In April Midwest Strength + Performance hosted Erik “Esik” Melland, the founder and CEO of the Viking Ninja Training System. Viking Ninja (VKNJA) is an “unconventional style of training geared towards athletes, coaches, and the everyday fitness enthusiast of all levels. VKNJA offers classes, workshops and certifications helping exceed fitness limitations”. There are four main components to Viking Ninja- bodyweight, steel mace, striking and steel mace yoga. I participated in the Viking Ninja White Belt Certification and if you would have told me a year ago I would have spent my weekend going through bodyweight and steel mace training, I would have thought you were crazy! It’s been a long journey post- injury and I would have never been able to do this without the coaches at Midwest Strength + Performance (learn everything you need to now about MSP here and here). They have worked with me for the past 11 months leading up to the White Belt and I cannot thank them enough! TJ and I have been training one-on-one with the mace for about 6 months now and I have noticed a difference in my endurance as well as muscle definition since including this tool in my fitness routine. It was great being able to take what TJ has taught me and apply it during the White Belt. It was an honor being able to show TJ what I have practiced and the dedication I have to learning the steel mace. He is an amazing mentor and I loved every minute of the White Belt!
viking ninja striking
“Cross training method to the Viking Ninja’s Unconventional Fitness System. Though it is considered “striking”, it is formulated to be fitness oriented. Including complex bodyweight conditioning programs to help, self train into your own training camp. Bodyweight training with striking conditioning, to amplify your performance into improved coordination skills, motorary awareness, reaction timing, mindset, and overall strength output/ volume. For all levels of training”.
Viking Ninja Steel Mace
“Steel mace training in the Viking Ninja System gets its roots from structured strength and conditioning principles. This training emphasizes symmetry and technique while hitting every plane of movement. Sealing leaks of strength through proper positioning and exceeding limitations through intelligent progression. Whether an offset strength movement or a complex sequence of movements, Viking Ninja provides the appropriate foundation for all types of steel mace training. Welcome to all levels of training”.
steel mace yoga
“Cross training consisting of bodyweight and steel mace movements- the Viking Ninja take on power yoga. SMY focuses on aligning breath to movement, while increasing strength, improving cognitive skill, mobility, coordination/ balance, and decreasing stress and anxiety”.
Viking Ninja Bodyweight
“Based on a structured and progressive approach to the everyday fitness movements and routines that can lead to more innovation. The focus on foundational bodyweight movements will create a sturdy base to progress into more advanced complexes or adding weight/ resistance to the patterns. There will be a test of strength, mobility, conditioning and more when entering this system. For all levels of training”.
As mentioned, this was not my first introduction to the steel mace or bodyweight training as MSP is rooted from this system. However, this certification is easy to follow for someone who may not have previous experience. The most challenging part for me was the bodyweight portion. I struggle with upper body strength from a spinal injury and I knew the pushups/ any upper body movements were the ones that would tire me out and prove to be most difficult to actually do. What made the process easier for me was the way the certification is structured. There is a focus on partner work and breaking up the sections from seeing- doing- teaching. The majority of people in the certification were there either to start or further their fitness/ coaching careers, so VKNJA made sure to encompass the cueing/ coaching. While I am not a strength and conditioning coach, I did appreciate the time we had to spend verbalizing the moves and putting our partner in various positions. I’m a yoga instructor for Stroller Strong Mom’s Wheaton and although it is an entirely different style of training, I finished the weekend with a new set of cues that will translate well to the practice and sequences I create for my classes. Rotating between coaching and doing the moves was great for my body. I was able to power through the reps then rest which helped me battle fatigue. Plus, it made the high volume seem like a piece of cake!
A lot of the times I am turned off by attending workshops/ certifications because most of the time they are boring. Not once was I zoned out during this certification or counting down until I could leave… although I can hear Zane now, saying how I made it point to ask what time lunch was- but hey, I get hangy so I was really looking out for everyone else. Anyway, the coaches were engaging and interesting and the information presented wasn’t overwhelming. The pace of the certification was easy to follow and having taken this a few weeks ago, I still remember what I learned and have clarity over the curriculum. The coaches introduced each section, demonstrated the movements- going over the techniques and teaching us how these are purposeful movements and the benefits of each exercise. After the teaching section, we would as a group go over the move before putting all of them together from the section into a workout with our partners followed by the pass/fail test on the final day.
Grace was my main partner for the weekend and it was incredible! She isn’t a coach and it was amazing watching her take lead and position me to where I was supposed to be. She shined during the partner section and gave helpful critiques and advice. MSP is her home gym too, and we were talking about how we feel like we can tackle open gym and classes with more peace of mind after going through this cert. We both feel confident to go through a steel mace and bodyweight workout on our own.
At one point we did switch parters and I was fortunate enough to train with Mary. She also has a yoga background and we both noted how a majority of the bodyweight moves can be implemented into our classes for more of a power yoga vibe and how the cues can be easier for beginners to follow. Plus, I discovered I like a few of the VKNJA moves better than the yoga bodyweight ones- they feel more comfortable for my body.
Janice and I also became partners at one point. She is a coache at MSP and this was my first time training with her. I love her attitude and approach towards training. She has an engineering background and I definitely saw it come out during training. She is incredibly strategic with her training and I like how she evaluates herself. Prior to the rounds, she mentally calculated what she could do rep wise in order to stay in the time we were given and then adjusted to avoid burnout. Janice was great to learn from because I wasn’t used to coaching someone who has perfect form, is that strategic and who is overall a total badass. While Janice didn’t need me to correct her form, at the end of the rounds she said she “couldn’t have made it through without me” and that caught me off guard. Janice reminded me that even though someone may be doing everything by the books, it makes the world of a difference to acknowledge it and encourage someone to keep up the good work. Someone does not have to be struggling in order to receive coaching and encouragement.
On the last day, halfway through the test, my quads started burning. I don’t know if it was the pre-workout I took or sheer determination to finish the cert (perhaps both?!) but I did and I couldn’t be more happy or proud of myself! I had to make a few modifications but as Mike always reminds me, I’m still doing the move and I’m working with my body where I’m at in the moment. I had to remind myself how far I have come in the past year. I would not have been able to do any of the things I did in the VKNJA weekend back then. For me, the White Belt was a reminder of my strength. It was me and the mace and I would be the only reason I did not pass the test if I failed. Which, luckily, I did not fail.
Leading up to the test, TJ would tell me how I’m ready but I would always make an excuse and second guess myself because I wasn’t confident about the bodyweight section. This is an area I struggle with and am working on familiarizing myself with. The mace part for me was a breeze, which again, is all because of TJ’s hard work and the energy he spends teaching me. During the bodyweight portion I was so frustrated with myself and my body for not doing what I wanted it to. I was not going to modify the one move Zane and I spent nearly 30 minutes working on days before. I. Just. Wasn’t. Going. To. Modify. I was determined… to say the least. I kept resetting and starting over during the practice round and trying to figure out where I was going wrong. Then it clicked and I finally did the reps. Fast forward to the timed non-practice rounds, I was burning and shaking. My legs felt like cement and jello at the same time and I just about had it with the bodyweight section and was silently cursing this portion when I felt a hand softly placed on my back, and heard the familiar whisper of a coach- of my coach, saying “stay strong. You’ve got this. Almost there”. It was in that moment when the past year’s worth of time, energy, highs, lows and coaches notes came flooding back to me. It was light a movie reel playing in my head. Zane was absolutely right. I’ve got this- and the rest of the certification. I would have never taken part or shown interest in Viking Ninja if it wasn’t for the MSP guys. Sure, swinging a mace is cool l but I never once wanted to try it until TJ took the time to share his fitness journey with me, explain the benefits, and talk me through my fear of hitting myself in the head with it. I never would have signed up for the White Belt if Zane hadn’t pushed me this past year. He made sure I was at every VKNJA prep course, and specialty class- even if it was to observe and take photos. He knew from day one of me taking his bodyweight class that I could be a Viking Ninja. I have no idea why he had so much faith and confidence in me because I was a TOTAL mess. My vertigo was at its peak and I couldn’t stay in a straight line or in my space on the turf. It looked like I was drunk working out half the time. I would have to close my eyes in class because the motion of seeing anyone else move would make me nauseous.
Each time Zane came over to affirm me and check in or glance over from across the room to make sure I wasn’t about to throw up or pass out, reminded me that Viking Ninja is more than some fitness certification. Viking Ninja is a community and at the end of the day, when the White Belt is over and we all go our separate ways, we are never truly alone because we’re a part of this team now. We are Viking Ninjas- strong, determined and full of love. This community has connected me to amazing people who I now consider to be my good friends. VKNJA events make for the out of state reunions with Sheila even more special. We don’t see each other often but stay connected and we know we’re always there for each other. Viking Ninja does something to you besides boosting confidence. It bonds you to the people you share the experience with and creates lasting and meaningful relationships. Lori Verta, my woman crush everyday (seriously, this woman is incredibly. Go follow her if you don’t already!) is moving to Texas and starting her journey with the Viking Ninja Academy. I’m sad she’s leaving Chicago but I am proud of all of her hard work and looking forward to all the future VKNJA events where we can see each other again.
