The Smarter Complex

by Josh Henkin on April 12, 2013

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When people ask me, “what got you into kettlebells?” It was simple, kettlebells allowed me to bring exercises that normally would be too difficult to teach and make the drills much more accessible to my clients and create incredibly dynamic and athletic based exercises.

However, as I say this now over ten years later, I have sadly seen the kettlebell for the most part be regulated to a handful of very basic exercises.

Are the basics and foundations important? Of course they are! Are they where we stop with training? Absolutely not! Many people are big believers in the K.I.S.S. method (keep it simple stupid) and believe this is where the majority of your training should lie. Unfortunately, if we are focused on being athletic, mobile, and truly addressing functional based training we need to get out of the very basic movement skills of lifting. Performance coach, Scott Sonnon, gives an opposing view to the K.I.S.S. method and refers to a lot of people being stuck in S.I.S.S. (stuck in stupid simplicity).

I am not going to take away anything from the incredible feats that Powerlifters and Olympic lifters can achieve. However, when I think of a great athlete, if I ask YOU to close your eyes and think of a great athlete, do you think of someone standing in one place? While being “athletic” is as vague as being “strong” or “in shape”, we have a tendency to know what it looks like when we see it.

Often it revolves around people moving in many directions or gracefully through space. They are moving in ways we know are difficult, but they make it look easy. Being a basketball fan most of my life and growing up in Chicago, I can’t help but think of ultimate athleticism when Michael Jordan switched hands in mid air during the 1991 NBA Championships. So amazing, so graceful, so unbelievable, but he made it look so easy. Don’t we want our training to be more of the same?

One of the most common places I see people stuck in just the basics is in the use of kettlebell complexes. A complex is one exercise made up of several individual exercises. Typically they flow from one movement to another making a natural pattern to the overall exercise. This is a phenomenal way to build conditioning, drop fat, build muscle balance, and functional strength.

The father of complexes, Istvan Javorek, believed complexes offered incredible benefits, “The main purpose of combination lifts is to improve and stimulate neuromuscular coordination, increase the workout load and intensity, stimulate the musculoskeletal system, increase the free weight program’s cardiovascular quality, and make a program more dynamic and efficient.The number of combination exercises is unlimited, depending on the coach’s knowledge and creativity, the gym’s equipment and apparatus, and the goals of the coaches and athletes.”

While I am far from the first to see the unique benefits and almost infinite options kettlebell complexes allow, most coaches have lost the true intent of complexes and have become a victim of very repetitive training. What do I mean? In a complex we want to see the body move in a variety of ways stimulating different movement patterns. We don’t want to just replicate what we do in our standard training programs. Such specialized lifting loses some of the essence of complexes, especially kettlebell complexes.

In order to illustrate my point, here is a commonly used kettlebell complex…

  • Swing
  • Clean
  • Snatch

Is this wrong? Maybe the order is slightly, but inherently not “wrong”, but limiting. Here we have three examples of the same movement pattern, the hip hinge. Not only a hip hinge, but a movement pattern performed in the same pattern, same stance, same direction.

A more common complex that at least stresses three different movement patterns….

  • Clean
  • Squat
  • Press

This is better, but still if we stop using our movement skills, can become limiting itself. In addition, the above complex is always limited by the amount we can press as typically one can squat and clean with far more weight. So only one third of the complex is being effectively stressed.

Complexes can range from very foundational to very complex. The number of exercises within a complex should be related to the fitness of the individual and the goal of the training session. Someone with a more extensive background can handle a complex of more exercises than an individual rather new to training. If the goal is a bit more strength oriented less exercises should be used in the complex. Yet, if the goal is more general conditioning we can use more exercises within the complex. Below is a progression of complexes we can use to start from foundational to complex.

Generally, I will work the most challenging aspect of the complex first and as someone fatigues more, move to the more stable or easiest. Take for instance in the example of Clean-Squat-Press, my preferred sequence would be to perform the press for reps then squat for reps, then clean for reps (hardest portion to easiest).

That also brings up how many different ways you can perform a complex. There are typically two different means. The first being performing all of one segment of the complex before moving onto the next.

  • Press x 6 reps proceed to..
  • Squat x 6 reps proceed to…
  • Clean x 6 reps

I generally use this method when there are very distinct differences between the various movements of the complex. Again, the press is going to be generally less than one’s squat or clean. It also makes sense to perform the weakest aspect of the complex first, as fatigue accumulates we can move to our stronger segments.

The other means is to perform one segment right after another. Such a complex may look like the following…

  • Snatch x 1 rep move directly into..
  • Rack Drop Lunge x 1 rep move directly into
  • Press x 1 rep and repeat for 4-5 more cycles.

Today’s video demonstrates some different ways to create complexes. In more advanced variations we want to work various stability patterns, planes of motions, and angles. In more foundational complexes we will focus on building good movement skills and teaching the principles to more challenging movement patterns.

The complex is a wonderful method for a host of different goals and circumstances. If you start to broaden your mind upon with purpose and creativity, you will find that the kettlebell complex offers almost endless productive and fun forms of training.

 ***

About Josh Henkin: Josh Henkin, Senior RKC, CSCS has been a RKC instructor since 2003 and has implemented kettlebell programs for major Division I programs, SWAT teams, and many different general fitness programs. Josh is also the creator of the DVRT Ultimate Sandbag Training system where he is a highly sought after presenter worldwide. He can be reached at info@ultimatesandbagtraining.com or http://DVRTFitness.com

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  • What a great video! I really learned a lot from it!

  • Russell Andrews

    Enjoyed the thorough explanations with the complexes…

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