Good trainers know what to do, but sometimes they don’t do it themselves, I’m guilty of this too. As I go through life I find that I listen more and more to that inner voice, the one that says “listen to your body”. This is why I love this months story of an incredible and amazing athlete, I know it will hit home with many people, it will inspire and even change lives.
Without further ado, I present to you this months Caveman Athlete of the Month
Name: Brittany van Schravendijk
Your nickname: Britt
Specialty: Kettlebells, handstands, mobility
Nationality: American & Dutch
Weight: I don’t weigh myself but in the range of 155-165 lbs
Personal best: Master of Sport in 2x24kg Long Cycle
“I worried about what other people would think of me no longer being as lean as I had been”
I wouldn’t describe myself as having a hard childhood; in fact, my upbringing was idyllic. I was homeschooled and spent tons of time outside in nature, reading books, riding horses, going on family vacations, and playing with my siblings. My family ate dinner together every night; a nutritious meal lovingly prepared by my mother. While I didn’t play any sports until high school, as a child I was active and never struggled with being overweight or my body image. My parents told me I could be anything I wanted to be. I went into the public school system when I was 12 years old. I was an incredibly motivated individual throughout high school. I was MVP of my Track & Field team three years in a row, as well as Team Captain my senior year. With regards to schoolwork, I graduated as valedictorian with top marks. I was accepted to UC Berkeley for Civil Engineering, the top school in the United States for the subject.
My story really begins in my third year at UC Berkeley. While I had dabbled in joining the Track & Field team my first semester, it quickly became apparent the team environment was toxic for me and I didn’t want to put my time and energy into redshirting on a team that didn’t accept me. So after following my own training program of long-distance running and the occasional weightlifting workout at the gym the next couple of years, I started a part-time job at a local gym in my junior year. The local gym, owned by two UC Berkeley alumni, happened to be one of the top gyms in the United States for Kettlebell Sport training: Ice Chamber Athletic Performance Training. The job I took as an intern there was comprised of leading warm-ups and cooldowns, and keeping the gym tidy. While I had always loved working out, I had never considered coaching as a viable career. However, I quickly came to love my job at the Ice Chamber so much that I wanted to spend all of my time there, honing my coaching skills and soaking up as much knowledge as I could.
At the same time that I was working at the Ice Chamber, I was struggling with my studies. While my grades were fine, I didn’t feel any passion for Civil Engineering. The first two years had been full of extremely difficult math and physics classes, and I had made it through them by telling myself I would enjoy my topic of study in my third year. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. I couldn’t stomach the idea of working behind a computer the rest of my life, doing something I wasn’t particularly interested in. As my third year came to a close, I was in a mental crisis about the path my life was taking. I had already completed three out of four years of my engineering degree, but I didn’t feel for engineering anything close to the amount of excitement I felt about my part-time job at Ice Chamber. The main reason I was conflicted was that I felt pressure to do more and be more than “just a personal trainer”. My dad and brother are both engineers, and I thought that I would disappoint them and everyone else around me by choosing to eschew my prestigious engineering degree for a career path that had nothing to do with my studies and made very little money.
Luckily, I had several amazing mentors at Ice Chamber that encouraged me to follow my heart and live a life that made me happy before anything else. Taking the job at Ice Chamber helped me find something I was truly passionate about: coaching others in movement. While I continued to wrestle with the decision of what to do with my life for the next year, I had an ah-ha moment that would become one of the defining moments in my life. I realized that no one else had to live my day to day life; I was the only one who had to, so I better damn well make choices for me and only me. What did someone else’s positive perception of me matter if I was miserable? I decided then and there I would rather follow my heart and do something I love, even if other people thought less of me (even though no one ever has, as far as I know). I decided to finish the last year of my engineering degree, then took on a full-time job as a coach at the Ice Chamber after graduation.
I stumbled upon Kettlebell Sport simply because I was lucky enough to work at the Ice Chamber; I never would have known what a kettlebell was otherwise! My first few kettlebell classes were incredibly frustrating, and I credit my stubborn and competitive nature for persevering. Since I had missed out on competing in a sport at the university level, I really wanted to get back into something competitive. My journey into Kettlebell Sport really began when I decided to compete at the World Kettlebell Club competition in Chicago in 2012. For the next couple of years, I traveled to a number of places with the Ice Chamber competition team, including multiple states in the U.S., Canada, and even Siberia.
