Category Archives: Complexes
Here’s what you need to know…
When you hear the word “complex,” you immediately think of some gut-busting combination of movements performed for high reps.
I don’t blame you for making this association. Certainly doing 10 reps of deadlifts, cleans, Romanian deadlifts, and push-presses in a row can leave a lasting feel-good impression on even the most battle-weathered lifter’s psyche.
High-rep complexes have their place, like when you want to test your will or see exactly what your gas tank holds. However, this isn’t about any of that.
This is about heavy-ass, 300-pound complexes. Complexes that make you freaking strong.
Max Strength is King
I train a lot of athletes. Conditioning is important, but strength is their highest priority – because max strength makes everything better.
To paraphrase Dan John, your abilities are buckets, but your max-strength bucket makes all the other buckets easier to fill. And strength complexes make your max-strength bucket grow from a watering can to a wheelbarrow!
Get more max strength and everything else becomes easier. When you’re stronger you can do more reps at a higher weight, you can condition harder, and you can even get shredded faster because more max strength lets you push yourself harder.
That said, strength complexes aren’t the easy alternative to the soul-sucking, endurance-based complexes you’re used to. They’re tough. They’ll challenge your work capacity, and typically there’ll be one movement (or more) in the mix that makes you question your abilities and maybe even your manhood.
Strength Complexes for Max Strength
First, some points to remember. Strength complexes are low-rep, high-weight parings of movements performed without letting the bar leave your hand.
When using them with the Olympic lifts, start with one of the main lifts (the snatch or clean) and then add other primary movements to the pot.
It’s important to pair movements that increase the time under tension (TUT), a concept generally reserved for hypertrophy. In our case, TUT ostensibly means that once the bar is in your hands it shouldn’t hit the ground again until the complex is over or you miss a lift.
So if you were to do multiple deadlifts in a strength complex, you should try to do “touch and go” deadlifts as opposed to completely resetting the bar.
But while TUT is an important concept, it isn’t normally applied to Olympic lifts because you’re dealing with big complex movements and not simple eccentric and concentric muscular action.
To that end, your aim is to keep the bar in your hands for 15 seconds or more to stimulate strength and muscle growth, a concept I borrowed from the king of American weightlifting, Glenn Pendlay, who inspired these complexes.
Pendlay told me, “With strength complexes, we want to take a movement that normally takes 2 seconds or less (the Olympic lifts) and extend its length to the limits of our abilities, while also challenging our max strength levels.”
Rules of a Strength Complex:
- 2-4 movements
- 1-2 repetitions per exercises
- 5-7 reps total in the complex
- 15-20 seconds total time with the bar in hand
Most importantly, don’t choose sets and reps or even percentages ahead of time – with strength complexes, choose a starting weight and work up until you find a weight that you can no longer complete.
Heavy Snatch Complex
This complex consists of a deadlift, a snatch from below the knee, two overhead squats, and finally a snatch balance. This complex targets everyone’s weakest points in the snatch:
- The move from the floor
- The move around the knee
- Overhead position
Use this complex to attack your weaknesses and build massive strength on top of that goal.
In the video below I’m completing this complex with 220 pounds (about double what I normally use for a typical complex).
300-Pound Clean Complex
I got this complex from Pendlay, who prescribes it early in a training cycle to improve strength and promote hypertrophy.
In the variation in the video below I do:
- 1 Clean Deadlift
- 1 Hang Clean from below the knee
- 2 Front Squats
- 1 Jerk
The concept here is to:
- Make the jerk really hard because your legs are extremely fatigued.
- Keep the bar in your hands a long time.
My 300-pound complex was my limit – exactly where you should aim to put your strength complexes. If you’re a strong-ass mofo, this is the time to really get after it!
Even-Heavier Clean Complex
A favorite lifter of Coach Pendlay’s, Donny Shankle, does a “Shankle” complex of:
- 1 Deadlift
- 3 Hang pulls from hip
- 1 Hang Clean
- 2 Jerks (he misses one in the video but makes it in others)
The following video is one of the more impressive things I’ve ever seen in American weightlifting. Get ready for it – Shankle does this complex with 408 pounds!
How to Use Strength Complexes
So why the different movements for Donny Shankle and me?
It comes down to specific needs. My front squat sucks so I choose exercises to help address it.
You should do the same. If you have trouble pulling the bar, then add more pulls; if you have trouble getting in the right position overhead, then use a snatch balance or an extra jerk.
This way you attack your weak points while maintaining your strengths, which is the hallmark of sound strength programming.
Slap on Some Plates
There’s something to be said for high-rep, puke-in-your-shoes type of complexes – there aren’t many things you can do in the gym that test your testicular fortitude more.
But don’t be scared to slap on some plates and start throwing around some real weight. Your efforts will be rewarded with radical gains in size and strength!
I know what you’re all thinking: another article about complexes that I’ll never use cause I want to be big and strong, not just smash myself.
I feel your pain. Complexes have been covered extensively in the fitness and bodybuilding media, including T Nation. That said, this ain’t your momma’s complex training article – what you’re about to read may be the Greatest Complex Article of All Time (yeah, I said that).
So How’s This different?
The complexes in this article will help you burn fat, get strong as an ox, and put your will to the test. Granted, there are many complexes already published that can accomplish this, but these are different.
They use different rules, different implements, and way different rep schemes than what you’re used to. And the results they deliver give new meaning to the expression “change is good.”
