It can be challenging to find time to exercise when life gets in the way. Maybe you need to stay late at work. Perhaps your gym commute is one bridge too far.
There are always other training options available. A kettlebell complex is a great alternative. If you have one or two kettlebells and half an hour to spare, you can increase your muscle mass and conditioning by working out at home.
In this article, we will talk about kettlebell complexes – explaining what they are, how they work, and how to design your own. It also includes three workouts for you to try.
What Is a Kettlebell Complex?
A kettlebell complex is a set of kettlebell exercises performed back-to-back, one right after the other. A complex is sometimes referred to as a flow because each exercise should flow seamlessly into the next.
You’ll be stringing different exercises together — usually, but not always, compound movements — and executing them without pause in between. For example, a simple kettlebell complex could be one kettlebell swing, one kettlebell clean, and a kettlebell press. Then, switch sides.
One rep constitutes one full flow through each move you’ve programmed into your complex, which means you’ll generally keep your overall rep count pretty low.
You can also perform kettlebell complexes with two bells. Keep both bells in your hands for the entire set. If that’s proving too difficult, you’ll want to lower your weights and/or perform less complex reps per set.
How Does A Kettlebell Complex Work?
If you’ve ever combined two compound movements into one, you’ve already got an idea of how a kettlebell complex works. Think about a kettlebell thruster: One rep comprises a front squat and a push press.
With a kettlebell complex, you add a few more moves to the mix — say, a clean before each front squat and a dead stop double kettlebell swing as you’re coming down from each push press. Those four moves, in total, will constitute one rep of your kettlebell complex.
A kettlebell complex allows you to add various movements into your workouts for more calories burned without adding virtually any time to your training session. It really is more bang for your buck.
When considering how to set up a routine for your kettlebell complex, you’ll determine how many reps per set based on how many moves — and what kinds of moves — constitute one rep. In the example above, your four moves per rep are a double kettlebell clean, double kettlebell front squat, double kettlebell push press, and double kettlebell dead stop swing. That’s four moves total. If you’re training for endurance and cardio benefits, you could program your complex with up to six reps (24 moves total per set).
But remember: three of the four moves (all except the front squat) are ballistic in nature. That means they’ll take a lot more wind out of you, so plan accordingly — you may only want to program “only” three or four reps (12 or 16 moves total) per set.
What Are the Benefits of Double Kettlebell Complexes?
Specific kettlebell complexes have specific benefits, of course — we’ll talk about that below — but overall, all kettlebell complexes offer a similar thread of benefits:
- Improve functional fitness because life doesn’t involve a discreet separation between different movements.
- Increase your strength and hypertrophy by forcing your entire body to engage in each workout component.
- Strengthen your core and full-body coordination — it takes a lot of stability to manage not one but two kettlebells, especially when you’re flowing through multiple moves.
- Enhance your cardiovascular endurance and explosive power because you’ll be focused on moving heavy weights quickly with little rest.
Build a Custom Kettlebell Complex That Makes Sense
Another beautiful fact about kettlebell complexes is that you can get creative with their design. You need to pick a few moves that make sense together — either with one or two kettlebells — and perform them in a sensical order.
Before you do that, however, you need to think about your goals. If you’re trying to go heavy and grind your complexes out with an emphasis on building raw strength, pick more controlled movements like goblet squats and strict presses.
If you’re looking to emphasize hypertrophy, combine some explosive moves (you’ll need slightly lighter weights for these) with slower movements (you’ll be using lighter weights so that you can go for more reps).
Are you going for fat loss? Your kettlebell complex will want to be explosive and focus on going as hard as possible with perfect form.
When choosing your moves, flow through them in your mind and with your body (no weights) first. You need to make sure what you’re doing goes together in sequence. For example, a deadlift into a strict press doesn’t work — you’ve got to clean the bells up to rack position before you press.
Going from a push press to a row is risky, as transitioning immediately from a vertical to a hinged position with momentum may lead to back pain. So always simulate your complexes without weight before doing them to ensure they’ll work efficiently and safely for your body and goals.
Three Kettlebell Complex Ideas for Faster Fat Loss
Kettlebell Complex No. 1
This kettlebell complex isn’t just a challenging workout for beginners but also a chance to master the clean, one of the primary, foundational movements you’ll encounter in almost any kettlebell workout.
- 5x kettlebell cleans
- 5x clean and press
- 5x rear lunge and press
Alternate sides — in other words, keep the kettlebell in your right hand for one full transit through the workout, then switch it to your left hand for the next time through. If this is all new to you, make it your goal to do three rounds on each side with good technique. If you can’t do that many rounds, you’re using too much weight — so lighten up or even go without a kettlebell until you’re ready for a bigger challenge.
Move 1: Kettlebell Cleans
- Stand with your feet between hip- and shoulder-width apart. Grip the kettlebell in one hand, thumb rotated inward, so it’s pointing between your feet.