I decided to move away from the Bay Area—where I had spent my entire life—in 2014. It was time for a change of scene, and after a visit to sunny San Diego, I decided it was the place for me. Just before I moved, I started my KB Fit Britt blog and began posting articles and videos about Kettlebell Sport training. I stumbled into KOR Strength and Conditioning during my first week in San Diego, and serendipitously they were looking to begin a Kettlebell Sport class! I began coaching a team of dedicated students there, who would eventually travel with me to compete at a number of competitions. During this time, competitions were just starting to offer double kettlebell lifts for women. I decided to jump into competition with double bells for kicks, and ended up doing much better than I anticipated. From there, I began to train double kettlebell lifts seriously and jumping from competition to competition—as many as I could get to. After several years of hard training I achieved Master of Sport in 2x24kg Long Cycle and WAKSC World Champion. Overall, I have achieved seven Master of Sport titles and set numerous World and National records.
I remain utterly convinced that Kettlebell Sport training is the toughest type of training I’ve ever done. The amount of technique, focus, strength, conditioning, and mental tenacity a 10-minute kettlebell set requires is incredible. I have accomplished things under two kettlebells that I never in my wildest dreams imagined I could do just a couple of years earlier. I am forever grateful to the sport for giving me so much physical and mental strength; it set the foundation for everything else I accomplished. Anything is easy if you’ve completed a 10-minute set with a pair of kettlebells!
While attaining a Master of Sport title in 2x24kg Long Cycle is one of my greatest physical achievements, the path to that achievement also led me down another, a darker path with regards to my body image and my health. Anytime you are pushing yourself to the limit physically, you are toeing the line between extreme athleticism and overtraining and injury. I had already experienced some imbalance with regards to the amount of exercise I was doing in previous years. When I started working at Ice Chamber full-time as a fitness professional, I was training constantly. A typical day of physical activity would include biking to work, teaching, doing my kettlebell training, biking back to class, biking back to the gym, taking two classes in a row at the gym, biking back home. I was very lean and felt strong, but I had stopped menstruating. I didn’t think much of it and continued to train hard for years with little to no ill effects. Not until I moved to San Diego and began training nonstop for kettlebell competitions did problems begin to arise. At this point in time my body fat was around 11%, which is extremely low for a female athlete. While I wasn’t restricting my caloric intake per se, I wasn’t eating or recovering enough for the amount of activity I was doing—and this continued for years. When I began training heavier double bells, all of the years of excessive exercise started taking their toll. I began gaining weight and feeling fatigued all the time.
I continued training Kettlebell Sport at a high level for some time, despite the level of fatigue I couldn’t seem to shake. I had made it so far in the sport, and I didn’t want to set aside my goals for what seemed like a small problem; something I could push through. Injury struck during my first training cycle with 24kg bells—an intercostal sprain—and I had to take time off of the bells. I kept training on some level though and returned to my normal routine as soon as I was able to. Since starting to train with double 20kg and 24kg bells, I had gained about 20 lbs. I was freaked out because I didn’t understand what was happening; I was training as hard as ever (if not harder), I ate healthy, and I wasn’t doing anything differently… I felt out of control. I worried about what other people would think of me no longer being as lean as I had been, and whether I still “looked the part” of a personal trainer.
Things came to a head in January 2018. I began feeling so fatigued that I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning. My body hurt and cracked constantly. I got sick twice, lost my voice, got an infection in my foot, and broke out in hives — all within the span of a couple weeks. I had to stop training completely because I had no energy. I didn’t feel like going to work, and I love my job. If I felt like my body was out of control before, now I really felt helpless. I realized I couldn’t keep ignoring my body’s symptoms; enough was enough. I decided then and there that health was more important to me than aesthetics or even athletic performance. I stopped training Kettlebell Sport; I was burned out physically and mentally. I started being kinder to my body: doing gentle movements, eating whatever and however much I wanted, only working out when I had energy, and trusting my body to know what it needed. I completely forfeited using my weight as any kind of metric for my health. I decided to use this experience as an opportunity to practice what I preached with my clients by loving myself no matter what shape my body took on. I had always prided myself on my body and my athletic abilities, but I wanted to believe I was more than that. I stopped comparing myself to the societal ideal of a perfect body and started learning what true health is (spoiler: it’s not six pack abs or working out 7 days a week, and it doesn’t come in one shape or size).