New Rules for the Complex
1. Pick an implement.
Barbell complexes are the most popular and are what I choose to do most of my complexes with (Im an Olympic lifter, so it makes sense).
However, any implement will do. Kettlebells, sandbags, dumbbells, or a TRX can all be the tools of your destruction. Each implement has its advantages and disadvantages, so use them accordingly.
For instance, barbells suck when it comes to upper body pulling exercises, and the TRX sucks for vertical pressing exercises. Pick something and rock it out the best you can.
2. Choose from several categories (or just a couple).
With barbells I like to choose from tons of categories. Pretty much every complex has an explosive movement, some sort of hinging and squatting pattern, and likely some pressing or pulling.
When it comes to the other tools, you can still do the same thing and stay balanced, but an alternative is to smoke a particular movement pattern or a body part.
- Use the kettlebell to just work on your conditioning by doing a ton of swings, snatches, and carries.
- Using the TRX or suspension trainer, pick multiple movements that require a ton of stability, and targeted ab exercises to hammer your core.
If you choose from multiple categories you can get an awesome finisher; if you choose from just a couple you can dominate some body part training.
The list below offers some ideas for movements from each category.
|Lower Body Push||Bear Hug Squat,
Reverse Lunge w/ Rotation,
Dbl Front Squat
|RFE Split Squat,
|Lower Body Pull||Zercher Good Morning,
Stiff-Leg King Deadlift
|SHELC (Supine Hip Extension to Leg Curl) Supine Sprinters|
|Upper Body Push||Shoulder to Shoulder Press,
|Push-Up Variations (Hands In or Out),
|Upper Body Pull||Bent Over Row (Again)||Bent Over Row,
Double Sumo DL High Pull,
|Miscellaneous||Crawl and Drags,
Chops and Lifts,
3. Use rep schemes that make it interesting.
We always see the same thing, “Do x reps for x sets.” It’s time to ditch that line of thinking!
Try some innovative ways to use complexes in terms of sets and reps. Here are some that I use:
Ascending/Descending Pyramids (1,2,3,…3,2,1)
Start with 1 rep of each exercise and move through. Each set add a rep until you can add no more. Then, descend the pyramid back until you finish with 1 rep again. When it gets hard, tell yourself that after you finish the hardest set (the top of the pyramid), it’ll only get easier.
Accommodating Complexes (AC)
You know yourself better than any coach, so why not figure out yourself how many reps you can do on each exercise?
For instance, say you can do 10 kettlebell swings, but only 3 snatches per arm, 8 goblet squats, and 15 Romanian deadlifts? Voila! You now have the perfect rep scheme for your kick-ass kettlebell complex.
Complex Drop Sets (DS)
Pick your exercises, sets, and reps; say 3 sets of 6 reps on every exercise.Now choose a challenging weight and get to work on your 3 sets.
At the end of 3 sets drop the movement that’s most challenging, or the one where you were closest to technical failure. For each set after that, move up in weight to challenge yourself and approximate the volume from the first 3 sets.
The Sandbag Complex
I’m a big fan of the sandbag. Adding in a rotational component to exercises makes it an awesome tool for athletes needing greater stability in all planes of motion.
The cool thing about the sandbag is that it offers so many different options for holding it. While the barbell offers very little in the way of changing grips, with the sandbag we can shoulder it, hug it, crossbody hug it, and Zercher hold it. The possibilities are many, and each different grip or hold offers a different set of challenges.
Here’s an example:
|D||Zercher Good Morning||8|
In the video below my athlete is using an 80-pound bag and he’s getting crushed by the end.
The KB Complex
Everything is rosy when you have 2 hands firmly on a barbell, but it can be a different story when you’re forced to move unilaterally. The beautiful thing about many kettlebell movements is that they’re designed to be completed one hand at a time.
This complex forces you to brace for rotation, and can absolutely smoke your core. I use this with drop sets by working up to 3 sets of 5 reps and then dropping the hardest exercise, in this case, the Single Leg Romanian Deadlift Plus Row.
Once that beast is out, I move up in weight with my ‘bells while thanking the Almighty for taking mercy on me, and move on.
|A||One-Arm Swing||3||5 each*|
|B||Threaded Lunge||3||5 each*|
|C||SLRDL + Row||3||5 each*|
|D||Strict Press||3||5 each*|
The 2 KB Complex
This is one of my favorite complexes for developing strength. There aren’t many things harder than working with two heavy-ass kettlebells.
In no scientific way whatsoever, I’ve determined that a double-kettlebell front squat is just as difficult as a barbell front squat with twice the weight. Seriously though, even the strongest athletes wilt under two racked kettlebells.
In this video my athlete is on his 3-rep set as he descends the backside of the 1-5 pyramid illustrated below. Needless to say, he’s smoked.
|A||Double Clean||1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1|
|B||Front Squat||1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1|
|C||Push Press||1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1|
|D||Sumo Deadlift High Pull||1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1|
And Now, Introducing Monkey Jumps
This complex features a move that I named monkey jumps a long time ago, before I had ever seen a real monkey in nature or a zoo, and it turns out monkeys don’t actually do this.
The name stays, though.
Monkey jumps are just the C exercises of this complex, and combine an alternating split jump with a high pull on each jump. They may look funny, but the truth is they actually have some carryover to the Olympic lifts as it mimics the timing of pulling yourself down to the bar.
