On Monday night Jessie Graff became the first woman to ever make it to stage 2 of American Ninja Warrior. As she flew through the course, she made obstacles like the Flying Squirrel and the Jumping Spider—obstacles that have been the demise of the competition for many grown men double her size—look easy peasy. And she did it all while wearing a sparkly green superhero costume (of her own design, no less).
The 32-year-old Californian is also a real-life superhero of sorts in her day job as a stuntwoman. When she's not slaying the Ninja Warrior course, you can see her kicking, punching, and jumping off extremely high buildings on the CW's "Supergirl" and ABC's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," along with movies like "Die Hard" and "The Dark Knight." Her hobbies are equally adventurous, including rock climbing, circus gymnastics, martial arts, and parkour, which is basically the practice of getting through environmental obstacles—think about all the rocks, benches, and steps you'd find in a park—in the most efficient way possible. So, you could say she's basically a ninja in real life. Oh, and in her free time, she coaches a high school pole vaulting team. (She swears she still gets a solid eight hours of sleep at night. She really is a wonder woman.)
Even as a baby she was a badass. "My mom says my first word was 'edge' because I was always climbing on things," says Graff. "Although she meant it as in 'stay away from the edge' but I heard it as 'Oh look at this cool thing, how close can I get?'."
Then, when she was 3 years old, she saw a trapeze show at the circus and told her dad that day that she'd found her calling in life—in so many words; she was a toddler after all. She made good on her word, training in gymnastics and circus arts throughout her childhood and eventually taking up pole vaulting in high school. She won state and national titles and was just one inch shy of qualifying for the 2004 summer Olympics. Really, at that point, her job choice was an inevitability.
"I love being up high, doing anything that makes my stomach drop," she says about her favorite kind of stunts. "And anything that lets me be creative and part of the story; I love fights, weapons, and chase scenes."
But she does have one athletic weakness: dancing. "I can do a backflip on a balance beam, no problem, but when a director asked me to improvise some dance moves on the beam first? Total panic!" she says, laughing.
She's wholeheartedly embraced other aspects of the theater in her work, though. As one of the top female Ninja Warriors, she's almost as well known for her costumes as she is for her skills—and that's no accident, she says. "Once I started to see what an effect I was having on young girls, I realized that this is an opportunity to inspire kids through costume," she says. "Kids see a sparkly dress first and then see what I can do. They say 'I want to do that too!' and run out to their monkey bars and start doing pull-ups. It's awesome." (Keep the incredible inspiration from strong females going by watching 5 Badass Women Share Why They Love Their Shape.)
It's not just little girls she wants to inspire. She wants women of all ages to know that they too can do a pull-up no matter what age or stage of life. She even taught her mother to do her first pull-up at age 64! (Learn How to Finally Do a Pull-Up here.) Her phenomenal upper body strength is what helped seal her win on the show (watch her crush the course in the clip below) and she says it's a myth that women are naturally weaker in their arms, chest and shoulders.
"There's no reason women should have more difficulty building upper body strength than lower, it's just that they haven't put the time into training it like they have their legs," she says. "Understand that it's going to feel impossible at first but if you stick with it, you will get stronger."
Even if your own fitness goals have nothing to do with jumping out of windows, or competing in an obstacle course on reality TV, you can still feel like a warrior in your own gym. Graff shares five of her favorite moves anyone can do to get strong, agile, and fearless:
Practically the entire Ninja Warrior course requires competitors to support their own body weight while hanging. It's tougher than it sounds! To try it, grab onto a bar (Jessie recommends going to your local playground), and hang from just one hand for as long as you can and then switch to the other.
Every woman can learn to do a pull-up, Jessie says. To help you work up to it, she made a video tutorial of beginner pull-up drills plus a video demonstration done with a beginner. If you can already do pull-ups, Jessie recommends three sets each of narrow grip, wide grip, and reverse grip, resting 1 to 5 minutes between each set.
Grip strength is an essential skill for any American Ninja Warrior. Jessie trains hers by draping a rolled up towel over a high bar and then hanging from it. Beginners should just practice hanging. More advanced? Repeat the pull-up routine but hold on to the towel instead of the bar itself. (Next up: Try these 3 sandbell exercises that can also improve grip strength and coordination.)
Want to know how Jessie trained to get up the infamous 14-foot Warped Wall? By running stairs. Head to a local park or stadium and run up the bleachers, hitting every step as fast as you can. Repeat by hopping with two feet up every step. To make it harder, skip every other step, then skip two steps, then see if you can even do three.
Speed skaters are Jessie's signature warm-up move when training for agility and balance obstacles such as the Quintuple and Floating Steps because the exercise works just that—your agility and balance. Start standing with your legs hip-width apart. Leap as far as you can to the right, allowing your left leg to swing behind you (without letting it touch the ground). Now leap back to the left, swinging your right foot behind. Continue side to side, trying to cover as much distance as possible with each jump.