Flash forward to the present and I’m feeling more balanced than I have in years. The most important thing I learned through my experience with overtraining is to trust that my body knows what is good for it. If I feel tired, I rest, without questioning whether I’m “lazy” or if I should just “push through it”. If I have a low energy week, I might take 3-4 days of full rest. If I’m hungry as hell, I eat whatever I like without worrying about the calories (within reason; I don’t really like most junk food). Yes, I still train a ton, but my focus has shifted to things other than competitive lifting. I do whatever movement excites me each day. Usually it’s handstands or gymnastic strength training or mobility, and sometimes it’s hiking or low-intensity cardio on a bike. I don’t have to say no to working out with friends so I can save my energy for my kettlebell training, which allows me to experiment with climbing, obstacle courses, aerial arts, and yoga. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with training for a sport or competition, I used training for Kettlebell Sport as an excuse to overtrain and ignore the signals my body was sending me. Now I’m focused on maintaining the integrity of my joints and my heart health, so I can live a long life full of movement fun. Okay fine, maybe I am still a little extreme in the pursuit of a one arm handstand and other advanced skills, but everything in moderation… even moderation, right?!
Make sure you check out the Q&A below where Anna Junghans digs deeper into Brittany’s story.
Brittany is a coach and personal trainer based in San Diego, California. She is known for her accomplishments in Kettlebell Sport, having achieved a World Champion title, numerous World and National Records, and 7 Master of Sport titles. She was one of the first women in the world to perform 2x24kg Long Cycle in competition. In addition to her athletic accomplishments, Brittany is a coach who is passionate about helping people move better and love movement – whether that be kettlebell lifting, handstand training, mobility work, or something else entirely. Brittany’s current training endeavors include lots of gymnastics and bodyweight training, as well as dabbling in ninja obstacle courses, aerial arts, climbing, and whatever else lights her fancy.
Pressure from society and expectations?
While I was struggling to make a decision on what career path I wanted to follow, I felt pressure to choose engineering because I thought that’s what other people wanted me to do. I was afraid my family would be disappointed in me. I thought people would judge me for choosing a job that made less money. I even judged myself for not wanting to choose the more “intellectual” path. All of these thoughts were pressures I placed on myself; eventually, I realized that nobody really cared about what I did as long as I was happy.
Some people would say “4 years of your life wasted”
I don’t consider anything in the past a “waste” because it led me to where I am today. If I hadn’t studied at UC Berkeley, I never would have found the Ice Chamber and realized what I really wanted to do. I also think I learned plenty of valuable things about how to learn from studying at the university level. If I were to do it over knowing what I know now, would I study Civil Engineering? No, I wouldn’t, in fact, I probably wouldn’t have gone to a university at all. Instead, I would have spent that money paying for courses in the fitness world.
How was that moment when you explained to your parents that you didn’t want to pursue engineering?
There wasn’t an exact moment because I had ongoing discussions with both my parents about my struggle during the last two years of university. Even though I feared that my parents (especially my dad) would be disappointed in my choice, they were actually very supportive of me the entire time and just wanted me to be happy. I think my dad understood why I made that choice when he attended one of the group classes I taught at Ice Chamber and he saw how happy I was there.
What was your mindset before you stepped on the platform?
I always have some level of nervousness before stepping onto the platform, which increases as the weight of the bells does. However, I’ve always done well under competitive pressure–I rise to the occasion. I know I’m not going to set the bells down; that’s not an option for me. While I have a general idea of how I want my set to go, the plan is fluid and can change depending on how I feel. I set my expectations low but keep my motivation high, which allows for flexibility. Usually, the set is a struggle mentally the first 4-5 minutes, and once I get close to my goal or my previous PR, I get very motivated to finish strong.
Hard style or sport style?
I got certified in StrongFirst because I believe in order to truly master a tool (in this case, the kettlebell), you should know all the different ways to use it. Many people enjoying lifting hardstyle, and I think it’s a great technique for building speed and power and strengthening the posterior chain. While I personally prefer lifting Sport style, I do enjoy both styles and I have no dogma about which one is “better”. I also believe it’s good to have an understanding of total body tension under load before learning Kettlebell Sport.
Have you suffered any injuries?
