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.

Categories Barbell Moves
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

Movements: Power clean, split jerk (each leg), front squat, reverse lunge.

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

Movements: Snatch pull from below knee, power snatch from above knee, overhead squats, good morning, bent over row.

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:

  1. From the floor.
  2. Around the knee and into the second pull.
  3. 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

Movements: Clean grip muscle snatch, push press, back squats, step-up, Romanian deadlift, barbell rollouts.

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.

Good luck!