Review: Ninjas United

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My nephews are obsessed with America Ninja Warrior, the unique competition series which airs every summer on NBC. When we go to the playground, the monkey bars and balance beams and slides become a ninja warrior training course.

It’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement of it all and I now dutifully watch the show each week at home. But just participating from the couch is no fun and so I decided to try out a class at Ninjas United in Edina. The gym opened in July and while it does host birthday parties and summer camps for kids, it also has classes for adults of all ability levels.

My friends (and 2015 Granite Games team members) Nick and Chris joined me, along with Chris’ friend Matt. We attended the 7:30pm class on Wednesday night, which was open to ages 12 and up. Thankfully there were no spry teenagers to put us to shame – maybe it was past their bedtime. Rather there were just two other classmates around our age.

Our coach, Hunter, is one of the local competitive ninja warrior athletes that regulars competes and actively trains year round in this new sport. He led our small group through a warm-up of running in place, wrist and ankle mobility and then hangs and pull-ups on the bar.

The gym has all the homemade makings of the professional course, including the salmon ladder and a climbing wall area. The space is not huge but they have it well set-up, especially for kids parties and other social gatherings.

Over the course of an hour, we worked on the warped wall, rings, rope swing, floating steps and balance. Hunter provided an overview of each element and advice. He is well versed and displayed his amazing athleticism; however, the structure of the class felt disjointed as we would talk about a movement and practice it together and then he would provide free time. More structured instruction would help, but this is a new sport to coach and I imagine some of those kinks will be worked out over time. The other issue was there was an obstacle course racing class going on and so our groups were bumping into each other a bit, which made it feel a bit more precarious.

Hunter did set-up a mini-course for us in which we had to run over a teeter-totter, do rope swings, go up the warped wall and utilize our balance. The gym has a fun scoreboard set-up that they were able to enter all our names and it provides a clock and countdown. They even have a buzzer for you to hit when you are done. I went last among the six of us in class and was able to learn from watching each person run the short course. I ended up coming in first place. We then had Hunter ran to show off his skills and he finished in half of the time as it took the rest of us.

Towards the end of our free time, I attempted the taller warped wall. I missed reaching the top and on the way back down the momentum led to a rather ugly dismount and me rolling my left ankle and falling flat on my face. Unfortunately, my ankle swelled to more than twice its normal size and I’ve been icing it, soaking it in Epsom salt baths and popping Ibuprofen to reduce the inflamation. Thankfully it doesn’t seem sprained or broken as I can walk on it and wiggle my toes.

My ninja warrior career seems short-lived. I might not be coordinated enough to handle the obstacles but it was fun to dive into that world for the night and Ninjas United provides a great playground. I believe with a few bit more time under their belt, the coaching staff will be able to better structure the classes and organize the space.

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Review: “American Grit” / “Strong”

Last month, two new reality competition shows premiered on TV focused around the idea of mental and physical strength.  On paper, they seemed like they would be right up my alley.

Scene from AMERICAN GRIT on FOX.
Scene from AMERICAN GRIT on FOX.

“American Grit” on Fox, hosted by WWE superstar John Cena, takes four teams into the wintery wilderness to face a variety of military-grade and survival-themed challenges. Each team is led by a decorated veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces representing respectively the Army, Navy, Marines and Seals. The contestants meet the requisite mix of cliches that you would find on “Survivor” (i.e. the quiet but manly lumberjack, the huge but sensitive body builder, the glamorous but tomboy equestrian). However, each has a story of adversity that they have overcome and a deep desire to prove their mental fortitude.

Every week they compete in an ‘Evolution’ – a lengthy challenge in which the winning team is safe from elimination. For example, in the first week the teams had to carry a huge log through multiple obstacles for over 3 miles. The military advisors/coaches of the losing teams must pick one team member to send to the ‘Circus’ – an obstacle course that ends with an endurance challenge. The endurance challenge goes as long as it takes for someone to finally give up and ring out – they use a bell similar to the Navy Seals.  In the second episode, contestants had to do 10 burpees and then submerge themselves in ice cold water. This was repeated over and over until one contestant actually fainted. The teams over the duration of the series will slowly whittle down until only one team remains and its members will split a $1,000,000 prize.

