Complexes have been my favorite high-performance approach ever since I started coaching
athletes 25 years ago.
A complex, however, is not to be mistaken with common “barbell complexes”.
What’s the difference you ask?
BARBELL COMPLEXES: A combination of barbell exercises performed as one set (with no rest period between exercises). You use the same load for all exercises and normally do not put the bar down to the floor during your set. Here are two popular examples of barbell complexes.
Barbell complex #1 “The Bear”
1 x power clean
1 x front squat
1 x push press (from the front)
1 x back squat
1 x push press (from behind the neck)
This is one round, and you typically do between 5 and 7 rounds without any rest in a set.
Barbell complex #2 “Javorek complex”
6 x upright row or clean high pull
6 x muscle snatch with clean grip
6 x back squat into push press (behind the neck thruster)
6 x good morning
6 x Barbell row
Barbell complexes are more of a conditioning/anaerobic capacity development tool and can
also have a benefit on hypertrophy. They can even function as a good “warm-up” for a
weightlifting (snatch, clean & jerk) workout.
COMPLEXES: A form of combined/circuit training where you perform between 2 and 5 exercises for a similar movement pattern (or muscle groups) but with a different contraction type, load and/or velocity. Contrary to barbell complexes, you use different loads for the exercises and there is a rest period (typically 1-3 minutes) between stations.
Complexes can be adjusted to many goals; but the main reasons we use them are:
– They are an effective transfer method
– Allows you to develop more than one physical capacity at the same time
– Allows you to better develop a complex physical capacity. For example, « power » has several components (e.g., strength, strength-speed, speed-strength, reactive strength)
– Can help you transfer “strength” and/or “speed” to a sport skill (e.g., a complex of overloaded sport skill– overspeed sport skill – natural sport skill)
– We can use the first exercise in the complex to potentiate the nervous system and increase
performance on the second movement (e.g., maximum overcoming isometrics squat – loaded jump squat).
– We can use the first exercise in the complex to program and stabilize a key position in a sport skill (e.g., a complex of long duration isometric in a key position in to a sport skill)
– Complexes can be effective for hypertrophy too. For example, if you combine a strength
exercise with a medium rep hypertrophy movement and then a high rep exercise.
– We can also use them for “powerlifting” performance on the competition lifts by addressing 3 components of strength development (e.g., overload movements – max effort method – strength skill)
SOME POPULAR EXAMPLES
Before I talk about how to build complexes that will suit your goals, let’s look at some
complexes that already exist and have proven to be effective.
(named after the freak athlete, shot putter Werner Gunthor)
A1. Eccentric emphasis: 6 reps with 50% 1RM on the bar and an extra 40% 1RM on weight
releasers (the eccentric is done slowly with 90% and the concentric with 50% as explosively as possible)
3 minutes of rest
A2. Stato-dynamic emphasis: 6 reps at 60% 1RM with a 2 second pause followed by an
explosive concentric action (even trying to jump on a squat)
3 minutes of rest
A3. Yielding isometrics: 30 seconds hold at the mid-range of the movement with 70% of 1RM
3 minutes of rest
A4. Explosive reps: 6 reps with 60% done as violently fast as possible both on the eccentric and concentric.
A1.Heavy exercise: For example, a set of 3-5 squats at 85-90% of 1RM
A2. An explosive movement: For example, 5 jumps without added load and with maximum
A3. Loaded jumps: For example, 5 reps of trap bar jump squat with 20% of your max
A4. Overspeed jumps: Overspeed jumps use a band attached to the top of a power rack. You hold the stretched band with your arms and pull it down. Then jump up, using the band to jump higher and faster than normal.
