Build Strength & Conditioning With Complexes

Apr 03, 2023

Anyone that’s tried barbell complexes more than likely dreads them – the shear pain coupled with a hellacious lung burn could be the reason why.

Or maybe it’s the mental fortitude it takes to hold on to a barbell with big movements for extended periods of time?

But anyone that’s used complexes regularly has likely seen the power of them – suddenly the pain is overshadowed by their effect.

I started using complexes back in the early 2000s as a young coach and after reading several of Dan John’s articles on T-nation.

The appeal for me was their efficiency, effectiveness, as well as love/hate relationship.

The value for my clients was noteworthy as well – we would see improvements across the board in terms of strength, conditioning, and body-comp – few modalities can make that claim.

So the real question has become why aren’t people using them on the regular?

Well..they f’in hurt for starters...And secondly, fewer people outside of CrossFit boxes are aware of how effective they are.

But if you’re reading this article you’re likely someone that’s not averse to a little pain.

The Complex Rundown

So before you turn your entire program into complex city, not so fast. Much like any high-intensity measure, barbell complexes should be implemented strategically into your plan, but first, let’s talk about the benefits. Here’s what you need to know:

Complexes effectively:

  • Burn adipose tissue by way of increasing EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) which in essence elevates your metabolic rate for up to 36 hours after the complex is performed.
  • Improve work capacity – improving aerobic function will improve your ability to replenish high-energy phosphates & ATP for ANAEROBIC exercise – for those of you interested in performance this is an important aspect of work capacity and as work capacity improves so does our ability to perform more work in less time = gains.
  • By burning more fat stores you can imagine you’re going to look more jacked.
  • Improvements in strength endurance – time under tension is longer with complexes (typically longer than a minute) which can improve endurance. This ties into work capacity and improving aerobic mechanisms.
  • Building lean tissue is a product of time-under-tension and loading – both can be accomplished with varying degrees with complexes.

A few caveats before attempting complexes:

  • You should be more than comfortable with a variety of barbell movements, but you don’t need to be a high-level Olympic Lifter either to reap the benefits.
  • You should be comfortable with the deadlift, power clean, hang power clean, front squat, front rack reverse lunge, barbell row, push press, and thruster.
  • If you’re still learning the aforementioned movements, no problem – these can be performed with an empty barbell where you’ll still be able to reinforce technique and experience some of the benefits.

Complexes As The Main Lifts

As I mentioned before complexes can be used in a number of ways in different schemes to elicit different training effects.

With that said, it would make sense to talk about how to use complexes as the main lift FIRST as this variant will be performed first in your training session when you’re fresh.

Here are three maximal strength-emphasized variations we’ve used with great success as the main lift.

Lower-body emphasis complex:

Reps of 5-4-3-2-1. Rest 2:00 between rounds.
Power Clean
Front Squat
*Add weight to each round building to a heavy set.

The goal here is maximal load so keep in mind there is less emphasis on “getting a burn” and breathing heavy – you should be fully recovered between sets.

Upper-body emphasis complex:

Reps of 5-5-5-5. Rest 2:00 between rounds

Barbell Row – pronated grip
Hang Muscle Clean
Push Press
*Add weight to each round building to a heavy set.

Total-body emphasis complex:

Reps of 5-5-5-5-5. Rest 2:00 between rounds

Hang Power Clean
*Add weight to each round building to a heavy set.

Complexes As Anaerobic Finishers

Using complexes as a “finisher” is a favorite of ours for our individual plans because it allows us to sneak in a bit of conditioning/pump-work at the end of a strength session.

For CrossFitters performing “strength-only” work is usually tough and mentally they don’t feel like they “got enough” so simply adding a complex that coincides with the goals of the session can be an effective strategy. Here are my go-to’s:

Lower-emphasis complex finisher:

4-5 Rounds of 6-8 reps per movement. Rest 2:00 between rounds.

Romanian Deadlift
Hang Power Clean
Front Squat
Front Rack Reverse Lunges (6-8 reps on each leg)
*Perform all sets with a moderate but challenging weight.

Upper-emphasis complex finisher:

4-5 Rounds of 6-8 reps per movement. Rest 2:00 between rounds.

Barbell Row – pronated grip
Hang Muscle Clean
Push Press
Barbell Row – supinated grip

Total-body complex finisher (this one is a bitch so be ready):

3-4 rounds of 8 reps per movement. Rest 3:00 between rounds.

Power Clean
Front Squat
Push Press
Back Squat
Barbell Row

High-rep Complex Finishers

Lastly, high-rep finishers are a favorite of mine and definitely are less “complex” than the first two sections of this article since there are fewer movements involved.

In this case, we are going to use only two exercises for our complex with higher reps per set. The barbell movements will be done in a logical progression though much like the aforementioned complexes.

These finishers will very much depend on the anaerobic systems and leave you gasping for air. Many of the same benefits are there, but loading will be much lighter and volume much higher allowing for more of a strength-endurance emphasis.

Lower-emphasis complex:

Complete max reps in 5:00, rest as little as possible.

1 Hang Power Clean + 2 Front Rack Reverse Lunge (total)

*use a load you can complete at least 4-5 cycles without stopping – hint: go lighter than you think!

Upper-emphasis complex:

Complete max reps in 5:00, rest as little as possible.

1 Hang Power Clean + 1 Push Press

*use a load you can complete at least 4-5 cycles without stopping

Total-body emphasis complex:

Complete max reps in 5:00, rest as little as possible.

8 Power Cleans + 8 Thrusters

*use a load you can complete unbroken sets of power cleans right into thrusters

Notice ALL of these finishers are short-duration – this for the fact that these will rely heavily on anaerobic systems and will be harder to maintain for longer durations – the goal here is to go hard/fast completing all sets without dropping the barbell so your loading choice should allow you the ability to move through large sets.

On the other hand, our complexes are used as the main lift the goal is maximal loading with full recovery between bouts – context is always key with a training session so make sure not to miss the intent.

Closing Thoughts

While complexes are a great tool they certainly shouldn’t be done on a whim – allow for the proper recovery window of 48-72 hours between sessions. Complexes with lighter loads and less demand on the nervous system can certainly fit into that 48-hour window and if you’re pressed for time, these options might be the best way to still get in a great training session!

You’d be hard-pressed to find another modality that provides such a massive bang-for-the-back. And if you’re looking for a change, complexes are it.