One of the advantages of using kettlebells in your training is the ability to do “complexes.”
Despite the name, complexes are really quite simple, once you understand what they are.
And once you understand them you can reap many benefits such as:
- Shorter (and more effective) workouts
- Burning tons of fat
- Building lean muscle
- Improved core strength
- Improved coordination
Continue reading to learn what complexes are and how you can get started using them in your workouts.
A complex is a series of exercises done in a sequence with the same weight and without rest. All the reps of an exercise are done before transitioning to the next exercise in the series.
While you can do complexes with any free weight apparatus, a kettlebell is arguably the best one. The reason for this is the weight being away from the handle which gives you more options for holding it and making smooth transitions.
If you want to know more about how the off-center load makes a kettlebell different from a dumbbell (and better for complexes) I suggest you check out my article “Can I use a dumbbell instead?”.
Benefits of Complexes
Doing different exercises back to back without putting the weight down gives you some unique benefits that other forms of training lack.
Since you aren’t resting between exercises you can get a lot more done in less time. This is great for fitting effective workouts into a busy schedule. This should make this type of training a staple for anyone who is short on time.
Since you don’t put the weight down in between exercises it means you are using the same weight for each exercise. This means you need less equipment.
Whether you are trying to work out at home for cheap, bringing a small amount of equipment outside for a workout, or at a gym and don’t like waiting for equipment (or other people taking your equipment while you rest or do another exercise), needing fewer things will make your life easier (this concept doesn’t just apply to exercise).
Your heart rate will get high when you are doing complexes. Cardiovascular health is an important part of physical health. Complexes will allow you to get a crossover cardio effect while doing your strength training exercises.
With only a few exercises to link together, you can make infinite different complexes. This helps keep your workouts interesting. Some complexes are designed so you stay on the exact same complex adding rounds, reps or weight to see results within 4-12 weeks. Other times you might use a different complex every workout.
Depending on your goals and disposition we can use complexes in different ways. This lets us see great results and never get bored with our training.
Complexes burn a lot of fat, both during the workout and afterward. The number of calories you burn doing an exercise has to do with how much you do, not the intensity. This is why you burn the same amount of calories walking a mile or running a mile. But running lets you burn more calories in less time because you can run 3 miles in the time it takes you to walk one. Since you aren’t resting and you keep moving the complex lets you torch calories.
And unlike pure cardio exercise resistance training (i.e. with weights) burns more calories after a workout, a phenomenon that is known as EPOC (Excess Post Exercise Oxygen Consumption). There is research showing that this can last as long as 38 hours after you are done exercising.(1) So I am still burning extra calories from the workouts I did this morning and yesterday.
One of the major factors in stimulating your muscles for results is something known as Time Under Tension (TUT). Often people new to exercise will miss this concept and it will hurt their results.
For example, which is more work 5 push-ups or 10 push-ups?
Answer - you don’t have enough information. Maybe the 10 push-ups were rushed through in 5 seconds and the 5 push-ups were done on a 5-second count (say 3 seconds down and 2 seconds up). The 5 push-ups were much more difficult and will stimulate the muscle more.
With complexes, because you never put the weight down and most exercises you do are full-body in some way, you stimulate all your muscles in a functional way. This will develop muscle in a natural (and aesthetically pleasing) way, versus the bodybuilding style training where you build each one individually and end up looking like Frankenstein.
Coordination, Athleticism, and Balance
Because you will be transitioning to different positions and holding the weight in different ways these workouts develop your coordination, athleticism, and balance. Most resistance training is done in the same position moving the joints in the same way repeatedly. This does nothing to help you get more coordinated, athletic or balanced., Moving to progressively harder complexes when you are ready and including a variety of exercises and positions will help you improve all three of these with your exercise program.
Hold on a Second!
So by now it might seem as if complexes are the magical answer to reaching all of your fitness goals, and they are the only type of exercise anyone should be doing. Actually, not quite. As with all things there are tradeoffs. What are the main downsides of complexes?
The number one problem with complexes is you can only really use exercises that you have taken the time to learn and master. This means a lot of front end work practicing skills instead of “working out.”
For example, one of my favorite complexes is known as the “Grad Workout." It was designed to be used as the graduation workout for StrongFirst Level 1 instructors. The complex goes like this:
Double Kettlebell Clean 2 reps
Double Kettlebell Press 1 rep
Double Kettlebell Front Squat 3 reps
Then you rest while your partner grabs the kettlebells and does the same. Continue this for a long, long time.
