How to make Murder while making Life
My student, Sarah Andrews, who received her purple belt while very very pregnant is a 44-year old mother of three who works as a lawyer to support her jiu jitsu habit. She recently presented me with a new challenge – how to coach a pregnant woman. I invited her to share her thoughts and lessons learned on training during her pregnancy, which follows bellow in her words. I am thankful I was able to be of use to her during this time. When she presented me with this challenge I found close to no resources on the matter. I hope you can benefit from our experience.
Training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has been a central part of my life for over 8 years. It is a major source of balance for my mental, physical and spiritual well-being. So when I decided to have a baby, I knew that I was going to have to figure out how to adapt my training to ensure that I could continue to grow my grappling skills while also growing a human. I tend to over-research most things I do, so it was noteworthy to me that resources about how to train while pregnant were difficult to find. I am thrilled that Shawn has invited me to do a guest post to share my experiences training while pregnant and I hope that other jiujiteiras and their coaches find this helpful.
Before jumping in, I have to stress that these are my experiences, guided by my midwives, based on my body and my tolerances for risk. I am not a medical provider and I encourage everyone to begin this discussion with their healthcare provider. That being said, I also encourage everyone to be an active and informed participant in their healthcare. I had a long-standing relationship with my midwives before I began training and I knew that they were going to give me individualized advice and that they would take the time to learn about the specific demands jiu jitsu would place on my body. I also knew that they would take me seriously when I say that jiu jitsu is an extremely important part of my day-to-day life and a crucial tool in maintaining my well-being.
So, collaborate with the healthcare providers who will support you in your birth, but also choose healthcare providers who will dig into this with you, because very few of them are going to have a true understanding of the athletic skills required to engage in this sport.
Beginning the Conversation with Healthcare Providers
I began the conversation with my midwives by asking them to help me understand what sort of things could hurt my baby. After asking me to help educate them about the sport, which I generally did by showing them training videos, they broke their advice down into a few categories to consider:
- Impact. This was the top of the list for what to avoid. The baby is fairly well-protected inside the amniotic sac, but the placenta can be dislodged from the side of the uterus and placental abruption was decidedly their largest concern;
- Pressure. My midwives were less concerned about pressure and did not seem worried about me lying on my back. Despite this being common advice about a thing to avoid, they assured me that I would feel uncomfortable before it became a problem. Therefore, they advised me that I should pay attention to how I felt and assured me that as long as I listened to my body about pain or discomfort, my baby would be fine.
- Airflow – Heavy Cardio versus Chokes. My providers did not want me to purposely restrict my airflow through chokes, but did not have concerns about heavy cardio activity. This assessment about intensity was connected to my level of experience and I was encouraged to continue at the level of intensity I was accustomed to;
- Hydration and Temperature. My providers did advise me to hydrate really well and to rest if I felt overly warm.
Translating Advice into Action
I translated this advice into taking a pause on my stand-up game. Wrestling has long been my preference and I tend to move back to my feet when the opportunity presents, so I looked at this as a chance to spend some time focused on pulling guard and to play with leg locks. My other big modification was to tap earlier on chokes, such that I was never restricting my airflow. I also made a point to monitor my body temperature, keep iced water nearby and be more willing to take rest rounds.
Beyond making changes to avoid falls or impact, I did pay attention to pressure placed on my body. If someone applied pressure that I did not enjoy, I simply tapped and reset. I made it my responsibility to communicate and kept things at a pace where I felt like I had plenty of time to either shift my position or tap.
In addition to heeding my healthcare providers, I weighed considerations about my personal risk tolerance, my partner’s risk tolerance and the risk tolerance of my coaches and training partners. These considerations are personal to each pregnant person, but I will talk about the framework I used to guide my decisions.
First off, I am a firm believer that a pregnant person has total autonomy over her body and bears the responsibility for the decisions they might make. I thought about the risk of miscarriage in that context, but I also balanced this with the fact that between a third and half of all pregnancies in women over the age of 40 end in miscarriage. I could not find good data that suggested that anyone really knows if exercise is often the cause of miscarriage. The data seems to pin the issue on chromosomal issues, with the high rate of miscarriage being the body’s response to an issue with the fetus.
So, I decided that I was going to make the assumption that a healthy fetus was going to be well-supported by a healthy mother. Honoring the goal of a healthy mother also felt like an excellent way to do my best to keep my risk lower for gestational diabetes and high blood pressure, which are well-documented risk-factors for fetuses.
