It’s no huge surprise that Jeremy Guarino won the first Buffalo Ninja Warrior contest in July. The Amherst gym owner is certified to teach yoga, CrossFit and personal training, and served four years in the Marine Corps Special Forces.
More surprising is the wide collection of fellow enthusiasts in Western New York who have locked on to one of the nation’s newest fitness trends: obstacle course training.
The “American Ninja Warrior” program, which this week completed its sixth season on NBC, stokes the fire for those interested in this brand of fitness training, a mashup of several styles that focuses on functional body weight-resistance exercises that test balance, strength and stamina, agility, coordination and determination.
“You can’t have weaknesses,” said Patrick Hall, owner of a new downtown gym, Hybrid Fitness, that has become the first in the region to go all-in on the format.
Gym members include a former commercial airline pilot, a mental health counselor, an advertising company owner and a freelance writer. Hall is a veteran personal trainer and his wife, Julie, a mortgage loan officer who helps her husband keep his free-flowing obstacle ideas a bit more grounded – for members of all ages and abilities.
“We scale things” for beginner, intermediate and advance levels, said Hall, 37, who has appeared on the television show twice and been nicknamed the “Buffalo Spider Man,” because of his roots, his climbing prowess, and the tattoo on his left forearm.
Hybrid Gym, at 475 Ellicott St., tucked in the back of the Ellicott Commons, replaced Hall’s previous gym, 716 Fitness, on Delaware Avenue, which focused on weight training, muscle isolation workouts and old-style calisthenics. Once the obstacles were brought in, it became clear a move was in order.
“We were literally hitting our heads on the ceiling,” he said.
The new gym opened in March. Seven ropes, five Olympic gymnastics rings, five overhead bars, a pair of nunchucks and a spider web-style rope system hang over a gymnastics spring floor. Alongside it, Hall has sprinkled a collection of ramps and free weights, kettlebells and weighted balls, and PVC pipes of different widths and lengths. The words of the gym motto – Move Free – are painted over a mirror on one of the walls.
Guarino, 27, embodies the obstacle model. Strong, flexible and sinewy, his Build a Machine Fitness center on Niagara Falls Boulevard offers a mix of training styles that includes interval, circuit, Olympic weightlifting, small gymnastics, parkour and yoga. He excels on the “Salmon Ladder,” an obstacle that for many “American Ninja Warriors” contestants is the most challenging of them all.
Such balanced fitness is key to avoiding elimination during competitions, Hall said.
“You can’t have weakness because American Ninja courses expose weakness. You’ll see the guys who are very well built, bigger, go out on the balance exercises. The guys who are light run through the balance drills well but have a hard time with some of the strength stuff.”
Guarino isn’t alone when it comes to the thrill of the obstacle pursuit. Here’s a look at others who have started to master some of the obstacles at Hall’s gym:
1. Warped Wall Dave Kozak, 67, of Buffalo, a retired U.S. Air Force and Continental Airlines pilot, can take a running start and bound up a curved, 12-foot-high wall, gathering himself at the top. His children, who live in Colorado, interested him three years ago in a Spartan race – a 5-mile run pockmarked with 30 obstacles – and now he’s hooked. He plans to participate in a 13-mile Beast run in the coming weeks before he has his right hip replaced. As a pilot, good fitness was required to keep his military and commercial licenses. Over the years, he’s done weightlifting, biking, rope work and bodybuilding. “This might be my favorite,” said Kozak, who also is a member at LA Fitness.
2. Cliff Hanger Kevin Karn, 35, who owns a home-based advertising business in North Buffalo, is an avid rock climber who can bound from a small trampoline onto a wall covered with four angled 2-by-4s, climb his way to the top and then climb, by his fingertips, along a box-shaped wall about a dozen feet off the ground.
3. The Quad Steps In this staple of the television contest, four ramps are set diagonally across from each other at 6 feet, 2 inches apart, and the contestant must bound along all four without touching the ground. Karn worked to perfect this obstacle and is among several members at Hybrid Fitness who hope to compete in the televised competition.
