Why Complexes Are The Key To Building Muscle And Dropping Fat When Time Is Short


How much time have you spent reading fitness stuff on the Internet? If you’re reading my stuff then chances are that you’ve put some effort into getting your learn on and trying to figure out things on your own.

You’ve probably tried to learn how much protein you should be eating, the truth about carbs, what is clean eating, and a few other vexing questions, no doubt.

And if you’ve spent that time on the Internet doing your own research, you’ve undoubtedly tried to find the answer to one of the most pressing questions that each and every fitness enthusiast finds themselves asking at some point or another:

Can you build muscle and burn fat at the exact same time?

If you spend any amount of time looking at what a lot of these people who have managed to find the holy grail of fitness excellence are doing you’re likely going to find one common denominator amongst nearly all of them. One type of training method that nearly all of them use.

That training method? Using complexes. And you can go on your own grail-like pursuit by using complexes, and I’m going to show you exactly how.

What exactly is a complex?

Alwyn Cosgrove, owner of a great accent and Results Fitness defines complexes as: “A complex is a circuit using one piece of equipment, one load, and one space.”

It’s that simple. So when looking at it that way, a complex could mean you’re using barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, or even a TRX. I prefer using barbells, but I’ve had plenty of fun using dumbbells and kettlebells in the past. The equipment is only one part of the equation, albeit an obviously important part.

The real meat of the equation lies in the fact that it’s a continuous circuit. You’re using the same piece of equipment with the same load, but you’re moving seamlessly from one exercise to the next, only stopping when you’ve completed the entire circuit. And only when you’ve completed that entire circuit are you allowed to put whatever equipment you’re using down. That’s an important caveat, and it’s part of what makes them so soul crushing and awesome at the same time.

Complexes are a brutal form of conditioning that aren’t for the faint of heart, but those who are willing to risk the need of keeping a trashcan nearby will undoubtedly wind up with a leaner, more muscular, and more athletic physique.

Complexes work incredibly well for a few reasons:

  • They offer unparalleled metabolic stimulus.
  • Add to the overall volume of weight you’re lifting.
  • Major EPOC, which will help you melt fat for hours after you’re done.
  • Very little time requirement, meaning you get far more work done in 10 minutes than you would in 30 minutes on the treadmill.

It should go without saying that utilizing complexes is by far and away one of my favorite ways to get in conditioning for both myself and some of my clients. Emphasis on the some, because I will reiterate that complexes are not for the faint of heart. They will make you question your very existence on earth, and your physique will be better for it.

Unfortunately, when it comes to this very specific grail like pursuit, a lot of people manage to screw up because they don’t put the necessary thought into them. They hear how great complexes are supposed to be, pick up a barbell or dumbbell and just start throwing together exercises, and 30 minutes later find themselves wondering why the hell they’ve got a broken shoulder.

I don’t want you to break your shoulder. That would really bum me out. So in order to help prevent that, here are 4 rules you should use to build your own complexes.

Deadlifts don’t belong.

I’ve done my fair share of stupid deadlift challenges, like seeing how many times I can pull 225lbs in a minute. But when it comes to building complexes, including deadlifts is just idiotic.

They’re a pillar strength exercise, and in order for you to get much out of the deadlift you typically need to be lifting relatively close to your one rep max. They’re not an exercise that you use to build work capacity, melt fat, or anything like that.

So instead of just aimlessly deadlifting 95lbs for 10 reps and feeling like you’re really not doing anything productive, skip deadlifts altogether. Sure, you can use romanian deadlifts, hang cleans, or other hip hinge style movements, but don’t bother with traditional deadlifts.

And aside from the physiological point that you’re going to get far more out of deadlifting 400lbs for 3 reps compared to 95lbs for 10 reps, putting them into complex robs you of the chance to experience the primal rush that comes with ripping hundreds of pounds off of the floor. Don’t deny yourself that pleasure.

Technical exercises first.

So you really hate yourself and you want to use hang cleans, snatches, or something else in your complex. I commend you. I think you’re fucking crazy, but I commend you.

If you’re going to start implementing technically difficult movements like hang cleans into your complex then I would advise placing them at the beginning of the complex. There’s a lot of moving parts to these traditionally technical movements, and you’re just asking for trouble if you’re doing them after you’ve already done 3 or 4 exercises. Even if you think the load is laughably light.

Ultimately you’re going to know yourself far better than I am, and you’re going to know what you’re capable of. I’m comfortable enough with cleaning that I don’t mind placing them 2nd or 3rd in a complex, but even then I know I’m taking a risk.

Don’t hit the same body part over and over.

The very nature of complexes is that they force your entire body to work at some point during the complex. That’s why they’re beautiful and awful all at the same time. But in order to make you as effective as possible at this, give your body parts a break every now and then.

Don’t pair something like lunges, front squats, and squats back to back to back in a complex. Instead, break up exercises with other exercises that involve completely different body parts. A really easy way to do this would be by alternating between upper body and lower body exercises within the same complex.

Can you give me a sample complex to try?

Of course I can. Give this bad boy a try at the end of your next training session and report back to me on how you feel.

Romanian deadlift – 8 reps
Upright row – 8 reps
Front squat – 8 reps
Overhead press – 8 reps

Do 5 rounds and give yourself about 2-3 minutes of rest in between each round. You’re going to hate me and hate yourself at the same time, but I can happily assure you that it will be worth it, especially if you start doing them more often. I’ll see you on the grail trail.

Tanner is a fitness professional and writer based in the metro Atlanta area. His training focus is helping normal people drop absurd amounts of fat, become strong like bull, and get in the best shape of their life.