There's no doubt about it — kettlebells are seriously effective for building not just strength, but aerobic capacity and dynamic balance too. If you're ready to kick your kettlebell workouts up a notch, tackling a kettlebell complex workout is the next step.
What Is a Kettlebell Complex?
Kettlebell complexes are essentially a continuous circuit, stringing together a series of back-to-back kettlebell movements with minimal to no rest in between the moves. Think of it as the antithesis to a one-rep-max effort from powerlifters: Instead of putting all your oomph into one lift, you're embarking on a period of constant motion and effort, taxing multiple muscle groups and multiple energy systems at the same time.
Because this isn't meant to be an all-out maximal effort, you might find yourself lifting less weight than you expect. Don't be shy about opting for a slightly lighter kettlebell — the goal is to choose a weight you can last through the workout with, instead of giving out partway through.
The results are fantastic. Some of the best clinical research on results from kettlebell workouts has come from the American Council on Exercise (ACE). For example, in a 2010 study that was sponsored and published by ACE, researchers put volunteers through a 20-minute series of intervals, alternating 15 seconds of kettlebell snatches with 15 seconds of rest.
Even though the subjects enjoyed rest periods and did only one exercise the results were incredible, with participants burning more than 20 calories per minute — or the equivalent of running a 6-minute-mile pace. Pair that with an even remotely healthy diet, and it translates to the potential for fast, healthy fat loss.
In another study sponsored and published by ACE, subjects participated in hour-long kettlebell classes twice a week. The workouts included 30 to 45 minutes of exercises such as swings, snatches, cleans, presses and lunges — all movements you might find as part of a kettlebell complex.
At the end of the eight-week study, subjects showed notable improvements in overall strength and dynamic stability, along with a 13.8 percent increase in aerobic capacity and a staggering 70 percent increase in core abdominal strength.
Kettlebell Complex No. 1
This kettlebell complex isn't just a challenging workout for kettlebell beginners — it's also a chance to master the clean, one of the basic, 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 you're just starting out, 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 at all when you do 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 when that fails, a video is worth a thousand words.
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 for the kettlebell clean.
- Clean the weight into 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 rack position, and then reverse the clean.
When you're ready to move on to the next exercise in the complex, keep the weight in rack position.
Move 3: Rear Lunge and Press
- Holding the kettlebell in 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 down 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 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.
Read more: 9 Fat-Torching Kettlebell Moves
Kettlebell Complex No. 2
This kettlebell complex builds on the kettlebell swing, another integral movement in almost any 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 properly, this will naturally swing the weight up to abdomen or (at most) chest level as a result of your hip drive. Do not pull, swing or lift the kettlebell with your arms.
- Allow your arms to naturally swing back down, 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; instead, 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 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 it's best demonstrated by Flynn himself.
- 10x double kettlebell swing
- 10x double kettlebell snatch
- 10x double kettlebell front squat
- 10x double kettlebell clean and press
- 10x push-ups
- 10x bent-over rows
A "double" kettlebell exercise means you're working with one kettlebell in each hand.
If you're not familiar with this, you can run the workout one side at a time, or invest a little time in backing way off on weight and making sure you have 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.
This truly is an intense workout. If you can get through Flynn's prescribed three rounds, you've done spectacularly.
- American Council on Exercise: "Kettlebells: Twice the Results in Half the Time?"
- American Council on Exercise: "Kettlebells Kick Butt"
- Mark Wildman: "Kettlebell Clean Technique (How Not to Destroy Your Wrist and Arm)"
- Pat Flynn: "The Ultimate Metabolic Kettlebell Complex (the Great Destroyer)"
- Mind Pump TV: "How to Do the Perfect Kettlebell Snatch"