Complexity Theory and the WTH Effect

Lately I’ve really gotten into complexity theory. Well, I guess I’ve always been into it, but didn’t know it had a name.

Complexity theory is about studying the emergent behaviors of systems that happen on when you study the system as a whole. As opposed to “science” where you keep trying to simplify and reduce the problem so that you can solve for something (irrelevant) exactly.

My main beef with exercise and nutrition science is that they try to reduce the problem until it no longer correlates with the real world. But I digress…

The folks at the New England Complex Systems Institute have a new paper out about how complexity can be used to describe exercise. The gist is that most systems fall somewhere on the complexity/scale continuum. As a system increases in scale (gets bigger for some definition of big) it necessarily has to become less complex. (Not to go too far off the rails, but this is why some political philosophies make perfect sense at small scale but can never work for governing at the size of a country.)

Anyway, this new paper introduced the idea of complexity and scale in exercise. If you train for scale (e.g. big 1RM lifts) then you necessarily have to be less complex in your movement and become good at only one thing. But if you pick movements or activities that are more variable and have a variety of movements you can become more adaptable to real life.

This paper has been rattling around in my brain all week, and some of my personal experiences with training started to make more sense.

If we compare the power lifts (Squat, Bench, Deadlift) to the Olympic lifts (Snatch, Clean and Jerk), I think we’d all agree that the Olympic lifts are more complex. They’re harder to learn, more things have to go technically right, there’s lots of coordination and timing that has to work with just raw strength.

As much as I love pulling a big deadlift, I do think that learning the Olympic lifts improved my other sports much more. I spent about the first 10 years of my lifting career doing large-scale low-complexity movement, and then about 10 years ago is when I actually learned the Olympic lifts. After learning the Olympic lifts, my mountain biking and rock climbing (both very complex sports) got so much better. The controlled explosiveness and being strong while not perfectly in balance transfers across sports very well.

That’s also why Randy is so good with Sports Performance training. What do you do to train weightlifters? Squat, Snatch, Clean and Jerk. What do you to train runners? Squat, Snatch, Clean and Jerk. What do you to train jumpers? Squat, Snatch, Clean and Jerk. What do you to train baseball players? Squat, Snatch, Clean and Jerk. What do you do to train soccer players? Squat, Snatch, Clean and Jerk. What do you do to train cyclists? Squat, Snatch, Clean and Jerk.

Training the complex barbell lifts translates to everything else better than just grinding out the powerlifts - just like the article says.

It’s even more noticeable when we go beyond the barbell. I’ve talked many times (one, two, three, four) about the well-known what-the-hell effect that shows up with dedicated kettlebell training. I’ve read about it many times, and I’ve seen it dozens of times in the gym: spend some dedicated time training with kettlebells and suddenly you realize that things that used to be hard for you are no longer hard. And not just other sports - regular life too!

Working with kettlebells is even more complex than barbells. More degrees of freedom, more transitions from power (drive) to relaxed (float) to tension (catch). Throw in doubles, and it’s even better. It’s especially pronounced at our gym: I love to program heavy kettlebell work - so we get both complexity and scale!

The variety and variability that shows up when training with kettlebells helps everywhere - lately, I’ve noticed that my balance is so much better than it ever was before. I just got in from shoveling a bunch of driveways today and I never slipped on the ice once!

I also think the whole complexity-scale trade-off is why I’ve been drawn to moderate weight training. I’d rather add the variability in movements and rep schemes and stay around 70% than to do lots of weight progressions on simpler movement. If you want to be a powerlifter, that’s fine. But I just want people to move well and be generally strong - and I think kettlebell work is probably better there.

Michael Deskevich