Master the Complex
A complex is where you string together a series of big lifts without resting between exercises. Basically, you perform several exercises in a row without ever letting go of the bar.
Anyone who's tried barbell complexes dreads them. Maybe it's the searing pain coupled with a hellacious lung burn. But if you're a dedicated lifter, you're likely not averse to a little pain, right?
- Complexes burn fat by increasing EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) which elevates your metabolic rate a bit for up to 36 hours after training.
- They improve your work capacity. This will bump up your ability to replenish high-energy phosphates and ATP for anaerobic exercise. A better work capacity means gaining the ability to do more work in less time, which can allow for increased training density without a loss of technique quality. And you know what that means? More gains.
- They improve strength-endurance. The time under tension is longer with complexes (typically longer than a minute) which can improve endurance. This ties into work capacity and improving aerobic mechanisms.
Complexes as Main Lifts
Complexes aren't just finishers. They can be used as your primary workout for the day. Here are three variations that emphasize maximal strength.
Lower-Body Complex: Deadlift, Power Clean, Front Squat
Reps of 5-4-3-2-1. Rest two minutes between rounds.
You'd start with five reps of each lift without stopping. Rest two minutes. Then you'd do four reps of each lift without stopping. Rest two minutes. Do three reps of each lift. Rest. And so on.
Now here's the kicker: Add weight after each round, building to a heavy set.
The goal here is to reach maximal load, so keep in mind there's less emphasis on "getting a burn" and breathing heavy. You should be fully recovered between sets.
Upper-Body Complex: Row, Hang Muscle Clean, Push Press
Add weight each round, building to a heavy set. Reps of 5-5-5-5. Rest two minutes between rounds.
Do five reps of each exercise without stopping, then rest two minutes. Continue that pattern for a total of four rounds.
Full-Body Complex: Deadlift, Hang Power Clean, Thruster
Reps of 5-5-5-5-5. Rest two minutes between rounds.
Add weight each round for five rounds, building to a heavy set.
Complexes as Finishers
Using complexes as a "finisher" allows us to sneak in a bit of conditioning and pump work at the end of a strength session.
For CrossFitters, doing strength-only work is usually tough. Mentally, they don't feel like they "got enough" during the workout, so simply adding a complex that complements the goal of the session can be an effective strategy.
Here are some examples:
Lower-Body Finisher: Romanian Deadlift, Hang Power Clean, Front Squat, Front-Rack Reverse Lunge
Do 4-5 rounds of 6-8 reps per exercise (6-8 reps on each leg for the reverse lunge). Rest two minutes between rounds. Do all sets with a moderate but challenging weight.
Upper-Body Finisher: Barbell Row, Hang Muscle Clean, Push Press, Barbell Row
Do 4-5 rounds of 6-8 reps per movement. Rest two minutes between rounds.
Full-Body Finisher: Deadlift, Power Clean, Front Squat, Push Press, Back Squat, Barbell Row
Do 3-4 rounds of 8 reps per exercise. Rest three minutes between rounds.
These finishers are less "complex" than the ones above since there are fewer movements involved. In this case, you'd use only two exercises for the complex with higher reps each set. These LOOK simple, but if you choose the right weight and avoid resting, you'll be winded.
Many of the same benefits are there, but loading should be much lighter and volume much higher allowing for more of a strength-endurance emphasis.
Lower-Body Complex: 1 Hang Power Clean + 2 Front Rack Reverse Lunges
Complete max reps in five minutes and rest as little as possible. Use a load that allows you to complete at least 4-5 cycles without stopping. (Hint: Go lighter than you think.)
Upper-Body Complex: 1 Hang Power Clean + 1 Push Press
Complete max reps in five minutes. Rest as little as possible. Use a load that allows you to complete 4-5 cycles without stopping.
Full-Body Complex: 8 Power Cleans + 8 Thrusters
Complete max reps in five minutes. Rest as little as possible. Use a load where you can complete unbroken sets of power cleans right into thrusters.
Notice these finishers are only five minutes. Why? Because these rely heavily on anaerobic systems and will be harder to maintain for longer durations. The goal here is to go hard and fast – completing all sets without dropping the barbell. Your loading choice should reflect that.
For the complexes used as the main lift, the goal is maximal loading with full recovery between bouts. Context is always key with a training session so make sure not to glaze over the intent.
Rest and Recovery
Complexes are a great tool, but they shouldn't be done on a whim. Allow for the proper recovery window of 48-72 hours between sessions. Though complexes with lighter loads (less demand on the nervous system) can certainly fit into that 48-hour window.
You don't need to be a high-level Olympic lifter to do these, but you should be comfortable with the exercises. If you're still learning these movements, no problem. Try them with an empty barbell where you'll still be able to reinforce technique and experience some of the benefits.