My partner supported me in this determination. He trusted me to make good decisions about my personal limits and it helped a great deal that he knows my core training partners pretty well and trusts them to respect my limits.
Telling People you are Pregnant
One big issue was deciding when to tell my training partners. I have a group that I trained with as a closed pod during the pandemic, in particular Annie, a purple belt who I have been training with since the beginning of my jiu jitsu journey and Shawn, the author of this blog, who has a brown belt and has become my main coach. I told the two of them and they helped me develop my thoughts on modifying my game.
Before disclosing my pregnancy to anyone, I had been making modifications myself, by pulling a lot of guard and training from set positions with my core training group. My group is all upper belts and I have trained with them a long time, so I felt protected from the unpredictability of white belts or strangers at open mat. At 10 weeks, I attended a Globetrotters training camp and began to disclose my status there. I decided to stick with folks from my home gym or female training partners, due to their smaller size, and generally said something along the lines of, “Hey, I am pregnant. I need to avoid impact, so no sweeps or anything ballistic. But I will let you know from there and will tap if anything is uncomfortable.” I took this speech with me upon return to my home gym and continued to be selective about the size and experience level of the people I asked to roll.
I am aware that there may be people who would prefer to know if a training partner is pregnant before consenting to roll with them. Although I did not choose to disclose to everyone immediately, pregnant people may wish to consider this preference. I do recall one training partner expressing some hesitation and then coming back to me a few weeks later and saying that she thought about it and realized that it was my body and my risk assessment and that she was going to trust in my ability to make decisions and communicate my needs. I appreciated this.
I also think that my ability to navigate this was enhanced by being an experienced practitioner. The heady years of my white belt obsession with training was long behind me. I am glad I came into pregnancy with that perspective and a deep bench of relationships with my training partners.
Finding your People
I am profoundly grateful to have friends that invested in the journey with me. I know I would not have been successful without a group of people that I trusted to make smart decisions when training. I am lucky that we have a sizable group of upper belt women at my gym and I definitely took advantage of that. I also trained with a select group of men that I had trained with for a long time. It was important for me to know that the people I was training with could exercise self control and a good sense of humor as my body changed in the way I could use it.
There were also a few amusing moments where my people gave me a great deal of support with the emotional parts of pregnancy. One of my favorites occurred when Shawn rolled my gravid body (gently and with control) late in the 3rd trimester and chuckled, “I usually use that on fat guys.” I immediately began to literally weep. Shawn paused in concern, noting “You are the one person I was sure would find that funny.” I sniffled, “Non-pregnant me thinks that is hilarious. Hormonal me is overwhelmed.” Hugs were exchanged and we went back to sparring. Your people will have room for the full gamut of emotions inherent in the pregnant experience.
A training environment like this comes from a willingness to invest in other people as training partners for the duration- through injury, changed capacity and shifts in intensity and focus. The ability to train regularly and with intensity while pregnant requires this kind of investment and I would recommend that jiujiteiras who decide to grow a human invest in a core group of training partners who will support them as far in advance of a pregnancy as possible.
Jitzing while Pregnant, AKA: Developing a Serious Pressure Game and Positional Sparring
I have not traditionally been a guard puller. So I began to drill pulls that still put me in a position to come up, to better later integrate into my game. I also worked a lot on my passing, with my training partner in seated guard. Seminars and training material from Shawn Williams were particularly helpful – specifically shin-to-shin, body lock passing and near-side underhooks. I had been working on heel hooks during the pandemic and thought that would be a natural fit while pregnant, but, by about 20 weeks, I found my abdominal muscles to be increasingly weak and it was hard to perform some techniques correctly. My coaches were good about noting this and generally advised me to shift away from spaces where I was at risk of creating bad habits.
By about halfway through my pregnancy, I had a serious concentration of mass in my belly and arse. It created challenges for partners much more advanced than I, whom I now outweighed. They were kind enough to take certain defenses off the table and let me work. Deprived of the ability to knock me over, my training partners allowed guard passes with much higher frequency. From my perspective, this was great. It gave me an opportunity to engage with my top game with people that had previously kept me at a distance.
It was unavoidable that I not only had the advantage of increased weight, but that it was a weight highly concentrated in my hips. This definitely created a novel challenge for my training partners and it gave me an increased opportunity to rep out submissions from side control and mount, because it was far easier for me to maintain that position. I fully admit to taking some glee in not being easily tossed from high mount and *may* have overindulged in smoother techniques like mother’s milk, which had the advantage of also being highly amusing.