Scene from STRONG on NBC
Scene from STRONG on NBC

‘Strong’ on NBC, hosted by American professional volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, features 10 females contestants all looking to get in shape and get strong. They are each paired with a personal trainer whose backgrounds range from boxing to MMA to CrossFit to Cirque du Soleil. In addition to their daily one-on-one training, the pairs compete together to save themselves from elimination. Then there is a second challenge in which the winning pair gets to decide who will face the other team in the elimination round. Finally, there is a 4-story elimination tower that the two pairs must race through trying to finish first to stay in the competition. The winning pair will split a $500,000 prize.

The challenges have ranged from sprints to bar hangs to bench press. They are not easy and are reminiscent of metcons that you would find in a CrossFit class. At the end of each episode, they show the transformation of the eliminated contestant and they have all been amazing. More importantly, rather than focus on pounds lost, they show metrics centered around the increase in muscle mass and decrease in body fat percentage.

So where do these shows go wrong? In both instances these are reality shows and so drama reigns. More time is always given to the bickering and the strategy. For me, that often is tiresome. I’d rather see on ‘Strong’ more explanation of the training methods used. Plus, they make no mention of nutrition, though one has to assume the contestants are following some plan to complement all the exercise. ‘American Grit’ is less concerned with the drama, but perhaps that is because the veterans that are coaching each team get to make the calls and John Cena has little tolerance for contestants who are disrespectful or whiny.

So where do they go right? When the contestants reveal their motivation and tell their stories of adversity, the shows both soar. It is hard not to start rooting for them when you hear, for instance, how one contestant on ‘American Grit’ broke both her hands and had to have her father feed, clothe and bathe her for two years. Or of the contestant on ‘Strong’ whose life unraveled when she found out that her husband was cheating on her.

Of course the contestants want to win the money, but most also are searching for that inner strength that has been buried deep inside. They want to be healthier both mentally and physically, and part of that journey, if it is on a trivial reality show, is to force themselves to dig deep and go beyond their normal day-to-day. They aren’t just watching, they are doing. And some of them needed a trainer or a coach, like a hard-ass former Marine, to tell them that they can do it and they believe in them.

I understand that need. I have a had a charmed life in the scheme of things and so I’m looking to become stronger, to face fears and push my limits. But I also rely on my coaches to make me uncomfortable, telling me to get back on the bar, do another pull-up or to keep going.

‘Strong’ sometimes feels a bit too formulaic, but there are moments of vulnerability that keep me interested in seeing these women succeed. ‘American Grit’ applied reality show casting 101 to start but when you submerge yourself in ice water or carrying a log for 3-miles, all the noise of these loud personalities are quickly drowned out by the realization that shit just got real. Plus, they get just a brief glimpse as to the training that are Armed Forces go through before they even start facing the evils of this world.

I’ll be tuning into both each week.

Review: “Progress”

41M1+TKi2IL._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_Last week, on a three-hour flight from Minneapolis to Las Vegas, where I was going to meet my Dad to celebrate his 65th birthday, I read Progress by Chris Moore, the Barbell Buddha, from cover to cover. I could not put the book down, skipping my usual mouth agape airplane shuteye.

Moore is a former college athlete, competitive power lifter, writer and host of his Barbell Buddha podcast and Barbell Shrugged. The man is well versed in the world of strength training and has found enlightenment along the way in his diligent path of learning how to be stronger and happier.

The book has a unique voice and Moore is extremely articulate when it comes to boiling down his views on progress. With short chapters, well chosen quotes and personal anecdotes, he conveys to the reader in short to keep it simple stupid.

“Setting big goals is the easiest thing in the world to do… Crawling under the barbell, running laps or preparing a week’s worth of high quality meals is far less exciting. But you cannot arrive at your destination without those first steps.”