Canadian descending complex
(You can also use the reverse order; it then becomes an ascending complex)
A1. Overload movement: For example, 3-5 reps of half squats from pins starting at a 100
degree knee angle with 100-120% of you full-range 1RM
A2. Heavy exercise: For example, 3-5 reps of squats at 85-90% of 1RM
A3. Strength-speed movement: For example, 3-5 reps of power clean from the hang or power snatch from the hang at 70-75% of 1RM
A4. Loaded jumps: For example, 5 reps of trap bar jump squat with 20% of your max
A5. Jump/plyometric: can be 5-10 normal jumps or 3-5 depth jumps
A1. Heavy exercise: For example, 3-5 reps of back squat at 85-90% of 1RM
1-2 minutes of rest
A2. Explosive movement: Can be either a jump/throw or loaded jumps
(named after hammer thrower Sergey Litvinov)
A1. Front squat 5-8 reps
Rest 2-3 minutes
A2. Sprint 400 meters
BUILDING YOUR OWN COMPLEX: WHAT ELEMENTS CAN BE INCLUDED?
I will re-visit this point, but one thing I want to mention right away is that I have personally
moved away from complexes that have too many exercises involved. I find that a lot of athletes lose focus when they have too many movements to perform.
Plus, the more exercises you have in a complex, the lower the number of sets you can do. For example, a 5-exercise complex can be done for two work sets, maybe three at a push. Whereas a 2 or 3-exercise complex can be done for 4 or even 5 sets. I feel that this leads to a higher quality of performance. I personally favour complexes of 3 exercises in most cases.
Ok, now that that is out of the way, let’s look at the various types of exercises you can use to
build a complex:
The use of partial variations of a “big lift” with a load ranging from 100 to
120% (or even more!) of your maximum on the full range movement. This is especially useful for athletes (to focus on specific joint angles involved in their sport) and strength athletes (to get used to handling heavier weights). It can also be used as an activation tool at the beginning of a complex when paired with an explosive movement.
This refers to using loads in the 85-95% range for 1-5 reps on a full range big basic lift.
This is obviously meant to focus on strength development.
Eccentric emphasis: This is like the overload approach in that you will handle supramaximal (or maximal) loads for at least part of the exercise. I prefer to use weight releasers for this method. This tool allows you to use more weight on the eccentric phase of the lift. You can use supramaximal loads (e.g., 110% of max on the eccentric and 70-80% on the concentric) or near maximal loads for several reps (e.g., 5 reps with 90% on the eccentric and 60% on the concentric). We typically use a slow eccentric tempo with this method, ranging from controlled (3 seconds or so) to super slow (as slow as 8 seconds).
We can also use movements like farmer’s walks, Zercher carries, overhead
walks, sled drags, prowler pushing, etc. These can be good additions to a strength complex
when paired with a big basic lift and/or a heavy partial. For that purpose, heavier/shorter
carries (10-30 meters) are favored. It can also be used a part of a hypertrophy complex with a “muscle building movement”, in which case longer carries of 50-80 meters are preferred.
Here we are talking about explosive movements with moderate loads. The best examples here are the “power” variations of the Olympic lifts (I favor from the hang or
blocks above the knees). We could also include traditional strength lifts (like squats, benches and deadlifts) with loads in the 50-70% range lifted with maximum acceleration.
These are very explosive movements performed with low loads. Good examples include loaded jump squats/trap bar jumps with 10-20% of your 1RM on the full
movement, loaded single leg or split stance jumps (e.g., Bulgarian split squat jumps, jump
lunges) with an additional 10-20% of your body weight and medicine ball throws. Typically, we keep the reps low (around 5) to avoid a significant decrease in speed.
We can also do various sprints (from starts up to 100 meters) and sprinting drills
(e.g., sprints from half kneeling position, sprints from a low push-up position, etc.). This
category can also include loaded sprints, like sled sprints, which are best done over distances of 30 meters or less and with 10-30% of your body weight added. Longer distances than that are ineffective because sled sprints train/strengthen the initial acceleration phase (torso more parallel to the floor) whereas the” top speed” and speed maintenance phase uses a more upright posture (that’s where the speed parachute can be useful).