If you ever get the urge to do a complex on a beach or in a forest (which I’m embarrassed to say has happened to me on more than one occasion), and don’t have access to your kettlebells and dumbbells, you’re basically out of luck. However, if you happened to have a suspension trainer with you, you’re ready to rock it out no matter where you find yourself.
This is a killer complex if you use it in an ascending fashion. In the video below I filmed my set of 5 reps as I worked up to 8 reps of each exercise.
|A||SHELC||1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8|
|B||Push-Ups||1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8|
|C||Core Worm||1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8|
|D||Handstand Push-Ups||1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8|
The Obligatory Barbell Complex
You didn’t think that I’d leave this one out did you? Like Vin Diesel in The Fast and Furious series, you knew the barbell had to make an appearance, even if only for a moment at the end.
For this cameo I’m going way back in the archives to bring out the Javorek complex, appropriately named after its creator, Istvan (Steve) Javorek.
So how is the oldest complex in the book any different from the hundreds of complexes you have seen before?
Big ass weights.
Javorek writes of the need to do this complex at extremely high weights as a predictor of future performance. He tells tales of this complex being completed with 240 pounds by Romanian weightlifters, and 220-pound exploits by American record holders.
I personally witnessed my former Olympian coach complete this complex with over 200 pounds. After picking my jaw up from the floor and searching for my manhood, I completed this complex with 165 pounds. I went on to clean 330 pounds later that training cycle.
But in case you’re not going to the Olympics, there’s a very simple rule to follow to make sure this complex will challenge your strength and will: use 50% of your 1RM clean and jerk.
The 50% rule is what the best athletes are able to do with this 30-rep complex and it provides an indicator of what you’re capable of (with good technique) on the platform.
In the video below of the Javorek complex, I’m using 143 pounds (which is about 50% of my current 300-pound clean and jerk 1RM).
|A||Barbell Upright Row||6|
|B||Barbell Muscle Snatch||6|
|C||Back Squat to Push Press||6|
|E||Bent Over Row||6|
Complexes are a fantastic, multifaceted tool, and using a variety of tools and many different rep schemes makes them even better.
When you’re stumped for a training session, crave some variety, or just want to punish yourself, there’s likely a complex for you. If you manage to get through all of these complexes, I’m certain that your next challenge will be how to design a complex of sleeping, eating, and napping.
Much has been written about an old but brutal friend of mine. A friend to whom I was first introduced the day I walked into my first real weight room – a dark and dusty pit stacked with chalk-dusted bumper plates and Eleiko bars; a sanctuary for incredibly strong people to clean, snatch, squat, and otherwise dominate massive weights.
This old friend has a name: the complex.
A complex is a series of exercises done in succession, wherein all reps of a prescribed exercise are completed before moving onto the next without ever putting the implement down, which in most cases is a barbell.
This isn’t to be confused with the complex superset, where a strength lift is followed by an explosive lift for the same pattern, such as a front squat and a jump squat.
Recently, complexes have been gaining mainstream popularity due to their efficiency. They’re being touted as the quickest, most effective way to get a workout. Heck, you don’t even have to have much weight on hand to do them!
And all of the above are true. You can get a complete workout in 15 minutes just by doing 3 sets of a given complex. Get in and get out, leaving plenty of time for Home Depot and maybe even Bed Bath and Beyond. No wonder complexes are so popular!
However, that kind of complex isn’t the one I remember. No, the complexes that haunt my memories were formidable beasts that we had to endure every training session. Our complexes were designed to finish us off and send us stumbling out the door, lungs still burning long after the training session was finished.
The complexes in this article are like the ones I recall. They’ll challenge you. They may even leave you lying on the ground in a sweaty heap and looking forward to rolling out of the weight room, if only so you can get back up on your feet.
- Each of the complexes outlined below are to be done with a barbell, and are designed to improve your Olympic lifting skill, strength, and power.
- I suggest completing 5-8 reps per movement, and doing 3-4 sets of each complex. If your form turns to crap, then reduce the weight or the number of reps that you’re doing each set.
- As a metabolic conditioning tool, complexes can also be used to finish off a training session. Each of these complexes is perfect for the athlete seeking strength, but needs a little more conditioning to lean up or improve endurance. Just up the reps and reduce the rest, and do 2-3 rounds of a given complex at the end of a workout.
- If you’re focusing on technique as part of your complex, use a work to rest ratio of 1:1 or greater. You want these to ‘suck’ because they’re difficult and metabolically challenging, not because you get injured doing them.
The Rules of Complexes
I designed the three complexes below. You can design your own, but you need to follow the rules of the game:
1. Start with the hardest stuff.
Start with the most technical movement first. Typically, this means an Olympic lift. If you don’t include an O lift, then pick something else that’s taxing to the entire body.
2. Make it flow.
This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but work your way up and down the chain, and don’t make any wasted movements. For instance, if you started with a push press, don’t do a deadlift next and then go back to a front squat – your hands will hate you and you’ll waste considerable energy moving the bar up and down.
3. Choose from several categories.
There aren’t many things that you can’t put in a complex, but you have to love your ‘pullers’ as much as your precious ‘pushers.’ So don’t design a complex that consists of push presses, lunges, behind the neck presses, and squats. The backside of the body needs attention too.
