How to Design and Perform Movement Complexes

What the heck is a complex?

Complexes are, in my opinion, the best way to blend strength training with metabolic conditioning in one fluid set.  I would define a standard complex as a group of compound exercises, performed consecutively for a given amount of reps each without putting down the load.  They can be as short as two exercises, or upwards of eight or more depending on which end of the cardio-strength spectrum you’re aiming for.  Personally, I think a happy medium and target for a nicely balanced complex is 4-6 exercises.

Choosing an Implement

The barbell is definitely the “king” of all complexes, but there are many more options.  Dumbbells, kettlebells, bodyweight, TRX, or cables can all be used to elicit the same training effect.  Keep in mind that some implements are better suite for particular patterns of movement, while others kind of suck for certain exercises.

For example, how many vertical pulling exercises are you going to be able to do with a barbell or with dumbbells?  Probably not many.  Another example would be a hip dominant movement on the TRX.  Sure you could get down on the floor and take the time to put your feet in the straps, but that’s not exactly what you want to spend your time doing while you’re trying to get work done quickly.  My point is that you should attempt to choose appropriate exercises for the appropriate implement.  The key here is fluidity.  

Exercise Selection

A balanced complex that targets the entire body should include the following basic movements:

  • Explosive (any olympic lift variation, such as a hang clean)
  • Knee Dominant (squat, lunge)
  • Hip Dominant or Hinging Movement (good morning, RDL)
  • Push (push press, pushup)
  • Pull (bent over row, pullup)
  • Core (rollout, plank)

It obviously isn’t necessary to include every movement pattern, but this layout will give you the most bang for your buck.  Many folks might not be comfortable performing an explosive lift, and others might leave out the core exercise, since you should be using compound exercises that require good core stability anyway.

Loading and Rep Schemes

This all depends on what area of fitness you’d like to target with your complexes.  Are you looking for more of a strength-focused complex, or are you determined to improve your endurance under a lighter load?  Those who would like to build strength and pack on some muscle should shoot for mostly barbell and dumbbell complexes using a relatively heavy load and a lower rep range (3-6).  Those who are looking for more of a conditioning stimulus might want to use bodyweight or a kettlebell and a slightly higher rep range (8-12).  No matter how you design them, your complex is going to improve your work capacity and supercharge fat loss.

A sample bodyweight complex might look some like this:

  • Burpee pullups x10
  • Hanging leg raise x10
  • Alternating lunge jumps x10
  • Yoga/Judo pushups x10

On the other hand, this might be a sample strength focused barbell complex, using a decently challenging load:

  • Hang clean x4
  • Front squat x4
  • Push press x4
  • Good morning x4
  • Bent over row x4

So when should I use them?

There are a couple of answers to this question.  My personal favorite time to include complexes in my training is at the end of workout, which fits into the category of a “finisher.”  At this point, I’m usually pretty fatigued and ready to head home.  Adding in a complex takes less than five minutes and rewards you with some awesome benefits!

For starters, you get a nice conditioning stimulus after a heavy strength session, which will help supplement your fat burning efforts.  Next, since you’ve hopefully been moving heavy things around for the majority of your workout, your grip strength will be diminished and your forearms will be set on fire.  And finally, you will be challenged mentally.  It takes a strong mind to use near-perfect form when your body is under that much stress, but you will feel awfully accomplished when you’re finished.

I also like to perform a warm-up complex before I start my sessions.  After foam rolling and mobility work, I’ll do a quick barbell complex with only the bar, focusing on all the major muscle groups.  It’s a nice way reinforce good form and break a light sweat.

Another option is to dedicate a full session to complexes and/or other forms of cardio strength training, such as intervals or circuits.  An appropriate time for this would be the day following an intense workout, where you’re most likely going to be somewhat sore and mentally fatigued.  For a day like this, you’ll be doing more than one set of complexes.  Here are a couple of ideas:

  • Design a complex and time yourself how long it takes.  However long that may be, use that as your rest period until you begin the next set.  So if your first set takes you 1 minute and 45 seconds, rest for 1 minute and 45 seconds before starting the next one, and see how long you can maintain your time.  
  • Perform the first set of a complex, and upon completion, drop the most difficult movement that you included and immediately perform the remaining movements in complex form.  Say you chose hang cleans, push presses, back squats, RDL’s, and bent over rows.  In your next set, you would skip the hang cleans and repeat the complex without resting.  Follow this pattern until only one exercise remains.

See for yourself

Here are some video examples of complexes I have performed in my workouts recently.

In this one I’m using a 95 lb barbell and included 8 different exercises at 5 reps each:

Here I’m using a 135 lb barbell with 5 different exercises and 3 reps each:

A little more unique, this is double kettlebell complex performed with 35 pound bells for 8 exercises and 5 reps each:

I included a couple of unilateral exercises in this one, which can be very time consuming and not something you want to add too much of.  As you can see, I’m pretty fatigued when I get to the single leg RDL’s, so balance becomes a major issue!

Take a look at my YouTube Page for some more ideas.


Take these and try them out for yourself.  I think most folks will be very surprised how heavy a 95 pound barbell starts to feel after the first few movements.  And remember, complexes are meant to be EXTREMELY uncomfortable.  You aren’t going to particularly enjoy a challenging and productive complex, which is part of why they can be so effective.  At some point during those two minutes or so you should be questioning why you even started the set.  When you finish, you certainly should not be feeling like you need to do another one.  You’ve been warned!

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