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Traced back hundreds of years, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is one of the most popular forms of martial arts across the world today.
The evolution of the sport has seen dramatic changes throughout the years, particularly when it comes to women in Jiu Jitsu.
Despite the fact that plenty of women train BJJ today, women weren’t always seen on the mat. In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-80s that women could follow a career in BJJ.
The introduction of women into the sport has not only increased its popularity, but it has also brought awareness to the many benefits of Jiu Jitsu for women.
While there is a significant number of women already training BJJ, many others are curious about the ins and outs of the sport. What benefits does it have for women? How can women get started?
That’s why we’ve created the ultimate guide to Jiu Jitsu for women. Let’s jump right in.
The History of BJJ
Often referred to as the gentle art, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a martial art that uses leverage, pressure, and technique to take your opponent to the ground and dominate them once they get there.
BJJ actually originated in Japan with a literal translation meaning “gentleness” (jū) and “art technique” (jutsu). Linked to the Japanese samurai, the creation of BJJ derives from the fact that some battles or confrontations require a weapon-less method of defense.
Similar styles of martial arts have been seen across various countries, from India to China, throughout the years. The takedown style of martial arts increased in popularity when Mitsuyo Maeda, a popular instructor from the Kodokan Japanese school chose to travel the world and prove the efficiency of his choke and armlock.
In 1904, Maeda eventually landed in the United States where the political and economic bond between Japan and the U.S. brought a heightened interest in what he had to teach. Even U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt took lessons in the art in the early 1900s.
After traveling across other countries around the globe, Maeda settled in Brazil in 1914. This would change the history of the sport forever. In 1917, Carlos Gracie watched Maeda dominate and submit some of the biggest men in the area.
Intrigued and inspired, he begged his father Gastão Gracie, a friend of Maeda’s to let him learn from the Japanese man. Maeda would go on to teach young Gracie the main concept of his art- using the opponent’s strength as a weapon for the win.
Carlos Gracie was a faithful student who embraced Jiu Jitsu with his whole heart. In 1925, he opened the first of many Gracie family BJJ academies.
The lineage of the Gracie family would continue to have strong roots in the art, with 13 of Carlos Gracie’s 21 children becoming black belts.
Each member of the family would bring their own improvements to the art, strengthening BJJ to dominate the world of martial arts.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Today’s News
While not everyone understands the basics of BJJ, most people have seen or heard of the art from new and popular adaptations of the sport.
For example, Rorion Gracie kick-started a new sport in 1993 thanks to his background in BJJ. The Ultimate Fighting Championship, known today as the sport of MMA, is followed by millions of people across the world.
Another branch of this new BJJ boom in the 90s came from Carlos Gracie Jr. He picked up his father’s love of organizing championships and strengthening the art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as a regulated sport.
In 1994, he created the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation or IBJJF. Today’s IBJJF tournaments rack in thousands of athletes from more than 50 countries.
Both the Ultimate Fighting Championship and International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation continue to evolve as new BJJ champions dominate the sport and bring their own unique expertise to improve the future of BJJ.
With millions of fans and thousands of athletes, both of these empires have made BJJ the lifestyle it is today.
The History of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for Women
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, a few women were seen sporadically in self-defense class videos for Jiu Jitsu. But it wasn’t until the mid-80s that women began to have a strong presence in the sport.
Despite the regulation of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in 1970, a woman’s ability to pursue a career in Jiu Jitsu wasn’t allowed.
Fifteen years after BJJ became a regulated sport, a women’s division was finally opened thanks to the dedication and commitment of Yvone Duarte.
Who Was the First Female BJJ Black Belt?
Lucky to be raised in the 1970s, a time in history that was filled with free spirits, Yvone Duarte would help cement Jiu Jitsu as the leading combat sport for all.
Training alongside her brother accomplished 1980s fighter Pascoal Duarte, Yvone soon became obsessed with Jiu Jitsu. Outside of making a name for women in BJJ, one of Duarte’s most notable personal achievements was becoming the first female BJJ black belt in 1990.
Duarte’s competitive side and her drive to be better was the motivating force behind the changes she made in BJJ.
Knocking on just about everyone’s door who had a hand in the trajectory of the sport, Duarte requested a female division of the sport.
She leveraged her brother’s connections to help her convince the Rio de Janeiro Federation (FJJERJ) to open the first female division of BJJ.
The first women’s competition was held in 1985, and it’s no surprise that it was won by Duarte herself. Her commitment to Jiu Jitsu did not end with these notable accomplishments.
Duarte would go on to open her own grappling academy in the late ’80s, another first for women. As a pioneer coach, Duarte helped establish the Federation of Jiu Jitsu in Brasilia, the capital city of Brazil.
It was these great accomplishments and her true passion for the sport that made Duarte the women’s BJJ legend that she remains today.
Other Important Women in Jiu Jitsu
While Yvone Duarte holds the title for many first for women in BJJ, there are several other important women in the history of the sport. These include:
Commonly known as Zanza, Conceicão holds a valuable piece of BJJ women’s history as the first female to earn a world title in 1998. Before her world title, Zanza was a well-known judo figure.
Seeing to improve her groundwork for judo, Zanza was introduced to the world of BJJ. Training with Ricardo Murgel, she quickly picked up the BJJ technique and made a name for herself in the sport.
Unfortunately for BJJ, Zanza would favor judo throughout most of her career, competing for her country at the 2000 Summer Olympics, but she still made a significant mark in the world of BJJ.
In addition to her world title in BJJ, Zanza won the 2007 Pan American medal for Brazil in wrestling.
The late 1990s and early 2000s marked the golden years for Leka Vieira in BJJ. This three-time world champion became the first female start in BJJ in her country of Mines Gerias.
Despite having few ties from her country to BJJ, Vieira’s accomplishments allowed her to move to the U.S. in 2001 to inspire countless American women to make a name for themselves in the sport.
Unfortunately, several injuries cut her career short, but not before securing three world championships and three Pan American championships.
Vieira would also be known as the first woman to award a black belt to her student Cindy Omatsu.
For the majority of a decade, Leticia Ribeiro emerged as the face of women’s competitive Jiu Jitsu.
Five-time world champion, two-time world no-gi champion, and two time Pan American champion, Ribeiro would make her mark on the history of BJJ before transitioning to coaching.
Her female Jiu Jitsu camp is known as the best training environment for women around the world, highly sought after by today’s toughest and most accomplished female competitors.
While it may come as no surprise that Kyra Gracie would have major accomplishments in the world of female BJJ, getting to the top wasn’t easy.
Despite carrying the Gracie name, Kyra had a hard time dealing with the taboos in her own male-dominated BJJ family. Her talent and hard work were the driving force in her success, not her Gracie lineage, and today she is one of the most recognizable female figures in the sport.
Her competitive edge awarded Gracie five world championships, three ADCC championships, and 3 Pan American championships. But her charismatic personality lead her to become an ambassador for women in BJJ.
Today, she’s widely known through mainstream media as the face of women’s BJJ, bringing a heightened awareness to the female division of Jiu Jitsu and the sport as a whole.
Born in Brazil, Staack has been an example for young female competitors across the world.
Recognized as one of the legends of the sport, she holds seven world titles, three ADCC titles, and three Pan American championship titles.
With more of a humble background, Staack’s focus has been on advocating for the basics of Jiu Jitsu.
Making a name for the blue-collar worker with a modest demeanor, Staack co-founded the Brazil 021 team what’s well known for its work with the poor areas of Rio de Janeiro.
Eight-time world champion, Michelle Nicolini, is widely known for her wins by submission.
As one of the sport’s most accurate finishers, Nicolini is credited for bringing creativity to BJJ that sets her ahead of her competition.
Having developed several position changes from the guard on her own, Nicolini also secured an ADCC championship title and three Pan American Championship titles.
When Was the First Women’s BJJ Competition?
The first women’s BJJ competition was in 1985 when Yvone Duarte convinced the Rio de Janeiro federation to allow women to compete.
Despite being a predominantly male sport, the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) would set the trend for women’s careers in BJJ with the introduction of the women’s tournament in 1998, two years after the first men’s tournament.
Originally, there were only two female weight divisions and they combined all belt levels. This was mostly because there were not enough female competitors to fill out the weight divisions at the time.
Gradually, Jiu Jitsu for women gained popularity, filling out more weight and belt divisions. Today, the largest divisions are the blue and white belt competitors.
In 2015, the addition of two new weight classes, rooster and super heavyweight, added to the growth of the sport for females. Today, there are female competitions held all over the world in a variety of weight classes and belt divisions.
Women’s Jiu Jitsu Provides More Than Self-Defense
In the early years of women emerging onto the BJJ scene, the interest in BJJ for women was credited to the need for women to learn self-defense. But, as you’ve seen through the most notable figures in women’s BJJ history, this wasn’t the case.
As with men, BJJ offers more than just self-defense to women. It’s a means of physical activity, it teaches important life lessons, it’s fun, and it’s a way to connect with likeminded females and develop lifelong relationships. Let’s take a closer look at the reasons training BJJ is great for women of all ages.