Another one of my favorite parts of the weekend was looking over on the last day, during the test, to see Jimmy’s son, Isaiah, sitting next to Grace and counting my reps. He offered words of encouragement when I had to drop to me knees for the pushup portion and when my hands started slipping and I felt myself getting flustered for having to take a few second break to readjust/ shake it out. He was so sweet cheering me on and it definitely put a smile on my face. It was amazing to see a coach in the making and hearing from him how strong he thinks Grace and I are. It was unexpected and that moment is something I will treasure forever. Viking Ninja doesn’t just appeal to those fit 20- something- year olds. Viking Ninja is a community for all bodies. It is all inclusive in age, gender, fitness ability and excludes no one. This system shows people of all ages that the only thing preventing them from being their best version of them, is themselves.
I made Zane promise me if I failed the certification, he would still call my name and hand me the certificate and pull me aside later to deliver the bad news. So, when I heard my name called I quite honestly had no idea if I actually passed or not. I felt confident but then again in the third grade I thought I passed those multiplication tests with flying colors and failed miserable- so one can never bee too sure anymore. Zane told me I indeed passed which was an incredible feeling and such a special moment to share with someone who has seen first hand how difficult working out at times has been for me.
When Zane and I finished hugging and I made my way down the line, Isaiah jumped into my arms and this is the very reason I love Viking Ninja. I showed up that weekend unsure of what I could do and somewhere along the ways the belief my coaches and friends had for me also became my truth and I broke down my own barriers, exceeding my fitness limitations. But, more than that, making the decision to show up for myself inspired a younger generation- someone I had no idea was watching me or who would be so proud of me for finishing. To this day Isaiah still talks about how he liked watching and how he think it was cool that we were all doing the White Belt and passed the test. In life, we never know who’s watching us and following our lead. Whether you think you’re important or cool enough to have someone watching you, I promise someone out there is looking up to you- so, set a good example! Jimmy sets this example for his kids by sharing his love for fitness with them. He doesn’t just bring his kid’s to work with him, but he makes sure they know they are welcomed and seen within our community. I love how Isaiah asked to come observe the White Belt and how eager he was to meet the other participants and cheer them on.
I want to take this time to recognize Esik for creating such a wonderful community. Not once was I intimidated as a female to join or questioning if Esik would welcome me. The leadership he displays online and his reputation live up to the person you meet. He truly prioritizes the community and wants what is best for everyone. He makes it a point to get to know who attends the workshops, classes and other events. Esik doesn’t frantically whisper to Zane asking who “so-and-so” is. He remembers names and stories. I admired how Esik stepped back for most of the White Belt to let Coach TJ, Zane and Jimmy lead. I haven’t seen many leaders take a backseat role in their own program to let others shine. It was amazing to see how one man’s dream has become so many people’s reality and how it has transformed lives… including mine.
I mentioned how the other guys really encouraged me to participate in the cert and shared how they made the world of a difference in my life. Phil is also a big part of why I decided to jump right in and do the White Belt. After Zane started the conversation about how he’d like to see me participate, Phil was the one holding me accountable and telling me to stop over thinking and just go for it. He kept calling me out on my fear and pushed me to stop limiting myself. At first I was actually really annoyed because, one, how dare he keep saying this, and two, he’s usually right about me. I swear sometimes he can read my mind- which can be annoying, but on the other hand is one of my favorite thing about him.
I loved turning around after the test to see him watching and how he was there for us all. Phil does a lot of the work behind the scenes for Viking Ninja (and Steel Mace Yoga). All of the certifications, events, etc. would most definitely not run as smooth or be as put together if it wasn’t for him.
Thank you, Phil for always showing up and cheering me on.. even when I’m not in the mood to be encouraged and end up freak out on you and pushing you away. Whether it’s in person or on the phone, you do an amazing job of taking care of me and the community’s needs. Viking Ninja would not be the same without you!
For anyone interested in Viking Ninja or unsure of it, I highly recommend and encourage you to try this style of training! Stop by MSP for a free week trial and jump into classes. Zane, TJ and Jimmy also offer personal training which I preferred for learning about the system in a more in depth way. VKNJA is also developing online curriculum, so stay tuned for their programs. Also, feel free to message the guys or myself with any questions- we’d love to answer them!
It was incredibly powerful looking around the room and seeing the familiar faces of my coaches, friends, other gym members and those new to the VKNJA community all coming together and trying something new. This was also the certification with the most women in attendance- so amazing and powerful! Together, we all exceeded the fitness limitations we once put on ourselves and I can’t wait until we all tackle the blue belt!
Photography: Jack Grooms
Editing: Macaila Britton