It’s impossible not to notice trends in the fitness world.
The majority of these—like the shake weight, for example—last for a year or so and then are either forgotten or shoved underneath the bed next to the dust balls and discarded dirty underwear.
But some trends are beneficial—they work so well that they become staples in the training programs of thousands of lifters.
Take weight-training circuits, which I’m very fond of for fat loss. These are becoming so popular that now we’ve got a term for them—we call this metabolic resistance training.
Essentially, MRT is training with weights in a way that challenges you metabolically, mainly through the use of circuits.
This is so prevalent that now we’ve got subdivisions of MRT, which are becoming equally trendy. And one of these types of MRT is complexes, which are incredible for fat-loss.
I love complexes so much that I included them as part of the training protocol in my two latest programs, the Super Hero Workout and Fat Loss Forever. When programmed properly, they have the potential to strip off fat faster than nearly any other protocol. (When half-assed or shoddily constructed they…well, don’t.)
And today, I’m going to teach you how to build them. That’s right: This article will teach you how to set up your own advanced complexes to burn the most fat without screwing up and hurting yourself.
NOTE: For those who own SHW or FLF, this article is perfect—it’ll allow you to modify the existing workouts, and write your own allowing you some variance in depth in the programming. For those who don’t have either of those programs…once you design some complexes, you’ll probably buy them =)
What’s a Complex?
Ah, yes, 0f course. Some of you might now know what these are—so let’s cover the basics.
It’s pretty straightforward: cycle through a series of exercises without putting the bar down, transitioning smoothly from movement to movement, and performing all the assigned reps on one exercise before moving to the next.
Personally, I’ve always it’s a pretty basic concept, and that great complex design would be common sense…however, I was recently proven wrong.
I was in the gym and saw a student athlete muscle his way through what I can only assume was his version of a home-brew complex. (And by that, I mean he would do a bunch of reps on one exercise, and then a bunch on another, with no real thought to the order.)
Despite the great examples that can be found, I still see people absolutely ruining themselves in the gym.
Here’s the issue.
Efficacy vs. Expediency
When looking at complexes, and what makes one “good” or “bad,” it’s important to keep in mind the goal: to create fast-paced, interval-type weight training workouts designed for fat-loss. This is a good thing, and truth be told, these type of workouts make up a good part of my clients’ programming for fat-loss.
Overall, the idea is to do as much work as possible in the shortest period of time, focusing on training speed and density.
However, when people randomly throw exercises together to create a complex, they’re often not really paying attention to anything other than the idea of complexes. They’re too focused on doing more work in less time to lose fat and haven’t even considered if the exercises they picked were effective.
Let’s say you have a guy doing the following complex:
- Power Clean
- Front Squat
- Overhead Press
He’s doing a lot of big movements, but is he really getting much out of some of them? Hopefully the deadlift is his strongest movement, but he can’t really use a weight that’s challenging since he’s limited by the overhead press, which is undoubtedly weaker.
In terms of “doing a lot of stuff” in not a lot of time, this guy is on point. He’s very expedient. But he’s missing out on a lot since the complex isn’t very deep in terms of efficacy. It’s simply effective as it could be.
But if this guy used a different set up, he could work with a weight that’s challenging for all parts of the complex and would get significantly better results.
Here’s where a lot of coaches and I part ways. Many trainers who prescribe complexes are OK with the notion that your weakest exercise limits your strongest one. I consider it a limitation of basic complex design that can be completely eliminated with a bit of forethought and some ingenuity.
Going back to the example above, the weight is incredibly light for our guy to deadlift, but perfect for the overhead press.
Popular training literature suggests that we shouldn’t care about that, since the complex is not intended to challenge you in the same way that traditional weight training is. That is, an overly light deadlift is of no concern, because we are deadlifting just to lose fat.
I’m calling bullshit.
Instead, what if we did twice as many deadlifts as overhead presses or only used exercises where the weight was appropriate for the same number of reps on each?
What I’m about to show you aren’t regular complexes. They’re advanced. Or as I like to call them, Complexes 2.0—they are designed according to specific rules in my system, and that system makes them more effective.
But first, let’s look at some of the problems with current complexes.
- IMPROPER EXERCISE ORDER. I can’t stress enough the importance of properly ordering exercises for maximizing the effectiveness of your complexes. Throwing presses, cleans, squats and deads together in any haphazard order is silly.
- TOO MUCH FOCUS ON UNIFORMITY OF REPS. I have no idea where it came from, but there seems to be some unwritten rule that when you perform a complex, you need to do the same number of reps for each exercise. Sure, it’s one way to do it, but it’s only effective if that same weight is equally challenging on all of the selected exercises.To be clear, I use this method in the complexes in my mass-market programs—unless I actually know an individual and their strength levels, I can’t design a more advanced complex for them (you’ll see why below). This is a good method, but it can be made better.
- IMPROPER EXERCISE SELECTION It’s always going to make for a more effective workout if the weight be equally challenging on all exercises. So if you’re not going with a variable rep method like I mentioned above, it’s better to select exercises that require an equal level of intensity to perform.
for Designing Complexes
Rule 1: When Arranging Exercises, “High Skill” Exercises Come First.
Exercises should be performed in a descending order from the most demanding to the least demanding. I mean, why the hell would you put a hang clean in the middle of your complex? Also, by “demanding” I don’t just mean the hardest exercises. I mean those requiring the highest level of technical proficiency.
High skill exercises include the Full Clean, Full Snatch, High Pull From the Floor, and Overhead Squat.
Moderate skill exercises include the Hang Clean, Hang Snatch, High Pull From the Hang, Power Clean, Power Snatch, Push Press, Deadlift, and Front Squat.
