I decided to start training BJJ again after a four-year-long hiatus, at ten weeks postpartum. I was seven months pregnant when I started teaching yoga at the gym where I used to train, so staying after class for BJJ wasn’t really an option. However, I found myself longing for the mats.
Once I had my baby, I had severe postpartum depression and anxiety. I wouldn’t leave my baby because I thought he’d die if I wasn’t with him. My therapist insisted that leaving the house, and consequently my baby, for short periods of time was essential for my mental health. That’s when I started thinking of BJJ again.
About eight weeks postpartum, I decided I wanted to train again, but I didn’t have any idea how to start. I’d been cleared for exercise and had been teaching yoga for a few weeks, but I didn’t know if I was cleared for something like BJJ. When I asked my OB she said I should be fine. I tried to explain the level of contact, but she didn’t really seem to get it.
Unsure what to do, I turned to the grappling Facebook groups that had kept me connected to BJJ when I wasn’t training. Some women said they’d returned to training two weeks postpartum! Others said they returned as soon as they were cleared for exercise. But some shared horror stories about going back too early. They talked about injuries and pelvic floor dysfunction and generally how painful it was to train postpartum. I was totally overwhelmed and didn’t have a clue what the right answer was.
Eventually, I chose to go back at 10 weeks. However, the truth is that training postpartum is really different for a long time. It takes forever for your body to feel normal again. And training too hard too fast can have serious consequences. I was really frustrated at the lack of clear information about training postpartum, so I decided to track down a couple of experts and get them to weigh in.
Michele Syska, a Physical Therapist and Pelvic Floor Rehabilitation Practitioner, is a blue belt who has been training for six years. Edna Becht is a Family Practice doctor specializing in non-surgical obstetrics and a purple belt who has been training since 2008.
Obviously, the answer will be different for every person and every birth, but generally, how long would you recommend waiting before going back to training?
Edna: The postpartum period is the 6 weeks after delivery and involves a lot of body changes back toward a non-pregnant physiology. I was back on the mats within 2 weeks, but for somebody who has a complicated delivery or operative delivery may wait six or more weeks to allow for those tissues to heal fully… The mats aren’t going anywhere and will be there for you when it’s safe!
Michele: As a pelvic PT we consider the postpartum period to last that entire 1st year really, the immediate concern being within the first 3-6 months. This is, of course, going to vary with each person, but we know that the tensile strength of the tissues is only back to 50% of it’s pre-pregnancy state at 6 weeks… Unfortunately, we don’t have a researched guideline to follow for jiu-jitsu. I recommend working with a trainer who is knowledgeable about or willing to learn about it.
Should folks have a pelvic floor consult before they go back to training?
Michele: Of course, I’m in favor of this, as I am a pelvic PT. Lately, there is more talk in my profession about getting women who are involved in heavy activity in for a consult for appropriate progression. Adding heavy activity too quickly can set a person up for possible prolapse and leakage issues in the future.
Edna: I wouldn’t say a pelvic floor consultation is necessary for everyone, but people who have had numerous children, increased incontinence during pregnancy and after delivery, twins pregnancy, etc, may want to consider pelvic floor rehab. This is particularly true if they notice pain, prolapse, or incontinence as they try to go back to regular activities and ease into training.
What are some signs that your body is ready to go back to training postpartum?
Edna: If bleeding is controlled (should not be heavier than a normal period) and you are returning to your usual activities of daily living without shortness of breath, lightheadedness, or excessive pain, then you may be ready to ease back into training.
Michele: Some may not know what that looks like for them, so working with a knowledgeable provider is key. Other red flags I consider are incontinence, prolapse, pain with return to intercourse, new pain in the back, hips perineum and tailbone and any issues with bowel movements or urinating.
How would you recommend easing back into training?
Edna: If breastfeeding, I highly recommend pumping or nursing right before class to minimize chest tenderness. Don’t skip warmups or movement drills. Drill a lot to refamiliarize yourself with your changed body and looser joints. If that’s going well, positional rolling or light rounds next. I caution against rolling full tilt in the immediate postpartum 6-8 weeks.
Michele: The feeling of “instability” is something I hear often. It wouldn’t be abnormal to feel that up to 3-6 months after delivery. Jiu jitsu offers many ways to ease back in. Take advantage of that. Your body may like to move differently at this time and that will take some getting used to. Don’t feel like you have to be super women just to prove a point. If you are unsure, work with someone who knows what they are doing when working with postpartum athletes. I would avoid larger opponents that you will be straining with, takedowns and throws. These are not activities that are avoided forever but doing it smart can avoid problems in the future. The benefit that comes from working with a trained provider is the possibility of progressing at a steadier rate than you may do or feel confident about on your own.
Once you’re back at training what are some warning signs that things aren’t alright?
Edna: Pain should be an obvious sign and should guide your level of activity. If breastfeeding, be sure to hydrate extra and eat enough to fuel both milk production and workouts. Watch for increased bleeding after workouts. Bleeding in the postpartum period shouldn’t be any heavier than a period.
Michele: I totally agree! Urinary or fecal incontinence, pain with intercourse, difficulty emptying their bladder or bowel, vaginal pressures or like something is falling out and rushing to the bathroom with strong urges that are more than the norm and excessive bulging through the midline of the abdomen.
Michele ended our interview with the perfect reminder, “Yes, there are considerations… but it’s truly not all doom and gloom. There are so many variations [for] each individual and the possibilities are endless as far as assisting a woman back to our awesome sport!”
While this is a lot of information to take in, remember that you will get back to training when you’re ready. The mats will always be there.
Robin Zabiegalksi i is a writer and editor from Vermont. Her work has been published in several digital media publications and literary magazines. She’s been training BJJ for several years and she is a 2 stripe blue belt, currently training at Combat Fitness MMA in Winooski Vermont. When she’s not writing or training, she can be found playing with her toddler, hiking or snowboarding depending on the season, or bingeing her latest TV obsession.