What does practicing medicine have in common with being a ninja warrior?
As an emergency room doctor, our guest today is an expert in dealing with high-pressure situations.
Dr. Noah Kaufman, the Ninjadoc, stars on the hit TV show “American Ninja Warrior.” He’s an avid rock climber of over 25 years and holds a black belt in karate.
He’s going to tell us what it’s like to compete on the world’s hardest obstacle courses—and how regular people can get off the couch and start climbing, too.
On this show, we’re talking about:
- How to train like a Ninja Warrior
- The best way to bounce back after an injury
- Why mindset matters more than muscle
- The 3 pillars of training for any sport
- And how to kick butt when you’re over 40
Dr. Noah Kaufman: The Ninja Doc Spills The Beans
Abel: When he’s not busy saving lives in the ER, Noah loves to play blues guitar. It sounds like we’ll get along, my man. Welcome to the show, Ninjadoc.
Hey Abel. It’s so good to be here. Thanks for having me on. This is going to be a lot of fun.
Abel: Before we started, I was just watching a video of your son, Zun, who was three years old at the time, doing things that 99.9% of adults would not be able to pull off. Could you explain a little bit about what it’s like to raise a monkey?
Right, right. Well, we’re all raising monkeys, but Zun has been climbing since he was born. I basically put sticky rubber onto his little baby shoes.
And it’s funny because we’re not used to it, but kids can really start in on some of these things when they’re very young.
And so yeah, he’s been climbing for five years, and so you take anybody who’s been climbing for five years and they’re decent. You combine that with great strength-to-weight ratio—because he weighs, I think, like 46 pounds.
He’s doing really well now on the rocks, and I can’t wait to see what he’s able to do with whatever he chooses to do. He’s mostly climbing because that’s what his mom and I love to do.
Abel: The coolest part about watching you on the TV show “American Ninja Warrior”—which, if you folks haven’t seen, it is worth watching, it is very entertaining—but when you see someone like you come up and do a course, you can tell that you’re playing a different game. You’re playing chess or poker, whereas other people seem to be flying at obstacles.
Your approach is very calculated, you can tell that you’ve been dedicated to this for a long time. And you’re approaching it in a completely different way because you’re pulling these essential skills into a completely new domain.
So can you explain to other folks how you do that?
With athletics or anything that you’re trying to do in life, I think the more present you are in the moment, the more you’re able to get into what people describe as the flow state, and the better your results are going to be.
And you kind of leave yourself behind in the worries of, “I’m not going to do well. I’m going to fall. I’m going to do this and the other thing.”
Outside of my climbing (which gives me great grip strength), I think a lot of my success on Ninja Warrior has to do with the fact that I’m in high-pressure situations frequently with my job as an ER doc. And so, I’m really kind of like, “It’s not the end of the world. ” I have fairly good perspective. So I go into it laughing and having fun.
And you’re right, it’s more strategic—and it kind of needs to be for me because believe it or not, I’m actually not naturally a great athlete. There are guys out there who do like 10 one-arm pull-ups in a row. I can’t even do one; I think I did one once.
For me, it’s a very calculated thing. And my strongest muscle is my brain, so that’s what I use when I’m out on the ninja course.My strongest muscle is my brain, so that’s what I use when I’m out on the ninja course.… Click To Tweet
Abel: How do you teach other people to engage that muscle? The muscle that, you throw yourself into a new situation, you know how to figure it out. That type of improvisational know-how.
There are a lot of ways to do that. First and foremost: training. If you train box jumps all day long, you’re going to get really good at box jumps, but you may not be as good at jumping at an angle from on top of the box down onto a smaller box.
And so, one of the things that we train and that I train is variability. And we’re always training differently.
We’re always training differently, so we can adapt to every situation. That’s what the best ninjas do and a lot of the best athletes.
They don’t just stay focused honed in on one thing, but they’re training adaptability.
Now, the other part of your question, though… That’s the cerebellum, that’s the physical aspects. But the mental aspects, there’s a lot of different training you can do. We like to do a lot of mental training, and a lot of it is visualization.
Before I get on any Ninja Warrior course, I’ve done the course in my head successfully, maybe 30 to 50 times. I’ve already done it to a degree, and every time, I visualize success.
It’s funny, because even in my own brain, occasionally, like I drop into the water when I’m visualizing, and I’m like, “No, no, no, no, no.”
