Ahh . . . the complex, my second obsession when I first became a personal trainer. During my first year as a trainer, I had been introduced to olympic lifting - which, was my first obsession - from a work colleague and had become a staple in my programs for a few months. At the time I was also reading a ton of stuff on T-Nation , and I came across a post on Complex training by Dan John, about a new way of doing cardio . . . with a barbell.
I was immediately drawn to this way of conditioning; it combined my love of big barbell lifts, but done in a way that I worked on my condition, because you could make the sequence pretty gruelling by utilizing 4 or even 5 lifts. At the time I was playing hockey a couple of times a week and I'd try to do one or two cardio interval sessions on the elliptical, which I hated - so, this was something I latched onto quickly.
Plus, it was performed using weights; for a skinny hard gainer, this appealed to me even more. This way I could build - or at the very least keep - the hard earned muscle I had built, maybe improve on my olympic lifts and work on my conditioning.
So, what is a complex?
A complex is a series of 2 or exercises done consecutively with the same weight throughout the sequence and generally without dropping the weight between exercises. Originally designed with barbells, but can be used with dumbbells, kettlebells or even can be done with body weight. They're quite versatile; you can use them as a conditioning component at the end of your workout, strength/power combination set, as part of your warm up or, if you're time crunched, they're a great way to get in a quick total body session.
Besides equipment, repetitions can be utilized in different ways to work on different training stimuli. To challenge strength and power in big movements like snatch, clean and jerk, squat or deadlift - do movements for 1-3 reps each. To get more of a cardio effect, you'll want to do higher reps, so that the sequence takes longer; generally though, I never program more than 8 reps per exercise.
Javorek: The King of Complexes
Before I go any further, I would be remised if I didn't give credit to the creator of complexes - Istvan Javorek. A legendary weightlifting coach from Romania, who eventually moved to the USA and coached elite athletes. Originally, the complex was created as a time efficient form of density training, utilizing big barbell movements and weightlifting accessory lifts. The original Javorek complex was:
Barbell upright row: x 6
Barbell high pull snatch: x 6
Barbell behind the head squat and push press: x 6
Barbell behind the head good morning: x 6
Barbell bent-over row: x 6
This is a complex that I have only done with myself and its quite gruelling. I've never had a client perform this sequence, though as some of the exercises are advanced movements done by weightlifters as accessory movements.
The Ins and outs of designing a complex
The 5 considerations to make when designing a complex are:
1) Exercise Selection
Use only exercises you feel that you have mastered. Complexes are pretty taxing, so if you're using exercises that are fairly new and your technique is off - you could put yourself at risk for injury.
2) Number of Exercises
How many exercises will be chosen? I would start with two or three exercises to start and build up from there. The more exercises in the sequence, the harder and longer the set will be.
Use between 1-3 reps if you want to challenge strength and power in barbell movements or use 4- 8 reps if you want to work on conditioning. You can play with different rep schemes within the same workout, too, like using a rep countdown where you start at 5 reps and add a little weight each set, but do less reps each set. You could do the opposite as well and do more reps each set, but reduce the weight.
The most important aspect to designing a complex is the sequencing of exercises. You want the complex to flow, so choose exercises that you can move together smoothly - for example, a squat to overhead press or a deadlift variation to a row.
Finally, figure out how many sets you want to do. I would do anywhere from 2 to 5, depending on the volume of repetitions and how much work you have done in the workout - you don't want to do too much volume. I would do 2 to 3 sets if you're doing 6 to 8 reps and anywhere from 3-5 sets if doing 1 to 3 reps per set.
Examples of Complexes
This is a pretty tough barbell sequence that utilizes some pretty big lifts:
Hang Clean x 3
Front Squat x 3
Push press x 3
Romanian Deadlift x 3
Row x 3
This sequence I mix using a kettlebell and a body weight exercise. I really only use push ups because they can sequence in nicely at the end. The video shows 3 reps, but that was just for time - I would normally do this style of complex for 6-8 reps
Reverse lunge x 6
Bent over row x 6
Swing x 6
Yoga Push up x 6
This sequence I would also do for higher reps, I just limited it for the video.
Overhead press x 8
Reverse lunge x 8
Bent over row x 8
Single leg deadlift x 8
Comment below if you have any questions, concerns or, if you think I'm full of shit.
1) John, Dan, 2009/2/9, Rebuild Yourself with Complexes, www.t-nation.com