Now, this complex is designed to be safe to do while you are exhausted (the certification is effectively a 3 day all day workout) and there is a fitness test called the snatch test. This involves snatching a 24 kg kettlebell (16 kg for ladies) 100 times in five minutes with good form (there is a judge).
But you might not know what a “double kettlebell clean” is. This workout is not the time to learn. Complexes assume you have mastered safe technique on all the exercises in the complex.
The most important part of “safe” technique is knowing when you should put the weight down and rest. Despite what the “workout” calls for.
If you haven’t mastered safe technique the complex will likely do more harm than good. An injury is a great way to lose all of your hard-won progress. Plus it makes your life worse which is the opposite of what we want to do with exercise.
Complexes while often very simple are not easy. They take a lot of effort (which is why they can provide such phenomenal results in such a short time). You will be breathing hard, feeling tired, and noticing muscles you didn’t know existed.
Some people would rather spend more time (or lower their expectations) and avoid the effort workouts like these entail.
When it comes to developing pure strength complexes are not the solution. The reason is strength is a skill. When you do one exercise by itself you are able to focus more. This will help you get stronger. Also, when you do one exercise by itself (or a superset of 2 or more exercises) you will have just had at least a little rest which will help you perform at your potential and build that strength.
How to start doing complexes
Luckily for you if you are reading this you have the internet! This will make your life much easier.
While you can build your own complexes, you can also take other people’s tried and tested complexes and insert them into your training program.
Just remember to only do exercises whose safe form you have mastered. Usually, if there is only one exercise you don’t feel comfortable with you can skip it and use the complex as designed otherwise (this is very common with the kettlebell snatch). If there are a few exercises you don’t know you are probably better off finding a new complex and making some more time for skill development, so you can have a bigger toolbox and more options.
How do you know the complexes are safe and effective? The best way is to make sure that the person who built the complex is an experienced kettlebell instructor. You can either do your own homework or know that if they have the qualification such as RKC (Russian Kettlebell Challenge) or SFG (StrongFirst, which is the one I hold) certification they have been tested and have passed a very high standard.
What if I want to make my own?
This is another great option. Just start taking exercises that you are comfortable with, reasonable reps (usually 1-5 reps per exercise), and linking them together and see how it goes.
Remember all the exercises don’t have to have the same number of reps (like in the above example) and you can also change the reps of an exercise during different rounds of the complex.
Then figure out when you are done and can put the kettlebell down. This could be a number of rounds of the complex (sometimes one round is plenty). Or sometimes you repeat rounds for a set amount of time (one of my favorites when building 10 minute workouts). Sometimes there is a specific goal to achieve (for example, one exercise laddering up to 5 reps).
Can you give me some examples?
My pleasure! Here are 3 more of my favorites.
Up and Down the Ladder
10 goblet squats / 1 kettlebell swing
9 goblet squats / 2 kettlebell swings
8 goblet squats / 3 kettlebell swings
Continue decreasing the squats by 1 and increasing the swing by 1 until you reach 1 Goblet squat / 10 Kettlebell swings.
Fresh off the Yacht (courtesy of Pat Flynn)
5 One-arm kettlebell swings
5 One-arm kettlebell cleans
5 One-arm kettlebell snatches
5 One-arm kettlebell jerks
5 Reverse lunges with kettlebell in the rack position
Now switch sides. (One round is plenty but I like to see how many I can get in 10 minutes with good form).
The Moving Target Kettlebell Complex
You need a pair of kettlebells that you can strict press 6-8 times.
1 clean + 2 presses + 1 squat
1 clean + 3 presses + 1 squat
1 clean + 5 presses + 1 squat
Then repeat the process with squats, using the same bells:
1 clean + 1 press + 2 squats
1 clean + 1 press + 3 squats
1 clean + 1 press + 5 squats
And finally with cleans:
2 cleans + 1 press + 1 squat
3 cleans + 1 press + 1 squat
5 cleans + 1 press + 1 squat
Once you have developed skill with certain exercises kettlebell complexes are the way to go for many goals.
It is one of the keys to how someone of any strength level can keep seeing results and having fun with a small set of kettlebells.
Enjoy your training and if you have any questions feel free to send me an email.
1 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Excess_post-exercise_oxygen_consumption