It’s a tricky thing and none of us are perfect, but you do your best to have a successful, confident approach to what you’re doing. And then there’s just a myriad of things that I could tell you about the mental training we do, everything from trying to hold on to the rock climbing wall as hard as we can until our hands pop off first before our feet, and we’re just screaming—that’s mental training.
You could do stuff like that, and the body will ultimately follow the mind. If you can really train your mind, your body’s going to follow and you’ll get to your athletic potential, or close to it at least.
Abel: What about the times that you do fall? Because you’re planning for all those successes. I think that’s what makes the more critical injuries that much more intense because you’re so focused on the visualization working out, and sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.
So what happens when it gets super serious all of a sudden?
So, when you fall on “Ninja Warrior,” for example? Is that what you mean?
Abel: Sure, we can start there.
Well, yeah, and I have, and many of the pros have. Everybody’s fallen actually except for one guy who made it the whole season without falling, and that was Geoff Britten. And I’ll tell you, it’s hard.Failures are tough, but they say you don't really fail until you quit trying. Click To Tweet
So you have to step away from it, say, “Okay, yeah, that didn’t feel good.” But you pick yourself back up and you say, “What can I do better next time?” Sometimes it’s a little slip; sometimes it’s a variable outside of your control, but either way, there’s always something to be learned from it and you just have got to remember that life is a big, long process, and there’s going to be more competitions and more Ninja events.
Abel: Here’s one thing that I noticed, though, about watching you that I totally loved, and this was something that I saw on the show as well as in some of your climbing videos, when you have those little wins or big wins, the right wins, you do a little fist pump, a little celebration dance even if you’re still hanging on to the rocks or the mountain, you’re still like, “Woo!” you catch your breath, you celebrate for a second and then you can tell you go right back into the zone.
Yes. We affectionately call that “the look back.”
It’s kind of a funny little thing. You really only want to do that when you’re 99.9% sure that you’re in there, because it would look really silly if you were to do the look back and celebrate and then fall.
So, for a climber, you have to be on the finishing jug, like the last hold. If you’re a climber and you grab the top of that warped wall, someone could hang off the bottom of your legs and you’d still hold on.
It’s kind of fun to hang there and soak it all in, to look back at Matt and Akbar—who are friends, those are great guys—and the rest of the ninjas and everybody in the crowd. It’s just taking it all in and being present, very present in the moment.
Abel: That’s what I mean because I think there’s a tendency, especially for things that are super competitive, not only at Ninja Warrior competitions but also just making it to the top of a mountain or a super tough climb or something like that.
It’s pretty easy to go into type A mode, celebrate nothing, and just keep on grinding and grinding and grinding, and you’d never reach the top, right?
You have got to smell the flowers. Literally and figuratively. You know what I mean? If you’re walking by a beautiful flowering cherry tree, you have got to stop and smell the blossoms. It just makes life a little bit sweeter.
That’s what you want. You want to focus on those little wins and on the beauty and the magic in life because we don’t have it forever.
Abel: Now for you, I’m interested to know how your fitness changes over time because you’ve probably been in a lot better shape in different ways at various points, but how do you choose and how do you maintain that baseline?
So the cool thing is, based on experience and time, your technique and agility and overall athleticism, including mental control, all these fine little knobs and dials—I’ve noticed that it keeps going up.
I’m 42 years old now, and I’m at the peak of my athletic abilities, mentally and psychologically. I’m sure there’s going to be a peak to that.
Now, physically, of course, I’ve peaked and I’m not as strong as when I could do a one-arm pull-up. I used to be able to do so much more with my body, but I’ve made up for it with technique and all those other things.
If I just train really hard for a few months; I get on the bike and I push myself as hard as I can, then I get myself physically to a peak state for what my body is capable of now, and when I combine that with the ever-increasing mental abilities, it really produces an athletic state that, right now, is the best in my life.
There are times when it’s down and I obviously deal with injuries like anybody else does, a little tendonitis here and there.
And you really just have to realize that no matter what, you can keep improving, to a certain point. But I know climbers in their 60s who are climbing harder than they’ve ever climbed, 5.14, which is hard. That’s really, really stinking hard.
It’s a journey and just realizing that you don’t have as near a time limit. It’s not like, “Okay. Uh-oh, I’m in my early 30s, I better get everything done ’cause I’m going to lose my abilities soon.” It’s not like that at all, I found.
Abel: It’s probably safer to learn when you’re older, right? I remember when I was younger, I first started doing a little climbing and the people who were teaching me were just like, “Stop using your stupid big biceps, you idiot.”
You can get into a lot of trouble by doing it the wrong way, if you’re too strong in the wrong way.