- Keep your elbow close to your body as you use the power of your glutes, hamstrings, and back — not your arm — to “scoop” the weight in and up, rotating it around your arm. Or, if you prefer, it might help to think of winding your arm around the kettlebell instead so that it settles easily into a rack position.
- Take note of the correct rack position: Although experts disagree somewhat on the details of arm position, there is general consensus that your arm should be tucked close to your body. This keeps the weight, which rests against the outside of your forearm, close to your body as well.
- Reverse the motion to reset for the next repetition.
Regarding kettlebell cleans: The kettlebell shouldn’t bang against your wrist or arm when doing this exercise. If it does, back off weight even more and focus on fine-tuning your technique. With kettlebells, hands-on training is always best, but a video is worth a thousand words when that fails.
Celebrity trainer Mark Wildman made a very helpful instructional video that breaks down common errors and their solutions, such as bending your wrist (keep it straight instead) and trying to move your arm and thus the weight in a straight line instead of winding your arm around the weight.
Move 2: Clean and Press
- Position yourself as you would for the kettlebell clean.
- Clean the weight into the rack position.
- Squeeze your core muscles to keep your body stable and your shoulders even as you press the weight straight up overhead.
- Reverse the motions to reset for the next rep: First, lower the weight back to the rack position, then reverse the clean.
Keep the weight in the rack position when you’re ready to move on to the next exercise in the complex.
Move 3: Rear Lunge and Press
- Holding the kettlebell in the rack position with one hand, take a step back with the leg on the same side.
- Squeeze your core muscles to stabilize your body as you bend both knees, sinking into a lunge position. Your rear leg should come close to the floor.
- Press off with your back foot to return to the standing position.
- As you reach that standing position, press the kettlebell up overhead.
- Bring the kettlebell back down to the rack to complete the first repetition.
Remember: Once you’ve gone through the kettlebell complex with the kettlebell in one hand, turn around and do it again with the weight in your other hand.
Kettlebell Complex No. 2
This kettlebell complex builds on the kettlebell swing, another integral movement in almost any kettlebell workout.
- 10x two-hand swings
- 10x push-ups
- 5x single-arm swings (right hand)
- 5x single-arm swings (left hand)
- 10x squat and press (hold the kettlebell in both hands, using the horn grip)
Move 1: Two-Hand Swing
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, arms straight, and kettlebell gripped in both hands by the handle.
- Soften your knees and hinge forward from the hips, letting the kettlebell swing between your thighs.
- Drive forward with your hips, straightening your knees so your torso hinges upright. If done correctly, this will naturally swing the weight up to the abdomen or (at most) chest level due to your hip drive. Do not pull, swing or lift the kettlebell with your arms.
- Allow your arms to swing back down naturally, forearms contacting your inner thighs as you immediately sink back into the hip hinge to start another repetition.
Move 2: Push-Ups
- Balance yourself on your hands and toes, hands below and slightly wider apart than your shoulders. Your body should be straight from head to heels.
- Bend your arms and lower your chest toward the floor.
- Straighten your arms, pressing yourself back up to the starting position.
Moves 3 and 4: Single-Arm Swing
Single-arm swings work much like double-arm swings, except that you hold the kettlebell in just one hand. Don’t push or pull on your body with the other hand; let that free hand ride along naturally, either extended out to the side or down alongside your body.
Be warned: This movement is quite a core workout, so focus on using your abs to keep your body steady against the one-sided weight of the kettlebell.
Move 5: Squat and Press
- Hold the kettlebell in the rack position.
- Squat down into an air squat: Think of sinking your hips down and back as you would to sit in a chair and using your core to stabilize your shoulders over your feet. Don’t over-arch or slump your back.
- Stand back up, and press the kettlebell overhead, just as in the rear lunge and press.
Kettlebell Complex No. 3
If you’re ready for the ultimate challenge, tackle this absolutely brutal complex, “the Great Destroyer,” from Pat Flynn, founder of Chronicles of Strength and Strong ON! and author of Paleo Workouts for Dummies. The name of the complex says it all, and Flynn himself best demonstrates it.
- 10x double kettlebell swing
- 10x double kettlebell snatch
- 10x dual kettlebell front squat
- 10x double kettlebell clean and press
- 10x push-ups
- 10x bent-over rows
A “double” kettlebell exercise means working with one in each hand.
If you’re unfamiliar with this, you can run the workout one side at a time or invest a little time in backing way off on weight and ensuring you have an appropriate technique for each move. Pay particular attention to the kettlebell snatch, which almost requires hands-on coaching to get it right — although instructional videos can help.
Because this isn’t meant to be an all-out maximal effort, you might lift less weight than expected. Don’t be shy about opting for a slightly lighter kettlebell — the goal is to choose a weight you can last through the workout instead of giving out partway through.
The more you know about training with two kettlebells, the more you can get out of working out in a small space with minimal equipment — and the more you can get to know exactly how hard you can push your body.