I greatly admire my peers who film themselves doing entire lifting complexes while trying to coach the viewer through it at the same time. It usually ends up being a huffity, puffity piece of footage that sounds ever-so-slightly like an excerpt from a porno: “And then [pant] when you’re done with [pant] rows you [pant] move right into [pant] snatches.” (Case in point: my adorable yet dangerous friend Neghar Fonooni’s hotel-gym complex.)
It’s charming, and these people absolutely earned their breathlessness: To qualify, complexes require that you perform two or more exercises in a sequence with the same load and implement, without setting it down to rest between exercises (though you can and should rest between rounds). They’re tough but worth it: You’ll burn fat, maintain muscle, and increase endurance. You’ll also learn what it is to want to live.
I’m a big fan of complexes as finishers to my own workouts. Or, on days when ain’t nobody got time for that, a complex will serve as the entirety of my workout. (A favorite of mine: The Bear.)
To walk you through the when’s, why’s, and how’s of putting your own complex together, I interviewed one of the reigning kings of complexes and a very funny friend of mind, Wil Fleming, CSCS, director of sport performance for Force Fitness and Performance in Bloomington, Ind. For another great article he wrote on the topic, check out “Complexes: Different, Harder, and Better” on T-Nation. But first, read on for a simple introduction to a complex topic. (Make it all the way to the bottom and I’ve got a surprise for you.)
Jen: Why do complexes?
Wil: Complexes are one of my favorite tools so asking “why do complexes” is like asking Vin Diesel’s mother why you should see all of the Fast and Furious movies. The answer might come off a little biased.
Complexes are a super-diverse tool, so no matter your training goal, there is likely a complex for you to use. Any movement worth training can be put in a complex.
The diversity and multitude of uses means that complexes could be a part of your workout or the whole shebang. If you’re pressed for time, doing a complex can get you through a full-body blast of a workout in under 15 minutes. In short, why not complexes?
I have been doing complexes since I first walked into a weightroom 15 years ago, so my training has always incorporated complexes. Being efficient and getting a lot of work in a small amount of time is important to getting the most out of training, and complexes are the most efficient way to train for a multitude of goals.
Jen: When should I do complexes?
Wil: If your goal is to lose fat, you can put complexes at the start or finish of a workout to crank up your metabolism going into or out of your workout. If your goal is to get stronger, you can use complexes to make movements that are normally not difficult super difficult by pre-fatiguing your muscles. If your goal is conditioning or strength endurance, your training session could be stacking multiple complexes next to each other and making every set last almost one full minute!
Bigger picture — this is important — you can start doing complexes as soon as you possess the movement patterns included in a specific complex. I wouldn’t recommend doing a complex that contains any movements with which you are not already familiar, but if you can squat, hinge, push, and pull, you have the patterns required to do most any complex you can come up with.
Jen: What implements should I use?
Wil: Any implement. I do most of my complexes with a barbell because I am an Olympic lifter, but I’ve also done complexes with dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags, suspension trainers, and even just a plate (weightlifting type, not dinner type).
For me, choosing an implement comes down to the time, place, and need. As an Olympic lifter, the barbell makes the most sense for most occasions, but when it comes to fat loss and conditioning, nothing can beat using a kettlebell.
Jen: What movements should I include? How many sets and reps?
Wil: Most recommendations for complexes sound like “three sets of five” or some other monotonous combo like that. This is all well and good and it works really well for skill work, in stuff like the Olympic lifts. Having a certain number of total reps is a good thing when you’re trying to become a technique monster, but I really like more variation when I am doing complexes.
Rather than just stick with a consistent rep scheme, I like to do things like ascending-descending pyramids. You will work from one rep of every movement up to two, then three, and so on until you reach the maximum number you feel comfortable completing. Then you would work your way back down the pyramid and finally complete your last set with one rep of each movement again.
In terms of selecting movements, I think it is best to just go with the basics. Select a hinge, squat, push, and pull and you will have a four-exercise complex that might look something like this: Romanian deadlift, front squat, push press, bent-over row.
The beauty of that complex is I didn’t even have to name an implement: You could do this with a barbell, dumbbell, or kettlebell and have a completely different experience with each.
To expand your complex, add some explosive movements like an Olympic lift variation or two.
Lastly, when selecting exercises, there is a nice feeling that comes about when selecting exercises that absolutely dominate a movement pattern. Back squats with 110 pounds may not be hard on most days, but if you put them in a complex after you deadlift, full clean, and lunge, they’d be an absolute bear to complete.
Jen: What are the drawbacks of complexes?
Wil: Complexes are just a part of the fitness toolbox and therefore the only drawback would be if you exclusively used complexes for every part of your fitness puzzle. Like the implements used to complete them, they cannot become bigger than the fitness goal. Use them when you need an extra kick in the pants, but use a lot of other tools as part of an overall awesome program.
Bonus: Wil designed a complex especially for this site! Watch him demo the “Survival of the Fittest Complex” below, then give it a go yourself. All it takes are two light- to medium-weight dumbbells and, as I said earlier, a strong will to live.
(Had he spoken to the camera throughout, he definitely would have been breathless.)
Find more from Wil at his website or Facebook page, and look out for his Complete Olympic Lifting DVD, which will be available mid-January. (He’ll be back here soon to talk more about the Olympic lifts.)