From ‘Dad Bod’ to…American Ninja Warrior?

[Dad•bod] (noun):

  1. A male body type that is best described as “softly round.”
  2. The type of physique a man “earns” when the increasing pressures of work life, married life, and especially fatherhood no longer allow him the time or drive to maintain a hard, toned figure. As a result, what was once a sculpted, chiseled frame digresses into a soft, flabby heaping pile of “I Don’t Give A Shit Anymore.”
  3. A male who is usually over 30 years old that used to be jacked or in good shape, or an ex-athlete who is now an average Joe Blow with kids. Usually also hairy.

Yup. Urban Dictionary1 pretty much nailed it, but they missed one small detail: They didn’t provide a photo. I’ll spare them the research.

This was me just 3 months ago, the only day in my life I’ve ever tipped the scale over 200 pounds. And that one single day was more than enough to remind me I’m way closer to forty than thirty, and “getting back into shape” isn’t going to get any easier the longer I put it off.

ninja warrior training zack arnold

January 1st, 2018: 200.7 pounds, 38” waist, 25.3% body fat

It was this very moment when I decided “Tomorrow” is no longer a day of the week on MY calendar.

586828083 o

Given I spent ten years of my teens and early twenties obsessively training for a black belt in martial arts (and living in the weight room), and knowing it was only a few years ago that I crushed P90X2 and completed my first Spartan Trifecta, the only question that continually ran through my mind when I saw “200.7” on the scale was:

“How the hell did I get here?”


It didn’t take long to do the math.

  • 15 years of 12+ hour days living behind a computer (under constant stress…in the dark)
  • Thousands of afternoon snacks in front of the television watching raw footage or reviewing cuts (because after a hard morning, “I deserved it”)
  • 7 years of sleep deprivation after having two kids (they’re now 8 and 6, so I finally have sleep under control again)
  • Only prioritizing exercise when I was training for events instead of turning it into a lifestyle choice and a regular weekly habit
  • A lifetime of being a workaholic and prioritizing my career ahead of my well being

Worst of all…2017 was not kind to me. I frequently refer to it as “The Lost Year.”

According to my public profile I crushed it: I edited the pilot, finale, and two additional episodes of the limited TV series Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac & The Notorious B.I.G., I achieved the lifelong dream of becoming a member of the American Cinema Editors (ACE), and I rebranded from ‘Fitness In Post’ and launched ‘Optimize Yourself’ shortly after running a successful 5-day fitness challenge with over 1100 participants on six continents (I still can’t win over Antarctica).

I found myself in the fetal position thinking, ‘My family would be better off without me.’

What you won’t learn about me on my IMDB page or Facebook is that I spent half of 2017 battling the second worst case of burnout I’ve ever faced that included months of writer’s block, debilitating social anxiety, and more than one occasion of suicidal depression where I found myself in the fetal position thinking, “My family would be better off without me.”

Regular exercise and proper diet were distant memories in 2017. I spent six straight weeks between projects binging seven seasons of Shark Tank with a never-ending bowl of popcorn in one hand and Oreo’s in the other. And my daily fitness goal was attempting a 15 minute walk around the block without stopping to rest from exhaustion. (I failed more than I succeeded.)

Listen here to learn more about how I dug myself out of the dark hole of depression by learning how to “rewrite my story.”

So then what business does an out of shape television editor with a killer “Dad bod” have thinking he can legitimately compete against some of the top athletes on the planet on the show American Ninja Warrior?

If you’re not familiar with the nationwide phenomenon that is ‘ANW,’ below I have provided clips of my two favorite runs of all time from then-rookie and now superstar Kevin Bull, as well as Jessie Graff (both of whom I’m convinced are superhuman).



On paper I clearly have no business training for one of the most competitive sports on the planet that requires ridiculous amounts of skill, strength, balance, coordination, and lightning speed:

  • At 38, I’m “too old” to be running around on obstacle courses
  • As a father of two with a demanding career I don’t have 3 hours a day, 6 days per week to train like a professional athlete
  • I’ve never done a single day of gymnastics in my life (I can’t even do a cartwheel)
  • My only prior knowledge of parkour comes courtesy of Michael Scott and his crew at “The Office” (Parkour!!!)
  • Until a few months ago I had never done any rock climbing…ever
  • At the lowest point of my depression last year, I could barely muster a single pull-up

Therefore, the only sane question that comes to mind is…”Why?”

My response is simply…“Why not?”

It’s About More Than Just the Obstacles

Despite the show being in its 6th season at the time, I only first heard of American Ninja Warrior (ANW) a few years ago when a YouTube video went viral of Kacy Catanzaro completing a city finals course…the first woman ever to do so (she is 5’ 0”, by the way). I watched the video thinking, “Wow, that looks kinda cool. Good for her.” And that was it. Not knowing much about the show at the time, I frankly thought it was a fancier version of “Wipeout.”

