Ninja fitness class provides a fun, fierce workout
BY DONYA CURRIE
The workout starts typically enough, with a slow jog around the Polar Fitness studio in Spotsylvania County.
But a few minutes into the weekly “Nothing to Ninja” class, people are doing handstands against a padded wall, vaulting over obstacles, balancing on metal pipes and running and jumping like action movie heroes.
Loosely modeled after the television show “American Ninja Warrior,” in which competitors tackle obstacle courses that have them scaling walls and performing other body- and mind-bending feats, the local class aims to help people improve their fitness while having fun.
“What I wanted to do is create something that’s interesting,” said class leader and Polar Fitness co-owner Jason Yusko, 34. “It’s a challenge to your body. It’s a challenge to your mind. You’re moving in a way you haven’t before, or you haven’t since you were a kid.”
Think jumping over mud puddles, playing tag and swinging across monkey bars. Yusko said he is tapping into the joy of movement many of us had when we were younger.
His class also is modeled after the popular “couch to 5k” program that promises to ready even the most sedentary for a 3.1-mile race within 10 weeks. The idea is to improve fitness in a short period, and in Yusko’s case, to have fun on the journey.
The Ninja class is the antidote to a typical treadmill trot or gym-based weight training session.
“Take it back to your playground principles,” said Yusko, who with his wife, Carrie, opened Polar Fitness in November. “Kids go out there, and they’re playing tag for 30 minutes, 45 minutes, and they don’t care. They’re running, they’re stopping, they’re sprinting. It’s fun. They don’t realize they’re working out.”
For many adults, though, exercise has become yet another dreaded task on a long to-do list. Not so with the Ninja class.
“It’s an incredibly strenuous workout, but it’s a lot of fun at the same time,” said Reid Bailey, 46, of Fredericksburg.
Brian Corcoran, 35, of Fredericksburg, is a fan of the “American Ninja Warrior” television show and had taken other classes at Yusko’s studio. He also was “playing tag with my kids a bunch, so a class that brought all of that together for me was a natural fit.”
Theresa Jett signed up her son Austin, 15, for the Ninja class because “he’s the kind of kid who jumps off of things and scares me to death.”
The class offers instruction on how to land properly, for example, and how to do a forward roll so the impact is on the shoulder, not the head and neck.
DIVE-BOMBERS AND MORE
Each class starts with a warm-up such as a few laps around the studio and then some dive-bomber push-ups. Those are a strength training move that use nearly every muscle group and look like a cross between a yoga sun salutation and a traditional push-up.
For wall walks, another warm-up exercise, class members start in a push-up position with their feet against a wall, then walk their feet up the wall, their arms back toward the wall, until the result is a supported hand stand.
Yusko is a huge fan of squats, so those likely will feature prominently in any class, but you never know. Some classes have participants throwing rocks and logs; others focus on climbing.
“We talk about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone,” said Yusko.
He also encourages each of the 10 members of the Ninja class to work to their own ability level to prevent burnout, frustration and injury. Some are better at vaulting and some have better balance skills, but everyone has a chance to try each exercise.
On one class day, after the warm-up, the groups headed outside for a quarter-mile run followed by some moves across a grassy patch. First were bear crawls, where each person walked on all fours for several yards.
A move called monkeys meant crossing hands and feet to travel sideways across the grass. Gorillas had each person starting in a crouch, then propelling across the grass in short, sideways hops. Each move required strength, cardiovascular fitness and concentration.
After a quarter-mile run back to the studio and a quick water break, class members then worked on forward rolls and balance moves until it was time to string it all together in the entire indoor obstacle course.
The course tested students’ balance by having them jump across several Bosu balls, then vault over a chest-high obstacle and jump and roll to the ground. Another week might involve balancing on low pipes and then a higher balance beam. The next might focus more on climbing.
Yusko times each class member, not to see how people fare against one another, but to measure how each individual progresses week to week. At the end of the six-week session, he expects that those who train hard and complete his suggested “homework” assignments will improve their fitness.
The homework, like the class, becomes harder each week but might feature an interval running workout that alternates sprints with rests, or body moves like the dive-bomber pushups, bear walks and squats.
“Anything we do can be adapted. Don’t be scared to push your boundaries,” Yusko said to a new class member recently. “You need to remember we are all works in progress, the beginner to an elite athlete. Here you compete with yourself as you work to improve your fitness competency. We encourage all students to be supportive of each other’s journey.”
Classes are limited to 10 participants and run for six weeks. The next class begins Sept. 8. Check www.polar-fit.com or call (540) 850-5192 for details.
SIDEBAR: SWITCH UP YOUR ROUTINE
In the quest for fitness, variety could be the missing ingredient for people who aren’t getting as fit as they’d like or who have trouble staying motivated to work out.
People who switched up their exercise routine every two weeks during a two-month span were more likely to keep working out and to enjoy their sweat sessions, a University of Florida study found.
In the world of certified fitness trainers, most will tell you to change the type of exercise you’re doing periodically to avoid injury and burnout and to challenge different muscle groups.
“Boredom can kill any exercise routine,” said Garrett Green, a certified personal trainer and owner of Green Fitness in downtown Fredericksburg. “Variety helps work on different areas like strength, balance and flexibility, instead of just one.”
Not to mention the fun of trying new things. At Green Fitness, for example, a Hero Training class kicks off next month as a nod to the new Batman film and as a way to tap into people’s inner superhero by, for example, having them face each other and practice strength moves.
Polar Fitness in Spotsylvania County features several creative classes, from pole dancing to those incorporating an indoor obstacle course.
“You train to have fun, first and foremost,” said Polar Fitness co-owner Jason Yusko. “You need to go ahead and do cross training, and that goes back to being functional. You don’t want to be stuck in one rut.”
“Functional fitness” was identified as one of the top 10 fitness trends for 2012 in a yearly survey by the American College of Sports Medicine. Such workouts involve training to be better able to perform daily tasks like hauling in groceries or regaining your balance and avoiding falls.
Traditional exercises such as running, cycling and step aerobics still have their place. But many people tend to avoid exercise that they don’t enjoy, or focus too much either on cardio or weight training. Boredom or intimidation lead many to skip exercise altogether.
A study published recently in The Lancet found that a third of adults worldwide are inactive and that sedentary lifestyles kill 5 million people each year.
“People just need to get up and move,” Yusko said.
Varying your workout can help protect against injury, Green said, by not overstressing any single muscle group. He looks forward to playing soccer at least once a week and running a youth tennis clinic in addition to his regular weight training workouts.
“You want to enjoy your exercise,” said Green, whose studio even runs a “pub crawl” that has clients running downtown and finishing the workout with a beer. “People hate exercising. Why not tune it to having fun?”
The Green Fitness Hero Training program runs Aug. 2–30. Check begreenfit.com or call 540/623-4850 for details.
Donya Currie is a freelance writer in Stafford County who regularly contributes to Healthy Living and other health-related publications, including the AARP Bulletin. You can write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.