Earlier this week, I went public with my intent to train for American Ninja Warrior. For some, the strength and cliff-hanging grip mastery comes easy. Others, like me, need a trainer. Enter Sean O’Brien. He’s a personal trainer at DIAKADI in San Francisco, CA, and his background makes him the perfect guy to take me from group fitness pro to obstacle-slaying ninja.
O’Brien was a runner throughout college — a Division I All-American and a sub four-minute miler —and was a Nike-sponsored pro for several years post-college, going on to compete in the 2004 Olympic Trials. He was on his way back to the Olympic Trials in 2008 but retired from professional running after suffering a bad hamstring injury. After that, he headed back to Washington, D.C., and took on a coaching job at his alma mater, American University. Eventually, he set his sights on San Francisco and moved west to become a full-time personal trainer. As far as fitness goes, he still runs on occasion but mostly focuses on rock climbing four to five days a week.
So why is he the trainer for me? He’s competed on American Ninja Warrior before — way back when the competitions aired on basic cable. We start our training together next week, and I thought it would be helpful to sit down and get to know the guy who will be responsible for my success in becoming the next Ninja Warrior — or at least getting me in shape to challenge for the crown.
How did you end up competing on American Ninja Warrior? What was it like?
I saw the first season on TV and I thought it looked like a lot of fun. When they announced they were doing a casting call for audition videos, I made a video in two days and sent it in. They accepted me and I went. There were 500 people running the course over two days, and I went on at the end of the first day. At the time that I ran the course, only seven people had made it through. I was the eighth person to complete it. After talking to experienced people who ran it the previous year, I was under the impression that just making it through the course would be enough to get me into the next round. I was very careful, I took my time, and I actually made it through the whole course — which I thought was super easy! I ended up being 33 out of 30 [qualifying slots] and got knocked off the show. It was a bummer, but it wasn’t that big of a deal.
Did you have plans to be back on the show after that?
Well, I was expecting to get invited back the next year, but I wasn’t, so I made another video the third year and was invited back. Right before I was supposed to go, I tore my meniscus and knee from climbing and didn’t go. Two years after that, I made one more audition video but didn’t get invited back. … They get around 20,000 submission videos a year and they’re looking for feel-good stories and tons of personality. It’s not that I don’t have personality, it’s just that I don’t want to go that route. I haven’t decided if I’m going to try and get back on.
What was your training like for the show?
Until about a month before, I’d never done any specific training for it. I can jump pretty high, and because of climbing, I have a strong grip and a decent upper body. I can kind of get by. For example, if I wanted to train and do a V9 [an advanced bouldering problem], that would translate over.
You’ve done a ton of fitness activities your whole life. Which one did you like best?
I think climbing is the most fun. I’ve climbed since I was a teenager, but I was by far the best at running. I’m a much better runner than a climber, which makes me sad because climbing is more fun. In high school, I was also a wrestler. I have some other hobbies — I’m a decent skier, mountain biker, and I also spin fire.
Yeah, that’s something I do three or four times a week for an hour or so. I practice with LED ones or I just don’t light my fire ploy.
How did you get into that? Do you burn yourself?
Well, sometimes you burn yourself, but it’s not bad. I started doing it in Thailand. I went to this town that’s well known for climbing, but fire spinning is also popular there. The locals do it to impress the tourists but because so many locals do it, fire-spinning tourists go there specifically to spin with them. When I wasn’t climbing, I was just hanging out with these spinners and had them show me how to do tricks.
What’s the most exciting thing about being a trainer for you?
I like how you can help people. I’ve had a lot of clients tell me that I changed their lives for the positive and that feels really good. I also like that you’re out on your feet, working with people and talking to people. When you get someone to a new level — like I’ve had a couple of athletes qualify for the Olympics and world championships — that feels awesome.
What are your goals with me and how are you planning the whole training?
Basically, I’m going to try and improve your pulling strength, jumping strength, speed/agility/balance, and sport-specific exercise skill, like the movement patterns you would do if you were doing the salmon ladder. Trying to improve you on those four aspects will mean that if you can show improvement on all of them, then you would have a very good chance of doing the course well.
Well, I’m very excited. So let’s get to the good questions. Peanut butter or almond butter?
Peanut. For sure.
Working out in the mountains or along the beach?
I’d rather do general fitness at the beach. But then I’d rather climb than surf. I don’t know. It’s 50/50. Ah…I choose mountains.
One fitness trend you want to see go away?
This is tough — someone always gets upset! I like some elements of CrossFit, but I wouldn’t be sad if CrossFit went away.
First thing you do when you wake up?
Eat. If it’s a hurried morning, it’ll be a bowl of cereal and milk, and orange juice and coffee. If it’s a relaxed morning, I’ll eat a breakfast sandwich or scrambled egg. Oh, and I eat dessert every day. It’s usually a couple of cookies and a cup of milk or an ice cream cone. I eat healthy and I also eat unhealthy. I just eat a lot and exercise a lot.
How often do you work out?
I work out every single day. Once a week or every other week I take a day off or do an easy workout like stretching. I usually get in one to three hours of fitness, but on a hard day I’ll do maybe five hours in between climbing, running, and core. I never get bored. I think only boring people get bored.
And the most important question: What is your favorite dessert?
Chocolate chip cookies and milk. If I had to pick one thing for the rest of my life, it would be that. If it was a special occasion, then Bi-Rite ice cream or milkshakes.
Stay tuned every Monday for a weekly installment of how I am training for American Ninja Warrior!