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The American Ninja Warrior National Finals: An explainer

Breaking down the four stages of the show’s finale episodes.

David Becker/NBC

UPDATE: This article has been refreshed to reflect the current National Finals format as we head into season 13.

We’ve been on an American-Ninja-Warrior-explainer kick lately! It all started when we decided to work on a glossary of terms used on the show. We tried to keep their definitions pretty basic and quickly realized a lot of the concepts were worthy of a lengthier breakdown.

When season 13 airs this summer, we want everyone to be able to understand the action. These guides are designed to help with that.

This time around, we’re looking at the National Finals. If you’re unfamiliar with the show, you might not quite understand the four stages and how the Ninjas move through them. Hopefully, this helps a bit with that.

National Finals

Taking place in Las Vegas, this is the culmination of all the episodes and courses we’ve seen during the season. The top 15-17 competitors from each of the Regional Finals move on to the National Finals. The National Finals take inspiration from the Japanese show “Sasuke,” and its Mount Midoriyama.

There are four stages at the National Finals. Each stage is a different obstacle course with increasing difficulty. The only way to advance is to successfully complete each full course. The Ninja who can survive all four stages becomes the Grand Champion or winner.

American Ninja Warrior - season 11 Photo by: David Becker/NBC

Stage One

Around 80-90 competitors take on this first stage of the National Finals. It tends to be a speedy course, requiring that Ninjas keep moving forward with an aggressive pace in order to make it through the obstacles. Usually, it consists of eight obstacles and a time limit. In season 11, the time limit was 2:30. This changes from season to season.

A staple obstacle here is the Jumping Spider. Ninjas must leap from a trampoline between two plexiglass walls. Bracing themselves there, they hop up and forward to complete the obstacle. The other obstacles tend to change from year to year. A few will be repeats from the previous season, and some are inspired by obstacles that were used in the regional competitions.

In season 11, 28 Ninjas completed Stage One. However, back in season nine, 41 Ninjas advanced through this stage, and in season eight, only 17 Ninjas made it through. So there’s a pretty big range of success here.

Stage Two

Stage Two cranks up the difficulty and adds in some fire with pyrotechnics. The course lifts the competitors high above the ground, throwing a little fear factor in there for any competitors who are wary of heights.

Stage Two features six obstacles and a time limit. The time limit in season 11 was three minutes. As with Stage One, the Stage Two obstacles change from year to year. Some will be brand new to the Ninjas, never before seen. Some will be super-sized versions of already challenging obstacles we’ve seen before. The last obstacle of the course tends to be a time suck. Something Ninjas can’t really fall from, but if they’re against the clock, it might ruin their chances. It was the Wall Flip for several seasons. In season 10, it became the Water Walls, which returned in season 11.

Usually, Stage Two is where we see a BIG reduction in the competition field. Generally, only two or three Ninjas make it through. Season 11 was an anomaly, with 21 Ninjas advancing to Stage Three.

Stage Three

Stage Three is rarified air. Only the best of the best make it to this point and the difficulty basically skyrockets. There are seven obstacles and no time limit. The stage is an upper-body slog. Ninjas only occasionally need their feet to get through an obstacle. It’s quicksand for their energy reserves.

Probably the most famous obstacle of this stage is the Ultimate Cliffhanger. Clinging to a small ledge with just their fingertips, the Ninjas traverse across a wall that requires them to leap up, back, and forth, before dismounting. Additionally, the stage usually ends with the Flying Bar. Grasping one bar, the Ninjas must leap from cradle to cradle to complete the obstacle. The rest of the obstacles tend to move around and change from year to year.

Completing this stage is a very special accomplishment. In fact, only two seasons even have finishers on this course.

Stage Four

Stage four is simple in its brutality. Also called the Final Climb, it’s a vertical 75-foot rope climb with a 30 second time limit. Basically, the Ninjas need to dig down deep for whatever is left in their bodies and dump it all out.

Reaching the buzzer at the top of the climb within the time limit makes that Ninja the season’s $1 million winner. Unless...

Things can get tricky here. If more than one Ninja makes it to this stage and completes the climb, whoever has the faster time is ruled the winner. We saw this play out in heart-breaking reality when Geoff Britten and Isaac Caldiero couldn’t share the title in season seven. In season 11, things were a little more simple when Daniel Gil timed out on the rope. Thus, he did not complete the stage.

There you have it! All four stages of the American Ninja Warrior National Finals. Got any other questions? Let us know in the comments!