In addition to keeping it simple, Moore advocates a process of self-evaluation encouraging the reader with the following steps:

  1. Write down your goal. Don’t just think it, commit it to paper.
  2. Identify your motives. Know exactly what you are after and why.
  3. Visualize your success. See yourself achieving your goals.
  4. Focus. “If you only have one ass, you cannot ride two horses.”
  5. Take it step by step. Take your time. It’s not a race.
  6. Use what you got. Don’t make the lack of equipment, program or a coach an excuse for not starting.
  7. Work with your limitations. Know your barriers and adjust as needed.
  8. Get lost in the process. Take those first few steps and get in the rhythm.

While Moore finds inspiration from Buddha and takes a Zen-like approach to training, he is not a monk. He believes that a little vice is needed – for him that is the occasional tequila and a donut. Essentially, Moore recognizes that progress is a daily pursuit through habit and purpose. It is not something fleeting. Goals can be short-term, but the pursuit of being stronger, faster, happier is ongoing.

“What matters most is that you make your decision and then put a plan in place. With that, and a perspective that allows you to adapt and evolve along your journey, you are sure to arrive a higher ground.”

Moore finds solace in a barbell, but don’t let his weightlifting background be a deterrent from reading his tome. Anyone can find inspiration even if your journey doesn’t involve any kilos.

Review: “Embrace the Suck”

51CSYZ0oKpL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_I am absolutely the target audience for Embrace the Suck, a memoir by Stephen Madden, former editor-in-chief of Bicycling magazine, about his time spent doing CrossFit. He chronicles a two-year period in his life where he “immersed himself in the culture, diet and psyche of CrossFit” and share what he learned about himself along the way. The book should perfectly appeal to someone like myself who has been doing CrossFit for almost 5 years and has competed, attended camp, visited affiliates gyms around the U.S. and abroad, etc.  However, the book falls flat.

If the aim of the book is to provide a deep dive into CrossFit via one man’s experience, Madden fails to capture the heart and spirit of the sport and community.  Anyone who picks up the book that is unfamiliar with CrossFit will not takeaway much more than what they could have learned in health magazine and blogs. Further, Madden misguides people by harping on this false idea that CrossFit makes its a goal to push people to the point of puking. He writes, “I wear my Pukie the Clown T-shirt with excellent pride”.  It is like when the media focused on the hidden evils of the sport and that everyone is going to get rhabdomyolysis (rhabdo). No matter whether I have been training at a box locally or in Las Vegas or in Bangkok, I have never met a coach or athlete that encouraged anyone to push themselves to the point of causing physical harm to themselves. I am sure they are exceptions, but Madden makes it sound like the norm.

If then the book is to provide one person’s own story about how they tested their limits and conquered their fears, than Madden also lost me.  He recounts his youth and depicts himself as this unathletic overweight kid, but then tells us about how he started playing hockey in third grade and was a killer on the ice and later about his career as an adult as a cyclist. Maddens seems to want to play up this struggle he has of separating his current self from his image of himself as a “slow, fat kid”. I don’t want to discount or deny his own experience, but the narrative feels strained and gasping at straws to make it resonate with the reader and have the emotional impact he desires.

My favorite section of the book is when Madden travels to Allentown, Pennsylvania to attend the SEALFIT 20X Challenge with Mark Divine.  As SEALFIT describes, “20X event is a one day (12-14 hour) intensive delivered by SEALFIT certified coaches at CrossFit gyms and other training sites around the country. The purpose of 20X is straightforward and clear: to break down your inner limitations and immediately expand your definition of your capabilities as an athlete and human being.” Madden uses the experience to prove he is “good enough”. He and the other attendees are put through the ringer as they endure endless physical and mental challenges. It’s awesome and one can clearly understand why it could be life-changing. But then Madden comes out of left field and shares the following exchange after the hours spent in the mud, carrying rocks, running and being fatigued beyond belief:

“‘Madden?’ Divine is in front of me. ‘What’s the most important thing you learned this year?’

‘Love is the answer, sir.'”

