How American Ninja Warrior Jessie Graff Trains Her Upper Body
Steal these grip strength secrets from the "Modern Day Wonder Woman."
The healthiest people you know would probably all say the same thing when asked, "Where do you find the motivation to work out and eat healthy?" Their answer: "It's a lifestyle."
Turns out, that's the secret to being the most badass female American Ninja Warrior too. Yep, we're talking about Jessie Graff, arguably the most beloved lady out on the ninja warrior course. Not only does she make insanely difficult obstacles (like the Warped Wall, Ring Swing, and Salmon Ladder) look easy, but her display of athleticism is on par with (and better than) most of the men who show up, despite the disadvantage of having less natural upper-body strength.
To be fair, she's been superfit all her life: As a former gymnast, college pole vaulter, and current stuntwoman (she's been in everything from The Dark Knight and Transformers to Bridesmaids), being agile and strong is her bread and butter. She set a record in June 2016 during the Los Angeles ANW qualifier when she became the first woman to make it up the fourteen-and-a-half-foot Warped Wall in a Wonder Woman costume. And now she's back, advancing through the latest season like it ain't no thang. (Catch her this season on Mondays at 8/7c on NBC.)
But how, exactly, does she train to be the "Modern Day Wonder Woman"? Repeat: It's a lifestyle. Graff relies on a few key movements in the gym, but most of her other training comes from rock climbing and doing grip strength drills around at home. (So when you'd be sitting around watching American Ninja Warrior, she's doing laps around her living room on homemade grip challenges, like pegboards and hanging balls and nunchucks, which all dangle from the ceiling and walls in her home.) If you want to tap into your own ninja skills without drilling holes into your ceiling, try some of her go-to gym-friendly moves below.
1. Pull-ups, pull-ups, and more pull-ups.
"When I first started working on pull-ups and my upper-body strength, I was doing three sets of each: regular shoulder-width pull-ups, narrow grip, and super wide," says Graff. As she continued her training and pull-ups became kind of boring, she started rock climbing instead. (Still need to master the basics? Here are the ultimate progressions for mastering a pull-up.)
On a grip strength training day, Graff says she'll usually bang out a max set of pull-ups (doing as many as she can in a row, because it's a great way to measure progress from week to week), bike to the gym to do recovery work (rolling on a lacrosse ball) and specific muscle group exercises (like rotator cuff injury prevention exercises), and then go rock climbing for a few hours until she can't climb anymore.
But don't be fooled. Those pull-up sets aren't easy, even when you're that strong. Graff says the key to building that kind of strength (and prepping for the ANW course) is pushing until the very last bit of grip is lost from her fingers: "If I get to that point where I'm trembling and shaking to get that last rep-but it's three more than last time-it gives me that extra incentive to hang on the bar longer and shake out my arms until I'm ready to do more rep... It's going to that total burnout place where I'm hanging until I can recover and continue to do that until my fingers peel off the bar. It's not when I choose to let go of it, it's when I can't help but drop onto my feet." (Here's a full workout to help you increase your grip strength.)
2. Lat pull-downs.
When wide-grip pull-ups began hurting her shoulder, Graff started swapping in wide-grip lat pull-downs instead. Now that' she's working on a single-arm pull-up, she's added single-arm lat pull-downs to her training too. (Bonus: Lat pull-downs help you work on your grip strength without being airborne. And, FYI, it's important to have good grip strength no matter your fitness goals.)
3. Negative pull-up holds.
Even Queen Ninja Warrior herself hits workout plateaus. When she gets stuck on her max number of pull-ups for a few weeks, she focuses on finding the weakest link by going slow-mo. " I try to do the slowest pull-up possible," she says. "I've made it to a two-minute pull-up. When you go that slow, you're getting that same burnout in every single centimeter of your range of motion, so it helps you find your weak spots."
If even a basic pull-up seems insane...
"My mom started upper-body work for the first time when she was 63," says Graff. It took her over a year to get her first clean, strict-form pull-up. "It's much slower when you're an adult, but it still works if you're persistent."
Graff helped coach her mom through mastering the pull-up with modified negative pull-ups (jump up so your chin is over the bar, then lower yourself as slowly as possible), pull-ups with the help of resistance bands, and with one foot on a chair (try to help yourself as little as possible). (That's not all. Here are eight easier pull-up alternatives.)
You might be thinking: I'm not a ninja, I don't need to do one. Stop thinking of it as a specialty exercise, and start thinking of it as a crucial bodyweight movement.
"I feel like it's an important life skill," says Graff. "Like if you fell off some sort of ledge and were hanging by your fingers. I see this in movies all the time. Being in that position means you're going to die unless someone pulls you over the edge. But if you can do a pull-up then it's not a problem. It just feels like something you should do to prepare, just in case you ever find yourself in that position... You're going to really wish you'd done pull-ups!"
And now you have zero excuse: Graff shared her entire beginner pull-up workout right here: