My lungs screamed, my muscles burned, and I was seeing black spots dance before my eyes. I glanced at the clock. No way. Ninety seconds had passed by already? It was time for another set.
I grabbed the bar for set number four, dug deep, 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 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.
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.
All without the risk of muscle.
So what 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.
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.
- 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
- Sunday: Off
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?
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.
"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:
- Romanian Deadlift
- Bentover Row
- Power Clean
- Front Squat
- Push Press
- Back Squat
- Good Morning
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.
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
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.
"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.
- Hang Clean
- Front Squat
- Hang Snatch
- Overhead Squat
- Front Press
- Bentover Row
- Romanian Deadlift
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!"
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