When Otis “Hoop” Hooper got the call from NBC, he was halfway through his eight-mile run on the trails near his house in Maryland. He was training for an upcoming Ironman, an intense race that consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and then a 26.2-mile run.
“I don't know why I answered, but I did,” says the D.C. Air National Guardsman and former Ultimate Men’s Health Guy finalist. “And I'm glad I did, too.”
Hoop had been selected to compete on “American Ninja Warrior” (ANW)—a reality show where contestants must conquer a series of obstacles—in Daytona Beach for its ninth season. Three months earlier, he’d submitted an audition tape, and the show’s producers liked his story about transforming from “dad bod” to “shredded bod.” The only problem was that he’d have only a month to train.
Regardless, Hoop was “on cloud nine after that,” he says. “Just full sprint mode. It completely ruined my day of training.”
When he finished his remaining miles, he went home to tell his four sons the news, since they were the ones who encouraged him to apply in the first place. Then, his Instagram followers helped him identify his biggest weakness: grip strength. So that’s what he focused on improving the most.
Because so many of the obstacles on the ANW course involve hanging, the contestants who tend to do best are small and light—the men maxing out at around 5’8,” 150 pounds. Hoop, on the other hand, is 5’11” and 200 pounds.
So to hang with guys more than 50 pounds lighter than him, Hoop’s followers suggested a modified version of pullup overload.
Every morning, he’d hang from his fingertips off of his porch, which challenges your grip even more than if you’d simply wrap your hands around a bar. He’d crank out four sets of as many pullups as possible, working up to about 100 total.
Then, he’d practice shimmying from one end of his deck to the other, which helps fatigue the smaller stabilizing muscles in the back—another thing that would help him complete the course.
As Hoop was prepping for ANW, he was still training for his Ironman, too, which was held the month after. So he combined training for the two whenever possible. For example, while he rode the stationary bike in his basement, sometimes for up to three hours at a time, he’d study tapes of “American Ninja Warrior” for specific exercises that he could incorporate into his training.
“I watched every episode ever,” says Hoop—over 100 total. What Hoop wasn’t able to squeeze in, however, was any serious training time on actual ninja obstacles. That’s because, at his peak, he was already swimming six miles a week, running 39, and biking 105.
Though each ANW course is different (six cities host qualifying competitions, the finals of which move on to Vegas), there’s a set pattern that all follow: the Floating Steps (formerly the Quintuple Steps), which require the ninjas to jump laterally from one ascending platform to another, a “jolting” obstacle, where athletes must hold onto a large, awkward object that follows along a track and then falls, two that test upper-body strength, and then the infamous Warped Wall, a 14-foot concave structure whose ledge the ninjas must grab.
The first time Hoop trained on any of these was two days before competing, at Alternate Routes, a parkour/ninja gym near his home. There, he summited the Warped Wall on his third try and, especially after all the pullups, he didn’t have much trouble with the Salmon Ladder, an obstacle that requires athletes to hang from a bar and then move it up a set of rungs. Leaving that night, he felt confident.
In the end, though, his size and inexperience with the obstacles worked against him. On the second obstacle, a cylindrical pad called the Rolling Pin that rotated and moved side to side, the force proved too much on Hoop’s long limbs, and he was thrown into the water.
“Some of the pros were interlocking their arms,” Hoop said. “If I were to do it again, I’d really focus on that technique.”
Leaving Daytona, Hoop was disappointed, but not defeated. His title on the show, after all, was the Transformation Ninja. And he earned it: Two years ago, he decided to cut his “dad bod,” and committed to doing at least one pushup and one situp every day. Steadily, he increased the reps—today, it’s 200 of each— and the exercises, adding swimming, spinning, and weightlifting. (Want to get rid of your own dad bod? Check out our Dad Bod: Redefined workout program to help you shed fat fast.)
In a year and a half, he dropped 50 pounds of fat and added 25 pounds of muscle, which was partly why Hoop was a finalist in last year’s Ultimate Guy Search. (For more on his story, watch his video below.)
Each year of his post-dad bod life, Hoop has chosen a theme to focus his motivation. He declared 2016 the Year of Strength and competed in Mr. Olympia. This year was the Year of Endurance, hence the Ironman and “American Ninja Warrior.”
Next year, he plans to maintain the same intensity but veer in a slightly different direction: “In 2018, I’d like to explore the creative side more with the Year of Acting.”
Hoop’s already off to a good start. He’s already appeared in two major films, started taking acting classes, and is in the process of moving the family to Atlanta, “the New Hollywood.” If the Year of Acting is as successful as the Year of Endurance, the next phone call that interrupts Hoop’s next eight-mile run might be from Michael Bay.