Hang Time

Appears in the September 2023 issue.

Conquer all kinds of obstacles at these local ninja gyms

Ultimate Ninjas
Ultimate Ninjas

If bounding off trampolines, scaling walls, and hanging heroically from bars like the competitors on American Ninja Warrior sounds like a blast—well, there are plenty of places for that. The popularity of the NBC show has inspired contestants and fans of the show to open their own training gyms all over the country, including several here in the western suburbs offering classes for kids.

“It’s obstacles, at its core,” says Ethan Swanson, who worked for ninja gyms in Chicago and Colorado before deciding to open Big Time Ninja in Bolingbrook with part-owner Chris DiGangi. Both are alums of American Ninja Warrior, Swanson having competed on seasons 6 to 14 and DiGangi on seasons 4 to 15. “We have rope swings and rock walls and things to jump off, climb up, and slide down,” Swanson says of their gym that opened in February. “Everything we have is made to scale down to the most beginner level, and also—selfishly for me because I train at this stuff—a lot can scale up to be extremely difficult.”

Big Time Ninja has elements of both a play place and a training center. “If you’ve seen Sky Zone or trampoline facilities, kids can play there and have fun. You have gymnastics facilities, which are very rigorous and strict and you build discipline. I like to think we are in the middle of those,” Swanson explains. “We have a lot of fun—we have open play, and birthday parties—and we also have classes and competitions. You can take it as seriously as you want or as not-seriously as you want.”

Another American Ninja Warrior contestant teaching in the area is Jesse Labreck, who appeared on seasons 8 to 14 and is part owner and manager of Ultimate Ninjas Naperville. Originally from the East Coast, Labreck came to Chicago to teach a pro course at Ultimate Ninjas’ Chicago gym and ended up staying to open the Naperville gym six years ago. Ultimate Ninjas also has a location in Elmhurst.

Kids at Big Time Ninja
Big Time Ninja

Ninja training builds agility, coordination, endurance, and full-body strength, Labreck says, and kids can join her classes with no prior sports experience. “We can adapt anything to anybody,” she says. Ninja classes can be a great fit for kids who feel bored in the baseball or softball outfield and thrive in a more fast-paced, dynamic setting. “I would say we have over 20-plus obstacles and they change all the time, so there’s always something new,” she says.

As kids build their physical strength, their confidence also grows, Labreck says: “We have had a lot of kids, maybe they struggle at school, don’t have friends, don’t really have a ‘place.’ They come to Ninja, they find their place, they gain that confidence, and they make their friends here, and also it transfers back over to school.”

Both Swanson and Labreck agree that ninja training helps build grit and resilience. “Failure is celebrated, and that’s not exclusive to my gym—that’s celebrated in ninja in general. If you fail and it’s a big fail, people are cheering,” Swanson says. “And then you get close, you get a little closer, and you finally get it. I love that moment when you get to tell a kid, ‘Remember when you thought you couldn’t do it?’ and now that thing is second nature. That’s when it starts to click that this stuff isn’t impossible; it just takes time, effort, and determination.”

Though it’s an individual sport and it certainly can be competitive, ninja training also fosters community. “I played soccer growing up, and if I win that means you lose,” Swanson says. “[With ninja,] even if you and I are competing against each other, if you’re on the course and you do really well, that doesn’t mean that I can’t also do really well. It’s super exciting for everyone in the room when someone gets a new skill or obstacle unlocked.”

Over in Burr Ridge at Big Gymnastics, the ninja program began to bring more awareness to men’s gymnastics, says owner Kara Reid. “We had so many female gymnasts, but their brothers were sitting in the lobby wanting to do stuff, too. It seemed like an easy transition to get boys involved and let them get some energy out,” she explains. “It’s constant movement. The [kids] are leaving the gym sweaty and red-faced.” There classes incorporate elements of parkour, tumbling, trampolining, and break dancing in addition to tackling obstacles such as tunnels and balance beams. Lesson plans change weekly, and gymnastics coaches teach all ninja classes, so students will learn gymnastics skills along the way.

A Field Guide to Ninja Obstacles

Popularized by TV’s American Ninja Warrior, here is a quartet of signature elements that are ninja-gym staples.

Kids at Ultimate Ninjas
Ultimate Ninjas

1. Warped Wall
A steeply ramped wall that you climb with a running start. “We have an 8-foot, 10-foot, and 14.5 is the size of the standard one on the TV show,” says Evan Swanson of Big Time Ninja. “We also have a mega wall, which is 18-foot, 3 inches.”

2. Jumping Spider
“This is where you run and jump off a trampoline into two walls on either side of you,” explains Jesse Labreck of Ultimate Ninjas Naperville. “And your hands and feet go on either side of the wall like a hallway.”

3. Devil Steps
An open ascending and descending stairway that you climb the underside of using your hands. No feet allowed.

4. Salmon Ladder
Inspired by the aquatic structure that helps fish move past river dams, this advanced obstacle involves a pull-up bar that fits into the grooves of a specially designed ladder. Holding the pull-up bar, you ascend the ladder by moving the bar up from rung to rung without touching your feet to the ground.


Ultimate Ninjas
Ultimate Ninjas

2012 Corporate Ln., Naperville
Youth classes: 3 and older; $27.50 per class with monthly commitment, $30 for drop-ins
Also offering: Classes, open gym, camps, birthday parties ($345 and up)
More info: ultimateninjas.com/location/naperville

684 W. Lake St., Elmhurst
Youth classes: 3 and older; $25 for a trial class, $125 per month for weekly classes
Also offering: Classes, open gym, camps, birthday parties ($395 and up)
More info: ultimateninjas.com/location/elmhurst

Big Time Ninja
Big Time Ninja

590 Territorial Dr., Bolingbrook
Youth classes: Ages 4 to 15, $25 per class billed monthly, first class free
Also offers: Open gym, winter and summer break camps, competitions, birthday parties ($395 and up)
More info: bigtimeninja.com

16W110 83rd St., Burr Ridge
Classes: Ages 4 to 12, first class free; $135 to 138 per month for weekly classes
Also offering: Open gym, summer camps, competitions, birthday parties ($375 and up)
More info: biggymnastics.com


Photos: Chris DiGangi (Big Time Ninja); Trevor Brody Photography (Ultimate Ninja)