In 2007, an exercise known as the Salmon Ladder was introduced as part of the second stage of Japanese Sasuke competitions. Also known as Ninja Warrior, Sasuke challenges competitors with a series of obstacles in four stages. In its first Ninja Warrior installment, the Salmon Ladder knocked out half of the six remaining competitors who had made it to stage two.
The Salmon Ladder gets its name from a traditional fish ladder, which is designed to enable fish to swim past a dam or other barrier by jumping up a series of steps. The exercise is performed by first grabbing a bar as if performing a Pull-Up. The bar rests on but is not attached to the lowest of several rungs between two vertical walls or poles. Then, using mainly upper-body strength and momentum, the ninja propels his body up with enough energy and power to hop the bar up to the next rung and move up the ladder. In Ninja Warrior, the feet cannot touch the sides, and the gap between the last two rungs is larger than the others.
It’s an explosive movement, challenging your back to pull your body up, your core to maintain stability and your grip to keep hold of the bar.
“Coordination and dexterity are kind of the last pieces of the puzzle when it comes to putting the Salmon Ladder movement together,” said personal trainer and injury therapist Ben Trottier of 360 Fitness. “You actually need to create a ‘kip’ and flow through your body while doing the Pull-Up.”
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“It’s definitely hard. It takes a little bit of [hand-eye] coordination, but it takes some blind faith as well, to be able to go up a rung,” said Brendon Ayanbadejo, former NFL linebacker, fitness fanatic and owner of two Orangetheory Fitness branches in San Francisco. “It’s not for anybody, and it’s not an aesthetic movement. If you’re at the gym ’cause you want a nice back and shoulders, it’s not for you.”
At 230 pounds, Ayanbadejo performed the exercise with ease. Six months ago, he posted this video to his Instagram account:
Ayanbadejo said that on his first try, he missed a rung, busted his lip and nearly knocked out a tooth. He said, “It’s not too dangerous, but there’s always a chance for the average person to hurt themselves. But if you’re working on performance, on explosion, on fast-twitch, or on obstacle training, it’s something to try.”
“It’s not so much a hard thing to accomplish physically as it is mentally,” said calisthenics expert Corey Hall, owner of Corey Hall Fitness. “I believe the most challenging thing about the Salmon Ladder is getting over the fear of falling.”
Hall warms against trying the Salmon Ladder until you’ve gained a sufficient amount of upper-body strength. He recommends working your way up to between 15 and 20 regular (unassisted) Pull-Ups in one set, and from there taking on a more explosive Pull-Up (or “Muscle-Up”), aiming to achieve 10-12 reps in one set. Trottier suggests first adding weight to the traditional Pull-Up, then integrating clapping Pull-Ups, where you remove your hands at the top of the rep and clap them together above the bar. Once you can achieve these benchmarks, you should be strong enough to try the Salmon Ladder.
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