Higher complexity exercises are better for general population

High complexity exercises get a bad wrap.

There seems to be a general consensus amongst health and fitness professionals that if you have the option of a simple exercise or a complex exercise (and they get the same result), you should always go simple.

And, at face value, that makes sense.

Why would you do something more difficult, if the easier version would be just as good?

The easier version is easier to teach, and easier to learn.

Consider the example of two exercises designed to build power. One, a loaded jump, is simple. The other, a power clean, is complex. 

They offer a similar benefit…

…or do they?

Sure, at face value they both build explosiveness and power to an equal extent.

But what’s often not considered is that the struggle towards mastery is a huge part of the benefit.

The process of learning is a benefit in its own right.

And that benefit is cognitive.

We’ve all heard about the research into the effects of Sudoku and crossword puzzles in preventing cognitive decline. More complexity means a higher number of neural connections. The brain is highly plastic and adaptable as a process of learning.

If we remove the need to learn (through simplification), we also remove much of the cognitive benefit.

And there’s more.

All too often, we look at the benefit of exercises in a vacuum…

Revisiting our example, If you do a loaded jump this week, you will likely be more powerful by next week. Taking the time to learn a power clean, however, may not deliver as immediate an improvement.

Therefore, we can jump to the conclusion that a loaded jump is superior to a power clean, because it delivers the same benefit, sooner.

But ‘sooner’ is only better if the sole purpose is to be ‘better’ by next week.

But if the purpose is to be ‘better’ in the long run (over timescales of years and decades), things change.

Over these timescales, we need to examine not just the physical benefits, and not even just the cognitive benefits, but also the long-term ‘psychosocial’ benefits.

Learning complex movements is a challenge, and, framed correctly, people love a challenge. It keeps them coming back for more, as they struggle and fail and struggle and improve, they’re rewarded with a slow march towards mastery.

The key phrase there was ‘coming back for more’. If people keep coming back, if they keep turning up, they’ll keep extending their health span.

And for a general population, that’s what it’s all about.

Dan Williams

Dan Williams


Dan Williams is the Director of Range of Motion and leads a team of Exercise Physiologists, Sports Scientists, Physiotherapists and Coaches. He has a Bachelor of Science (Exercise and Health Science) and a Postgraduate Bachelor of Exercise Rehabilitation Science from The University of Western Australia, with minors in Biomechanics and Sport Psychology.

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