Try selecting from different categories of movements based on what you’re doing in training to make the best total body complex you can.
|Explosive/Olympic lifting||Snatch, power clean, hang snatch, power snatch, clean pull, squat clean, squat snatch, split jerks, squat jumps, split clean, split snatch|
|Lower Body Push||Back squat, front squat, forward lunge, reverse lunge|
|Lower Body Pull||Deadlift, sumo deadlift, Romanian deadlift, single-leg Romanian deadlift, good morning|
|Upper Body Push||Press, push press, behind the neck press, split stance press|
|Upper Body Pull||Bent over row (sorry, not a lot of options while you’re on your feet)|
|Miscellaneous||Bar rollouts, push ups, Turkish get-ups|
4. Make it mean something.
Training should always have a goal. Although the following complexes are brutal, each has a specific goal – some are for technical improvement in the Olympic lifts while others are for conditioning at the end of a training session. So pick a goal and get after it.
If you’re training for strength, complexes should have several strength-based moves for low reps – 3-5 sets of 3-6 reps per movement. Rest times between sets of complexes should be large (twice the time it took to finish the complex).
If you’re training to get leaner and need to address your anaerobic metabolism, simply use more reps. The rest to work ratio on these should be close to 1:1 or even less.
If you’re trying to improve your Olympic lifts, then use a specific complex each day to target your weak points. Do 2 sets of no more than 5 reps for your O-lift, and 5-8 reps for everything else.
The Clean Complex V 2.0
This complex is extremely technical in the early portion and a good opportunity to focus on a portion of your clean technique.
- If you suck pulling from the floor, concentrate on keeping the bar tight as you move to your knees.
- If you’re shaky in the jerk, focus on sticking each jerk in great position.
The idea is to focus on the technical aspects early in the complex before your legs get fried. It’s hard to improve a skill when you’re doubled over in pain or puking in your sneakers.
Here’s the complex in action:
The Snatch Complex V 2.0
I avoid making most people I coach pull from the floor in the snatch. It’s a position that requires a ton of mobility, and if you happen to be tall, forget about it.
This complex is no different – rather than pulling from the floor, you should pull from the hang, and work on developing your transitions around the knee and at the top of the second pull.
Transitions in Olympic lifting are areas in which the movement seriously changes.
There are three distinct transitions in the lifts:
- From the floor.
- Around the knee and into the second pull.
- At the top of the second pull.
This complex addresses the second and third transition of the lifts. To work on the first transition, all you’d need to do is take the bar to the floor for some snatches at the beginning of the complex. See the video below.
The Beast Complex
Remember how I called the end of the clean complex a grind? Consider this a diamond tipped, industrial strength, super grinder. Your goal for this complex is to simply get through it.
This complex is perfectly suited for athletes that are seeking strength above all else, as there are no technique-heavy Olympic lifts, unlike the previous two complexes.
As a special challenge, I like to do this complex in an ascending/descending ladder format: do 1 rep of each on the first set, 2 reps of each on the second, and so on until you reach 5 reps. Then start again at 5 reps and work your way down to 1.
You’ll hit 30 total reps of each movement and finish your workout soaked in sweat and awesomeness.
Wrapping it Up
Fair warning, if you’re of the “Get in shape in 15 minutes or less!” ilk, these complexes are not for you. Then again, you probably wouldn’t be reading T Nation if you did hail from that shallow end of the gene pool.
But if you’re a hard-working SOB and your aim is to challenge your body and mind to become a better athlete, a better lifter, and a stronger person, then start here. Attack these complexes, get your ass handed to you, and then get back up and attack again.
Suffer, persevere, and conquer – and once you’ve mastered these, use the framework to create your own complex that will precisely target the areas that you need to improve.
I’ve worked with lots of athletes over the years with the issues I just described, and I’ve found alternative exercises that helped them get bigger and stronger. I’m able to do this with a concept I call joint-friendly lifting.
Joint-friendly lifts are simply creative variations that aren’t as hard on the joints as their traditional counterparts. They allow serious lifters and athletes to work around their limitations without compromising the results they get from their training.
Before I get into the specific exercises, I want to wave the obligatory caution flag: Before switching out the tried-and-true lifts for the ones I show here, make sure the aches and pains you have aren’t caused by suboptimal exercise technique, poor program design, or too much training with too little recovery.
I also want to mention an article I wrote a few months ago called “Making Gains with Pain.” Today’s article shows you how to work around your pain and limitations. The earlier piece shows you how to alleviate that pain. I know I’m biased, but I recommend it as a complement to the one you’re about to read.
The kettlebell folks have popularized the pistol squat (shown below). But I rarely use pistols with my athletes, especially those with back pain related to disc problems, since they force a lot of unnecessary spinal flexion. Also, pistols don’t allow the glutes to activate as much as the variation shown above due to the position of the torso. Glute activation is important, since it helps reduce the load on the spine and increases stabilization of the knee joint.
The best way to add load to a one-legged squat is to put on a weight vest. This will increase the intensity of the exercise without adding stress to your bad back.
I absolutely love sled training. I use it with just about everyone who walks through our doors. It’s especially valuable for those who have knee problems and those who have back trouble. I’ve found these athletes can move heavy loads on the sled with no added stress on their painful areas.
My favorite sled exercises:
Sled dragging with the hand position shown in the photo below is much safer than using a waist or shoulder harness for people who have back issues. Be sure to maintain good spinal alignment, and don’t allow your arms to move away from your sides.
