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Conditioning is not complex – or is it?

I know, the title of this post is too clever.  Thank me later.

But for real: barbell/dumbbell complexes are intense- they build strength, “blast fat” (which is a hilarious term) and give a heck of a conditioning workout in a short time.  They’re the ultimate time saver in the gym – but you get massive benefits from including them in a program.  To keep it simple, a complex is just a sequence of moves that flow together using the same modality (dumbbells or a barbell).  They’ve been written about a lot in the fitness world – but I still rarely see people program them (correctly) into their workouts.  I get why – they’re beyond a lot of people’s comfort zones, it is hard to know exactly where to put them in a program, they’re sometimes hard for beginners to write/perform on their own, and they are FAR from glamorous if done correctly.  Usually when I’m done with a few rounds of complexes, I’m laying in the middle of the gym not caring who has to step over me.  Trust me, though, they are worth every painful second.

Istvan Javorek is the father of complexes (because, with that kind of name, of course he is) and he explains his intentions with this punishing system: “My Original Goal with the Complex exercises was to find an efficient and aggressive method of performance enhancement that saves time and makes the program more enjoyable.” ….And by “enjoyable” we mean “deadly”.  But who doesn’t love blood, sweat and tears?  
I’m kidding – sort of – but these exercises really do add a lot of variety into your program and they are MUCH more entertaining than running.  Nope, that’s not an opinion – just a fact.
Similar to circuit training, these complexes are ideal for body composition changes due to the easy manipulation of work:rest ratios. Complexes will use a set weight (usually 35-55 for women, and maybe 60-75 for men) and combine movements in a specific pattern. You have a ton of flexibility in terms of how many reps, how many rounds, and how to set up the rest periods – all dependent upon training goals.  Want to get diesel?  Add more weight, go less times.  Want to go build stamina?  Drop weight, add more sets.
There are a few different ways to construct complexes, but the most important thing to keep in mind is that this is a CONDITIONING workout.  You want to perform moves in rapid succession with very little transition time – so it is important to pick moves that flow well together.  It is also awesome because you don’t have to worry about people taking your equipment – just clear some space & hit it.  For example, check this video:
When I go home to upstate NY in the winter and running outside is an absolute disaster, barbell complexes are a staple in my programming.  [One of the few reasons I’m reppin the Syracuse tshirt in the vid – also a shout out to some fabulous friends back home].  It helps me keep my strength and technique on most of my lifts and helps me stay conditioned.  I wrote up this complex in December with two goals in mind: 1) conditioning and 2) some split stance and core stability work – hence the overhead & reverse lunges. I typically pair the movements based on the ease of transitioning the bar.  In this case, I go hang clean with a high receive, which sets me up perfectly for any front loaded movement: a front squat, or in this case, a push press.  I chose the overhead lunges because the bar was already in the top position from the previous push press.  After the lunges, when I brought the bar back to chest level (front loaded position) it was easy to perform front loaded reverse lunges.  Finally, I brought the bar back down and performed the RDL+Row combo.
The other unique thing about this complex is I chose to do 1 rep of each move in succession.  I only showed one progression on the video, but one “round” of that complex consists of 3-4 times through the entire progression.  By the time the round ends, you’ve performed 4 hang cleans, 4 push presses, 4 OH lunges each side, 4 reverse lunges each side, and 4 of the RDL/Row combos.
Another (more common) approach is to perform the exercises in succession, like a circuit.  Here is another example:
In this video, I chose 4 front squats, 4 push presses, 4 reverse lunges per side, then 4 RDLs and 4 rows.  After that, you would rest for a certain time (45 sec-2 minutes, depending on your goal and your training tenure) and hit it again for a few rounds. I happen to like using 4 reps at the moment, but I’ve seen anywhere from 3-6 being used.  Keep in mind the total time you’re working & plan it accordingly.
The best way to start incorporating these into your training is to do them on their own day.  If you already have specific “cardio” or “conditioning” days built into your program, try substituting barbell complexes in there as the the main component.  You won’t really have the energy to do anything else, but you’ll become a monster at them.

There is no off switch

When you get used to this type of training, you can start playing around with when you use it.  Sometimes I save these until the end to finish with, and other times I’ll start my workout with them if I know I don’t have anything else extremely taxing planned.  There’s no “wrong” way – just make sure you’re comfortable with the moves before you try to do them.  ALSO – if you start to lose your junk and you become a hot mess, drop the weight down.  This isn’t about getting the rounds done any way possible.  Its about getting the rounds done and looking like a person.  I don’t have time for injuries, sorry.

If you use these in your training – what’s your favorite combination of moves?