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I've always had mixed feelings about the idea of "martial arts being empowering for women". Maybe it's because I'm really small and most of the arts I train are ones where hard sparring is a part of the curriculum, but for all I do agree that "technique is a force multiplier", there comes a point where the laws of physics apply. There are plenty of day one new guys that could destroy me in a "fight" and I've got over 2,500 hours of time on the mats.  Do I beat those guys when they're playing by "BJJ rules" and wearing a gi, sure. But if the rules go out the window and a big guy wants to hurt me they can. I don't find martial arts empowering. I find them to be a huge eye-opener as to how small and fragile I actually am.

Except for one thing.

Wearing a Gi is Pretty Liberating

I've been self employed for over a decade. Before then I worked in an industry that had a dress code of "well, we'd appreciate it if you'd at least wear pants". Before then, I was at college/uni and I was a metal head so I wore jeans/leather pants and dark t-shirts 90 percent of the time. I've never dressed smart and I only dress girly for other people's weddings.

Last week I had cause to dress up slightly. I still only wore "smart casual", but the girly pants I was wearing had a tighter cut than my jeans. The top I wore had cosmetic buttons on it that were sure to rip off if I carried anything bulky and heavy, and they were tight on my biceps (and I assure you, my biceps aren't massive). The bag I had to carry had thin straps and was nowhere near as big or comfortable as my usual backpack. The shoes felt flimsy and weren't good to run in.

I never wear makeup. It feels like dirt / oil on my skin (even the expensive stuff, I've tried). I hate having my hair long because it gets in the way so I get it cut at a barber's shop. Dressed smart, I felt like it was hard to run for the train, it was hard to carry anything heavy. I couldn't just 'climb over that wall as a shortcut', and when I got to the dojo and needed to demonstrate something for someone, I couldn't because I didn't have the same freedom of movement as I normally do dressed like a, well, bum.

I Like My Armour

One of the parents of the kids I teach saw me dressed 'smart' and they said "You look different without your armour on!".  They were joking, but it's true - my rashguard and spats are like a suite of chainmail, and the gi is like plate on top. Since I train every day and I go to the dojo wearing the rashguard and spats, I feel like I'm always ready to do something physical.

If most women (or most men, for that matter, I've heard guys say 'I can't demonstrate a round kick in these smart trousers') wear the clothes I was wearing every single day, then no wonder the feel "empowered" when they stick a baggy gi on and start moving their body more freely.

Modern clothing sucks. To me, it's not that martial arts or other forms of exercise are 'empowering' - it's that the way we're forced to dress to work in the average office is incredibly disempowering.

I like to be able to run, climb, jump and carry things at a moment's notice. I like to wear layers so I'm never too hot or too cold. I feel good like that. I may not turn heads or win any fashion awards, but who cares? My confidence comes from what my body can do, not from whether my top is the right color to go with my shoes.

That's not to detract from people who like fashion. I certainly like how it looks - I just don't like how it feels to wear it, and it's given me a new perspective as to why some people like to train casually and say that it feels so good.

New guys often ask me how often they should be training, and whether it's worth training if you can't come in several times a week. That's one of those tricky questions that doesn't have a set answer - because it really depends on your goals.

I train with one person who averages three sessions a month. They have stuck to that training schedule for the last five years, though. They are still a white belt, and they're plugging away slowly - but they haven't quit. They're still coming in, they're having fun, and they feel like they're learning, which is what really matters.

I train with other people who do 2-3 sessions a week, and some who, like me, train daily. I also train with a guy who just got his black belt. He trained daily from white through to purple, then had "life" happen to him, so he was making it in once or twice a month if that. But, he kept showing up when he could. It didn't help him progress at BJJ, it didn't help him keep his timing much - BUT, it meant that when he was ready to come back, he felt like he'd never left. He didn't show up to a new venue and a room full of people that he barely knew, and have to re-integrate himself into the gym.

How Often Should You Be Trying to Train?

If you're brand new, then it's a good idea to set reasonable targets. If you go "I am going to train as much as I can" then you're going to end up coming 4-5 times a week for a few weeks, burning out and getting injured. Ideally, you should try to train consistently, whatever "consistent" is for you.

  • Once a week will give you slow progress. You will find it hard to remember things from class to class and building muscle memory will be slow going, but it is still worth doing. Pay close attention and make the most of your mat time!
  • Twice a week will let you progress twice as fast as you would if you were attending once a week. You'll retain more information, and you'll build up some muscle memory pretty quickly. Many people maintain a schedule of twice a week long term, and steadily get through the belts.
  • Three times a week seems to be the sweet spot for rapid progress, but still having a life outside BJJ. It lets people heal between sessions, it offers rapid progress, and it is the schedule that a lot of local/casual competitors stick to.
  • Four times a week is a serious commitment, and it's what some of the more serious competitors do. You will progress very quickly, but you will have to start taking nutrition and rehab/prehab seriously. Your significant other/boss/non-training friends might start getting annoyed with you.
  • More than four times a week means that you're in diminishing returns territory. It's worth it if you love it, but think carefully about the sacrifices you're making to train that much. If you're training for a competition then you might want to up your schedule to as much as you can handle for a month or two in the run up to the competition - call it a "training camp", but training like that without goals in mind could lead to burnout.

Multiple Sessions Per Day

The most serious competitors train 2x a day, or more. If you're going to do that, then you need to drink lots of water, sleep lots, and have your nutrition on point - otherwise you will get injured. It's hard to "spar hard" twice in one day, so pick your training partners carefully, and maybe make one session light drilling and the other sparring.

Coping When You Can't Train

The challenge for many people is accepting when they can't train. If you were a 2-a-day, 5x a week person and now your schedule is down to 2-a-week, then you're going to see your peers catch you up or pass you buy. That can be frustrating.

As cliche as it might sound, you should be focusing on your own journey. The fact that Joe got a darker belt doesn't mean that your skills are diminished. Pete's achievements, or lack of them, don't take away from you. Indeed, if they're getting better that just means you have better partners to come back to once you can train more. Focus on your priorities. If BJJ is a priority for you, then find a way to arrange your life so you can train - even if, in the short term, that means making something else a priority for a while.  If BJJ is no longer a priority for you, then why do you (hypothetically) care about someone else's progress enough to get frustrated about it?

A random training pic with - where did these guys all go?In the time I've been training, I've seen so many people start and quit. Indeed, this photo from 2015 features a lot of missing people. I know one guy in the picture went and opened his own gym, one left town to go to University, one went back to his home country, and another is away teaching English as a Second Language abroad, but I don't know if they still train. I have no idea  about the others. Did they get promoted elsewhere? Did they change arts? Who knows. Most people don't make it to blue belt, and the vast majority of people who make it to blue don't make it to purple. All that matters really is that you keep training. Even if it's not as often as you used to, you're still making progress.

Be patient. Train hard, tap early, and have fun.