This is a great way to blast your quads if you have knee problems and can’t do squats, lunges, or leg extensions. It’s also a valuable exercise for knee rehab, thanks to the terminal knee-extension action it requires.
No sled? No problem — just get a big tire from a junkyard.
I’m not saying tire flips are a bad exercise. But I am predicting that many of the people who do them will end up paying for some back surgeon’s new Porsche. There are no bad exercises, just bad applications.
This is another of our go-to exercises for building strength and increasing work capacity without putting excess stress on the knees and backs of our athletes.
You want to keep your back straight, with your hips more or less level to your shoulders. Athletes with bad backs need to be especially cognizant of their back position, maintaining a neutral spine and avoiding spinal flexion as they step forward.
For building strength, stack up a sled and push it for 20 to 40 yards. To improve conditioning, use a plate push (as shown above) for 50 to 100 yards.
As with sled dragging, this is another exercise we use with almost everyone we train. But it’s especially valuable for athletes and clients who need posterior-chain work but can’t do the traditional hip-extension exercises.
Hold as much weight as you can without discomfort on top of your shin, as shown below.
The movement is straightforward. With the heel of your working leg on a bench or step, contract your glutes and hamstrings to elevate your hips off the floor, until your body forms a straight line from the knee of your working leg to your shoulders. Do all your reps with that leg, then switch.
By limiting the range of motion, the floor press also limits stress on the injured shoulder. Many of our athletes who experience pain during and after bench presses find they can floor press big weights without discomfort.
The reason it works for people who can’t perform overhead lifts is simple: It’s not overhead. It allows heavy loads and, as a bonus, requires the core muscles to control and resist rotation throughout the range of motion.
This is, as you probably guessed, the pulling version of the angled shoulder press. And like that exercise, it forces your core muscles to work as you struggle to stay upright as the weight pulls you forward. Execution is simple enough: stand in front of the lat-pulldown station and pull the bar to your upper chest.
You’ve heard this one hundreds of times: “Train smarter, not harder.” In my opinion, the saying should be updated to this: “Train smarter and harder.”
If you currently suffer from back, knee, and/or shoulder pain, you have no choice but to train smarter than the average lifter in your gym. But you also need to train harder to recover from your injury, and to prevent a recurrence. With joint-friendly lifts, it’s possible to do both.
But even if you have no injuries, joint-friendly lifts are a pretty good way to help you maintain that winning streak. Not only are they easier on your most vulnerable joints, they provide new, interesting, and challenging ways to build muscle and improve your strength, athleticism, and work capacity.
Assuming, of course, you’re interesting in that sort of thing…
by Chris Shugart
My lungs screamed, my muscles burned, and I was, quite literally, seeing black spots dance before my eyes like some lame Windows screensaver from 1998.
I glanced at the clock.
No. Fucking. Way. Ninety seconds had passed by already?
It was time for another set.
I grabbed the bar for set number four, dug deep mentally, and pushed through another round. About a minute later my “off-day” cardio was done. It had only taken around nine minutes total, yet I was wiped out. I actually looked forward to some foam rolling because it meant I got to lie down on the floor.
I glanced over at the cardio area. I saw three beer-bellied men pounding away on the treadmills. I could practically hear their knees and ankles barking with the abuse.
Two women were behind them on the ellipticals. They were talking and laughing and had probably burned more body fat getting out of their minivans than they had while lollygagging on the hamster machines.
Finally I looked over at the stairmill. That’s a torture device of a cardio machine, no doubt, and the guy on it was sweating through his shirt. He’d been up there a while, so he was clearly “good” at the stairmill… all 150 emaciated pounds of him. No thanks.
Now, let’s compare that to my recent “cardio” workouts, if you could technically even call them that. Depending on the load, in about ten minutes I could…
• Move 12,000 pounds. (An O-bar with 55 pounds: 100 pounds; 5 movements for 6 reps each, repeated for 4 cycles = 12,000 pounds)
• Increase my training volume
• Boost strength endurance
• Increase caloric expenditure and melt body fat
• Take advantage of the EPOC effect (Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption)
• Increase work capacity and overall conditioning.
I could also…
• Not risk losing any muscle
• Not be bored out of my skull like the giggling guinea pigs over in the cardio area.
So what the hell was I doing? Something that’s been around a long time and that’s gone by a lot of names in the past. Today we simply call them complexes.
Complexes: Not So Complex
Quick review: A complex is where you pick up a barbell, perform several reps of an exercise with it, then move right into another exercise, then another, and another, and maybe one or two more. Then you see black spots, get all ripped ‘n shit, and bang swimsuit models.
Okay, okay, Coach Dan John has a much better definition: “A complex is a series of lifts performed back to back where you finish the reps of one lift before moving on to the next lift. The bar only leaves your hands or touches the floor after all of the lifts are completed.”
Alwyn Cosgrove is even more concise: “A complex is a circuit using one piece of equipment, one load, and one space.”
So maybe you perform front squats for 8 reps, then push presses for 8 reps, then bent-over rows for 8, and finally back squats for 8 — all without putting the damn bar down.
It’s brutal. Better still, it’s brutally effective for fat loss and improving all the physical qualities I listed in my snazzy intro.
But the best thing? You can’t do it while talking on the fucking cell phone or otherwise “going through the motions.” It requires focus, discipline, hard work, and quite possibly a touch of insanity.
Make no mistake, if anyone says this is easy you can bet they’ve never actually tried it.
So When Do You Use Complexes?