1. The Self Defense Benefits
Let’s start with the obvious. Many women do train BJJ to learn self-defense techniques. One of the great advantages of using BJJ as a form of martial arts is that the sport relies on technique rather than strength to take down an opponent.
The skills learned in Jiu Jitsu enable a smaller, weaker person to defend themselves, even against a larger and more powerful attacker. Not only that, but you don’t need to be fast or explosive to perform the most popular techniques effectively.
Instead, BJJ uses leverage, fluid movements, and body positioning to control and take down an opponent and then dominate them on the ground.
2. Physical Benefits
BJJ isn’t just a form of self-defense, but it’s also a great way to get in shape. Get away from the boring monotony of the average gym and use BJJ as a fun way of improving your physical fitness level.
BJJ training or classes provide a full-body workout that allows people to burn tons of calories and build functional strength. You’ll work muscles you didn’t know existed, drop extra weight that’s been hanging around for years, and learn to use your body in ways you never thought you were capable of using it.
3. Mental Benefits
While the physical benefits are immense, the mental benefits of Jiu Jitsu for women are even more advantageous. It’s a way to burn off steam and relieve stress.
It will also get you in a positive mindset to handle the everyday stress of normal life. At the least, you can deal with a bad day by choking someone. And, it’s not just allowed. It’s encouraged!
Learning new techniques on the mat takes your mind off of whatever is bothering you. Training with friends puts you in a better frame of mind. And breaking a sweat is always a great way to boost your mood.
Scientific research proves that moderate to intense physical activity has many mental benefits. It’s been known to reduce and prevent depression, anxiety, and several other mental health problems.
Plus, the more you train, the more you’ll feel good about how far you’ve come and your ability to make positive strides in a sport you love.
4. BJJ Builds Character
Training in Jiu Jitsu for women isn’t easy. But if you stick with it, the sport truly builds character. As you train in BJJ, you gain experience to look at life and handle it from a different perspective.
Physical and mental challenges don’t seem as difficult when you’ve developed the BJJ mindset. You’ll learn how to handle stress easier, finding yourself more composed and positive.
BJJ is also a confidence builder. It teaches you that you can do anything you put your mind to as long as you put in the work and remain consistent. The habits learned while training Jiu Jitsu boil over into family, work, and personal aspects of your daily life.
5. The Friendships You Develop Are Unlike Any Other
Not only are there amazing physical and mental benefits to training Jiu Jitsu, but you’ll meet different people from all walks of life.
Teams, schools, and small classes that train together become family. You’ll quickly build friendships in the gym that are stronger than consistent relationships you’ve held your entire life. Your BJJ family will be there to lift you up when you’re feeling down and celebrate with you in your victories.
BJJ isn’t just a sport, it’s a way of life. You’ll improve your mind, body, and spirit alongside people who hope to do the same. Your reach for a common goal will create bonds that last a lifetime. And you’ll be a positive role model to the younger generation.
You won’t just show young girls what they can do, you’ll smash the ideas that there are limits to being a woman. Ultimately, you’ll build a social network that brings as much fulfillment to your life as you’re willing to put into the training.
Getting Started in Jiu Jitsu for Women
Now that you’ve seen where the sport has taken women throughout the years and explored the important reasons to train in BJJ, you’re probably wondering how you get started.
Despite the major advances in women’s BJJ, starting out can still be a little intimidating for women. This is especially true if the local gyms are male-dominated.
Walking into your first class can be a little overwhelming. Here’s what you can do to ensure the ultimate success whether you’re training for fun or for competition.
Focus on the Big Picture
So, you’ve walked into your first class and it’s a little bit intimidating. First of all, rest assured that many people who train BJJ, even men, feel the same way.
You watch as your classmates drop to the ground, slap the floor as they move on their back from wall to wall, and then start doing twists and flip like in gymnastics class.
Despite feeling like an outsider at first, you can be confident that the BJJ family is very welcoming.
If it makes you feel better, come on an off day to talk to your instructor about the best tips to get used to their school and their team.
Come early to class as well. Many women stop going to class after the first month or so, only to realize they miss the prospect of sticking with the sport.
Eventually, they all come back. If you do take some time off, encourage yourself to give it another shot. Focus on the big picture.
The beginning may be hard, starting out can stressful, but when you look back you’ll be amazed by how far you come. Remember, everyone starts out as a beginner at some point. No one will judge you for putting in the work.
Find Your Tribe
Another thing to keep in mind when getting started is that you have to find your tribe. Just because you start at one school doesn’t mean you need to stick with it if you don’t feel like the coach or classmates fit your personality.