It became a running joke that everyone was biding their time to wreak vengeance upon me once I recovered postpartum. But I think we all had some of the most fun on the mats we have ever had, because the whole group embraced the challenge of finding ways to engage in our sport that supported my ability to continue to participate meaningfully, which put the focus squarely on the joy of getting to play this way with other skilled practitioners, instead of on simply winning rounds.
None of this fun would have been possible without a significant focus on sparring from position. I suspect that sparring in this way may be the most helpful way to advance your jiu jitsu game. It can be necessary when compensating for an injury or a pregnancy, but should really be a massive percentage of the way people train.
In our pod, we typically structured it like this:
- Someone, usually Shawn, would take point on a lesson for the day. We would review specific technique and drill it;
- We would focus on short chains of movement – coming into a body lock position, pummeling the legs into place, executing the pass. Drill, rinse, repeat;
- We would spar from that position and end at a logical point, like a completed pass, and reset. Sometimes we might start at a lower speed and work up, but we always ended in full sparring, with a focus on resetting when things moved beyond that chain;
- We did not move on until the group felt successful at performing the technique at speed. When we did move on, it was to the next logical part of the chain.
To be honest, I think my most significant period of growth in jiu jitsu occurred just before and while I was pregnant, because I was training in this manner. Now that I do not have physical restrictions, I find myself dropping into my small group, but also in our regular curriculum, comp team and advanced classes and I have observed a marked decline in the pace of my learning. There is nothing for getting better than repping out chains over and over again. I am actually currently chewing on how to shift back to increase my attention to repping out a smaller amount of new material.
It is heartening to be able to reflect that different phases of life, even the slower periods, like pregnancy, can confer an advantage to learning our sport.
Dealing with the Critics
The jiu jitsu world is full of people who feel especially brave online and who think they are experts in all kinds of things they know nothing about. Given that it is also heavily populated by people who are not directly familiar with pregnant people, it is easy to find misogynistic know-it-alls online. You can wade into Reddit threads where men opine on whether women should train while pregnant, if you want to. I do not recommend it. If you are a pregnant person, seek out online communities that center on pregnant people. If you are reading this as an ally – bravo for you! I recommend learning more about your training partners. Make a space where they feel safe talking to you If you train with women, pregnancy is likely to come up at some point. Choosing to be an ally makes the world, and the mats, a better place.
For example, I deeply appreciated the day Shawn put a random Instagram commentator blast after the fellow watched a reel from our class and opined, in the all caps, that I should not be training while pregnant. Shawn commented to make it clear this was a decision better suited for me and doctors and my coaches. I feel certain that his voice as a coach and a man was likely more effective than mine would have been, so it is, again, important to have your people around you.
For your viewing pleasure: https://www.instagram.com/p/CVWevLMAVeF/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link
For the most part, I received total support from people at my gym, although a few folks did decline to train with me, citing their own concern about their levels of control. I was happy that they communicated this and happy to catch back up with them, post-pregnancy.
Deciding if and when to Stop
The running joke at my gym was that I would stop training when my water broke on the mats. One of my coaches was particularly afraid of this and we joked that I should pour some water on the mats and exclaim loudly, the way women do in the movies, just to prank him – but I honestly lost the energy to follow up on the idea, as my belly grew.
I stuck with my normal training schedule until around 30 weeks. A typical week involved training most days, generally with a balance of either formal class instruction or small group work with a focus on a specific technique, positiuyahonal sparring and open mat. I added in a short strength routine focused on core support 3-4 day a week and generally kept my cardio in good stead by biking for the commute to the gym or if I needed to go to my office.
In the early part of pregnancy, the mats were the only place I did not feel nausea. It was harder to get myself motivated to go, but the exercise relieved my discomfort. I also felt that it was easier to regulate my eating and my mood than in my earlier pregnancies and I attribute this to both staying extremely active and having the social and emotional support of my training partners.
Once I passed the 30 week mark, I began to slow down and after 34 weeks, I found new limitations almost daily. I began to cut down days I went to train. At 37 weeks, I went to a 5:30AM open mat session and could hardly catch my breath, while my training partners were clearly working very slowly to accommodate me. That was my last day to attempt to go hard on live rolls and I settled for drilling and a few times doing some partnered yoga with Annie, just to keep in the rhythm of moving my body and meeting up with the group. My last roll of any kind was at 39 weeks and 2 days – 5 days before I went into labor and the baby had dropped so low in my pelvis, I could really only move at about 20%.
