With circuit training being a huge hit among fitness enthusiasts, exercise complexes are a natural fit in today’s industry. Circuit training certainly has it’s place in health and fitness however complexes tend to be a better modality for athletic performance. With some fine tuning and a little creativity, you can build a complex using a variety of tools to achieve muscle growth and strength gains.
What makes circuits and complexes so appealing are their distinct abilities to generate a higher workload in a shorter period of time. For those on a time crunch, you get more bang for your buck by combining exercises and movement patterns together in a logical fashion. It’s a faster pace style and helps to keep your workouts fresh. As “complex” as they sound, the breakdown is actually pretty simple.
What’s A Complex?
A complex is essentially a circuit style combination utilizing predominantly one tool. For example, a kettlebell complex contains multiple exercises using only a kettlebell (or two). A barbell complex involves a barbell and so on down the list. You may be asking “isn’t that just a circuit?” or “aren’t you just super setting with one tool?” and you’d be right with a few subtle differences. Circuit workouts tend to rotate through multiple stations involving many different modalities of training whereas a complex tends to be a bit more focused. A super set tends to combine only two exercises usually with the same tool (not always). To put it simply, a complex is essentially a blend of circuit style training and a super set.
What makes a complex so valuable is the simplicity involved in creating a killer session. By focusing on a single tool, you are able to then narrow down physiological categories and movement patterns which that tool (and resulting complex) may be best used for. Some complexes are best for strength, some for power, some for mobility and some for core. Even different tools may better for targeting different movement patterns (barbells aren’t as diverse for pulling as some other tools). Keep an open mind, step outside your comfort zone and try something new. Either way, you’re making gains.
Creating Your Complex
Although it may sound “complex”, creating your own complex is essentially like circling categories on a grid. You choose your movement focus or body segment and then your tool. From there, you brainstorm (or Google) exercises that’ll hit your target using the modality you’ve selected. Told you it wasn’t too complicated. Our chart below will give you a couple examples:
Sets & Reps
After choosing your movement category and tool, you gotta pick what to do with them. This is where you get to think outside the box. Really analyze your goal. Are you trying to lose fat? Build muscle? Strength? Your options are endless. Your focus will dictate your rep/set scheme however don’t be afraid to think outside the box! There are tons of layout possibilities besides the typical 3×10 set/rep ratio.
Want to build strength while adding some volume? Try utilizing a descending rep scheme (5-4-3-2-1). You could even go back and forth to make it a tiresome pyramid model! Looking to push fatigue levels? Try some drop sets (3×6 per exercise, drop the exercise with the most difficulty, add weight and repeat!). For strength, don’t be afraid to do 2 or 3 rep complexes to really crush your motor units.
Iron Performance Complexes
You didn’t think I’d write about complexes without demonstrating a few did you? I’ve included some sample complexes you can try out at your gym. Don’t be afraid to change them up to suit your need. I encourage creativity and thinking outside the box. Keep your fitness fun while making substantial gains.
Double KettleBell Complex
This complex is great for core activation while holding something awkward and heavy. I don’t care who you are or what your target is, this complex has the potential to bring you to your knees.
(I’m on rep 4 in the video)
A) KB Clean – 8,6,4,2,2,4,6,8
B) KB Rack Front Squat – 8,6,4,2,2,4,6,8
C) KB Push Press – 8,6,4,2,2,4,6,8
D) KB RDL & Row – 8,6,4,2,2,4,6,8
Great for strength, this complex adds a hint of power to the mix. Throw in some knee dominant work and a hinge, you’ve got yourself a total body game changer.
(I’m demonstrating using 3 reps)
A) BB Clean – 5
B) BB Push Press – 5
C) BB Back Squat – 5
D) BB Good Morning – 5
E) BB For. Lunge – 5es
Utilizing only a single dumbbell, this complex is based around core stability, volume and balance. It never hurts to throw some unilateral training in your routine. Besides, anyone can hold on with two hands.
(I’m demonstrating using 3 reps)
A) DB SA Snatch – 10es
B) DB SA Split Jerk – 10es
C) DB Threaded Lunge – 10es
D) DB Side Bend-10es
Complexes are terrific to add variety and flare to your routine. With creativity, you can put a combination using any tool or modality and movement category together with the right set/rep scheme to hit your goals. They’re time efficient, dynamic and add enough variety to your program to keep things interesting. I challenge you to try all of these complexes. Start with 3 sets and as you get more comfortable progress to 5 sets. Don’t over complicate the complex, just get going.
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Matrixx specializes in adolescent athletic development. He coaches some of the top athlete prospects coming out of high school in the Niagara region. He also works with dedicated members of the community who are passionate about improving personal fitness. Matrixx is also the author of The Iron Guide to Building Muscle.