Here's what you need to know...
• Max strength makes everything better, from hypertrophy to fat loss.
• Really heavy, strength-based complexes will challenge your work capacity and your manhood.
• The bar must be in your hands for at least 15 seconds to stimulate muscle growth.
• A 300-pound complex, not to mention a 408-pound complex, is jaw dropping (see the videos below).
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!