Low skill exercises include the Bent-over Row, Overhead Press, Lunge Variations, Back Squat, and Dumbbell Squat.
Rule 2: Use a Non-competing Exercise Order.
Non-competing exercises are those that don’t rely on the same muscles. The benefit of this protocol is simple: while one group is working, the others are resting. Given that complexes work with series of muscle groups at once, don’t get too hung up on specifics here. Generally, try to alternate a pushing exercise with a pulling exercise, or an upper body movement with a lower body one.
Rule 3: Don’t Select a Weight Heavier than Your 10RM on Your Weakest Exercise
This is generally in place for beginners who haven’t done complexes before. I believe that complexes should be short. The entire draw is that they’re brutal but brief. By imposing a 10RM weight limit based on our weakest exercise in a given complex, we ensure that the complex will generally stay in the area of 6-8 reps, which I believe is the most effective range. And, for noobz, allows for form to stay tight.
Methods of Complex Execution
Given everything I’ve told you about the right and wrong way to set up complexes, it seems reasonable that there are some contradictory ideas, especially if you’re used to the “old method” of just doing random exercises in a random order for a pre-set number of reps.
Instead, here are two advanced methods for extreme masochists looking for extreme fat-loss.
REP-BASED METHOD: Select exercises you can do for roughly the same number of reps with a given weight. Assume you want to do complexes with roughly 5-6 reps. Choose a series of exercises that you can do for roughly 12 reps (not your 12RM) with the same weight, and set up your complex according to the rules.
WEIGHT-BASED METHOD: Select the exercises you want to perform in the complex as based on the above rules. Then, test your absolute max number of reps on each exercise. For the complex, do 50 to 60 percent of your max number of reps for each exercise. In this way, you might get a complex that requires you to do six overhead presses followed by 12 front squats followed by eight bent-over rows.
Both of these methods are highly effective. Here are a few examples to get you started.
Sample Complex 1 — The Rep-Based Method
Here’s a complex I’ve been using for both my athletes and myself. (I’ll use myself as an example.)
I selected exercises I’m about equally strong on, could do for 12-15 reps, and chose a weight of 175 pounds. For me, those exercises were:
Power Clean (can normally get 15 reps without a problem…but I don’t do it often. Because it sucks.)
Front Squat (15+ reps for multiple sets)
Bent Row (12 with perfect form, usually for 5 sets)
Push Press (12 but the last rep is a struggle)
Stiffy Leggy Deady Lifty (normally can do multiple sets of 15-20)
It’s only five exercises, but I’m using the same fairly heavy weight for each. Now, I’m not the strongest guy in the world, but for me, this was absolutely brutal.
Note the order of exercises: I started with the one that required the most technical skill. From there, I alternated non-competing muscles. Generally I go upper/lower, but in the case of moving from the bent-over row to the push press, it’s obviously just moving from a pulling exercise to a pressing one.
In terms of number of reps, I normally aim for about six to start. I’ll do up to six rounds of this, with 90-120 or so seconds of rest in between. This is pretty basic.
However, we’ve done all sorts of fun variations at my gym including:
- Descending pyramids (6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1) with 45-75 seconds rest in between
- Descending-Ascending Pyramids (4, 3, 2, 1, 1, 2, 3, 4). Rest periods are 90s, 60s, 45s, 20s, 20s, 45s, 60s
Keep in mind there are dozens of ways to set up your rep protocol.
Sample Complex 2 — The Weight-Method
This is a complex designed for one of my female soccer players. Lauren is dedicated, strong, and never complains—the kind of client that makes me love my job.
For her complex, we set the weight at 55 pounds and pre-tested her maxes for the following exercises:
Here’s how we set it up:
|Exercise||Pre-Tested Max Reps||
Prescribed Complex Reps
|Full Snatch||22 reps||12 reps|
|Alternating Reverse Lunge||15 reps per leg||8 reps per leg|
|Push Press||14 reps||7 reps|
|Bent Row||9 reps||5 reps|
|Back Squat||17 reps||9 reps|
In this example, Lauren is obviously weakest in the bent-over row. If we were to follow normal complex protocol, we’d just do the same number of reps for each exercise, most likely five reps.
But in this case, she could do nearly twice that number of reps on almost every other exercise. Sure, the old method would still be moderately effective for fat loss, but with these adjustments we have optimized it.
Instead of being limited by her weakest exercise, we have set things up in a way that challenges Lauren supremely on every part of the complex.
Rather than focus on arbitrary prescriptions for reps, we allow for a little leeway and have to think a bit more during the complex. It’s harder, more involved and infinitely more effective.
Finally, once again, please note the order of the exercises: we start with a highly technical exercise (Full Snatch) and then proceed to work non-competing body parts. This allows Lauren to recover faster and continue to work harder. Overall, the entire complex becomes more efficient.
NOTE: if you’re going to go with this method, it’s important to mimic and measure “game time conditions.” That is, test your maxes for each exercise in the order you’ll do them in the complex.
Take Lauren for example: maxes were tested in the exact order of the complex, with 3 minutes of rest in between; so, while she can obviously get more than 17 reps on the back squat with 55 pounds under normal circumstances, after she’d done snatches (descending into the bottom of a squat) and reverse lunges, her legs were a bit tired.
Sure, you can probably drop a good deal of fat with “regular” complexes; after all, they do force you to do a lot of work in little time.
However, if you want to take your fat loss to the next level or challenge yourself in a whole new way, why settle for just expediency?
Instead of just tossing a barbell around, put in a few minutes of planning, follow the rules and methods described above and make your complexes both expedient and effective.
Okay guys, time to sound off–what’s YOUR favorite complex? If we get 60 comments, I’ll be back tomorrow with another training post!