Complexes And The Holy Grail

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?

A noble pursuit, no doubt. But many people would discourage you from pursuing that sort of goal altogether. It’s a waste of time, they say. There’s no way you can do it unless you’ve got the genetics of Wolverine.

While much of controlled research may say that they’re right, unfortunately, the real world doesn’t live in a nice tightly controlled research environment. And in the real world, there are scores of people who tell you that doing this is possible.

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.

Why do complexes work so well for burning fat and building muscle?

Complexes, like most conditioning tools, are primarily known as a fat loss method. They’re another spin on what is known as metabolic resistance training or strength circuits. A hyper-effective spin, but a spin nonetheless.

Except if you spend any amount of time doing complexes, or hanging around people who do complexes you’ll probably notice that they begin looking far more muscular than before. Which typically doesn’t go hand in hand with dropping fat, but more often than not when complexes are in the mix that seems to be the case.


When you train in what is traditionally thought of as an athletic pursuit, great things happen to your physique. By forcing yourself to move quickly through a series of movements you ramp up your fat burning potential.

But you’re not only managing to get in conditioning work that melts fat, you’re getting in quite a bit of extra lifting volume. Depending on the load you’re using this could make a significant difference in your overall weekly lifting efforts, which can lead to good things when it comes to muscle building.

The entire reason that’s such a big deal is typically science tells us that those two things shouldn’t happen together. You shouldn’t be able to build more muscle and drop fat at the exact same time. Only the genetically elite, athletes using PEDs, and people brand new to lifting should be able to do that.

Like I said, it’s a pursuit that rivals that of the grail legends.

Except when complexes are introduced into the mix that seems to happen time and time again. Which means that pursuing the holy grail isn’t just for Arthur and Lancelot anymore.

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.

For example:

  • Romanian deadlift
  • Bent over row
  • Front squat
  • Push press

This way while your legs are working your upper body is getting something resembling a break, and while your upper body is working your legs get a chance to rest a little bit.

Keep them short.

For all of their good, complexes aren’t the only thing you’re doing. They’re not awesome enough to warrant you just throwing out everything else in your lifting schedule and doing complexes for weeks on end.

Remember, they’re finishers. That’s how they were traditionally used, and that’s where they shine. You use them at the end of a scheduled lifting session or on an off day as a chance to get in your conditioning work along with more lifting volume.

Because of this, it’s imperative that you don’t make them too long. A complex itself shouldn’t take you more than about 20 minutes total. It can be anywhere from 5-8 rounds of 3-6 exercises.

Alright, I’m down with the complex cause. How should I choose my weight?

When building out your complex you’re inevitably going to be limited in the weight you’re able to use by certain exercises that you choose. Hopefully, this point was made by mentioning that deadlifts don’t belong in complexes, but it’s so important that we’re hitting on it again.

If you’ve got a Romanian deadlift and overhead press in the same complex, obviously you’re going to be able to use much more weight on the RDL than the overhead press, and this might present some problems. Unless of course, you have the overhead pressing strength of Thor. In that case, you probably have more important things to do than read this article.

Now, rather than tempt yourself to cheat the overhead press by using a weight that is too heavy for that movement, but just right for the RDL, just go light all around. Typically pick a weight that you can do for 8-10 times on your weakest movement in the complex.

You’re always going to be limited by your weakest lift in a complex, and contrary to what you may think, this isn’t a bad thing. It just means that you can now get more practice with that particular movement.

And on the movements that you have a significant strength advantage with you can always up the number of reps you’re doing to get the desired training effect.

How often should I use them?

I get it. You start reading about all of the awesome things that can happen with complexes and it becomes tempting to want to do them every single day you’re in the gym. You think the more you do them the more likely you are to look better than ever before.

That’s true, up to a point. You’ve got to remember that complexes still have a lot of things going on at once, and they do involve lifting weights in traditional compound movements. All of this means that if you’re not careful, at some point you can overdo it and set yourself up for injury.

Because of this, I would advise at topping out your complex efforts at right around 3x per week. This seems to be a sweet spot that allows for you to do enough work to reap the benefits without seriously injuring yourself.

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.