Inspired by 'Ninja Warrior,' adults and kids alike tackle obstacle courses for fitness

Tony Torres, owner of Alternate Routes, trains the next generation of "Ninja Warriors" at his facility. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

The curved, wooden wall at Alternate Routes gym in White Marsh stands 14 feet tall, towering over 10-year-old Alex Oliveri and the other children in his obstacle-style fitness class.

But Alex isn't fazed. With his eyes fixated on what obstacle course pros call the "warped wall," the Forest Hill resident sprints toward its base and then runs up the convex wood as it curves away from him. He needs to reach the 9-foot mark in order to grab a hanging metal bar –- a milestone he is working to achieve.


"It's like climbing a mountain," said Alex, who has touched the bar once before in his Ninja Warrior class, but hasn't been able to hold on to it for more than a second. "I'm determined."

Inspired by the television series "American Ninja Warrior," where contestants tackle challenging obstacles, kids and adults alike are climbing, jumping and swinging their way into obstacle-style fitness. Alternate Routes, Kinetic Ninja Warrior in Bel Air and ZavaZone in Rockville are just a few of the local centers offering courses for all ages.


"The show has changed people's ideas of fitness," said Tony Torres, owner of Alternate Routes and a former contestant on "American Ninja Warrior." "The emergence of obstacle course races like the Tough Mudder and the show have made military-style fitness fun again."

Heather Crowe, clinical associate professor of kinesiology at Towson University, says there are several reasons why this type of exercise has taken off in recent years. The first: It's in our nature.

"If you think about it from a developmental perspective, that's really how children start exploring their environment," she said. "It is the non-patterned, sometimes up, sometimes down, pulling up, kind of making-your-own way to whatever your goal is. I think that's just a natural form of movement that we as humans seek out."

When children play on playgrounds, they seek activities like climbing on the jungle gym and swinging from the monkey bars, Crowe said. But as they age, they tend to get more involved in organized sports.

"It gets more and more restrictive as you get older," she said. "You need to have more talent and a higher skill level in order to make the next team. … There's a whole lot less opportunity. And within that, it's so much more restrictive in what kinds of movement are expected and rewarded."

In obstacle courses, most of the challenges are easily adaptable, meaning people of all ages and abilities can find success, she said.

Kent Weed, executive producer of "American Ninja Warrior," agreed.

"There's no limitations. Age doesn't matter. Race doesn't matter. Your gender doesn't matter," he said. "Everybody kind of competes on the same playing field, and it's a friendly competition, where everybody roots each other on."

Obstacle-style fitness also bonds families together, he said.

"As parents, we all are striving for things to do with our kids," Weed said. "And not just to go and take them to a sport and watch them do Little League, gymnastics or ballet. They're all great for our kids, but we observe on the sidelines. [With obstacle-style fitness], we can actually interact with our kids and do it with them. And it makes it so much more enjoyable."

For Tory Pentecost, obstacle fitness is a family affair. The Washington, D.C., resident said she loves competing with and against her 9- and 12-year-old daughters at ZavaZone.

"I love the fun of the challenge," she said. "It's a blast. There's so many different things and options to choose from. And it's just kind of fun to be a kid again."


Plus, it's an excellent workout, she said.

"The next day I'm in so much pain, but it's the good kind of pain," she said. "Pulling your own body weight and balancing. It has all of those things that the human body needs more so than anything else."

Crowe said these types of workouts offer a variety of benefits.

"Ninja-type workouts are typically body-weight training exercises, which means that they can be done anywhere. ... And a great place is at a playground with your kids," Crowe said. "Balance and strength are key elements of this type of workout. Walking across balance beam-type obstacles and moving across jungle gym equipment build core strength, as well as body awareness and coordination. Upper body and grip strength are developed through repetition with hanging obstacles."

Crowe added that they are also a good way to get kids interested in exercising at a young age.

"Even if you have limited equipment, [we can] teach children how to modify their own environment so they can go home and set up milk jugs and make an obstacle course," she said. "Then they can roll down a hill, and then they can climb up on a tree. Some parents are even so inspired they're putting up special ropes and swings."

At Alternate Routes, a 5,000-square-foot gym packed with obstacles, gym mats and a foam pit, Torres and his team conduct Ninja Warrior classes weekly. In addition to the warped wall, obstacles include quadruple steps, where participants leap between four angled steps; the spinning log, where they balance on top of a tube while moving it forward with their feet; and a 58-foot-wide peg board, which extends both vertically and horizontally across the back wall of the gym.

Kinetic Ninja Warrior opened in Bel Air last fall bring Harford County’s only “Ninja Warrior” obstacle course training gym to life.

When Alex Moseley, 17, started taking classes there three years ago, he couldn't even make it past the first hole on the massive peg board. But the Bel Air resident never gave up. This year, he completed the entire board in one minute, eight seconds -– two seconds faster than Torres' record time.

"It takes so much energy," said Moseley, who now works at the gym and has competed in National Ninja League competitions across the East Coast. "At the end, I'm dying. But it's gotten me to the point where I am now, and I love where I am now."

He and kids like him are why the field continues to grow, Torres said. Visits to Alternate Routes, which also offers Parkour, flipping and running classes, have increased every year since it opened in 2012, and Torres said he is looking for a bigger space for the gym. At ZavaZone, which offers everything from a Ninja Warrior course to climbing walls and trampolines, visits have increased every month since opening in April 2016, said co-owner Joe Henry, who added that the gym now gets about 7,500 people a month.

Applications to compete on "American Ninja Warrior," which had its season premiere Monday on NBC, have also increased. This year, more than 75,000 people applied -– up from 25,000 just a few years ago, Weed said.

Kids who were 13 and 14 years old when the first season premiered in 2009 are a major factor, he said.

"A lot of these kids who are now 21 years old, they compete, and they come on and crush the course," he said. "Imagine if you trained for something for five, six, seven years. One goal and that's all you did. And then you get a chance to do it. It's amazing."

"It's really kind of a whole new crop of young athletes that are just super-talented," he said.


New obstacle courses are also popping up each year. In April, Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park in Williamsport opened "Boo Boo's Bootcamp" -– three different courses with varying degrees of difficulty. And in November, Towson University will open a more than 2,000-square-foot course for students, faculty and staff in its newly expanded recreation space.


"Fitness is a very trendy market where things come and go," said Eric Barron, assistant director of fitness at Towson University. "But I truly believe this is one of those fitness trends that will stay around for a while."

For now, Alex is still working to reach that metal bar hanging from the warped wall. The minimum age for the show is 21, so he'll have plenty of time to practice.

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