Right. You can power through things and that’ll limit your technique. Obviously, you want both, but yeah, if you focus on technique, technique is always the most important thing.
The physical tools, those will always come with training, and we’re all born with a certain set of characteristics, but the mind is really the most important thing to develop for any athletic pursuit.
Abel: Yeah, and to your point, I was watching the documentary “Meru,” with Conrad Anker and a few other climbers who appear not to age.
It’s kind of like some rock stars. If they don’t die when they’re 26, they live forever. They reach that max level and then they still—even though, like you said, they might not be as strong as they were before—they are not the standard American story.
It’s like these people refuse to age. They refuse to accept what almost everyone else does, that we get old and sedentary and can’t do anything anymore.
Yeah, a lot of that’s a mental state. We’ve got people who are 60 and 70 years old who always wanted to try Ninja Warrior, coming out to our event here in Denver just to try this ninja course. And so they’re getting up and they’re getting after it.
Jessie Graff, who’s super famous now, her mom is going to do Ninja Warrior this year in Daytona. I hope she does super well, she’s amazing.
It’s never too late to get off the couch and turn your life around and get fit, and it’s never been more important than right now.
Abel: I think, because I experienced this as well, the scariest thing about a ninja course is that you know you’re going to fall. You know that you’re guaranteed to screw up, and that’s probably what keeps most people in their little box, right?
Because you haven’t done stuff like that since recess in elementary school, probably. But we all need it desperately.
Well, it’s interesting you say that. We’re doing this big charity event, I keep referencing it, but it’s part of the reason why we’re not only giving people multiple tries, but we’ve really made the course a lot easier.
My 5-year-old has already done the first three obstacles. For adults, it’s going to be head-to-head racing. It’s going to be super exciting to watch the pros. All the pro ninjas are going to be there.
But like I said, if you’re 60 or 70 years old and you just wanted to try a fun ninja course, this is going to be a lot easier than what you might see on TV, and a lot of people are coming out of the woodwork to try it. It’s going to be insane, actually.
Abel: Yeah, and having done a few similar obstacle course things recently, I can say it’s fun. You have the most fun when you’re falling.
You really do… and you can crush it after.
You pushed yourself and you tried, right? And everybody falls. I mean, that’s part of the game and that’s what’s so cool about Ninja is, everybody falls and it’s okay.
How To Recover from an Injury
Abel: Let me ask you this, because I was on a climbing trip a few years ago, and I clearly had the wrong footwear for the job. I broke my foot. That was rough, and getting back from there was rough.
So I started doing inversions for the first time and training myself to do handstands. I had to get creative, and I worked through it and it was kind of fun because I came out learning how to do some fingertip push-ups and other things like that, training muscles that I didn’t even know that I had.
But getting hurt is hard, so I’m sure you’ve had a few. How do you get through it?
Yeah, I separated my shoulder horribly. I had a third degree separation. I was out for nine months, I couldn’t even do a pull-up.
When you get injured, we all get depressed. I mean, that’s natural, and it feels like you’re never going to get better.
And you think, “Oh, my gosh, is this it? Am I hosed now? Am I different?”
And sometimes you have to live with injuries, and yeah, it may be a little different. But here’s the interesting thing that most people don’t realize, and that is that your body is made to remodel itself, and so, especially if you’re less than 60 years old… When you get injured, the bones, the muscles, they get better by being used, and by movement, and by remodeling.
You have to have a positive attitude. And it’s hard to sometimes, but the worst thing you can do if you’re injured is to sit on the couch and wait to heal. Everyone should be doing active recovery and obviously, you have got to start slow. You have to give it a few weeks for the blood to form scar tissue and to turn into new bone or tissue or ligament, tendon, whatever it is.
If you needed surgery, then you need time to heal from that. Generally, I don’t like surgery. Nobody does, but I’m saying I think we do too much surgery for too many injuries. Sometimes you need it. If your bone is in six pieces, you need to put it back together with pins and stuff, and you should trust your orthopedic doc and get second opinions or whatever.
But ultimately, you need an active recovery, you need to remodel whatever it is that was injured, and you have to understand that most people who have severe, serious injuries bounce back, and if they are active and they have a positive attitude and they train, they will get to a point that far exceeds where they were before the injury. So, an injury is an obstacle, it’s something that gets in your way, but you come out of it with different skills, like you did.
Perhaps your fingers get stronger and your shoulders and back from doing inverted stuff. Perhaps you focus on bicep curls if your foot is broken.
