Athletes & Celebrities

Stuntwoman Jessie Graff on Setting Goals and Training Smarter, Not Harder

'American Ninja Warrior' star and top stuntwoman Jessie Graff is astonishing in her ability to fly through space or scamper up walls—but it’s her hard work and dedication that have brought her success. Follow her tips to harness your own superpowers.

'Muscle & Fitness Hers' Summer 2018 Cover Star Jessie Graff
Per Bernal

There’s nothing Jessie Graff likes to do more than to defy gravity. Whether she’s scaling 15-foot-high walls, jumping nearly five feet in the air, or hanging from ledges the width of a ruler, the 34-year-old American Ninja Warrior queen and professional stuntwoman appears to have superhuman strength and power. But while her natural tenacity and hyperfocus on being her best help, Graff works hard to make things look so easy.

As one of the top obstacle competitors on the planet—male or female—Graff is constantly looking for new ways to train. The entryway of her Southern California home is a 360-degree gym, complete with climbing walls, padded floors, and hanging bars. She’s even got a backyard trampoline and treadmill pool. “My life’s mission has been to master every style of movement, in every direction,” Graff says. “I pretty much work to support my training habits.”

No small wonder that Graff found a career as a stuntwoman, for which supernatural abilities just come with the territory, whether that’s plunging from rooftops or crashing a motorcycle—then getting up to do it all over again. “I’m so lucky to have found a job that allows me to constantly learn new skills,” she says.

But you don’t have to leap from tall buildings or pull yourself up ledges to feel all-powerful. What’s key is the ability to set small goals for yourself—then burst past them, she says. Steal some tips from Graff’s own training style to build up your confidence and tackle whatever challenges are in front of you.

FIND SOME FOCUS

Mixing up your training is great, but it can also help to concentrate on a couple of key areas for relatively short periods of time. “I tend to get into phases where I’m really excited about one thing and try to master it,” Graff says. For example, when she saw a stuntman on one of her films performing explosive, dynamic handstand jumps, she made it her goal to get the technique down for herself. That meant breaking the movement into smaller components and strengthening the muscles she needed most to complete the move. “Sometimes I have to get really good at something really fast for a job,” she says. “The best way to master a cool new skill is to break down the mechanics.” Throughout her life, Graff has also worked hard to master circus arts, gymnastics, pole vaulting, martial arts, and rock climbing, among other skills. Her advice: Find a skill, sport, or hobby that inspires you, and use that as motivation to build the strength needed to succeed at it.

TRAIN SMARTER—NOT HARDER

After multiple injuries, including a stress fracture in her hip and a knee injury that resulted from overtraining, Graff now knows when to take her foot off the gas. “I learned to pay attention to that little twinge and not just push through it,” she says. Regular stretching, massage therapy, and foam rolling help, she notes, as does incorporating off days.

BELIEVE IN YOURSELF—EVENTUALLY

When it comes to achieving big goals, like running a marathon, Graff stresses that it’s OK to not believe in yourself—at least at first.

“I find many people are discouraged by the concept that you have to believe,” she says. “My message is that even if you don’t believe, all you need is the courage to try. More often than not, you’ll surprise yourself with what you’re capable of.”

One of Graff’s strategies is to set small attainable goals leading up to the big goal. After completing the smaller, more reasonable tasks, true belief will eventually set in.

SET NEW GOALS

Graf fis all about taking on new challenges, even if they take her in a totally unexpected direction. “I blew out my knee and couldn’t do any lower-body training, so I had to come up with something new to work on.” Graff’s pullup game was weak, so she started doing six pullups at a time. Within a few months, she was doing more than 20 at a time. (Today she can do 40.)

TURN YOUR DIET INTO A GAME

“I’m always trying to get more vegetables into my diet, but I also have a sweet tooth, so I give myself a challenge: I get one point for every serving of vegetables that I eat,” says Graff, who rewards herself with something sweet when she reaches 10 points. “If I only have four points in the day and I find myself reaching for a bowl of dark chocolate chips, I’ll switch to something like a smoothie with kale and spinach, which will give me another six points in one glass! Then, if I still want it, I have the chocolate.”

USE YOUR BRAIN

“Almost all your physical success comes from your thought process,” Graff says. Mental focus is also key when it comes to completing new challenges. “Analyze the situation and approach the best way to get the job done,” she adds. “I have to take time to analyze an obstacle so I can jump at the correct angle. It helps to step back and consider what you are doing and how to do it.”

BEST YOURSELF

“I’m obsessed with beating records,” Graff says. “My goal is to find a baseline of something I want to do and then surpass it.” The key, she adds, is consistency. Recently, Graff decided to take on fingertip pushups. “I couldn’t do a single one, not even on my knees,” she says. “I broke it down to the most basic part—a crawling position—and did as many reps as I could. Then I’d take a couple of days off and try again.” After three months, she can now crank out more than 20 fingertip pushups.

GET A GREAT TRAINING PARTNER

Graff finds amazing camaraderie in the stunt community. “Almost everyone in the field is exceptional at something, whether it’s gymnastics, martial arts, or free running, and it’s inspiring to see what they can do and discover new things from them.” But perhaps her favorite training partner is Sammo Hog, her 111-pound Juliana pig. (Follow her on Instagram @SammoHog.) Although Graff incorporates Sammo Hog into moves like pullups and backflips, she says her pet is best for her rest days. “She’s such a cuddler—you can’t help just wanting to take a break and hang out with her.”

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