When she’s not working on her PHD, Lilly Hunt has possibly one of the coolest jobs on the planet: professional obstacle tester for the Ninja Warrior TV franchise. There isn’t an obstacle on the show that she hasn’t hung from, balanced on or gripped to within an inch of its life. Lilly’s also an elite obstacle course racer with the Mudstacle Machines team and one to watch during this year’s race season. So she’s basically a professional ninja.
Naturally, I tracked her down to see what kind things such a badass job entails.
Can you tell us about your background – were you sporty growing up?
I’ve always been sporty, and I know that sounds generic but I enjoyed pretty much all sports growing up. I played football (competitively) the most, all the way from age 9 or until university. There, I fell in love with rugby and dropped football. I guess that drove me to get a stronger body and hit the gym. That’s where I started messing around with bodyweight exercises and natural curiosity meant I found out more about calisthenics.
After Uni I stuck with rugby but worked out at the gym and the park a lot more. I kind of just followed what I enjoyed the whole time growing up; I’m ok with dropping sports when I stop enjoying them.
How did the Ninja Warrior job come about?
So the Ninja Warrior UK show is actually based on a Japanese series called Sasuke that’s been going for years. I remember watching it as a teenager and my family saying they reckon I’d be good at it. I said, ‘Well if it ever comes to the UK, I’ll do it’. Then I heard it was starting here and applied for the first season and got on the show.
I did pretty well, was a semi-finalist, and one of the few women to get up the warped wall. Then the production team asked if I’d stick around to help testing the finals course the next day; again, I did alright and got on well with the team. Then when Ninja Warrior Denmark was filming it’s first series a couple of months after, I got asked if I’d join the team as the female professional course tester and it’s all kind of spiralled since then!
What does your job as professional course tester involve?
I work on multiple versions of the show around Europe now, and each country is different. Some don’t even want a female tester, so I might not get to do all of the shows! I travel to the location a few days before filming starts, when the team has some of the obstacles set up. Mostly I give them a first go, give some feedback about how they feel, both the movement and the difficulty, and we discuss whether things need to change or not. I’ve done a few shows now, so I get asked a lot about whether the obstacle is right for that position in the course and how it fits in to the whole thing: like how much upper body fatigue it gives, and if that could make the next obstacle too hard etc.
A big role is showing the producers what the obstacles look like when they’re being completed, and often they’ll ask one of the guys to do it and then me as a female. I think it gives them peace of mind they can’t be accused of making the course sexist, because they’ve seen a woman do it, and I agree that the course is totally possible for women as well as men; there’s just less of us women that are training specifically for it. In terms of filming, I’ve been used in some adverts and obstacle run-through segments before, but it’s usually more camera rehearsals or first-person go pro stuff.
What does a typical day testing obstacles look like?
I’m normally on the day shifts, so I’m on set at 8.30am and straight into warming up. Then I go on the obstacles that have been put up overnight and help with the final tweaks of difficulties. We show the producers the new obstacles, then we normally get some local people in to have a go so we can see some fresh athletes attempt them – it’s easy to forget that we’ve done the movement multiple times, so it can feel easier as the day goes on. I’ll demo the obstacles for them too, so already that can be a lot. Then there’s camera rehearsal of new obstacles, sometimes a full course run through too but I normally leave that up to the guys, especially if they’re trying to work out the fastest time.
Lunch is on set and then the contestants come on set for a briefing – for that, we demonstrate the obstacles as a team in a tag-team way. And normally that’s my role done, however sometimes I’d stay for filming – whether because I know someone running or if there’s some tricky resets of obstacles and they need extra hands. Plus, during the show if something unexpected happens, we might need to go back on an obstacle to show it’s working properly. But usually I have dinner on set and head back about 8.30pm. It’s a lot of stop-start so rest is really important!
What’s your favourite type of obstacle?
I love the quick feet ones because I feel super-confident on them and it’s one of the few occasions I see the guys I work with on the test team think twice before going for it! That, and the fun swingy movement ones!
Are there any obstacles you don’t like?
I hate anything with a tramp! I went out on the show on a tramp (mini trampoline) onto a net quite spectacularly and it still haunts me to this day!
What’s the hardest obstacle you’ve tried on Ninja Warrior?
Maybe the crazy Cliffhanger. I was really pleased with how I did on it but I’m just not quite ‘there’ yet…
Are there any obstacles in particular that contestants underestimate?
A lot of the time they underestimate how tired they’ll be from the previous obstacles more than anything. Doing a whole run can be knackering. In Germany we saw loads of incredibly strong athletes fail the stage 1 finals because they weren’t prepared for the fatigue.
How do you prevent your hands getting ripped?
To be honest you can’t completely stop it. I use hand cream a lot, really to try and keep my hands supple but I generally let the hard calluses stay and just turn them soft with cocoa butter. I’ve got a good routine for healing if they do rip though, using Savlon, so it’s never been much of an issue.
Do you train specific areas, such as grip strength, balance and plyometrics?