Very popular types of exercise for complexes are the various jumps (vertical,
horizontal, lateral, unilateral, bilateral, over hurdles, etc.) and shock exercises (depth jumps, depth landing) and their upper body equivalents (like push-up projections). Depending on the type of jump/plyometric we can do anywhere from 5 reps/set (for max power exercises) up to over 30 (low intensity bounding).
Maximal overcoming isometric:
Pushing or pulling against the safety pins in a power rack with
an empty barbell. This method can be used to address a specific weak point in the range of motion or as a potentiating tool prior to an explosive movement or a strength lift. I particularly like a complex of overcoming isometric squats at a 90-degree knee angle and then either maximum effort vertical jumps or loaded jump squats.
Stato-dynamic refers to including isometric holds during regular
repetitions. For example, during the eccentric phase of a squat you pause at the 90 degree
position for 2-3 seconds. You can perform 1 to 3 pauses on each repetition. There are various ways of using this method. You can perform the hold at a position and immediately lift the weight back up from that position, which is great to strengthen a specific position in the range of motion (because you must overcome inertia from that position). Or you can hold the weight in the position(s), finish the eccentric and then lift the weight, which would have more of a positional strengthening effect.
Long duration isometric/positional isometrics:
Here we are holding a position for a longer period. It can be as long as 2 minutes, but it is typically performed for 30-60 seconds. The main application of this method is for skill acquisition: you hold a key position of your sport action against resistance (I like to use bands as a source of resistance). The resistance is not so much to strengthen the muscles involved in that sport action but to increase positional awareness (enhanced feedback). For example, you could hold the impact position in the golf swing against a resistance band trying to pull your arms back. Or you could use a specific strap with a pulley station that tries to force you back into your “backswing”.
Another application of this method is that of a hypertrophy tool: holding the position of highest tension in an exercise for 30-60 seconds can provide a strong growth stimulus to the body. One more application is to perform the hold in the “stretched” part of the range of motion with extra load. This is called “loaded stretching”. You can learn about all the benefits of loaded stretching here and also here.
I also have a series of videos on loaded stretching here:
Overloaded sport skill:
This is when you perform a specific sport skill (e.g., sprinting, throwing,
jumping, golf or baseball swing, etc.) with added resistance. The added resistance can serve
several purposes. For example, in a swing or throw, its purpose is to slow down the upper body. Why would you want to do that? To improve sequencing. In a throw or swing the more you can dissociate the lower and upper body (with the lower body moving earlier and faster than the upper body to create a powerful dynamic stretch reflex in the core musculature and fascia) the more power you can create. Someone who tends to use the arms too early will benefit from overload work to learn proper sequencing:
1. Force application in to the ground
2. Leg and hips
For linear movements like sprinting and jumping, the value is more about improving your
capacity to apply force into the ground. Be careful not to slow down the action too much
though. Charlie Francis talked about a maximum speed decrease of 6%.
Overspeed sport skill:
Overspeed work is very popular for the improvement of high velocity
sport skills like a golf or baseball swing, throwing a ball (e.g., baseball or cricket), shot putting and sprinting. It refers to using either lighter implements than those used in competition (golf club, baseball bat, ball, shot, etc.) or an apparatus that allows you to go faster than you normally could go (e.g., a 1080 device for sprinting, elastic overspeed band/traction system, slight downward track, etc.). The principle is that by performing a high-speed sport skill even faster than you normally can that you can gradually improve your capacity to reach that speed in the “normal” sport skill. To give you an example, by using the “Superspeed golf system” I increased my driver wing speed from 112mph to 130mph.
*Important: when doing overspeed/overload work it is KEY to do it along with the normal sport skill to avoid polluting the motor pattern and facilitate transfer. That’s why I like to do both as a complex:
A1. Overloaded movement set
Rest 2-3 minutes (depending on the skill)
A2. Overspeed movement set
Rest 2-3 minutes (depending on the skill)
A3. “Normal” sport skill set
This is straight forward: you perform a sport skill as the last exercise in a complex.