A few months after, my kids starting watching ANW during their summer break. At first I would walk past and watch for one or two minutes, but given I spent the last several years running Spartan Races and Tough Mudders, I quickly became intrigued and soon found myself sitting with them and binge-watching the show for hours at a time.

What drew me to ANW was not the physical feats of superhuman strength, balance, and coordination. Sure the obstacles were cool, but what was so compelling were the personal stories and journeys of each of the participants, many of whom were completely “regular” people with normal jobs and families. They weren’t professionals performing for millions of dollars per year. These were people paying their own way to travel and be on that course (some of whom waited in line for weeks) because they had a mission, a larger purpose to fulfill, and people in their lives that needed a little inspiration.

160613 3050845 Zach Gowen Indianapolis Qualifier

Participant Zach Gowen running with one leg

Frankly, many of the contestants had no business being there at all. Some of them were too short. Others were too old. One guy had a prosthetic leg, and another guy didn’t have a leg at all! Some participants were former athletes out to prove something, but other contestants were postal workers, farmers, teachers, computer programmers, engineers, maintenance workers, meteorologists, and ER doctors…just to name a few.

Perhaps the greatest thing about ANW is that they fully embrace female participation…but the women have to beat the exact same course as the men. Women like Kacy Catanzaro, Jessie Graff, Meagan Martin, Barclay Stockett, caregiver Jesse Labreck, and elementary school teacher Allyssa Beird, are all examples of female participants who have completed insane courses the vast majority of the men couldn’t.

Name one other sport where women are allowed to compete at the same level with the men.

Allyssa Beird and other ANW competitors

Some of the top female ANW athletes

The one constant across every season of the show is that all the participants are real people willing to push themselves outside their comfort zones to achieve something amazing in their lives and bring hope and inspiration to the most important people around them (not to mention the millions of people they inspire around the world).

Hmm…the idea of someone faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles who overcame them to achieve their goals. Sound familiar?

Tell Me Something Can’t Be Done…I’ll Show You How It Can Be Done

By the end of my kids’ summer break ANW had become a full-blown family obsession (It’s now basically the only show we watch together), and on more than one occasion I found myself thinking, “Wouldn’t that be awesome to do? I think I could do that.” 

Many would leave it at that and go back to their daily lives (at least the sane people).

For me, the phrase “Wouldn’t that be awesome to do?” has a much deeper meaning. It is the word-for-word phrase that I heard over and over for seven straight years while producing and directing the documentary film GO FAR: The Christopher Rush Story about the first quadriplegic with muscular dystrophy to become a licensed scuba diver.

Watch the first quadriplegic with muscular dystrophy become a licensed scuba diver

Dedicating seven years of my life to telling Christopher’s story taught me many profound life lessons, but the one lesson that sticks out far above all others is the simplest of concepts:

Everyone has a disability.

Chris was fond of saying  that “Everyone has a disability.” His disability was neuromuscular – he simply had no physical strength. For others it might be their sight, their hearing, a genetic disease, their financial status, or mental health issues.

If you just resign and say you can’t do something because of your disabilities, then you are fundamentally cheating yourself out of the richness that your other abilities will provide for you.

– Christopher Rush

Every single person who competes on American Ninja Warrior has their own disability.

Every. Single. One.

While most of the athletes may appear superhuman, the only difference is they have chosen to focus on their abilities, not make excuses because of their disabilities.

I can think of hundreds of reasons why I can’t compete, but I have no intention of cheating myself or my family of the richness this opportunity could provide us.

Therefore I only need one reason to try…because I can.

Welcome to the “Discomfort Zone”

If a teenager without the use of his arms or legs has the courage to be weighted down, thrown into the water, and he can fearlessly swim the depths of the Cayman Islands with a smile on his face, I think I can muster the courage to overcome my own disabilities and climb the ‘Warped Wall.’

I  can get over my fear of heights and become a rock climber.

I can get over years of “having a bad back” and dive head first into Crossfit.

I can get over a lifetime of social anxiety and hang out with a bunch of teenagers to learn Parkour.

Most importantly, I can make the commitment to living life outside my comfort zone and accept that failures on a daily basis are just a necessary part of writing my new “origin story.”

Gymnastics, rock climbing, and parkour might not be my things (yet).

But summoning intense, ninja-like focus to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and achieve a truly meaningful goal that everyone says can’t be done?

Yup…that’s tailor made for me.

Zack Arnold (ACE) is an award-winning Hollywood film editor & producer (Cobra Kai, Empire, Burn Notice, Unsolved, Glee), a documentary director, father of 2, an American Ninja Warrior, and the creator of Optimize Yourself. He believes we all deserve to love what we do for a living...but not at the expense of our health, our relationships, or our sanity. He provides the education, motivation, and inspiration to help ambitious creative professionals DO better and BE better. “Doing” better means learning how to more effectively manage your time and creative energy so you can produce higher quality work in less time. “Being” better means doing all of the above while still prioritizing the most important people and passions in your life…all without burning out in the process. Click to download Zack’s “Ultimate Guide to Optimizing Your Creativity (And Avoiding Burnout).”