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‘Complex’ Kettlebells for Combatives

June 29, 2006 01:25 PM

The Russian strength and conditioning specialist formerly known as Pavel Tsatsouline ? and now simply 'Pavel' ? has offered some pretty sage advice in the past, to those who would heed it: Don't comment on things about which you are unfamiliar; and, if you don't understand how a particular 'power tool' works, leave it alone.

Well, I'm going to disregard both of these pearls of wisdom and jump right into a subject in which even so-called 'experts' have been ridiculed for not being able to "get it right": Complex Training. What the hell, I figure; if my semi-amateur status confers nothing else on me, at least it should give me the right to make a mistake now and again. Nonetheless, I'll do my best to "get it right".

Anyway, here we go ?

(NOTE: There is much more to plyometrics and Complex Training than what I will cover here; I'm going to try and keep it as simple and succinct as possible ? specific only to combatives and the martial arts. For those who are interested in furthering their understanding of the subject, I will offer a list of resources at the end of the article.)

Complex Training

One of the foundational tenets of the Integrated Conditioning philosophy is to do as much as possible with as little as possible. For that reason, we find the possibilities of Complex Training quite appealing. Complex Training allows one to "? develop and to maintain maximum strength (maximum force) together with explosive ability?", at least according to Doctors Yessis and Hatfield in 'Plyometric Training' (1986). According to Donald A. Chu, Ph.D. ('Explosive Strength & Power', 1996), "? the power increases achieved through complex training are up to three times more effective than conventional training programs!"

In its simplest form, Complex Training ? also called Maxex Training by Tudor O. Bompa, Ph.D., and Michael C. Carrera, in their book 'Periodization Training for Sports, Second Edition' (2005) ? typically involves combining a heavy strength exercise with an explosive-type plyometrics drill. Some of the science ? especially as explained by Yessis and Hatfield ? behind Complex Training can get a little ? complex. (Sorry; bad pun.)

Not being a real high-speed guy, I sought the simplest explanation of how and why this protocol works; consequently, I'm partial to the offering of Bompa and Carrera: "The concept of maxex training relies on science, manipulating two physiological concepts to produce speed and explosiveness and improve athletic performance. The first part of the maxex routine is performed against a heavier load, which stimulates a high recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibers. The follow-up explosive/quickness movements increase the firing rate of the fast-twitch muscle fibers, preparing the athlete for the quick, explosive actions required for all speed and power sports ?"

The only resource I have found that goes a step further and adds skill work to the basic Complex Training model is the course text for International Sports Sciences Association's Certified Fitness Trainer, 'Fitness: The Complete Guide, Seventh Edition' (2001), edited by Frederick C. Hatfield, Ph.D. The book explains it thusly: "The principle objective of complex training is to make the neural transfer between raw limit strength and speed-strength to skilled execution of your sport." In fact, the ISSA model for Complex Training "? is a system that combines 1) weight training (limit strength), 2) shock plyometrics (starting strength), 3) bounding-type plyometrics (starting strength with explosive strength), and 4) the actual skill of your event (e.g., running, throwing, jumping). These four elements are done sequentially without rest between each ?"

One thing that should be addressed right from the jump (Sorry; another bad pun.) is the need for developing a solid strength base before undertaking any plyometrics training. This type of training is simply not appropriate for neophyte athletes. According to Doctors Yessis and Hatfield, "? the force developed in some types of explosive training can reach 20 times your body weight ?" They go on to say that one should undergo a total-body conditioning program for 1-3 months, depending on one's initial fitness level. Only once an adequate strength base is built should the athlete consider plyometrics training.

You may be wondering what constitutes a "strength base". Well, it's a little tough to pin-point. The most common examples regard the squat. In 'Plyometric Training', the recommendation is for 2 to 2-1/2 times bodyweight in the back squat. In Health for Life's 'Explosive Power' (1993), the authors endorse the need to be able to squat 150% to 200% of bodyweight; 'High-Powered Plyometrics' (1999), by James C. Radcliffe and Robert C. Farentinos also backs the 1.5 to 2 times bodyweight recommendation. I can't find any reference to specific numbers for upper body strength (though that doesn't mean they're not out there), so I guess we're on our own on this one.