This is used either as a transfer method (e.g., if performing more general strength and power exercises earlier in the complex and then doing the sport skill) or as a motor learning tool (e.g., if starting with a position long duration hold followed by your sport skill, or the overload/overspeed complex mentioned above).
Complexes are mostly a performance tool, but they can still be used
to trigger more hypertrophy. Although in this case it almost has a “superset” feel, even though you do have a rest period between exercises (1 to 3 minutes).
The combinations that I like are:
1. Hypertrophy exercise + Loaded carry (involving the muscle trained in the first exercise)
2. Overload movement + Hypertrophy exercise
3. Overcoming isometric + Hypertrophy exercise (in which case the iso serves as an
4. Long duration isometric + Hypertrophy exercise (to increase sensitivity of a muscle to
the neurological drive, build better mind-muscle connection).
LIMITATION OF COMPLEXES
Complexes are one of the most powerful training tools you can use, especially with athletes.
And they are among my favorite training approaches.
But it is still important to talk about their limitations and potential drawbacks; which are as follows:
* More demanding on the nervous system than traditional exercise set-ups. This is because of the variation in motor task (when you swap between exercises); even though the movement patterns are similar. The positive is that this leads to a higher adrenaline level and more neurological activation (part of the benefit of complexes), but the downside is that it is easier to create central fatigue and a downregulation of the beta-adrenergic receptors (the main cause of what we call “overtraining”). Therefore, volume and frequency have to stay conservative.
* Some people (especially those with lower acetylcholine and serotonin levels) might lose
focus, especially if using complexes with more than 2-3 exercises. They will have a hard time focusing on each movement in a complex as their mind sticks with only one and performance suffers on the others. This is partly why I now prefer to stick to complexes of 2 or 3 exercises.
* If the adaptative demands of the exercises in a complex are too different they can interfere with one another by telling the body to adapt in two different directions. Power and strength movements go well together. But something like a power and a hypertrophy exercise are not a good fit for example.
* In some cases, it can require a lot of equipment or space. Or, the equipment needed for the 2-3 exercises in a complex might be in different places in the gym. Complexes aren’t always well suited for a commercial gym.
* A complex typically gives you very rapid improvements. However, their “effective life” is
short. A neurological-based complex will be most effective for 3-5 weeks (you can, however,
keep progressing by changing the complex type) after which it will loss efficacy.
* A lot of people go overboard when programing complexes; they use too many complexes in a session and in a week. For best results, stick to one or two complexes per session. Don’t see complexes the same way as you would see regular strength work, where you must do quads work, posterior chain work, pressing work, pulling work, arms work, etc. Ideally pick something like two “regions/patterns” per micro cycle. The rest of the work is not in complex form.
I’ve always been notoriously bad at writing conclusions. So, I’ll finish this article with bullet
* In most cases, stick to 2 or 3 exercises per complex and avoid redundancies. For example, a maximal overcoming isometric and partial overloads would be redundant in the scope of a complex as they both serve similar purposes in a complex.
* Do not underestimate the importance of the rest period between exercises within a complex (and between sets). Complexes are very demanding neurologically and physiologically. The fact that they spike adrenaline significantly can mask fatigue and give the illusion that you can go immediately. But cutting your rest periods too short will negatively impact both performance and post-session recovery. Plus, neurological potentiation after an exercise reaches its peak at the 2 minutes mark and remains very high for up to 4 minutes. There is no reason to rest less than 2 minutes between exercises if the complex is neurological in nature (hypertrophy would
* I highly recommend visualizing your upcoming set 30 seconds prior to doing it. This is
especially important for those who tend to lose focus when they must do more than one motor tasks together.
* Don’t use a specific form/type of complex for more than 4-5 weeks.
That’s it… now go have fun, experimenting with various forms of complexes is one of the most fun parts of being a strength coach!