• As a replacement for boring-ass cardio during fat loss phases
• As a conditioning tool for sports
• As an off-day “bonus” workout if you just feel like going to the gym when you’re not scheduled to (OCD, anyone?)
• As part of an unloading/deloading week.
Here’s my personal favorite split using complexes:
Monday: Upper body weight training
Tuesday: Lower body weight training and abs
Wednesday: Complex day, plus foam rolling, extra NEPA, etc.
Thursday: Upper body weight training
Friday: Lower body weight training and abs
Saturday: Complex day
Complex training sounds almost like one of those infomercials that run at 3AM: “In only 10 minutes twice per week you can build that toned body you’ve always wanted! But wait, there’s more!”
But of course it takes more than twenty minutes a week to get “toned,” and complexes don’t fold up and store neatly under your bed, or sell for only three easy payments of $19.95. But when added to your favorite bodybuilding program they can really take you to the next level of physique development.
So let’s learn a few, shall we?
4 Killer Komplexes
Ready to add complexes to your program? Here are four good ones to get you started. And by “good” I mean you’re going to cry for mama. I’ve also tossed in some words of wisdom from our coaches who’ve used complexes successfully with their clients and physique athletes.
Cosgrove’s Evil 8
“Complexes elevate metabolism beyond anything you’ve ever experienced before,” says Alwyn Cosgrove.
Sounds good to us, but how much weight do you use? “Just remember,” says Cosgrove, “it’s a metabolic stimulus, not a strength or hypertrophy stimulus, so be conservative. MMA pro David Loiseau uses only 85-95 pounds when doing the complexes I prescribe for him.”
That said, don’t go too light, either. A good “Cosgrove rule of thumb” is that if you’re not questioning why in the hell you’re doing these exercises, or convincing yourself that two circuits is enough, you’re not going heavy enough.
The basic rule is to use the heaviest weight you can on the weakest movement in the complex. For example, if the complex contains an overhead press and a back squat, you’d use the weight you can handle on the overhead press, not the squat. Otherwise you’d get crushed, and girls would laugh.
But honestly, loading doesn’t matter much. If you’re de-conditioned or you fall into that dreaded category of “big ‘n strong but outta shape,” then you’ll be tortured with a naked Olympic bar… and maybe even a broomstick. You’ll figure out loading anyway during your first complex workout, so don’t think about it so damn much and just go do it.
Crazy idea, I know.
Here’s one of the most effective Cosgrovian complexes:
On round one, perform 6 reps of each exercise, moving from one exercise to the next, never letting go of the bar, never resting. Remember, you’ll finish all six reps of each exercise before moving to the next one.
Rest 90 seconds after the first circuit, then perform 5 reps of each in the next circuit; rest 90 seconds, 4 reps of each; rest 90 seconds, 3 reps of each; rest 90 seconds, 2 reps of each; rest 90 seconds, and then do 1 rep of each.
Cosgrove says that the entire workout should take about 12 minutes, not counting the time you spend sobbing like a little girl in a purdy pink dress.
Tumminello’s Weight Plate Metabolic Circuit
I learned this one from Coach Nick Tumminello. I like it because it uses a single Olympic weight plate. Buy a rusty one at a garage sale, throw it into your back yard, and you can have a killer workout anytime you want.
Tumminello uses this complex when he trains Baltimore Ravens TE, Quinn Sypniewski. Think you can hang with big Quinn? Then perform the complex below five times through with only 90 seconds between each round.
Overhead Squat x 6-8
Swings (like kettlebell swings) x 6-8
Bentover Row x 8-10
Reverse Lunge and Twist x 8-10 total
Diagonal Chops x 6-8 each side
Note: If you missed it, check out our full review of Coach Tumminello’s DVD on complexes HERE.
Waterbury’s Submission Complex
Last time I went to California to visit Chad Waterbury I watched him submit an MMA champion in record time. No, it wasn’t an armbar; it was a complex that make this well-conditioned athlete tap out.
Waterbury loves complexes. He notes: “If you’re ever short on time, use complexes. If you ever want to burn a little extra fat by boosting your excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), use complexes. Or if you want to enhance your anaerobic endurance, use complexes. They can also be used as general physical preparedness (GPP) boosters after your workouts or for additional training sessions each week. I’m a big advocate of complexes, and you should be too!”
Here’s one of Chad’s favorites. I like this one because, unlike most complexes, it uses dumbbells instead of a barbell, adding some cool variety.
Reverse Lunges, 6 reps on each leg
Romanian Deadlift, 12 reps
Good Morning, 12 reps
Front Squat, 6 reps
Military Press, 6 reps
Bentover Row, 6 reps
Floor Press, 12 reps
Rest 60 seconds and repeat 2-4 more times depending on your testicular fortitude.
Ferruggia’s Timed Complex
“For those of you who’ve never done complexes, get ready for a whole new in-the-gym experience!” says Jason Ferruggia.
The goal of this complex is speed. Start a timer and perform it once through, 6 reps for every movement. The next time you perform it, try to beat that time.
Start with a 45-pound bar for this one. After a few workouts and improved times, add load.
Once you master the empty Olympic bar, how much weight should you add? Ferruggia says, “Ninety-five fucking pounds will be absolute fucking hell for even the strongest and most-well conditioned fucking warriors!”
Note: “Fucking” added because that’s the way Jason actually talks. No fucking kidding.