If you just don’t seem to be vibing with the people you train with, it’s ok to try another school.
Many classes are still dominated by men. If this becomes an issue, check the gyms in your area to see if anyone offers women’s only classes.
If not, find people who match your size. It’s always best to pair up with someone who is more experienced. You can learn a lot from training with a most experienced partner.
Find a coach that fully believes in you and you’ll be amazed at how far you can go in the sport of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
If open mats are available in other areas that are too far away to train regularly, try to give them a shot once in a while. It’ll amaze you how training in an environment of women can boost your drive and improve your skills.
Additionally, hooking up with women who understand the struggles you’re facing in Jiu Jitsu can help support you in the ups and downs.
Harness the Power of Social Media
Even if you can’t find a local women’s only class or a group of women you connect with in Jiu Jitsu, don’t close the door.
There are plenty of online groups that are focused on women’s BJJ and filled with women just like you.
From beginners to competitive champions, you can gather insight and inspiration from the comfort of your home through social media groups focused on women in the sport.
Keep an Open Mind
One of the biggest reasons women fail in BJJ is because they don’t stick with the sport. There really is no failure.
Every loss carries a lesson, every bad day of training is a motivation to do better. In the same breath, every win boosts your self-confidence, and every success is proof that putting in the hard work is worth it. The only way you can fail in BJJ is if you quit.
Be consistent with your training, and keep an open mind. Doing so will open the door to many new opportunities in the sport. You’ll learn more, grow more, and be on the right path to becoming your best self.
Even if you’re not looking to compete when you start training, don’t rule it out altogether. Competing in BJJ will change your life in so many ways.
Dealing with Common Female Training Issues Head-On
While Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is certainly for everyone, there are certain challenges that women face.
No matter how many advances women make in the industry, there are physiological differences that can’t be changed.
The best way to handle the challenges faced by women in BJJ is to be aware.
Understand that the common female training challenges are faced by all women in the sport. And while they can’t be changed, there are some tips you can follow to help you deal with them.
1. Rolling with Men
One obvious issue many women face is rolling (sparring) with men. Don’t be afraid or shy away from this powerful learning technique.
No matter who you are rolling with, you’ll often find yourself in awkward positions entangled in the person you’re up against. If you can’t handle being up close and personal to others, BJJ is probably not the right sport for you.
But if this isn’t a deterrent, look at rolling with men the same way you do as rolling with women. You’ll get grabbed, crushed, and smashed in awkward places at times, but it’s the nature of the sport.
The sooner you accept this, the better you’ll be. And keep in mind that training with men is only going to make you a better competitor when it comes time to compete with other women.
2. Training When Mother Nature Strikes
The elephant in the room with women in BJJ is often the issue of training BJJ during your menstrual cycle. Don’t make this an issue, but keep a few tips in mind.
If you have physical symptoms with your periods, such as cramps or pain, skip training until they subside.
No matter how hard it is to accept, you’re better off missing a few training sessions than setting yourself back because of an injury that could have been avoided.
If you’re set on training no matter what, keep a few things in mind. Feminine hygiene products are obviously essential, but the right products look a little different when you’re moving your body the way BJJ requires.
Most women turn to a menstrual cup to avoid accidents. This doesn’t just help keep you safe from accidents, but it also gives women peace of mind while they roll.
In addition, consider taking supplements while you’re dealing with that time of the month and continuing to train.
Since your body is already functioning at a deficit, fish oil, magnesium, and vitamin D3 are a great combination to make that time of the month easier.
Just talk to your doctor before you add any supplements to your daily routine.
3. Dealing with Long Hair
Dealing with long hair isn’t just important for your training success, but it’s also important for the partners training with you.
Not only do you want to avoid getting your hair pulled, but you don’t want to set your partner back because your hair got in the way.
Luckily, there are several easy hairstyles that keep your hair in place and help avoid issues with Jiu Jitsu training.
Braids are a great option, especially the French braid. A simple ponytail is popular, but most women suggest opting for a high one that’s secured by a high-quality elastic that won’t break.
No matter what you choose, keep your hair as tight as possible. After training, you should also give your hair a little TLC. This will help avoid damage and breakage, depending on your hair type.
4. Finding the Right Technique
Believe it or not, this is easy thanks to the many women who have come before you.
Unless you’re training in a female-only class or gym, it’s likely that your opponents will be larger and stronger than you.
Set the standard right away that you don’t want special treatment. You’re there to learn just as much as the next person. Focus on your strengths when perfecting your techniques.