My experience is highly individualized. There may be people who find themselves physically able to train at intensity right until the end and people who find training to be tremendously taxing much more early on. I do remember very clearly a moment in the third trimester when Shawn looked at me point blank and told me it was okay if I wanted to stop and rest, that no one would judge me for doing so. I did sit with the thought and ultimately did come to a deeper sense of how very okay it is to take time and rest. As I reflect back on it, there are learning advantages to having a change in pace. This reflection became even more valuable post-partum, where the needs of a nursing baby have posed a significant barrier to my training schedule.
Pregnancy is Hard, but Jiu Jitsu Makes it Easier
I have birthed three babies, but only one while training jiu jitsu. Notably, this last pregnancy was over a decade after the prior pregnancy when a lot of mothers report more difficulty with the stress carrying a baby places on the body. But, I found myself regularly amazed at how much better this pregnancy felt. A lot of credit for this goes to my partner, who could teach a master class on emotional support during pregnancy – but I feel strongly that my high levels of activity in a playful sport, surrounded by enthusiastic training partners changed my experience of pregnancy in an extremely positive way.
Training kept my body moving in a way that prevented or eased a lot of what hurts about inhabiting a pregnant body. I gained less weight than I had before and stayed far more mobile. Thanks to my shrimping skills, I was even able to shift out of bed by myself for the entirety of the pregnancy, which was a revelation!
Mentally, I think it is also fair to say that training and competing in jiu jitsu has created a wealth of opportunity to embrace intense pressure, both physical and emotional. There were a few moments during my labor when I literally visualized myself on my feet in that moment just before you slap hands in a tournament and I attacked contractions with the same mindset of fierce joy and drive that I typically feel at the top of a match.
Of course, labor does not include any opportunity to tap out! So grinding through all those moments where I desperately wanted a match to end, but pushed through it was exceptional practice to dig deep during natural childbirth. All birthing people know that there is a certain dark moment of despair, terror and pain that they have to conquer before they meet their little one and I was astonished to hear from my support team that, based on what they could observe outwardly, they thought I was perfectly calm during the process.
Additional Thoughts for Coaches
I was extraordinarily lucky to have coaches who considered my pregnancy an interesting puzzle to solve. If you are lucky enough to encounter such a challenge, the following are ways to be truly supportive:
- Center the mother as the decision maker. Remember that literally no one cares more about the baby than the mother. Your job is to work with her to figure out what modifications she and her healthcare providers think make sense and help her make them;
- Consider that coaching well can involve emotional support. I got a lot of positive affirmation from my coaches just for showing up and I never felt anything other than welcome, or any pressure to “go hard”. This helped me settle into a place of acceptance about how a pregnancy might affect the pace and intensity of my jiu jitsu journey. This can also have the added benefit of being evident to your other students, who will know your school is an inclusive and affirming place for women in all stages of their life;
- Recommend PT. Recommend it a lot. There is considerable strain on the body and a loosening of ligaments. The abdominal wall separates, impacting core strength and over 40% of women experience significant impact to their pelvic floor. The PT professionals everyone sees for their shoulder injuries might not have the necessary expertise to help with these issues. It is particularly important to plan the return to the mats postpartum from a position of knowledge about these issues. Anecdotally, the regret I see the most when jiujiteiras remark upon after having babies is coming back with too much intensity after feeling deprived of the mats – which can sometimes cause further injury. Birth is absolutely traumatic to the mind and body and it can only help the process to begin PT prophylactically;
- Teach your students the value of sparring from position. Modifications are so much easier to make when you narrow the scope when going live. This is a great way for smaller grapplers to train with larger ones or less skilled folks to grapple with with their more advanced training partners, but it is absolutely essential to creating solid opportunities to learn and get challenging rounds in when a grappler is pregnant.
In Conclusion, use your Frame(work)s
In the end, although pregnancy is an experience, shared by many people, each jiujiteira will have to develop a set of rules, or a framework to make decisions about how to engage with the sport while pregnant, given the needs of your body, your age and health, how important jiu jitsu is to you and the needs of your family and your level of support from your training partners. I hope that detailing my thinking and the criteria I used to guide my decision-making process assists you in your process. I wish you well in your journey and hope that you will soon welcome a person who might someday join us all on the mats.