What we’ll see on Sunday night is a man precariously swaying – unsupported – on a thin steel wire, 500 feet above the Chicago River. We’ll think it’s crazy. That It’s perfect TV. Just enough danger for us to feel a little fear until he safely steps onto the ledge on the other side.
Nik Wallenda, of the famous wire-walking family, the Flying Wallendas, will think it’s just pretty routine. He has to. If his mind spirals into that natural human mode – the one that tells him this is much too high to take a stroll without anything solid for support – he could make a mistake.
So how do you make a 50-stories-high balancing act in windy conditions routine? Men’s Fitness spoke with Wallenda, ahead of his wire-walking stunt, which will air live this Sunday on Discovery at 7 p.m. ET, about his training regimen and the physical demands required to walk on a wire.
Men’s Fitness: What type of shape do you have to be in to walk on a wire? What muscles are you working?
Nik Wallenda: It’s very much legs and very much core for sure. And it’s actually forearm strength as well. I do cardio training. I do weightlifting. A lot of my training is done on the wire. The balancing pole I use weighs about 45 pounds, so basically I’m curling 45 pounds that entire time I’m on the wire. Often times I have to do lifts up and down because that pole is moving both directions. Part of wire walking is keeping your core extremely tight, just using your arms and your legs to move.
MF: Are there any specialized exercises you do geared specifically toward wire walking?
NW: Because I’m walking up a 15-degree incline in Chicago, and it’s the first time I’ve ever done an incline like that, I’ve been training on a treadmill with two 35-pound dumbbells. I put one in each hand and walk up a 15-degree incline. I also spend three to four hours a day on the wire as well.
MF: A 15-degree incline is pretty steep, especially on a thin metal wire. What did your body feel like the first time you practiced the walk?
NW: It’s very draining for sure. What I have found, which is interesting, is it changes the way I balance. Those muscles are trying to learn something new again, which is why when I work out I do muscle confusion.
MF: Do you train your mind at all? What mental state do you need to be in to finish such a dangerous stunt safely?
NW: I try to keep my mind off of it because our minds tend to be the negative part. I know I have the physical ability. I’ve simulated the identical walk with same degree and same length. I’ve done it about 80 times in practice. I know I have the ability. In Chicago I will be doing the same thing, just a little bit higher. It’s about not letting my mind try to confuse or to tell me I can’t do it.
MF: So how do you make a walk like this feel routine?
NW: It’s about making myself as confident as possible. The more I do it, the more I’m prepared. I’ve done it with different wind speeds. I think the highest they got here naturally were about 35 miles per hour. My family in the past didn’t do that. They would just get on the wire and walk. I try to prepare way more than they ever did in the past because we have lost family members before. So just like any athlete, I spend a lot of time at my craft.
MF: Let’s say something does happen during the walk on Sunday and you slip and have to grab hold of the wire. Do you train to be able to hold your weight?
NW: I do. Absolutely. I train to hold that wire for about 20 minutes. That is my safety zone. I’ve got rescue teams that can rescue me within 90 seconds or so but I train to hold on for 20 minutes. That is definitely a big part of my training. That’s where a lot of the physical training is, for strength. I have to train to hang under the wire and pull my body back up and over and get back on.
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