The only thing S&C coaches bash more than poor form is tedious steady-state cardio. It makes athletes weaker, slower and less explosive. A pretty ineffective form of training if you ask me.
Rather than spending hours trudging away on a treadmill, athletes should opt for dumbbell and barbell complexes.
At first, complexes can seem like the weightlifting equivalent of steady-state cardio. This is because they consist of a predetermined series of lifts—i.e., you pick up weight and do not set it down until you’re done with the complex.
But unlike long distance running, complexes don’t cause decreases in muscle size or strength. They build strength and boost metabolism by causing excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). Studies show EPOC causes the body to expend more calories during rest. The effects of EPOC from barbell/dumbbell complexes can last for several hours, meaning you’ll be burning extra calories long after you finish your workout. (Learn more about EPOC, Your New Workout Best Friend.)
Besides being highly effective, complexes are time-efficient and require little equipment or space. Spend 20 to 30 minutes with a barbell or dumbbells performing a complex workout, and you’re done.
Designing a Complex Program
Use the heaviest weight you can handle in your weakest lift. For example, if a complex calls for five reps of Deadlifts, Squats and Bicep Curls, use the heaviest weight you can curl five times. This is the only real limitation to complexes. But since we’re more concerned with burning calories than building strength, it’s okay to use weights below your five-rep max on exercises like Deadlifts and Squats.
Creating Your Complex
Creating complexes is not difficult. All you have to do is pick a series of exercises that flow well together. For example, don’t go straight from Deadlifts to Back Squats. Instead go with a sequence of exercises that naturally flow into and facilitate putting the bar on your back, such as Deadlifts, Hang Cleans, Overhead Presses and then Squats.
I like to include as many compound lifts as possible. This allows you to work more muscles, meaning you’ll burn more calories than you would with single-joint exercises.
There are a few different ways to program the reps.
- Perform a full set of each exercise before moving on to the next (e.g., 5 reps of each exercise)
- Start with one set of each exercise and work through all the exercises in a circuit. Do this until you’ve completed five circuits.
- Pyramid complexes (e.g., 10 Front Squats, nine RDLs and eight Bent Over Rows, etc.) allow you to perform more reps with the heavier exercises, so you get a better overall strength stimulus. However, only advanced lifters with a tremendous capacity for buffering lactic acid should attempt these.
- Perform the more technically demanding lifts at the beginning of the complex.
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Sets/Reps: 3-5x 5 (rest 2 minutes between complexes)
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Sets/Reps 3-5x prescribed reps (rest 3 minutes between complexes)
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Sets/Reps: 5×1 (rest 2-3 minutes between complexes)
Repeat the entire circuit 5 times. This one technically violates the rules of the barbell complex, because you have to set the bar down for Push-Ups and Roll Outs. But it is perfect for beginners and for people with less than ideal grip strength. Grip strength can be a limiting factor for some people, and a brief rest gives their hands and forearms a break while keeping their heart rate high.