Complexes seem to be sort of a lost art, like RSVPing to things instead of clicking “Maybe” on the Facebook invite. Really, you can say no.
A complex is a series of exercises performed in succession without any rest between movements.
Combo, on the other hand, is an Olympic lifting term. Instead of a brutal 30-50+ reps, Oly combos are typically kept in the 10-15 range or lower (more often than not, much lower) and the reps are generally 5 and under for each move, 1-2 being more common.
Complexes, as a alluded to above, are almost always much higher in volume. Using less technical lifts, we can push the reps past five to eight, 10, or even 20 in some cases.
For an example, here’s my 12 Lifts of Christmas workout. There are 82-90 total reps of 12 different exercises and the reps ranged from one to 12 (obviously).
Complexes are great for a number of reasons:
- Built correctly, they take us through the entire spectrum of hypertrophy demands as laid out by Bret Contreras. While a combo might start with high-tension and muscle damage, it definitely ends with metabolic stress.
- They’re great as a finisher because they demand a lot of energy from you in a very short amount of time.
- They’ll get your metabolic engine firing on all cylinders, torching fat off your body.
- They can stand as their own workout if you’re pressed for time.
- They’re valuable long-sprint conditioning, much like running a 400m or 800m. Except you have to run the 800m while holding 40lb dumbbells and doing a deadlift every 100m.
- In general, they put hair on your chest and help awaken your deep, inner-gorilla.
Yes, complexes are awesome.
But now the question is, “how do I create my own?” Lucky for you, I’ve created a step-by-step system to creating your very own leg-shaking, puke-inducing complex!
Step 1: Pick Your Implement
The difference between a complex and a circuit is that there’s not lag time between the lifts. Literally not even a second. Don’t even take your hands off the bar.
That’s why we need to be careful when picking an implement to perform our complex with. Limiting ourselves to one, single implement makes the transition between exercises smoother. Here are some ideas:
- Barbells – easy to load and widely available in most gyms, but many barbell lifts are technical or demand better-than-average mobility
- Dumbbells – widely available, take up very little space, and are more comfortable for those with mobility restrictions, but they’re harder to load in some cases
- Medicine balls – they provide a good break from regular ol’ weights and movements are typically more explosive, but they aren’t widely available and neither are ball-walls to throw them against.
- Kettlebells – same as dumbbells, but they aren’t as widely available.
- Bodyweight– widely available (everyone knows there’s more than enough bodyweight to go around these days) and take up relatively little space, but you can’t change the load.
- Sandbags – they’re cool, but aren’t widely available and you can’t change the load easily, if at all.
- Resistance bands – um, no.
- Cable machines – (see “Resistance bands” above.)
Barbells and dumbbells are my favorite, as you can find them in almost every gym around the world and they make it easy to adjust the load as needed. This will make your complex scalable for everyone from Gene Simmons to your grandmother.
Step 2: Choose Your Exercises
Before you choose your exercises, you must decide whether your complex will be full-body or lower body (a.k.a. full-body or full-body because squatting is full-body).
Upper body complexes sound good in theory, but there’s only so much overhead pressing and rowing you can do before your arms tire out (because they are, in fact, much smaller than your legs).
Here are some examples of great exercise choices for complexes:
- Olympic variations
- Squat variations
- Deadlift variations
- Overhead press variations
- Bent-over row variations
- Single-leg/lunge variations
- Farmers carry variations
You can choose anywhere from two to 100 exercises and this will mostly be determined by your rep range (Step 3).
Exercises like horizontal pushing (i.e. bench press or pushups) and vertical pulling (i.e. chinups) only seem to work in the case of bodyweight complexes, because taking the time to set up for a bench press kind of defeats the purpose of saying “no lag time.”
Step 3: Choose Your Structure
There are a few elements to choosing your complex structure, much like when you create a workout. These include selecting your exercise order, rep or rep range, and the number of times you’ll perform the complex.
Exercises should be ordered by level of difficulty, not technique dependence (except maybe in the case of Olympic variations). For example, if you choose to perform biceps curls and deadlifts, your biceps curl will likely be much more difficult and require substantially less weight than your deadlift, unless you’re the Gluteless King of Biceps Land.
If you perform the complex with a weight that you can biceps curl, your deadlift will probably be far too light. And if you do it the other way around, your biceps curls will probably look more like a trip to the E.R. The two lessons here are these: order your exercises lightest to heaviest and don’t pick biceps curls as part of a complex, it’s not worth your time.
Once you’ve selected the order of your exercises, pick your rep range. There are a few awesome ways to choose reps for a complex:
- Stick with a standard 5-10 reps for everything. This allows you to choose 3-10 exercises comfortably without worrying about Uncle Rhabdo.
- Pyramid your reps, for example 2-4-6-8-10 or 5-10-15-20. This gives you more freedom to choose exercises that are “further apart” in terms of usable weight.
- Assign your reps randomly like a lunatic playing Powerball (just don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work, nobody ever wins that thing).
Keep in mind that for Olympic lifts, deadlifts, and other technique-heavy exercises, you might want to think about keeping the reps lower. For this reason, I like using 5 reps of everything across the board. Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule (like this 20 -rep front squat complex).
Traditionally, a complex is done once. If you build it correctly, you shouldn’t be able to do it more than once! But since this is also true of an 800m sprint, I’m not opposed to performing lower-rep complexes multiple times.
For instance, a complex of three exercises for five reps could probably be done two or three times. If you can complete four or more rounds of your complex, it’s not hard enough. Take your circuit training elsewhere!
When you break it down, complexes are pretty simple! Choose your implement, pick some exercises, and assign a rep range. Just a few final notes on complexes:
- Self-limiting is better (a.k.a. pick exercises that won’t kill you if you fail). Goblet and front squats are, I believe, a better choice than back squats for complexes.
- Make sure it flows! Order your exercises in a way that allow for easy transitions. For instance, working top–down is usually best, as trying to deadlift or row and then clean the bar back to your shoulders is tough.
- Olympic combos are just mini-complexes. They just much lower reps (1-3) because the lifts are much more susceptible to fatigue-induced form breakdown. Take a lesson from Oly lifters and keep the Oly variations in your complexes at five reps or lower.
- Don’t rush – if your form sucks, you’re moving too fast or using too much weight.
Whether you’re looking for hypertrophy, fat shredding, conditioning, or have a touch of masochism running through your veins, complexes will be a valuable addition to your workout.
Also, they’re way less boring than slogging on the treadmill for an hour while you watch the Spring Baking Championship.