say that you have explained very well how one true ninja should look. It is my opinion but I think that not everyone can become ninja because it requires very good physical and mental skills. I would like to become one but I think that I am not prepared yet, but who knows maybe some day.

    • Bobby

      Reply

      Hi Daniel!

      If you have an interest you should definitely try it out! I meet people all the time that tell me they wish they could train ninja, but they think they would fall, and I tell them the same thing everytime. Every person whose ever trained for ninja has fallen. Most of us fall 9 out of 10 times. There’s no reason to wait until your stronger or faster to start learning a new sport. That’s like being afraid to go to the gym because you think you’re overweight, or your muscles are to small. Everybody starts somewhere.

  5. Jenny

    Reply

    I didn’t realise that Ninja was such a big thing.  This is great article with an overview of the sport and what’s involved.  You have given useful tips as to how people can train even if they do not have access to a ninja gym.  Do you time yourself in training too?  What training would you recommend for a beginner?

    • Bobby

      Reply

      Hi Jenny!

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post! I do sometimes time myself, it depends on what type of training I’m doing. Sometimes I’m just working on completing a bigger, tougher obstacle, like a 10 oot lache (swinging between bars). Other times I’m stringing a bunch of obstacles together to simulate competition.

      Most obstacles are made so that their difficulty level can be adjusted to match anybody who’s willing to try. Some of the basics involve learning to build a swing, and being able to hang from a bar, and learning to fall without hurting yourself, so if you aren’t able to do those yet I would give that a try. Outside of that try obstacles (even if they’re ones you make yourself) that put you in positions your body isn’t usually used to. As a safety precaution, I wouldn’t go inverted or go higher than 10 feet without a mat, or somebody you trust to spot you until you learn the right way to fall and land.

      Hope this helps!

  6. Jason

    Reply

    Very interesting read. I remember g4 airing susake but I never knew the name. And then to realize that’s where American ninja warrior came from was cool. I wouldn’t understand somebody questioning this being a sport. I would imagine this taking more discipline than other mainstream American sports. Hats off to anybody That’s able to even complete a quarter of one of these obstacle courses.

    • Bobby

      Reply

      Hi Jason,

      It’s crazy right? I think the only reason some people still question ninja as a sport is because they aren’t quite used to it yet. The competition formats are still a little uncertain as new rules are being added every year about what is and is not allowed. It’s still a brand new sport, so it’ll be a while before you see it on ESPN, but it’s making leaps and bounds every competitive season!

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