Maybe you are smaller and weaker than the person you’re up against, but what advantage do you have over them?
Evaluate each opponent before you make your move. If you’re faster and more flexible, use those strengths to define your technique.
Use as much leverage and trickery as possible and bring it to your opponent on the ground.
Tips for Women in BJJ
No matter what age you currently are, it’s never too late to start training Jiu Jitsu.
The sport is truly for everyone, with no exceptions. Here are some great tips for women in Jiu Jitsu to help you find success.
1. Start Slow
No matter what your fitness level currently is, start slow. Listen to your coaches and instructors.
They’re involved in teaching for a reason, their experience got them to where they are. Starting slow will help you achieve success from the outset, encouraging you to continue to follow the sport.
It also allows your body to adjust to this new training, which can be a big change for even the most physically fit females.
As you grow and improve, adjust your pace to help foster the best environment for continued development in the sport.
2. Trust Those Around You
As we mentioned earlier, the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu family is very welcoming and free from judgment. But you need to develop a sense of trust in those around you.
Other individuals who have been training for longer in the sport can be a useful tool to help you grow. Remember, your instructor knows best.
They’ll guide you through the learning process and evaluate you as a whole to see the best options to help you learn the techniques. Don’t take feedback as criticism.
Even the most skilled Jiu Jitsu fighters are learning something new every time they hit the mat.
When your instructors provide constructive criticism, trust that they only have your best interest at heart and are equipping you with the advice you need to get better every day.
3. Put in the Time
There isn’t a person on this Earth who isn’t busy, and there’s no doubt you probably have a lot going on in your life. Make time for BJJ. It’s the only way you’ll improve your skills and find success in the sport. Being consistent and showing up each week to train will expand your growth, foster learning, and help you master the ins and outs of each belt division as you advance.
Practice patience. Just because you don’t catch on to a new technique as quickly as someone else doesn’t mean you won’t get there. Jiu Jitsu greats aren’t born, they’re made. Work hard and don’t give up. Make connections along the way and look to those connections to provide a different perspective on ways to grow.
4. Be Prepared
Especially when they’re starting out, most women don’t know what they need to begin. What do you wear? What do you bring?
The most essential pieces of equipment in BJJ are your gi and your mouthpiece. Your gi is essentially your Jiu Jitsu uniform. You can buy them in several places on the internet.
Use the size charts to find the best fit for your body. And take simple steps to avoid embarrassment as you get used to wearing your new uniform.
Wear comfortable, tight-fitting shorts under your gi or nogi pants. You’ll constant see people adjusting their gi, rearranging their jacket and tightening their pants.
This is easy for men who wear boxers and don’t need to worry about exposing their chest. But, for women, it’s a little different. Your pants will loosen no matter how tight you tie them.
You don’t want them to fall off and send you running out the door, never to come back again. Light, breathable shorts will protect you in the event of a mishap.
You should also wear a sports bra. Comfort, coverage, and durability are the principles to follow when choosing a sports bra for your Jiu Jitsu training.
A thin, lightweight shirt under your gi is also essential. It will prevent you from being exposed when someone grabs the edge of your gi during a takedown.
5. It’s Not a Fashion Show
Many women want to show up to class looking their best. It’s important to keep in mind that it’s not a fashion show. No one will ever judge you for showing up as your natural self.
In fact, most of the people you train with will appreciate the fact that you show up prepared to train rather than ready to hit the runway. Take your makeup off before class. Not only will leaving it on cause breakouts, but you’ll be sweating intensely.
This will leave you looking like a raccoon when you come to your feet, not to mention you’ll probably leave a little bit of makeup on everything you touch.
In addition to ditching the makeup for training, keep your nails short. Long or fake nails make it difficult to perform any technique.
Plus, they leave all your classmates at risk of getting jabbed. You’ll be using your hands and feet at all times in BJJ. Can you imagine the pain if one of your nails gets ripped off? Avoid pain and focus on your performance by keeping your finger and toenails short.
Finally, when it comes to how you look, keep your hair tight. Buy some extra durable hair ties that will keep your hair in place. Avoid fighting with your hair down. Even short hair should be kept away from the face.
6. Have Fun
Most importantly, have fun. There is so much to enjoy about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for women. The more you allow yourself to love the sport, the more fulfillment it will bring to your life.
Of course, training is hard and requires work. But there are also many opportunities to connect with your fellow classmates and truly enjoy the environment you are training in.
The more fun you have, the more you will make time for Jiu Jitsu. As we say time and time again, make it a lifestyle not just a sport.
For answers to all your questions about getting started in Jiu Jitsu, check out our BJJ questions section.