For Your Brain, De-Simplify Your Movement

March 30, 2017 – 7:33 am


“The brain specifically evolved to identify and develop complex movement. The brain evolved not to think or feel, but to observe, create and control complex movement,” explains Daniel Wolpert, MD (Cambridge Neuroscientist, Computational Biologist and Professor of Engineering).

“Aging, itself, is a process of losing complexity,” details Lewis Lipsitz, MD of the Harvard Medical School in Complex Systems Science in Biomedicine.

“Our brains evolved to optimize the brain through aerobic demand and complex movement.” describes John Ratey, MD (Harvard Medical School and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry). This happens because movement and learning are collocated in the brain.

As Leon Gmeindl, MD (Lead Research Scientist at Johns Hopkins University) identified by fMRI studies, decision-making occurs in the areas of the brain with a dual-design for both reasoning and movement.

Neuroscience shows complex movement is why you have “Executive Functions” in your brain. The mechanics of learning and movement co-occupy the same real estate in the brain, so you are evolutionarily designed to optimize learning readiness when activated by complex exercise.

Yet, current fitness fads attempt you to use “primitive” and “natural” simple motions interwoven with talk therapy, rocking on the floor trying to find your inner-child and give him the hug he’s always deserved. That may be the realm of the psychiatrist, but it is certainly not the realm of exercise. The real focus of movement is brain longevity. Improve the brain, and you improve your quality of life, and suddenly you don’t need to be swaddled after an adult tantrum. Toughen up through brain complexity. Most people have no idea what real brain damage actually involves. And complexity is being used to address it as well.


Exercise physiologists cannot agree on a common definition for complex exercise because it exceeds the limits of physiology. Their current definitions of complex exercise come from how parts of the body behave, not how the brain sponsors movement. Your brain is “lit up” to learn, because speaking, reading and writing and micro-movements co-located in the same region of the brain with complex movement.

Physiological definitions of actions involve: Isolation exercises which focus on a single muscle or joint, and compound exercises which focus on multiple muscle or joints. Exercise physiology attempts to define a complex exercise as more than one compound exercise, but defining a complex exercise as a super-compound exercise is unclear and false.

In fact, the modern circus of movements which have been mislabelled as “complex” should be given the term complicated: the unnecessary and arbitrary addition of movements without a synergistic effect by their inclusion. If it doesn’t produce a quantitative benefit, then it should not be added. Yet, in the past 10-15 years, suddenly everyone is either a capoeirista or a cirque performer insisting that their brand of complication is the true path. Complication is not complexity, despite their ignorance of the distinction.

Complex training can be defined as: the addition of movements only if it produces a sum total training effect greater than if the individual components were practiced for the same number of repetitions but independently.


To no fault of its own, exercise physiology cannot define complex training because complexity refers to quality and character of movement not quantity and origin of action. Biomechanics addresses the quality and character of movement. To use biomechanics to define complexity, one must first start with the proper progression of definitions:

Simple movement: movement by one or more joints across a single plane, either in translation (linear movement) or in rotation.

Single plane translations:

Squat: translation (heave) through Transverse Plane

Front Lunge: translation (surge) through Frontal Plane

Side Lunge: translation (sway) through Sagittal Plane

Single plane rotations:

Side Bend: rotation (roll) through Transverse Plane

Deadlift: rotation (pitch) through Frontal Plane

Russian Twist: rotation (yaw) through Sagittal Plane

Compound movement: one or more simple movements, executed in sequence.

Alternating Front Lunge and Side Lunge: translations (surge and sway) through frontal and sagittal planes

Barbell Curl and Press: rotation (pitch) + translation (heave) through transverse plane

Kettlebell Swing + Squat: rotation (pitch) + translation (heave) through transverse plane

Complex movement: one or more joints either across multiple planes at the same time (angular), either in translation, rotation (circular) or both (curvilinear).

Burpee, Sit-Thru, Screwing Pushup, Spinal Rock

Barbell Clean, Clean and Jerk, or Snatch

Kettlebell Side Clean: angular; rotation (yaw) through sagittal and rotation (pitch) through frontal plane

Kettlebell Side Swing: circular; rotation (yaw) and translation (sway) through sagittal plane

Kettlebell Bent Press: curvilinear; rotation (yaw) through sagittal, rotation (pitch) through frontal and translation (pitch) through transverse


Complex movements most simulate the brain because angular, circular and curvilinear movements cross brain hemispheres and challenge your current brain patterns to greater complexity. This complexity causes the brain to release dopamine, the motor control hormone, and push through the blood-brain barrier, BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) - the “Miracle-Gro” of the brain. Complex movement causes the greatest (neuroplastic) changes in new brain cells grown, increased density of network branching and thickened myelin sheaths for improved speed and efficiency.

However, your brain first and foremost needs fuel - ketones (or fat) and oxygen - and cannot be burdened by pain to cognitively perform well. Therefore, if complex movement cannot be performed at sufficient intensity and painlessness, then you must perform simple or compound exercise which causes an aerobic demand to your cardiovascular system, and which can be performed without pain.

Pain must be differentiated from the mandatory circulo-respiratory distress of sufficient exercise intensity for aerobic demand; you must be uncomfortable, and stressed, but not in acute pain from injury or poor form.

If after developing efficiency in simple and compound movements, those components can be assembled into a complex movement, and if the new complex assembly of those simple/compound movements can be performed at sufficient intensity and without pain, then that is the most optimal exercise for your brain (and, as a result, body).

For the past 25 years, while others have insisted on moving in the direction of over-simplicity, I have pioneered complexity training. Now in the past decade that the pendulum of fad is swinging back to increased complexity, they don’t know how, so it’s become a complicated carnival act: do 16 jumps, run at a 30 degree angle over that hurdle, then walk that balance beam backwards for 12 feet, pick up tennis ball and throw it against the wall and catch it in your off-hand 5 times, spin counter-clockwise 24 times, then do it again.


Here is an uncomplicated progression from simple movement where you’re starting to complex motions which your brain is craving, back down to simple again in a new direction, and incremental steps to complex activation in your brain.

For Kettlebell training: Kettlebell Powerformance

For Bodyweight training: Primal (not Primitive!) Stress

For Clubbell training: Clubbell Athlete

very Respectfully,

Scott B. Sonnon

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