Final Tips & Wrap-Up
Here’s a good tip from Dan John: Print out the complexes in large type, then stick it to the wall in front of you or place it on the floor. That way you won’t forget a movement in a longer complex series.
And by “forget” I mean skip it because you’re being a weenie and/or your heart is about to burst from your chest, skip across the floor, and scare the shit out of the gay guys in the Zumba class.
Now, can you make up your own complexes? You bet. Just try to pick exercises that flow smoothly into one another. But truthfully, just about any combo works. As Waterbury notes, you’re only limited by your imagination.
Try two of these complexes this week. Just add them to your “off” days or cardio-only days. The hamsters on the treadmills will elevate their metabolisms just watching you do them!
Models: Tim Smith, Andrew Barker
Location: Gold’s Gym, Abilene, TX
Don’t Be A Hamster
Baltimore Ravens tight end Quinn Sypniewski performing a Nick Tumminello complex.
© 1998 — 2009 Testosterone, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
by John Romaniello
It’s impossible not to notice trends in the fitness world. The majority of these—like the ridiculous Ab Lounge—last for a year or so and then are either forgotten or shoved underneath the bed next to the dust balls and discarded dirty underwear.
But some trends are actually beneficial and become staples in the training programs of thousands of lifters.
Take weight-training circuits (also called “complexes”) for fat-loss. When programmed properly, they have the potential to strip off fat faster than any other protocol, but when half-assed or shoddily constructed they become a giant waste of time.
This article will teach you how to set up your own advanced complexes to burn the most fat without looking like a pansy.
Wait. What’s a Complex?
It’s pretty straightforward: cycle through a series of exercises without putting the bar down, transitioning smoothly from movement to movement, and performing all the assigned reps on one exercise before moving to the next.
I thought all us “coaches” had a fairly good handle on it, but I was wrong.
My first indication was when I read a workout in a newsstand magazine. This complex, written by a guy who had enough letters behind his name to know better, took a completely ass-backwards approach. I wrote it off as a fluke.
Less than a week after that, I was in the gym and saw a student athlete muscle his way through what I can only assume was his version of a home-brew complex. And by that, I mean he would do a bunch of reps on one exercise, and then a bunch on another, with no real thought to the order.
Despite the great examples that can be found, like this article , I still see people absolutely ruining themselves in the gym.
Here’s the issue.
Efficacy vs. Expediency
The trend right now is fast-paced, interval-type weight training workouts designed for fat-loss. This is a good thing, and truth be told, these type of workouts make up a good part of my clients’ programming for fat-loss.
Overall, the idea is to do as much work as possible in the shortest period of time, focusing on training speed and density.
However, when people randomly throw exercises together to create a complex, they’re often not really paying attention to anything other than the idea of complexes. They’re too focused on doing more work in less time to lose fat and haven’t even considered if the exercises they picked were effective.
Let’s say you have a guy doing the following complex:
He’s doing a lot of big movements, but is he really getting much out of some of them? Hopefully the deadlift is his strongest movement, but he can’t really use a weight that’s challenging since he’s limited by the overhead press, which is undoubtedly weaker.
In terms of “doing a lot of stuff” in not a lot of time, this guy is on point. He’s veryexpedient. But he’s missing out on a lot since the complex isn’t very effective. Or at least not as effective as it could be.
But if this guy used a different set up, he could work with a weight that’s challenging for all parts of the complex and would get significantly better results.
Here’s where a lot of coaches and I part ways. Many trainers who prescribe complexes are OK with the notion that your weakest exercise limits your strongest one. I consider it a limitation of basic complex design that can be completely eliminated with a bit of forethought and some ingenuity.
Going back to the example above, the weight is incredibly light for our guy to deadlift, but perfect for the overhead press. Popular training literature suggests that we shouldn’t care about that, since the complex is not intended to challenge you in the same way that traditional weight training is. That is, an overly-light deadlift is of no concern, because we are deadlifting just to lose fat.
I’m calling bullshit.
Instead, what if we did twice as many deadlifts as overhead presses or only used exercises where the weight was appropriate for the same number of reps on each?
What I’m about to show you aren’t regular complexes. They’re advanced. Or as I like to call them, Complexes 2.0.
But first, let’s look at some of the problems with current complexes.
1) Too much focus on uniformity of reps.
I have no idea where it came from, but there seems to be some unwritten rule that when you perform a complex, you need to do the same number of reps for each exercise. Sure, it’s one way to do it, but it’s only effective if that same weight is equally challenging on all of the selected exercises.
2) Improper exercise selection
It’s more effective to have the weight be equally challenging on all exercises. So if you’re not going with a variable rep method like I mentioned above, it’s better to select exercises that require an equal level of intensity to perform.
3) Improper exercise order
I can’t stress enough the importance of properly ordering exercises for maximizing the effectiveness of your complexes. Throwing presses, cleans, squats and deads together in any haphazard order is just stupid.
Roman’s Rules for Designing Complexes
Rule 1: When arranging exercises, “high skill” exercises come first.
Exercises should be performed in a descending order from the most demanding to the least demanding. I mean, why the hell would you put a hang clean in the middle of your complex? Also, by “demanding” I don’t just mean the hardest exercises. I mean those requiring the highest level of technical proficiency.
High skill exercises include the Full Clean, Full Snatch, High Pull From the Floor, and Overhead Squat.
