I dressed up like a Ninja and had a Teenage Mutant Ninja turtle pizza oven.
Plus, chicks dig Ninja’s.
In hindsight, being a ninja wouldn’t have been such a bad gig.
After all, they’re strong, explosive, wear mysterious costumes, crush pizza all day, and are in complete control of body. Basically, they’re athletic and pretty jacked.
I’d wager to bet these are the same qualities you want with your training—a strong, explosive body capable of handling whatever life throws at you.
Now, I can’t guarantee you’ll be featured in the next Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ flick or become famous like Bruce Lee, but I’d bet my collection of throwing stars that using explosive movements in your training will get you stronger, leaner, and more athletic.
Rule Number One: Get Stronger
Your body doesn’t know weight, it knows tension and that it must recruit motor units (mu’s) on demand to overcome that tension.
When muscles contract, the smallest MU’s fire first, with more and bigger MU’s being called to action as needed.
Imagine you’re out refining your Ninja skills.
You know the usual Saturday night, crushing pizza and throwing stars in an alley.
Suddenly, the hair on the back of your neck stands up. Chills run down your spine.
You hear the smell off burning rubber and see a swerving car flying towards you.
You kick into overdrive, sprinting, jumping, and hopping out of the way to avoid becoming splattered in a dark, dingy alley.
This explosive action calls your larger MU’s into play to generate explosive, high-speed movement and save the day.
With every action, your brain sends electrical signal to your muscles to generate movement. The degree of MU’s recruitment depends on how strong this signal is, a recruitment system based on demand called the size principle.
Getting stronger comes down to two factors: moving heavier weights or moving lighter weights faster to recruit more MU’s.
How to Get Stronger
Compound lifts like squats and deadlifts are the best for building strength. But, most lifters take this to an extremely only use a barbell to train strength, and end up beat-up and limited in their overall development.
Strength is about tension, and your body doesn’t know the difference between you picking up a car or deadlift. It knows each movement is slightly different, but it doesn’t give two shits about a barbell over another tool.
Expand your Methods for Building Strength
You can create tons of tension with dumbbell, kettlebell, and even bodyweight exercises to build real-world strength that translates outside of the gym. Here are major movement patterns followed by exercise variations you can use to build strength.
Push: In the Ninja world, “pushing” exercises develop the finish on your striking ability. Even with an explosive lower body and core, you want the ability to generate force through your shoulders, triceps, and chest to finish off your opponents.
These movements help you develop pure strength while allowing your shoulder blades to move freely your rib cage rather, than being pinned to a bench. This unlocks better shoulder mobility for health and movement.
Wall Push-up, push-up, close grip push-up, medicine ball push-up, feet elevated push-up, pike push-up, handstand push-up, one-arm push-up.
Lower Body: To bound, jump, and fly from building to building you need power.
Power is the product of strength and speed, and you can’t have power or speed without a base of strength.
Deadlifts and squats are great for absolute strength, but a heavy dose of jumps and bodyweight exercises like pistol squats build power, relative strength, stability, and control.
Jumps: Box Jumps, Single Response Squat jumps, multi-response squat jumps
Exercises: Bodyweight squat (narrow, wide), lunge, deficit lunge, Step up, Single leg squat to bench, Single leg squat to parallel, pistol squat
Stand up, retract your shoulders, and reach overhead.
Feels good, amiright?
For mad ninja skills, the pulling movements develop the strength to pull yourself onto rooftops, disarm enemies, and hang buildings. During your day job, you’re keeled over your phone or laptop all day.
The result is a poor thoracic mobility, rounded shoulders, and pipsqueak posture. We’ll fix this with a steady dose of pulling movements like inverted rows and to a lesser extent, chin-ups.
Bodyweight Exercises: Inverted row, side to side inverted row, single arm inverted row, pull-up chin-up, weighted chin-up, side-to-side chin up, L Sit Chin-Up, Single arm Chin-Up
Too easy? Try the 2:1 Inverted Row
Core Exercises: With exception to the great (late) Chris Farley, have you ever seen a pudgy ninja?
Most of them look like they’re carved from stone. Anecdotally, that’s powerful evidence that a strong core, low bodyfat, and high relative strength are vital
You’re only as strong as your weakest link.
Core strength provides that link—without strength and stability you’ll never
You’ll never maximize strength without building a core that’s strong enough to generate huge punches and be resilient to huge forces in sports and lifting.
Stay lean and build a strong Core with these exercises:
Bodyweight Exercises: L Sit, hanging leg raise, Dragon Flag, Ab Wheel, TRX Fallout, front lever, All planks
Barbells are a great tool, but don’t use the classic lifts as your only method to get strong! Use bodyweight exercises, add weighted vests, slow tempos, and paused reps to build awesome, real-world strength.
Rule Number Two: Move Explosively
The body recruits muscles based on demand, a principle known as the size principle. Obviously, recruiting more muscle important: you’ll use more muscle fibers in training to stimulate growth, and call more muscle fibers to action in athletic movements.
You can do this in Two Ways:
1) Lift heavier weights or use higher tension exercises
2) Move lifter weights or your body, faster.
Raise your hand if you like lifting heavy.
Your hand is up, isn’t it?
I knew it.
We both know maximum strength is important. But, once you reach a solid base of strength, it’s best to add lighter and more explosive exercises. Real world athleticism and looking good naked are the goal, not a 900 lb. squat at the cost of all other training.
Here’s What to Do:
Keep improving strength in big movements, but don’t make that your only goal.
Add in lighter, more explosive weight-lifting movements like cleans. (Here’s how to learn them).
Then, add the missing piece: explosive, moves like jump squats and explosive push-ups.
These bad boys will take you from 0-100, real quick by firing up your nervous system to recruit more muscle for better strength and training gains.
Here are the best methods to get explosiveness in your training:
Jump Before Strength Work:
If you’ve seen Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a few observations become obvious: Michaelangelo loves pizza, and Ninja’s have serious hops.
I’m not saying there’s a direct correlation between pizza and jumping ability, but I might be on to something.
Pizza non-withstanding, explosive hip extension is the key to jumping higher, and a key component to getting more athletic and powerful both in and outside the gym. Before Lifting:
Pick one jump variety for a month and add them directly after your dynamic warm-up. Two or three sets of three to five reps with 90 seconds rest will do the trick.
Box Jump: Lowest impact, best for learning proper landing mechanics and reduced joint stress.
Static Squat Jump: Starting strength, similar to coming out from the bottom of a squat.
Broad Jump: Develop explosiveness horizontally as well as vertical. Better before deadlifts, but stressful.
Countermovement Squat Jumps: The full deal, teaches you to drop the hips and move in a synchronized manner, fancy-talk for more coordinated movement.
Box Jumps to Single Leg Landing: Hey, sometimes you only have space to land on one foot, right? These test your landing mechanics.
Multi-Response Jumps: These are a true plyometric—a huge test of explosive strength and your ability to generate force on notice. Nail these bad-boys with technique and power and you might be a Ninja.
To optimize your ninja skills and build an athletic body you need to diversify your training.
You need to be absolutely strong to pick-up heavy weights.
You need to be strong for your size, so you can move through space.
You must get explosive to generate all that bad-ass strength as fast as possible.
That means use explosive pushes and jumps after your warm-up. Then, crush your big lifts and build absolute strength. Finally, finish out your training with a balanced attack of bodyweight pushes, pulls, lower body lifts, and core exercises.
P.S. I know this can be a lot of information, so I put together this handy checklist. Print it out, bring it with you, and you’ll have the top bodyweight exercise targets and progressions to boost your athleticism and ninja skills.