Definitely. People always seem to forget to train balance. I do plate pinches, hangs, lock offs and have some of my own grip obstacles for grip strength. For balance I use upside down bosu balls: standing on them; squats and pistol squats on them; stacking them and standing on them; jumping from one to the next – that sort of thing. And you need leg power to get up the wall, so I do lots of jumping! Bouldering is a great part of my training now, centres are putting more and more dynamic routes in place so they conveniently really help with grip and flow.
Does shoe choice make a difference on the Ninja obstacles?
You can’t really blame your shoes for you failing anything, but the warped wall definitely favours rubber soles that get sticky if you warm them up. I use a barefoot shoe called Freet almost exclusively, but all us testers have our favourites. I like mine because of the grip, the fact they dry quickly if I splash in the pools, and that they have this separate bit for your big toe which helps gripping poles.
What’s the biggest mistake people make on Ninja Warrior?
I think they underestimate the size of the course a lot of the time. Both the distance between stuff in an obstacle and also the length of it. You’re there working as hard as you can for 3-5 minutes including pull-ups, jumps, hanging, on top of keeping focussed. It’s a lot.
What kind of training do you do?
Most mornings before work I’ll run or go to the gym, or both. Once a week I might swim if I need a recovery day. At the gym my girlfriend tells me off because I almost exclusively work my upper body with pull-up variations and dips. So, thanks to her, I do big box jumps and some leg presses (because to be honest, I kind of hate squats!). Then I do a lot of core work, some balance drills and throw a fun weights exercise into the mix, like hammer curls-to-shoulder press supersets.
In addition, I go bouldering when I can, train parkour sporadically and do most of my static grip strength stuff hanging off holds at home. I do what I want, when I want, so I’m never bored and always enjoy it.
You’re part of the Mudstacle Machines OCR team, how’ve you found throwing running in the mix?
I only really started running (outside of rugby training) in the summer of 2015. I started going to a free running/fitness/happiness group called Project Awesome once or twice a week so it was a mix of bodyweight exercises, hugs and running, which was a great way to get into it! Now I’m more self-motivated with it, as I’ve fallen in love with running, but I’m still nowhere near as fast as a lot of the OCR athletes. My girlfriend’s become my coach now, making me run with a weighted vest or making me go off faster and then do burpees until she runs past me again and I have to catch up!
What kind of OCR races do you favour?
Technical obstacles and mandatory completion or penalty loops for sure. I’m efficient at getting through obstacles and can generally complete them first time, so that’s where I make time up against the faster runners. Therefore, lots of obstacles in a shorter distance serve me better!
Will you be looking to qualify and compete in the OCR World Championship?
I would love to this year, however my dad is getting married that weekend so I’ve invoiced him for the equivalent amount of prize money I’m sure I would have won…. (cough, cough!)
What does a typical week of training look like for you?
Monday to Friday it would probably be an 8km trail run Monday, then Tuesday’s a 6km run with 30 min gym, and repeat on Wednesday and Thursday. Friday is probably swimming, then Saturday would be a long run (14km+). I’ll do a grip strength routine once at home somewhere in that, and a session of bouldering or parkour too. The running and gym is my only true schedule, the rest depends on my mood! British Military Fitness have just partnered with the Mudstacle Machines so I’ll be adding them into the mix soon too.
Do you have any specific goals for 2017?
I really want to improve my finishing position for the “Toughest” race (a technical obstacle course race series) I’m entering this year. Last year it was my first OCR and I came 9th amongst a strong European field so it would be pretty awesome to place higher now I’ve trained a bit more specifically for it.
Are there any other women in sport that you particularly admire?
Jessie Graff from American Ninja Warrior is just incredible. She’s one of the best Ninja Warrior athletes out there, male or female. Plus an awesome stunt woman! And then there’s my mum, although she doesn’t consider herself an athlete. She had a half-knee replacement a few years ago and is back teaching dance and doing yoga and is far more flexible then I could dream to be – she put me to shame when we were last in the studio together!
What are your favourite pieces of kit for training and racing?
I’m all about the right shoes: I mentioned my Freet shoes for course testing ninja warrior; Ollo have also been great for me for parkour; and Fenland Runner help me out with my Icebug OCR shoes and Alphawoolf road runners for training. I use Atomik climbing’s mixture of hanging holds for grip training and 2xu give us Mudstacle Machines our racing vests and compression gear. My best investment has been a cheap thermal rash vest for the winter and wet OCRS – I swear I would have died without it!
Lilly’s top training exercises
What’s your favourite grip strength training exercise?
A one-arm dead hang on a normal bar while pinching two weight plates together with the other hand. Hold for 30 seconds then have a 30 second break and switch hands. Repeat this 3 times, if possible!
What’s your favourite balance training exercise?
I’ve got a slackline that’s just begging me to bring it out now the weather’s improved again. It’s hard but it’s nice to see progress.
What’s your favourite upper body training exercise?
Using bars instead of a climbing campus board; doing the same movement and starting from dead hang – so an explosive pull-up to then grab a higher bar. I wish I knew a proper name for that…
Follow Lilly’s escapades in obstacle course racing and Ninja Warrior testing on Instagram at @lilianehunt91