On Coaching: Part 5


Dealing With Complexity

Movements with more than two or three major positions or transition points are significantly more complex to teach. I generally categorize movements into three levels of complexity: simple, intermediate, and complex.

Simple movements generally involve movement between two positions with no transition points.  For instance, a squat basically has two positions: the top and the bottom. A dead hang pull-up has basically two positions: the top and the bottom. The same is true for the bench press, the push-up, the sit-up and the hip extension.

Intermediate movements are simple movements with the added complexity of a transition point.  The press, for example, has a transition point when the bar passes the head and the head and chest move forward under the bar.  The deadlift includes a transition from the legs doing most of the work (when the bar is below the knees,) and the hips taking over when the bar passes the knees. Thus, those exercises can be viewed as slightly more complex than the squat and the bench press.

Complex movements like the Olympic lifts or the kipping pull-up or the muscle up involve the body passing through a number of positions and transition points. These advanced moves can and should be taught to athletes of all levels but some athletes will require more coaching than others. Your ability to make complex exercises simple is a testament to your coaching ability. Remember to use all the tools in your arsenal when teaching these complex exercises: demonstrate for the visual learner, enumerate clearly the steps for the auditory learners and be hands on for the tactile learners.

muscleBreaking It Down

Deconstructing a movement will help you to teach it more effectively.

No matter how complex the movement, it is first helpful to consider the start and end points, and familiarize yourself and your athletes with them. Regardless of technical prowess, there is merit to being able to do an exercise through a full range of motion. For example, taking a barbell from the floor to overhead is worthwhile exercise no matter how it gets up there. Also having a beginning and end gives the athlete a frame of reference.

Next it is helpful to consider any intermediate points between the start and the end that the athlete will have to transition through and flush those out. Teaching transitions can be extremely difficult and time consuming, but the value of getting your athletes to move correctly through transitions will make them better. While watching your athletes you can focus on how they move through transitions and this will reveal technical flaws.

Then connect points A, B and C. We often use this method in teaching the muscle-up. First we learn the pull-up, then we learn the dip. After the athlete demonstrates competency in those movements you teach the transition. The clean is another exercise that is often taught in various stages from the top down. Usually after the athlete has learned to deadlift and to front squat, then she is taught the hang clean. Then various transitions are taught from the high hang all the way down to the floor.

Another way to deconstruct and reconstruct complex exercises is by breaking them down into more familiar exercises. The Thruster, for example, can be taught as a front squat plus a press or push press. Thus an athlete can make sense of more complex movements by thinking of them as combinations or variations of simpler movement patterns.

Make An Association

Finally, you can associate a complex exercise with a more familiar natural movement that they can do without thinking. If an athlete can jump or throw, then she can probably do some explosive lifting. It’s a matter of getting her to transfer that natural explosive power to a barbell. Teaching someone to jump, for instance, is conceptually easier than push jerking. So establishing a solid jump and land in the athlete is often the best introduction to explosive lifting before giving them a barbell.

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!


  1. Paul@CFQ March 2, 2010 at 3:45 pm - Reply

    As always, a thoughtful and well written article. Keep it up Keith.

  2. tylerdurden March 2, 2010 at 3:46 pm - Reply

    Thanks, Paul. I’m doing what I can. Keep up the good work in Queens.

  3. Eric L @ CF Metropolis March 4, 2010 at 9:11 am - Reply

    Good stuff Keith.

Leave A Comment