I started incorporating complexes into my training three years ago when I realized that I needed something to train conditioning for doing a 60 second full-effort set, as it required for most strongman events. As it turns out, complexes are not only great conditioning, but they help increase speed, recovery time between reps, and can actually burn fat while building muscle.
What are complexes?
For those of you who don't know what a complex is, it's a series of movements done consecutively for a certain number of repetitions or for a certain period of time as quickly as possible (while maintaining form). There are a million possible combinations of movements and rep-set-time schemes that can be employed to make a complex so they never get old. The goal of complexes are to increase conditioning and speed.
Making a complex:
Pick the movements:
To make a complex start by picking your 3-6 of favorite movements (they can be bodyweight, with a barbell, with dumbbells, with kettle bells, or a combination). It's important to make sure that it's easy to transition between the movements so that no time is wasted moving from one to the next. For instance, if the pull-up bar is across the room from the parallel dip bars then you shouldn't include both of them in the same complex. Also, the movements you pick should be multi-joint movements. Complexes of curls and triceps extensions do not count!
Create a set-rep or time scheme:
Once you know which movements you want to do, you have to pick a set-rep or time scheme. A set-rep scheme could be a total number of reps divided by each movement done as quickly as possible with rest as necessary(such as 100 total reps of 25 reps of each: pull-up, burpee, hand-stand push-up, hanging leg raises) or it could be several sets of a number of reps for each movement with rest between sets (such as 3 sets of 20 reps of each: barbell clean, barbell jerk, barbell back squat, barbell row). A time scheme is set up by choosing a time interval to do each movement (such as 60 seconds each of push-ups, medicine ball squat jump throws, jumping lunges, twisting medicine ball wall throws). Time intervals can also be done in sets (such as 4 sets of 30 seconds of each: jump squats, plyometric push-ups, plyometric pull-ups). Rest can be included in between the time intervals if necessary.
When picking the set-rep and time schemes make sure to take into account the complexity and difficulty of the movements you have chosen. As a general rule of thumb movements that require more speed, or have a higher degree of difficulty should not be done in high-rep or long time interval sets. For instance, box jumps can be dangerous if you don't get the speed necessary to make it to the top of the box and chances are, depending on the box height, that after 10 reps making it to the top of the box is not going to be an easy task. Likewise, if you include a complex movement like snatches, even with the lightest weight, maintaining form will be very difficult with higher rep numbers. Also, movements that require more strength--like pull-ups--should not be done in high reps or for long time schemes because the point of a complex isn't to do an entire workout in a short period of time, it's to increase conditioning.
Pick the weight for the movements:
Now that you have the movements and set-rep or time scheme the next step is to choose the correct weight to use (which doesn't apply if you are using bodyweight movements). It's important to start with a weight that will allow you to make it through the complex while taking as little rest as possible since the goal is to increase speed and conditioning. Complexes are suppose to be light! I like to start with the lightest weight possible during my first round of a new complex and gauge how it feels. For instance, if I am doing a barbell complex, I will start with an empty bar and go as fast as I can, while maintaining good form and taking as little rest as possible. If that feels easy I will add 5-10lbs on the bar for the next round. Complexes should not feel easy! If you are not completely out of breath and your heart is not pumping out of your chest then you are not working hard enough! Increase the weight or move faster if you aren't dying when you complete a complex.
Since the goal of complexes is to increase speed and conditioning, they should be periodized so that as you get better at them the difficulty increases. As you do more complexes, especially if you repeat the same complexes, they will become easier. Monitor your progress by measuring the time it takes to complete a complex, the amount of rest you took, the weight used, etc. and write it down in a log. If you continue to shave total time or rest time off a complex, then increase the weight or number of reps or sets. There will come a time with every complex where you will plateau and can't increase weight, sets or reps without loosing form or taking too long to complete the complex. When this happens, the complex should be changed to include higher difficulty of movements, or just different movements that your body hasn't adapted to yet.
Putting it to use:
It's best to do complexes at the end of your regular workout as a finisher, or on days off when you want to get a quick workout in or are just feeling antsy. I try to finish most workouts with a complex if I have time (since they are short, you can almost always make time). After I complete a workout, I will fill my water bottle up, take a few deep breaths, set a timer and go until I am done. Sometimes, if I am feeling ambitious and I don't have time to go to the gym, I will just do a bodyweight complex at home. The versatility of complexes makes them adaptable for just about anyone while being beneficial for everyone.
Posted by Seth Carbonneau