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Can You Adjust Your "Volume"?

March 17, 2008 04:33 PM

Anyone with an IPod, TV, or stereo is familiar with the volume control. You can blast your ears out or take it down to a whisper - but you are in control. What does this have to do with kettlebell training? It is the missing link in most people's application of kettlebell training.

The analogy I would like to provide is the use of your internal "volume knob". Dialing in the volume can make the music sound sweeter, or make the music painful, or make it ineffective. Most people are only familiar with the top end of the volume - Louder is better. Others can't turn the knob past 1. Where should the knob be? That "is what we will try to "discover."

First a bit of background, the basic concepts for this flow from Pavel and the RKC principles but have roots in Boxing and Martial Arts. Boxers and Martial Artists have discovered that there is an optimal level of "effort" (read - volume) for striking. And it isn't 100%. That is correct - you eyes are not deceiving you - 100% effort will very rarely be optimal in a speed and power situation. Powerlifting and reaching the top end of the strength curve will visit the 100% range of effort but in the quest of optimal speed, power and efficiency we have to adjust the effort - ie. volume - to a different level.

What does not change, however, is the basic technique. You may not "see" the difference between an optimal punch/kick but you will FEEL the difference. To go back to our stereo analogy - When the volume knob is set to 1 you may barely hear the music but the stereo system will look and be the same - there is just less noise coming out. When the volume knob is at 10 the walls are shaking and ears are bleeding - but the stereo system will look the same and be the same. So the stereo system doesn't change but you will hear the difference. This applies to how a punch/kick would look at these ends of the spectrum AND it applies to how a Kettlebell Swing or Snatch would look at these ends of the spectrum.

Watch me swing an 8 kg KB and watch me swing a 48 kg KB and you will be hard pressed to find a difference in the technique. Clean an 8kg KB or clean a 32kg KB - again no difference in technique. I still load my hips and sit back and then use my hips to provide the energy for the clean - but my volume knob is at a very different setting.

Our internal volume knob will run from Zero up to 10. Why 0-10? It makes using percentages easier and I don't feel like counting any higher or dealing with the explanation of what a 17.2 looks like on the volume knob. Now boxers and martial artists have found that the hardest strikes occur somewhere between the 6-8 setting - this will vary according to the individual. Therefore we need to experiment with dialing our volume knob in on the desired settings to find our own individual "optimal" setting.

How are we going to do that? During a set of two armed swings you will start swinging and after a couple of reps begin to think of a "volume"/effort setting. Call out in your mind - Number 2 and try to hit an effort/volume level of 2 during that swing. Next rep call out Number 9 and try to hit that effort/volume level. Next rep hit a 4 and then an 8 and then back to a 3 etc...(wide variations work best for this type of drill - the difference between a 5 and 5.5 might not be readily evident). Hit all the settings on the volume knob and pay attention to what setting provided the optimal result. Optimal result being defined as a "perfect" swing - crisp, powerful yet efficient.

Repeat several times to "confirm" the results and go through the test again for one arm swings and snatches.

This doesn't apply well to the grinding lifts - for those we are going to hit the high tension techniques and focus on the upper end of the strength curve. Adjusting your volume knob should allow you to optimize your swings and snatches.

Why find the optimal level? Because we should be able to have the control and mastery of a movement that allows us to adjust the effort but not change the movement. Your skill is also speed and effort dependent. You don't see drag racing cars on the highway because they are built for only one thing but a great sports car will handle the road and be able to win a lot of races. Not being a "one trick pony" is a very useful skill athletically. I want to be able to dial in whatever level I want at will - not be restricted to one speed.

Efficiency is an athletic skill. But efficiency is not soft (or doesn't have to be). A boxer who throws punches at the optimal level will deliver all the force needed but be able to go the distance because they can regulate their efforts and not wear out by throwing max effort after max effort. Although the max effort is available it is held in its proper place to be used when needed. Swings are no different. I can dial up a 10 or a 2 but I still sniff in and brace at the bottom of the swing as I load my hips, and I am still rooting and projecting energy up to a crisp hip finish. This is the essence of balancing tension and relaxation in an athletic sense.

One more drill to help drive this home is to perform a KB complex of one arm swing + a clean + a snatch. This complex (or chain) of exercises will force you to dial in your efforts to the correct level. It is self correcting because if you try to use the same volume setting for your clean as you did for your swing you will bang yourself pretty hard. And if you try to use your clean "setting" for your snatch you will fall short of completing the rep. Enjoy.

Brett Jones, CSCS, Master RKC Instructor is a Pittsburgh, Pa based strength and conditioning professional and can be reached by email at Brett is author of "Corrective Strategies" DVD set and is also co-author of several DVDs — "the Secrets of..." series with Gray Cook, "Kettlebell Basics for Strength Coaches and Personal Trainers" - available on