I suffered an intercostal strain during my first training cycle with 2x24kg bells. I wouldn’t say the injury was caused by the kettlebell lifting specifically; it was due to intense training of too many different modalities without enough recovery. I was lifting heavier bells than I had ever lifted before in addition to training handstands, rings, yoga, and other strength training. I probably wasn’t eating and sleeping enough either. I wasn’t giving my body enough time to recover and that’s when I got injured. I had to take a month or two off of kettlebell lifting, and decrease my activity by a lot. When I got back to training with 24kg bells, it was all I did besides a little bit of yoga. I needed the days off in between training in order to recover enough to handle the next training.
20lbs of weight gain?
I think the weight gain was a combination of adapting to the heavier kettlebells and overtraining. Heavier kettlebells caused me to gain a lot of muscle mass in my arms and legs. However, overtraining is also known to cause weight gain due to high levels of cortisol.
Why did you stop menstruating?
I stopped menstruating because my body fat was too low and I was under too much stress. I didn’t think it was a big deal when it first happened; in fact, it seemed convenient. Over time I came to realize that amenorrhea is a huge signal that something is off in the body hormonally and that it can cause a lot of problems. Now when I get my period I rejoice because it means everything is balanced in my body!
How did you keep up the demands of extreme training with little to no energy and extreme fatigue?
I’m not sure… stubbornness and an extreme amount of willpower? I think we all get caught in the cycle of “more is more” at some point, especially because that’s what society seems to tell us with regards to fitness. I didn’t quite realize that the fatigue meant I wasn’t able to recover; I thought it was just part of training hard and that I had to push through it.
Did you take supplements to help get you through?
I did not take any supplements while competing in Kettlebell Sport. Last year I started taking more supplements based on a blood test I got done, which included B12, Vitamin D, adrenal support, and collagen. The only one I really take regularly now is collagen.
How did you get over the fear of what other people ‘might’ think of you through your weight gain?
I practice accepting myself no matter what. I am valuable and worthy whether I have six pack abs or not. I made a choice that holistic health and feeling energized are more important to me than any particular aesthetic. Health looks different on everyone, and the weight I am healthiest at might not be the aesthetic I like best, but that’s just how it is. My appearance is the least valuable thing I have to offer someone and if someone judges me negatively solely based on appearance, I don’t need that person in my life anyway.
You’re a “Handstand Queen” 🙂 who inspired you to this movement?
I’ve always been intrigued by handstands and had halfheartedly tried learning them for years, but it was only when I committed to a daily practice that I actually became proficient. I love the challenge of it, and how it motivates me to improve my mobility and body control. Plus I can practice handstands no matter where I am!
You look so strong and healthy, what does your daily diet consist of?
Thanks! I don’t prescribe to any particular diet, although I try to avoid processed foods, factory farmed animal products, and unhealthy oils as much as possible. I eat lots of fruits and vegetables; good quality eggs, meat and poultry; sweet potatoes and plantains; nuts and seeds; bread and oatmeal; occasional dairy products; sweets in moderation. Nothing is really off-limits unless it’s poor quality food. For a long time I was very strict on my diet (when I was very lean), so now I just try not to obsess and allow myself to enjoy whatever I’m craving.
How many days a week do you train?
Typically 5-6 but they’re not all intense training. I’ll usually do 3-4 training sessions that include a combination of gymnastics, handstand, and mobility work. The other 1-2 days would be easy cardio, hiking, or a workout with a friend. That being said, if I feel really tired or stressed I might take 3-4 days off and return to training when I feel more energized.
What are your thoughts about social media models who portray to be healthy and happy by displaying photos/physiques trying to be role models, when all they are doing is misleading society today of how one is pressured into aesthetics only?
I think most people are just trying to do the best they can and help people, but social media can skew our perception of what healthy looks like. The truth is, there is no “look” for healthy. You could look like the definition of “health” according to the media and be really unhealthy, and you could look “fat” according to the media and be very healthy. We are all made differently and have different body types; feeling good and energized is more important than an aesthetic. Loving yourself is more important than being lean. Having an enriching REAL life off of the internet is more important than being a social media celebrity.
Any advice for people who are looking to make a change but just can’t seem to get started?
Make small changes. I think we often try to bite off more than we can chew when it comes to nutrition or fitness changes. The best changes to make are small ones that seem fairly easy, and then just keep adding little changes every few weeks. The snowball effect!