What are Complexes? Why You Should Try This Muscle-Building, Calorie-Torching, Time-Saving Training Tactic

This training tactic is not only extremely efficient, but it also produces results far beyond your typical 45-minutes-on-the-treadmill cardio session.

Do you ever find yourself short on time to train? Or find yourself in a gym so jam-packed that training seems impossible? Or perhaps you're simply unsatisfied with the results your current program is producing.

No matter which one of these applies to you, complexes can help you conquer the issue. This training tactic is not only extremely time- and space-efficient, but it also produces results far beyond your typical 45-minutes-on-the-treadmill cardio session.

Complexes are a type of training that involves one piece of equipment, one amount of weight, and one area of space. Once you settle on the equipment, the weight and the space, the complex itself involves moving from one exercise to another with no rest between. Only once the entire complex is complete, then you may rest.

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Do you ever find yourself short on time to train? Or find yourself in a gym so jam-packed that training seems impossible? Or perhaps you're simply unsatisfied with the results your current program is producing.

No matter which one of these applies to you, complexes can help you conquer the issue. This training tactic is not only extremely time- and space-efficient, but it also produces results far beyond your typical 45-minutes-on-the-treadmill cardio session.

What are Complexes?

Complexes are a type of training that involves one piece of equipment, one amount of weight, and one area of space. Once you settle on the equipment, the weight and the space, the complex itself involves moving from one exercise to another with no rest between. Only once the entire complex is complete, then you may rest.

The dumbbell workout demonstrated by Andrew Luck above is a good example of general protocol. He never drops the dumbbells, and he moves from one movement straight into the next.

While complexes are extremely efficient thanks to the fact that they save you from having to jump around the gym to utilize different equipment and/or space, they're also brutally effective. Unlike traditional single set exercises, complexes can be incredibly taxing and often lead to complete system fatigue.

Think of it this way: When you are doing a tricep extension, you are primarily working the triceps, right? No matter how strong your triceps are, they will eventually tire out. You can't do unbroken reps forever. That local fatigue, which is related to a build-up of lactic acid, forces you to stop the set so you can rest and recover before performing more work. In fancy terms:

"Lactic acid decreases the pH of our muscle, which inhibits our cells ability to produce energy. Hydrogen ions inhibit calcium binding to troponin and interfere with cross-bridge formation."

So once that triceps is burnt out, the set is over! Complexes allow you to continue working out without rest despite this local fatigue by simply switching the body part that you're focusing on. The result is greater volume, a greater amount of muscle being stimulated, and a greater metabolic demand.

How Do You Do Complexes?

There are all sort of complexes you can perform. They can involve dumbbells, barbells, bodyweight, a suspension trainer, a weight plate, a resistance band, etc. This tool from Three Storm Fitness contains over 100 different complexes and allows you to filter them by what area you want to target and what equipment you want to use.

You can also create your own complexes. However, due to the high amount of fatigue involved in complexes, you must program them very smartly. Mike Boyle explains some of his philosophies on the topic in the video above. Here are some additional tips to keep in mind when creating complexes.

Program them from the most demanding/taxing exercise to the least. For example, do not put Bicep Curls before Squats. If you have Olympic movements in them, put them first, and try to keep the reps for them at 5 or less.

Focus on QUALITY rather than quantity. As you fatigue, you will have to actively focus on maintaining quality reps. Simply flying through them with poor form to "finish" the complex is an easy way to get injured, and the move won't be nearly as effective. Again, this is why it's important to keep the "tougher" moves at the beginning of the complex.

The complex needs to flow. By this, I mean have each exercise transition smoothly into another. An example of a smooth transition would be doing Hang Cleans into Front Squats. Once you finish that last Hang Clean rep, the bar should already be set up in the front rack position, allowing you for an efficient transition into your Squats. An example of a bad transition would be a Barbell Row into a Back Squat. This is difficult and awkward to manage and adds a lot of extra work into the complex.

Complexes are not an excuse to use baby weight. Yes, you will have to use lighter loads than if you were to perform the exercises with a long rest between each set, but if the complex isn't challenging, it's largely a waste of time. If you're performing the same complex on a fairly regular basis, see if you can increase the amount of weight you're using over time. While you're locked into one weight for the entire complex, you're not locked into the same number of reps for each movement. For example, if you know you can squat much more than you can row, don't use light weight simply so you can row as many reps as you squat. Just do more reps on your Squat and less on your Row.

Try not to use exercises with drastic strength differences. You probably deadlift a lot more than you bicep curl, so pairing them together in the same complex might not make sense. Going off that, complexes with heavier weights should take a shorter amount of time to complete than complexes with lighter weights.

Why Complexes Change Your Body Fast

Complexes can be a phenomenal conditioning tool, as well as a strength booster. Yes, you are using weight far less than you would on single-set exercises, but the longer time under tension your muscles are subjected to still provides a great stimulus for growth. You can also get a huge metabolic effect, allowing your body to continue burning calories long after you leave the gym. That's simply not the case with traditional cardio sessions.

If you are tight on time, space and equipment, complexes be a life-saver. They are a superior way to push your muscles to the limit in a safe way, as long as you stick to the programming principles I shared above. Personally, when cutting and trying to shed fat, complexes are my "go-to" technique.

I share some of my favorite complexes below. Tweak the reps as needed depending on your needs and goals. Just make sure you bring a towel—you will leave some puddles of hard work! To see more of my favorite complexes as well as some serious workouts to take yourself to the next level of fitness, subscribe to me on Playbook To see some awesome examples of them and have some serious workouts to advance yourself into the next level of fitness, you can subscribe to me on the Playbook app!

Barbell Beast Complex

  • Squat Cleans
  • Front Squats
  • Squat to Press
  • Back Squats
  • Reverse Lunge
  • 1-2 minute rest between rounds if you perform multiple rounds

Killer Kettlebell Complex

  • Kettlebell Squat Clean
  • Kettlebell High Swing
  • Kettlebell Thruster
  • Kettlebell Swing Lunge Each Leg
  • Kettlebell Goblet Squat
  • Kettlebell Swing
  • Kettlebell RDL
  • Kettlebell Single Arm Push Up
  • 1-2 minute rest between rounds if you perform multiple rounds

Lengthy Landmine Complex

  • Side Facing Clean to Single Arm Press
  • Front Squat To Press
  • Single Arm Drop Lunge Squat
  • Squeeze Press
  • Lateral Squat Jumps
  • Reverse Lunge to Knee Drive
  • Sumo 1/2 Rep Squat Jumps
  • Single Arm Fall Out Push Ups
  • Sit Up To Press
  • 1-2 minute rest between rounds if you perform multiple rounds

Photo Credit: bernardbodo/iStock


Topics: BUILD MUSCLE | WORKOUT PROGRAM