She truly is one of the fittest women on Earth.
Such is Jessie Graff’s ambient, humming energy that she practically trots to the table we’ve booked at a New York City bistro. It’s a hot day and she’s in short denim cutoffs and a simple white tank, fresh from a weekend of competing in a Minnesota Tough Mudder obstacle course and attending the grand opening of a ninja gym in Oregon. “The woman who runs the gym holds the world record for breaking the most boards with her fingertips,” she says, clearly impressed.
Over the past year and a half, stuntwoman Jessie has crushed a couple of firsts of her own on the NBC sports competition show American Ninja Warrior. The 33-year-old was the first female ever to finish Stage 1 of the national finals in 2016, and then again to hit the buzzer on Stage 2 this May. (A little perspective: Only two men in the nine-year history of the show have completed all four stages.) But it’s not the prospect of fame and glory that drives the Under Armour ambassador to train hours a day—although seeing young girls holding up signs with her picture and the words “Be your own hero” is pretty damn cool. No, Jessie is doing this for fun.
(Torch fat, get fit, and look and feel great with Women’s Health’s All in 18 DVD!)
This is a woman whose living room in L.A. is literally a gym, with wall-to-wall mats, a climbing wall, a vertical-jump pegboard, and a squat rack; a woman who says it requires “discipline” to force herself to take a rest day. Her feelings about the joy of crashing through windows on stunts and running up near-vertical ninja walls haven’t changed much since she was 4. That was when she saw her first flying trapeze act. “I was like, ‘I really need to do this,'” Jessie says. That led to years of learning circus arts as a kid (she knows her way around a trapeze, and kills it at aerial acrobatics) and gymnastics (“I wanted to go to the Olympics in gymnastics, but I was eight inches too tall”), followed by championship pole vaulting in high school and college (she missed making the Olympic trials by an inch and a half). Then she took up martial arts, earning a black belt in both tae kwon do and kung fu, which dovetailed perfectly with her burgeoning career as a stuntwoman on TV and in movies; among other assignments, she has done stunts for Supergirl and The Dark Knight.
So was she born this way? Jessie laughs. “It’s at least 90 percent sweat.” Which is why you really can, as the little girls’ signs say, be your own hero.
“I want to do the amazing things, the stuff where they’re like, ‘How are you going to do that?’ “
Want to be more powerful, more flexible, more resilient? Here, Jessie lays out her hard-earned rules for training your body—and your mind
Most people see the word impossible as the end of the story; Jessie sees it as the beginning. “If it looks impossible, I’m very interested,” she says simply. Case in point: Rock climbers hanging just from the pads of their fingers struck her as “not possible,” so of course she started training her fingertip strength—arguably the physical skill that put her over the top on American Ninja Warrior. “At first I could only hang for a second and a half. Working up to 45 seconds, then a minute, then a minute 20…it really does make you feel like a superhero.” So if you’ve tried a move 20 times and it’s still not working, “it’s supposed to feel impossible. I tell people, ‘You’re right on track. Do like 400 more, and if you haven’t gotten it by then, let’s reevaluate.'” Proof that Jessie walks the walk: She recently Instagrammed her attempts to nail an astounding 55-inch box jump—all 20-plus grueling tries.
It means you’re getting stronger. “The best thing I did for myself mentally was learning to enjoy the burn and the failing as a part of the process,” says Jessie. The magic happens when you’re on the last pullup of a set, your muscles are burning and shaking, and you’re only halfway up. “Even if you don’t make it all the way, those last 10 seconds of trying and not getting anywhere—that’s where you gain the most strength. Stay connected to the idea that, wow, I am getting so much stronger right now! Then it’s satisfying, and you learn to love that burn and shake.”
That myth that women’s physiques just aren’t cut out for pullups and other upper-body moves? “It’s a huge disservice to women,” Jessie says. It lowers your sights: If you try and fail to do a pullup and someone tells you that’s okay because it’s “hard for women,” you’re likely to just give up. What we should hear instead, says Jessie, is “You’re waking up those muscles for the first time. But if it feels impossible”—there’s that word again—”you’re doing it right. Here’s how you work on it to do it better.”
When Jessie’s mom retired from full-time work in radio about two years ago, she was inspired by her daughter’s strength and physique to start working out. “She tried to surprise me with doing a pullup,” Jessie says. “She was so proud. And it was one of the hardest things ever to tell her, ‘Mom, I’m so proud that you’re doing this, but those aren’t real pullups.’ She was starting halfway up at a 90-degree angle instead of with her arms fully extended, so she wasn’t working her whole range of motion. She was just crushed.” But then she got a trainer and worked on her form. She’s turning 66 years old this month—and can now nail nine perfect pullups.
This may have been the harshest lesson Jessie had to learn—the one that led to plenty of tears. She still wonders if charging too hard at her goal doomed her attempt to qualify for the Olympic trials in pole vaulting at age 20. “I was overtraining dramatically, trying to eat perfectly and therefore undereating,” she says. She doubled the coach’s suggested training workload and spent rest days sneaking into the gymnastics room to work out with the team.
More than a decade of that unforgiving approach finally led to the inevitable. In a tae kwon do class in 2014, exhausted from back-to-back overtime days doing stunts for a TV show, Jessie went up in the air in a jump and came down wrong, tearing her ACL, MCL, and meniscus. “The emotional pain of it was worse than the physical—that feeling of being fragile. I’m supposed to be strong and I’m just sitting on the floor, broken.”
Finally forced into resting, Jessie asked herself a new question: “Which was more important—to be the person who pushes hardest, is the most intense…or the person who succeeds?” So Jessie redefined discipline. It meant taking rest days on occasion and quitting a move when it felt dangerously “tweaky.” “It was painful; I cried about it a lot,” she says. “Stopping felt lazy.” But in the end, it led to her best year ever—and ninja history.
And don’t set number goals. “If you’re doing a set of 10, you’ll do 10—but maybe you could have done 11 or 12,” Jessie explains. Instead, try to beat your own record, constantly. How long can you balance on your toes on each foot? How slowly can you do a pullup? What’s your vertical jump? How many squats can you do? “The goal is getting to that point where you can’t do any more, everything’s giving out, that point where you’re gaining strength. You’re looking for that point of failure—and seeing that as the success.” Because that’s the ninja way.
This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Women’s Health. For more great advice, pick up a copy of the issue on newsstands now!
September 8, 2017