Perhaps you’re focused on agility, one-legged agility. You can always do something. And it’s really incredible.
You have got to be creative, obviously, but the more you can do to keep healthy and fit, the better your recovery is going to be, the better your mood is going to be.
If you need perspective, just think about all the people who have done their best after having the worst injuries. Tommy Caldwell cut off his finger with a table saw, his index finger, and then he came back and climbed way harder than he ever did before.
There’s also some lessons in the injuries that you carry with you that I think can make you a stronger athlete as well.
Abel: Are there any stories that stand out to you of people who you maybe thought wouldn’t come back after you heard about them getting injured?
Well, I think everybody can come back. I’m an optimist. So I didn’t doubt this guy for a second, but my buddy, Jimmy—one of the most amazing people I know—fell about 70 or 80 feet off a climb and he broke his back in three places, he smashed both of his calcaneus, his heel bones. He broke his wrist, he was shattered. And thank God he didn’t have a bad head or C-spine, neck injury.
And he had surgeries, and this and that, and at the time he was climbing 5.13, like easy 5.13, or something like that, and he has come back now and he’s done 5.14, less than a year later. And they didn’t even think he would walk!
This is just a testament to the human mind. He’s an amazing guy and he’s got a strong, strong mind.
But then again, sometimes you just have to fake it to make it, and if you don’t think you have a strong enough mind to do this… You just have to fake it.
Because if you let your body remodel, yeah you might be different, you might not be perfect, things might hurt a little bit, but you can still achieve everything you want to achieve athletically and beyond.
Abel: One thing that obviously would help people prepare to come in for their first competition, their first race, or anything is having some level of that baseline fitness that I was talking about.
What are the things that you think are achievable for people who might not have a history of being athletic, but they should start doing right away to start building upon, that way, they can have some confidence when they come in?
Gyms are popping up everywhere in terms of climbing gyms, parkour gyms, ninja gyms. It’s like a massive wave, this huge paradigm shift in sports and athletics.
And I would say that number one, two, and three is if you are off the couch or you’re a newbie or you’re a kid or you just want to get into stuff. Number one, two, and three, and this is why ninja and obstacles are so successful, is you have got to have fun.
If you have fun, it won’t seem like working out; you’ll go and do it, you’ll want to do it more and more, and you’ll start to see results. It’ll be this self-feeding cycle of positivity that will really improve your life.
And so, for me, I would obviously recommend the climbing gym because you can go in, where everybody’s very social and it’s so easy to find any level of climb. You could get on climbs, and go up a 45-degree angle that’s easy to walk up with handholds and start to figure it out, and then say, “Okay, I want to push it a little bit more,” so you steepen the angle, and then obviously, eventually, it gets to flat wall or even overhanging.
So get into a ninja gym. It’s always good to do with a friend. Invite a friend out and say, “Hey, let’s go do something fun. Let’s go try climbing for a day.”
And then pick a route, try to pick a climb, they’ll be tape marks on the climb. Pick something that takes a couple tries, and then pick something that’s a little bit harder and just find your level.
You’re going to have a lot of fun figuring out how to do these obstacles—whether they’re climbing obstacles, ninja obstacles, or like at our event.
Come out to our event. If it’s your first time, we’ll show you how. We have very basic obstacles; come out and check out some basic ninja obstacles with the ninjas from “Ninja Warriors.” So, yeah. Do something.
Abel: How do you get people to level up once they get to that, “Okay, I’m having fun now, I’m exploring”?
What separates out the people who just keep getting a ton better, who have a shot?
The thing that separates the people who get really, really good from the people who are just kind of having fun and use it to get a little bit more fit. It’s really their level of passion for what they’re doing.
It’s not easy to go to the gym all the time. It’s easier and easier once you’ve seen that self-improvement and once you’ve seen how you can shape your body and your mind and how you can improve and grow.
In climbing, the people who are the best at climbing are the people who enjoy it the most and just want to do it non-stop and get outside, and they just really want to do it.
Now if you already have that passion and you want to make it to the next level, well, that’s where training comes into play. And there’s a lot of great training books and that’s an advance level.
I would say the moment you start training for anything, it’s because you’ve taken yourself to a place where you’re very passionate about what you’re doing, and you now want to explore your freedom within this realm of skiing, or surfing, or whatever it is.
You want to get better at it so you can enjoy it, because it always gets more and more enjoyable as things get bigger and harder and more challenging, and you feel more free to move your body through space and time.
So, when the training starts, that’s when you start referencing sport-specific books. There’s great ones for each book, or you go to a trainer or you take a class with an expert or a pro.