Madden later echoes this idea that love is the underlying reason of why he was able to “embrace the suck” and push his limits at the conclusion of the book. The problem is, and while he might believe the answer to be very true to him, Madden did little to explain how he got to this thinking. He tries to say that all the ups and downs were buoyed by the support he received from his wife and children and gym mates and even his mother who encouraged him to play sports as a kid. But it just didn’t register. Perhaps if the book was more well written then I would have more empathy for this epiphany that he has. However, Madden provides little to the reader to give us reason to believe he didn’t know this the whole time.

Madden tries to be informative about CrossFit and the culture that surrounds it, but doesn’t articulate why the community is so strong and why the sport has proven to be more than a fad. And he tries to take us on this personal journey, but he does not lay the groundwork that makes us really care. The book is fine and is an easy read but I believe Madden could have done much better. He could have pushed himself a bit harder as a writer to produce something that truly inspires.

Review: “Level Up Your Life”

I have been following Steve Kamb via his very unique lifestyle website, NerdFitness.com, for the past 3-4 years.  Kamb has created a worldwide online community of “nerds” through his inspirational posts, nutrition guides and fitness resources. By way of hobbits, superheroes, stormtroopers and Harry Potter, Kamb makes everything from yoga to weightlifting to the Paleo diet more easily accessible to average Joes, especially those who often get caught up in the fantasy and escape of comic books, video games and movies and too often ignore what’s happening in real life.

redeem-LUYL-bookAs a devoted reader of the website, I was excited for the release of his first book, “Level Up Your Life”.  It is both a memoir and self-help book as Kamb explains how he used his own love for video games as a way to structure the change he needed to bring about it in his own life so that he could live better.

Kamb knows change isn’t easy and that it doesn’t come in big leaps and bounds. Rather, the key to successful long-term sustainable change in life is incremental. Think of the original Super Mario Brothers for NES – there were 8 worlds and each world had 4 levels that you had to complete before you ultimately could save Princess Toadstool from the clutches of the evil Bowser. As you progressed, the enemies and obstacles became tougher. However, you were better prepared because of what you learned along the way, like how to time your jumps and how to swim around fish.

“Just like in games, if we can find a way to make small improvements and recognize those small improvements in our day-to-day lives, it’s likely to increase our overall happiness.”

Whether you are trying to lose weight, learn a new language, travel the world or develop a new skill, Kamb advocates this idea of “leveling-up”. Take one step at a time but set clear goals of what you want to accomplish before you move onto the next level in your adventure. For example, if you are looking to drop your body-fat percentage, the first level might be eliminating processed foods from your diet for 1-2 months. Then after you have successfully completed that challenge, the next level might be reducing the number of alcoholic beverages you have each week. The change will happen but it won’t be overnight. Similarly, if you want to learn how to speak Spanish fluently, the first level might be to learn 5 new words per week and a more advanced level might be having a 10-minute conversation in Spanish each week with the ultimate goal of traveling through Spain and being able to converse with the locals.

The book is very approachable and a fun read. Some appreciation of nerdom is suggested as he references everything from Luke Skywalker to James Bond to Jason Bourne to Katniss Everdeen to illustrate his point. Kamb calls upon the reader to even go as far as to create their own character or alter-ego – think Clark Kent/Superman. He also classifies the different type of quests that we can embark on (i.e. physical, mental/spiritual, business, adventure, etc.). This is all part of the hero’s journey that he wants us to take so that we can grow and develop into our best selves.

“The goal is to present yourself with challenges you are capable of overcoming but which are still challenging enough to engage all your attention.”

Since I was so familiar with his website, the book wasn’t revelatory but rather a good refresher for me on Kamb’s thesis and approach. For the newbie, there is a lot of information to digest. The book is not intended to be read in one sitting but to be a resource that you keep referring to along your journey. I appreciate that throughout the book Kamb included stories of “rebel heroes” from his “rebellion” who were able to “level up”. He is also quick to show his gratitude for all the bloggers and writers that he turns to for inspiration.

The book successfully transmits to the reader the spirit of his website and helps you understand why he has been able to build such a large community of change.