4. Salmon Ladder Two sets of five posts – set at 35-degree angles and 4 feet apart, and climbing one foot at a time, pose what many competitors see as the most challenging obstacle in the gym. Competitors must take a broomstick-sized pole to climb the ladder, without taking their hands off the pole. “A lot of contestants fail on the ‘American Ninja Warriors’ show with the Salmon Ladder,” Hall said. “This often comes after several other obstacles, when your body is worn out.”
5. Cat Burglar A 10-foot-long PVC pipe, 3 inches in diameter, is perched along a stripped down power cage that’s topped with steel monkey bars. Christian Fisher, 42, of Niagara Falls, a freelance writer who specializes in self-help magazine articles and books, looks like a cat on this obstacle. You must climb the pipe, which can twist while you’re on it, then climb the monkey bars upside-down without touching the sides of the power cage, or a cargo net that dangles beneath the bars. “My focus in my writing is on mental fitness and personal growth. I wanted to take on a physical challenge,” said Fisher, who also trains using cardio, P90X and yoga.
6. Tarzan Traverse Alicia Moonan, 33, who owns a counseling business in Hamburg, has found obstacle training to help stay fit. She can make her way across six knotted ropes of varying lengths, set apart at varying distances.
7. Floating Bars Jessie Guilmette, 34, of Cheektowaga, is a Hybrid personal trainer and professional wrestler – with the ring name Pepper Parks – whose Empire State Wrestling matches appear regularly on cable and pay per view across parts of the Northeast. He’s also gone pro when it comes to swinging across five “floating bars” suspended 9 feet from the gym ceiling at varying heights, 3 to 4 feet apart. The bars can spin when they are grabbed, making the moves forward more challenging.
8. Forest of Rings Five Olympic rings hang at slightly varying heights about 9 feet off the gymnastics floor. They are spaced, randomly, 2 to 5 feet apart. Christina Mayer, 22, of Cheektowaga, a Hybrid personal trainer and group fitness instructor, can swing across them in less than 30 seconds. “The distance varies intentionally,” Hall said, “so you can’t get used to the swing.”
9. Jumping Spider Steffanie Rydzik, 23, of North Buffalo, working on her MBA and master’s degree in public health at the University at Buffalo, can bound over a large truck tire and personal-size trampoline, catch herself between two walls, slightly more than 4 feet apart, and then scurry up a 10-foot wall using her hands and feet.
10. Stone Swing Julie Hall, 34, swings on a rope and is required to land atop a 10-pound, circular free weight sitting atop a wide, wobbly piece of PVC pipe. This move requires strength, agility and good balance.
11. Spool Walking Patrick Hall recently called an electrical company looking to find out if they had large wire spools they no longer needed. When he asked if he could buy one, and told the company why, he was given a spool compliments of the owner, a fellow “American Ninja Warrior” fan. Contestants in the Buffalo Ninja Warrior competition will need to walk on the spool for 15 feet without falling off.
12. Ledge Crawl Hall has hammered two 2-by-4s together side-by-side, tipped to concrete blocks vertically and positioned the wood through the blocks to craft a beam 14 feet long. Laura Dennis-Guilmette, 28, Jessie’s wife and fellow wrestler, can ramble across the unsteady beam without falling.
If these obstacles weren’t hard enough on their own, Ninja contests combine up to 10 of them into routines called stages. In six seasons, no contestant has claimed the “ultimate victory” title of American Ninja Warrior because nobody has made it into the fourth and final stage: a 75-foot rope climb that must be accomplished within 45 seconds.
This is why Luc Gosselin, associate professor in the University at Buffalo Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, who oversees an Exercise Is Medicine program at the school, recommends those starting obstacle training start slowly, particularly if they’re sedentary, and check with their doctor if they have any healthy concerns.
“We tell our clients when they start here, ‘Start easy and see how you feel at the end of the workout, the next day and the day after,’ ” Gosselin said. “If you feel fine, then you can add some intensity to your workout.”