Emily Kwok on Navigating Pregnancy in the BJJ World
Brazilian jiu jitsu is addictive. Some students begin training with the intention of keeping it casual and training once or twice a week. Inevitably, it takes over their lives. Now that I teach a women’s class, I have to arrange my strength and conditioning and BJJ training schedule around those classes. So BJJ has definitely taken over a big part of my life. When I think about having a baby, I wonder how I can build a family and stay involved in BJJ.
Teaching a few beginner classes feels like a lot of commitment to me, but what if I co-owned a BJJ school like Emily Kwok? What if I was also a partner in a successful women’s grappling camp? Emily was the first female BJJ black belt in Canada and is a fierce competitor. She’s also a new mother and carefully planned her pregnancy in a way that allowed her to accomplish what she wanted to in competition and business, all while maintaining the status quo in the early years of her child’s life. I recently spoke to Emily about her experience and she offered a lot of insight.
Because Emily’s pregnancy had been so carefully planned, she was able to prepare her body beforehand and continue to train later in her pregnancy. Explained Emily:
I stopped training hard as soon as I found out I was pregnant and restricted my training partners to advanced belts whom I trusted and had established relationships with already. I trained until about three to four months, but taught until eight. I could demonstrate almost everything, but I had to stop some movements by about seven to seven and a half months. I was consistently weight lifting prior to becoming pregnant and I was able to continue working out till the last month. Lifting really saved me because I could control the movements I was making and how heavy my loads were. It really kept me sane. Being a very physically active person can work against you when you’re not able to express yourself as easily in a physical sense.
Emily sought advice from the professionals throughout her pregnancy to ensure the transition into motherhood was smooth.
I stayed active for as long as I was able to under the care of my physical therapist who is also my trainer. I found that by trying to maintain a normal exercise routine (which included teaching, drilling, and lifting weights) I was able to keep myself sane and healthy. I tried not to make my pregnancy too much of an ordeal, I figured if I felt good and healthy, then my baby would be too. I’m not sure if it was a fluke, but my baby is a perfect little human being.
My OBGYN is also not an alarmist. She was aware of what I did for a living and took no issue with me working out intensely. It was hard to find literature that supported active mothers, most tells you to not do anything strenuous at all – but she told me that it was fine for me to work out hard so long as I wasn’t trying to reach new heights. I scaled back my weights about twenty percent and adjusted everything accordingly as I got bigger. It helped that my physical therapist guided me through the whole process and advised me on the best exercises for my body as I gained weight and my ligaments softened. I worked out all the way up until my last month. Then my baby dropped into my pelvic girdle (which is supposed to happen) and caused so much hip discomfort and pain I couldn’t do anything anymore.
Three weeks after she gave birth, Emily was back on the mats. She said:
My business partner was terrified. I started working out at the same time. My physical therapist just warned me to go easy since my ligaments were still tightening up and my joints were beginning to move again with some resistance and load. I just taught and moved lightly for the first couple weeks, but was trying to train a bit harder by my sixth week post pregnancy. What has been affected more than my physical capability is my mental sharpness…that has taken awhile to get back. I have had a hard time getting my body to do what I want it to do as quickly as I want it to happen! I also have struggled to be as fluid and efficient with my movements.
With the physical aspect taken care of, I wondered about how Emily was able to manage her time with a newborn. She is fortunate to be self-employed and even more fortunate to have the support of her loving husband, BJJ brown belt Gerry Hurtado.
My husband is my biggest cheerleader so he gives me all the room to train. We work together so we can each get some mat time and it works out well. Having my own school is fantastic because I can teach a class while he watches her, then I trade off and watch the baby while he trains…or vice versa. I can also set up informal drilling sessions with him and other partners during off hours. Saya joins us on the mat but since I’m not responsible for teaching, I can take care of her while drilling a bit or work through a technique.
A lot of men are afraid of breaking their female teammates on a good day so I can just imagine how they must feel about training with a pregnant lady or someone who just gave birth. What can teammates do to help their female training partners during this time? Emily advised:
Don’t tell your pregnant lady partners what they can or cannot do. They will most likely understand their bodies well and won’t put themselves at risk. What they will want is to feel like a valuable member of their communities and they will want to feel like BJJ is still a big part of their lives. Be a good drilling partner and allow them to move around a bit if the technique isn’t dangerous for the baby.
When they come back after giving birth, be happy to see them and work with them as they get moving again. Some people I trained with the first couple weeks thought it would be fun to go 100% with me…um…that wasn’t so cool in my books. I lost the baby weight pretty quickly so I suppose that people forgot I was pregnant and just reverted to training with me the way they always had. It’s a very drastic thing your body goes through - carrying a baby then giving birth!
Emily is looking forward to continuing to contribute her energy towards her BJJ school in Princeton, New Jersey and Groundswell Grappling Concepts, which she owns and operates with black belts Hannette Staack, Valerie Worthington, and brand-new brown belt Lola Newsom. The learning never ends and Emily looks forward to continuing her own journey as a student of the sport and possibly getting back on the mats to compete. Andfter seeing the beautiful pictures of Saya, I can’t wait to see baby number two! Best of luck to Emily and her growing family!