Moderate skill exercises include the Hang Clean, Hang Snatch, High Pull From the Hang, Power Clean, Power Snatch, Push Press, Deadlift, and Front Squat.
Low skill exercises include the Bent-over Row, Overhead Press, Lunge Variations, Back Squat, and Dumbbell Squat.
Rule 2: Use a non-competing exercise order.
Non-competing exercises are those that don’t rely on the same muscles. The benefit of this protocol is simple: while one group is working, the others are resting. Given that complexes work with series of muscle groups at once, don’t get too hung up on specifics here. Generally, try to alternate a pushing exercise with a pulling exercise, or an upper body movement with a lower body one.
Rule 3: Never select a weight heavier than your 10RM on your weakest exercise
I believe that complexes should be short. The entire draw of complexes is that they’re brutal but brief. By imposing a 10RM weight limit based on our weakest exercise in a given complex, we ensure that the complex will generally stay in the area of 6-8 reps, which I believe is the most effective range.
Methods of Complex Execution
Given everything I’ve told you about the right and wrong way to set up complexes, it seems reasonable that there are some contradictory ideas, especially if you’re used to the “old method” of just doing random exercises in a random order for a pre-set number of reps.
Instead, here are two advanced methods for extreme masochists looking for extreme fat-loss.
Rep-Based Method: Select exercises you can do for roughly the same number of reps with a given weight. Assume you want to do complexes with roughly 5-6 reps. Choose a series of exercises that you can do for roughly 12 reps (not necessarily your 12RM) with the same weight, and set up your complex according to the rules.
Weight-Based Method: Select the exercises you want to perform in the complex as based on the above rules. Then, test your absolute max number of reps on each exercise. For the complex, do 50 to 60 percent of your max number of reps for each exercise. In this way, you might get a complex that requires you to do six overhead presses followed by 12 front squats followed by eight bent-over rows.
Both of these methods are highly effective. Here are a few examples to get you started.
Sample Complex 1 — The Rep-Based Method
Here’s a complex I’ve been using for both my athletes and myself. (I’ll use myself as an example.)
I selected exercises I’m about equally strong on, could do for 12-15 reps, and chose a weight of 175 pounds. For me, those exercises were:
It’s only five exercises, but I’m using the same fairly heavy weight for each. Now, I’m not the strongest guy in the world, but for me, this was absolutely brutal.
Note the order of exercises: I started with the one that required the most technical skill. From there, I alternated non-competing muscles. Generally I go upper/lower, but in the case of moving from the bent-over row to the push press, it’s obviously just moving from a pulling exercise to a pressing one.
In terms of number of reps, I normally aim for about six to start.
However, we’ve done all sorts of fun variations at my gym including:
5 sets with 90 seconds rest between.
Descending pyramids (6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1) with 75 seconds rest in between
Descending-Ascending Pyramids ( 4, 3, 2, 1, 1, 2, 3, 4). Rest periods are 45s, 30s, 20s, 5s, 5s, 20s, 30s
Keep in mind there are dozens of ways to set up your rep protocol.
Sample Complex 2 — The Weight-Method
This is a complex designed for one of my female soccer players. Lauren is attractive, strong, and never complains—the kind of client that makes me love my job.
For her complex, we set the weight at 55 pounds and pre-tested her maxes for the following exercises:
Here’s how we set it up:
|Exercise||Pre-Tested Max||Prescribed Complex|
|Full Snatch||22 reps||12 reps|
|Alternating Reverse Lunge||15 reps per leg||8 reps per leg|
|Push Press||14 reps||7 reps|
|Bent-over Row||9 reps||5 reps|
|Back Squat||17 reps||9 reps|
In this example, Lauren is obviously weakest in the bent-over row. If we were to follow normal complex protocol, we’d just do the same number of reps for each exercise, most likely five reps.
But in this case, she could do nearly twice that number of reps on almost every other exercise. Sure, the old method would still be moderately effective for fat loss, but with these adjustments we have optimized it.
Instead of being limited by her weakest exercise, we have set things up in a way that challenges Lauren supremely on every part of the complex.
Rather than focus on arbitrary prescriptions for reps, we allow for a little leeway and have to think a bit more during the complex. It’s harder, more involved and infinitely more effective.
Finally, once again, please note the order of the exercises: we start with a highly technical exercise (Full Snatch) and then proceed to work non-competing body parts. This allows Lauren to recover faster and continue to work harder. Overall, the entire complex becomes more efficient.
Sure, you can probably drop a good deal of fat with “regular” complexes; after all, they do force you to do a lot of work in little time.
However, if you want to take your fat loss to the next level or challenge yourself in a whole new way, why settle for just expediency?
Instead of just tossing a barbell around, put in a few minutes of planning, follow the rules and methods described above and make your complexes both expedient andeffective.
The Ab Lounge: Probably more useful for sex than for getting a six-pack.
You can (hopefully) deadlift more than you overhead press. Why use the same reps for each?
Stop using pansy weights and start loading up the bar.
Technical lifts come first. That way you don’t catch the bar awkwardly and potentially hurt yourself.
About John Romaniello
John Romaniello is the owner of Roman Fitness Systems, LLC, a personal training and online coaching service based in New York. In addition to training, Roman maintains a website where he blogs about fitness, nerdy stuff, sex, pop-culture and himself. He can be reached at Roman@RomanFitnessSytems.com.
© 1998 — 2009 Testosterone, LLC. All Rights Reserved.