Use Kettlebell Complexes to Achieve Technical Perfection

A “complex” of different kettlebell exercises strung together in an intelligent manner delivers many benefits: muscle hypertrophy, fat loss, etc. Today’s blog is about another benefit of complexes—accelerated skill development.

Cleans, Swings, and Snatches

David Whitley, Master SFG, calls the clean “a swing that ends up in the rack.” At SFG Certifications, we sometimes put the class through the following simple complex to drive this point home: alternating single reps of cleans and swings. The complex more often than not defeats the typical mistake of yanking on the bell with the arm while allowing the lower body to take it easy. Sandwiching swings between cleans keeps reminding the student to get his hips in gear.

One can apply the same concept to the snatch—a swing that ends up overhead. Or the high pull—the swing that ends up at the head level. Consider the following complex Jeff Martone designed a decade ago: a clean, a swing, a high pull, a snatch. One rep of each. In addition to reminding the student to drive with the hips, it teaches the concept of “taming the arc.” When an object accelerates in orbit, the centrifugal force pulls it away from the center. Biblical David took advantage of this force when he slayed Goliath with his sling.

You need to bring the bell in closer—“tame the arc,” as Rob Lawrence put it. This is done by shrugging the shoulder back, not up—like starting a lawn mower. The above complex does a very fine job of driving this point home.

To drive it in even deeper, I would start with another swing, a low one:

  1. Swing (groin level)
  2. Clean
  3. Swing (chest level)
  4. High pull
  5. Snatch

Double Kettlebell Complexes

Complexes with two bells, for those who are ready for them, become a game changer for internalizing the essential tension techniques. The primary driver is the double kettlebell front squat.

Kettlebell complexes
Photo courtesy of Mandy Whitley

The weight distribution in this squat is very different from that in the barbell front squats. Dan John, Master SFG, has pointed out that while in the barbell front squat the weight is “stacked” nicely on the bone structure, a pair of kettlebells will “choke you like an anaconda.” In a correctly done kettlebell front squat, the spinal erectors have very little leverage to stabilize the spine and the job gets handed to the midsection—the diaphragm along with the obliques, abs, etc.

So when a student starts squatting with a pair of kettlebells, he quickly starts doing what we have been telling him all along: pulling up his kneecaps, cramping his glutes, and bracing his abs for a punch. While a single bell, even a heavy one, does not have any effect, two even moderately sized bells—a pair of 24s for an average size man, a pair of 16s for an average size lady—get the job done.

When we have the class revisit double cleans, presses, and swings right after, the improvement is startling. The students’ technique becomes crisp like a black belt’s kata. To reinforce the new skill we build complexes around double front squats. These complexes include some or all of the following: cleans, presses, swings. The SFG Grad Workout designed by Dan John, Master SFG, is a perfect example of a simple, yet sophisticated double kettlebell complex.

Come to the SFG Cert and experience it for yourself, side by side with your brothers and sisters in iron.

SFG CertificationSFG Certification

Pavel Tsatsouline
Pavel Tsatsouline is the CEO of StrongFirst, Inc.

8 thoughts on “Use Kettlebell Complexes to Achieve Technical Perfection

  • Can this complex be used for conditioning or should it just be technique practice?

  • A good front squat/back squat ratio is 80%.

    Since the article says that the kettlebell front squat is way harder than the barbell one,
    how much would be a good ktb front squat/barbell front squat ratio?

    80% again?

  • I use this as part of the program minimum, 15 mins of this complex each workout seems to really help the quality of my cleans and high pulls.

  • I love that complex, easy to feel the importance of the hip snap. I added in an extra military press, just to up the workload, and get my presses over and done with.
    I’ll be doing this one a lot.
    Thanks, Pavel.

  • Great write up!,

    A well designed complex will have fatigue management as well. It became a light bulb moment when I had the opportunity to assist a couple weeks ago in Utah. The grad workout though at the end of a long taxing weekend was eloquent in its simplicity. 2 ballistics at the beginning , an over head grind. Finally finished with a the front squat where the responsibility of the load can be better distrusted through out the entire body. No only effective , but very SAFE. Allowing the students to continue on for longer, meaning more opportunities for skill acquisition.

This article is now closed for comments, but please visit our forum, where you may start a thread for your comments and questions or participate in an existing one.

Thank you.