The preceding offerings are the 'experts' opinions, for your edification. At Integrated Conditioning, we tend to come down a little more 'loosely' on this issue. Absolutely, a strength base should be developed, but it may not need to be quite as high as was once suggested. This is especially true for drills on the plyometrics continuum that are of a less intense nature (bounding and hopping, for example); obviously, for the more severe 'shock' methods such as altitude/depth jumps, you would do well to adhere to the recommended numbers as regards the squat. Since the possibility always looms that we may be wrong, however, you are admonished to always use your own best judgment.

The question could be raised as to whether plyometrics training is appropriate for every athlete or lifter. There is a theory that suggests that plyos may not offer much improvement in an athlete's explosiveness until the athlete has reached a certain level of strength. Pavel has written that increasing your grinding strength will also increase your power ? up to a point. I might submit, however, that, much the same way that your muscles and nervous system must be taught to 'grind' ? to generate maximum tension ? they must also be taught to 'explode'.

If all you do is grinding drills, even to the extent that you are moving some pretty heavy weights, you will certainly get stronger, but I wonder how much quicker. It seems reasonable to me to accept the premise that speed and explosiveness is as much a skill as any other attribute ? and it should be trained accordingly.

Then there is the oft-argued issue of safety. There are many coaches and trainers who will tell you that plyos are dangerous and not worth the risk. Not just HIT trainers, either. Jeff Martone, Senior RKC, in response to an e-mail full of questions that I sent him, wrote the following: "Personally, I avoid plyos like the plague. The injury/risk to benefit ratio isn't worth it." He also stated: "Quick lifts with a moderate/light kb will build plenty of explosive strength and endurance." Anyone who has seen Jeff effortlessly toss around some pretty heavy KBs would be hard-pressed to argue the point!

Are plyos right for you? Only you ? or perhaps your coach/trainer ? can make that decision. Have you been training long enough to develop an adequate strength base? Does your chosen sport require high levels of explosiveness and power? Are you prepared to brave the inherent dangers of plyometrics? Don't just choose to undertake a plyo-program because your favorite fighter uses them. If you aren't ready for them, almost certainly you will acquire an injury. Then you'll hear the words of the old knight near the end of 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade': "He chose ? poorly."

Program Design Considerations

Now let's address some issues of program design.

First, the question of training frequency. Unlike with basic heavy strength training, which, properly applied, can be performed as often as several times a day, the literature tells us that plyometrics in general, and Complex Training specifically, should be done much less frequently. Health for Life's 'Explosive Power' offers the following explanation as to why this might be: "The demands it places on the central nervous system and the eccentric capacity of muscle fibers makes it more stressful than conventional weight training. You need a minimum of 48 hours to recover from a hard plyometrics workout."

As to the question of how much to do in the actual workout, 'Fitness: The Complete Guide', tells us that Complex Training "? is a highly taxing system, so never more than three 'complexes' should be performed for upper and lower body, respectively." In my sometimes-not-so-humble opinion, with lighter, less-than-maximal loads (as with even 'heavy' kettlebells) and using plyos on the less-severe end of the continuum, you could probably up the sets somewhat with relative safety.

When it comes to a suggested protocol for the heavy strength lifts, the literature is nearly unanimous in its recommendation for heavy weights and low reps. For some reason, however, it is very often stipulated that the plyos be done for medium-range reps ? typically 6-10, occasionally as high as 15 or more.

At Integrated Conditioning, we find the use of higher reps to be a little at odds with our proposed training objective ? to maximize power for self-defense and general fighting ability. Pavel has said it a number of times: Fatigue is counter-productive when it comes to speed and power training. If the athlete is a competitive fighter (some type striker, specifically), perhaps the higher reps would be useful for developing power-endurance; after all, you want to be hitting as hard and as fast in the last round as in the first. Otherwise, and in general, we prefer to stick to the low-rep formula; this applies as much to the plyos and skills/techniques as to the strength drills. The low-rep formula should be familiar to most Dragon Door readers by now: 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps, 3-5 minutes rest, etc.

There are a couple ways you might consider for integrating Complex Training into your program. If, for example, you train using the semi-mesocycle periodization model ? alternating two-week cycles of grinds and ballistics ? you can insert two weeks of complexes between the other cycles whenever you wish.

If you follow a more conventional ? and some might say 'outdated' ? periodization plan of 4-6-week phases (Anatomical Adaptation, Hypertrophy, Maximal Strength, Power, etc.), you could use Complex Training either in the Power-Conversion phase or as a short taper before your competition/meet.

Alternatively, if you train in more of a Freestyle fashion, you can substitute a Complex Training session for a regular kettlebell workout ? again, whenever you wish.

Kettlebell Complexes for Combatives

In an effort to apply the Complex Training methodology to our clients' training, we came up with the following examples. Though not always perfectly 'specific', we expect they will be more than reasonably effective. It should also be noted that the following strength and plyometrics drills are not intended to exactly replicate or mimic specific skills or techniques; they are simply drills intended to improve one's ability to perform a given skill or technique.

While I tried to keep the drills kettlebell-specific, sometimes a barbell or medicine ball would be the better tool; if this other equipment is available to you, by all means, use it. Nonetheless, the KB-alternative can still be quite effective. It should also be obvious that you will need some type striking surface, for instance BOB or a heavy bag. (As an aside, there are some plyo-type drills that can be performed with the heavy bag itself, but I've chosen to disregard them in favor of a more KB-specific orientation for the article.)

If you choose to give any of these complexes a shot, log-on to the Dragon Door forum and let me know how they work for you. Plus, if any of the mentioned drills are unfamiliar to you ? and you can't find them anywhere on the Web ? just let me know and I'll try and describe them to you. Also, if you think I'm totally nuts, you could let me know that, too!

Linear Hand/Arm Strikes: for training the forceful extension of the shoulder and elbow joints in the horizontal plane, as in the Face Smash, Eye Jab, Yoke Strike, boxer's Jab and Cross, and various Palm Heel Strikes.

KB Floor Press x 3-5 reps with maximum tension, followed by Clapping Push-Ups x 3-5 with maximum explosion, followed by one of the above techniques for 3-5 reps with maximum speed and power.

- If you have access to other equipment, you could consider the following alternative complex: Barbell Incline Bench Press x 3-5 reps, followed by Medicine Ball Chest Pass x 3-5 reps ?

Rotational Hand/Arm Strikes: for developing the rotational force of the core muscles, as for Cupped Hand Blows, Ax Hand Strikes, Hook Punch, and Elbow Strikes that occur predominantly in the horizontal plane.

- KB Russian Twists (with a heavy KB) x 3-5 reps with max tension, followed by KB Seated Rotations (with a lighter KB) x 3-5 reps with max speed, followed by one of the above drills for 3-5 reps with max power. (Pavel's new DVD, 'Loaded Stretching', came to me just in time. I was wracking my brain to find a suitable KB-specific rotational grind ? and coming up short ? when I saw the video. Thanks, Pavel.)

- If you have access to a wider range of equipment (and a training partner), you could try the following complex: Barbell Full-Contact Twist x 3-5 reps with max tension, Medicine Ball Rotational Throws x 3-5 reps with max explosion ?

Upward or 'Rising' Hand/Arm Strikes: for developing forceful extension of the shoulder joint predominantly, and to a somewhat lesser degree the elbow joint, in the vertical plane, as for Chin Jabs, Uppercuts, Upward Elbow Strikes, and Yoke Strikes.

- KB 2-Arm Overhead Press x 3-5 reps with max tension, followed by MB (or KB; be careful!) Overhead Toss and Catch with max explosion, followed by one of the above drills for 3-5 reps with max power.

- If you are a physical bad-ass, you could substitute Handstand Push-Up Depth Jumps for the MB Toss and Catch.

Linear Kicks: for developing forceful extension of the knee joint, and to a lesser degree the hip joint, as for Thrust/Push Kick, Shin/Oblique Kick, and even for low Side Kicks.

- KB Front Squat x 3-5 reps with max tension, followed by Jump Squats x 3-5 reps with max explosion, followed by one of the above techniques.

- If you are a physical bad-ass (or Steve Cotter), you could do Pistols instead of FSQs and Pistol Depth Jumps instead of Jump Squats. (I saw Steve do these at the KB Convention in Vegas, off a stage that was a good 3-4 feet high; it's an image that stays with you!)

Upward Knee Strikes: for developing forceful flexion of the hip joint, as in the obvious Upward Knee Strike and Muay Thai Switch Knees. (This one took a little thinking on my part.)

- KB Hanging Knee Raise (a heavy KB on each foot) x 3-5 reps with max tension, followed by Tuck Jumps x 3-5 reps with max explosiveness, followed by the kneeing technique of your choice.

- KB Standing 1-Leg Knee Lift x 3-5 reps with max tension, followed by Standing 1-Leg Explosive Knee Lifts x 3-5 reps with max speed, followed by the knee strike of your choice.


There are several resources available out there on 'plyometrics' and 'jump'-type training. Though I have referred to some of these titles throughout the article, one of the only books worth referencing, at least according to people generally accepted as being "in the know", is also one of the first (at least in this country): 'Plyometric Training', by Michael Yessis, Ph.D., and Fred Hatfield, Ph.D. If you are interested in a greater understanding of plyometrics training, and you can find the book, I would highly recommend it. For that matter, Pavel himself has also recommended this book; enough said, I'm sure.

Below are some other books on the subject, some quite good, others less so. I've perused them all, but as I mentioned in the opening of this piece, I'm really no expert; thus, you are advised to take any commentary with the proverbial grain of salt. Thank you.

- Power: A Scientific Approach, by Frederick C. Hatfield, Ph.D. (Dr. Squat is generally accepted as "knowing his stuff"; there is some pretty good plyo-info in here, and again, Pavel has put this book on his short list of recommended reads, so ?)
- Fitness: The Complete Guide, Seventh Edition, edited by Frederick C. Hatfield, Ph.D. (Doc Squat again, so you know it's pretty good/reliable.)
- Explosive Power, by Health for Life (A good source for some of those heavy bag plyos I mentioned earlier.)
- Jumping into Plyometrics, Second Edition, by Donald A. Chu, Ph.D.
- Explosive Power & Strength, by Donald A. Chu, Ph.D. (This is an entire book dedicated to Complex Training.)
- High-Powered Plyometrics, by James C. Radcliffe and Robert C. Farentinos
- Supertraining, Fifth Edition, by Mel C. Siff (This book is generally considered an indispensable resource on most aspects of physical training; earlier editions were co-authored with Yuri Verkhoshansky, one of the pioneers of plyometrics; this book has also been recommended by Pavel.)
- Facts and Fallacies of Fitness, by Mel C. Siff (Another one from the late Mel Siff, this book contains quite a bit of information on plyos, though not as much as in Supertraining.)
- Jumpmetrics, by Alan Tyson and Ben Cook
- Periodization Training for Sports, Second Edition, by Tudor O. Bompa, Ph.D. and Michael C. Carrera (Not strictly about plyometrics, there is some decent material in here on explosive training.)
- Explosive Power and Jumping Ability for All Sports, by Tadeusz Starzynski and Henryk Sozanski, Ph.D. (As with most of Stadion's material, this one has a 'dry', textbook feel; for such a relatively small book, there is a lot of information in here.)

Kurt J. Wilkens is the founder of Integrated Conditioning, Inc., a South Florida-based personal training company that emphasizes Functionality and Wellness over simple 'fitness'. Integrated Conditioning specializes in combining Old-School Physical Culture with Modern Sports Science to develop the most effective programs possible for any individual's specific needs. Training is available to you online, or in the convenience of your own home. Kurt is an ISSA-Certified Fitness Trainer, an ISSA-Specialist in Martial Arts Conditioning, and a Certified Russian Kettlebell Instructor, Level 2: Combat Applications Specialist. He can be reached via his website: