ON SOME level, James McGrath works out like the rest of us. He runs in his Normandy Park neighborhood. He does pullups, intervals and stairs.
But in case you think your workout resembles McGrath’s, a competitor on the NBC-TV show “American Ninja Warrior,” let me assure you it does not.
When he’s in full training, McGrath does around 100 pullups a day; some days he goes as high as 300. He will add balance to his runs by striding the length of a street curb. He uses a rock-climbing fingerboard to strengthen his fingers and practice weight shifts for obstacles like “Crazy Cliffhanger.” The 6-foot-2 McGrath also will hang from his fingertips to build endurance.
See? Not like the rest of us.
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McGrath, 27, started out a fan of the show, called “Sasuke” where it originated in Japan. In 2009, the American version launched. McGrath decided to try out as a walk-on in the second season and has since become one of the competition’s elite; he was one of five selected for a special USA vs. Japan series that aired in January. He went back for this season’s tryouts, which starts airing May 26.
The show is made up of intensely physical challenges with names like Unstable Bridge and Flying Bar that are set up over water. To win, you have to go through various stages. You get only one run-through; fall and you’re out.
“It’s all about being perfect,” McGrath says.
When I first started talking to people about this guy, they wanted to know how he gets his explosive power.
The thing is, McGrath is rather modest. A runner in high school, he says his biggest skill is his speed.
During competition, McGrath also looks fearless. He says he’s not.
“I get nervous about falling in general,” he says. “Falling means you failed. That’s why I train this way.”
His backyard is like a mini “American Ninja Warrior” show. When he started training, McGrath built a “salmon ladder,” a famous obstacle that requires the athlete to move a pullup bar vertically up rungs. James also set up two opposing boards with a small ledge so he could practice hanging from his fingertips from one board, swinging to gain momentum, spin 180 degrees and land holding on by his fingertips on the other one. Sure thing, James.
On the previous season and also in USA vs. Japan, McGrath fell on the Floating Boards challenge. Frustrated, he built a version of it at home, with four heavy boards hanging vertically from a second-floor deck. He’s been working on technique to grip the boards with his feet and figuring out how to move between them.
Last, but not least, hanging from a tree is a 55-foot rope McGrath can scale insanely quickly.
Building home versions of obstacles helps him work on technique, but McGrath avoids spending too much time on them so he doesn’t get comfortable. Things change on the show.
All the guys train differently, he says. The most important thing is knowing your weaknesses and turning them into strengths.
The show doesn’t pay real money unless you win. So why keep training like this?
“When I started doing it, it was living out a dream,” McGrath says. “I don’t want to stop.”
Nicole Tsong teaches yoga at studios around Seattle. Read her blog at papercraneyoga.com. Email: email@example.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.