That’s what I would recommend, and I think that’s the natural journey for most people.
Three Pillars of Athletic Training
Abel: What about strength training, intensity training, that kind of cross-training approach that you were talking about before?
How do you know what’s enough, what’s too much? How do you balance that all out with the other types of training you’re talking about?
To get more specific, and I’m happy to get specific, the younger you are, the more you can do. And you need less rest.
It’s always great to alternate. This is age-old advice, but upper body days and lower body days, aerobic, anaerobic, it’s good to alternate that stuff.
But at high levels, us athletes start getting into periodization. We’ll maybe do aerobic activity and then slowly get into power endurance and then power during the final phases, the final few weeks, to prepare for an event.
Pillar One: Cross-Training But overall, I would say, as a general rule of thumb, if you’re beginning your training, you’re passionate about what you’re doing, cross-training is super important. Everyone needs aerobics. Everyone needs heart rate control, over-unders, Tabata-type stuff where you’re getting your heart rate way, way up, you’re sprinting, and then you’re letting it recover and then you’re sprinting again. That helps every single sport. Period. It’s really important.
Pillar Two: Strength Training Strength training is also one of the fundamental pillars. Obviously, the stronger you are, the better your strength-to-weight ratio is as long as you’re not gaining a lot of weight and mass. So that’s another pillar, and that involves going to the gym. And then, obviously, there are a million things there. You want to use dumbbells if you can, for all the fine muscle coordination, if you can, over straight bar presses and whatnot. Although, there’s a place for that, too. And so, you can get so detailed into all this stuff, and that’s why there’s PhDs in exercise physiology, and there are people who dedicate their lives to studying this.
Pillar Three: Nutrition And then the third pillar is really nutrition, and nutrition is just key. You totally are what you eat. And if you’re eating candy bars and drinking soda pop, you’re really hurting yourself and your ability levels. And you might not see it as much when you’re a kid or when you’re young, but yeah, it’s really going to limit you. And then obviously smoking cigarettes is just the biggest no-no ever.
Abel: Have you seen anyone fall off because they didn’t nail the nutrition piece?
Yeah. It makes injuries harder to heal from, and I’ve definitely seen in my career that people who are eating healthy and who have focus on nutrition, they always seem to fly and excel and really be able to heal better from injuries. And they’re just able to move faster.
There’s always that genetically-gifted athlete who is amazing and they eat candy bars and soda pop. And that happens. But A, it’s rare; and B, that person, if they face a serious injury in their late 20s or early 30s, is going to take a lot longer to heal.
Ultimately, their metabolism is going to slow down, and they’re not going to progress as far as they could’ve. They might have been like the world’s best at something because of the cards that they were dealt.
No matter what, you’re limiting yourself if you’re not eating a healthy diet.
Abel: And I think that’s a key point that differentiates you folks, the ninjas I mean, from a lot of other people who were just kind of in the fitness world (who may or may not be roided up) where the philosophy is more is always better, more muscles… It’s a completely different approach than what you guys are doing.
This is functional fitness at its best. It’s fun. You don’t have tons of muscles; you’re in great shape, you’re shredded. But this is kind of what the human body is meant to be like, I think, if you’re in great shape. It’s not meant to carry around all of these muscles. That’s not even good for you in a lot of cases.
Think of, like, Tarzan. Tarzan would have dominated on a Ninja Warrior course. Or Native Americans or Eskimos, these people who live off the land or go hunting, something functional. I guarantee you, they would do very well on a Ninja Warrior course. So it’s a really good point.
Like you said, it’s functional and if anything, we want more agility or more mind control, and yeah, just a more total package.
If you focus on one thing in particular too much, you’re going to get out of balance.Balance is really the key to being the best athlete you can be at just about anything. Click To Tweet
Where to Find Dr. Noah Kaufman
Abel: Before we go, could you tell folks where they can find you and a little bit more about what you’re working on?
Well, all the ninjas are really interested in fighting childhood obesity and diabetes because our fans have come out of the woodwork on Twitter and Facebook, saying, “Oh, my family lost 70 pounds,” or “I got my dad to quit smoking,” or “We knocked out soda pop.” So, all the ninjas have banded together.
Go to wolfpackninjas.com, and you can learn everything you need. If people want to follow me, I am on Instagram @noahkaufmanmd and I’m @noahkaufmanmd on Twitter. Follow the Wolfpack for sure, @wolfpackninja on Twitter, and @wolfpackninjawarrior on Instagram.
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