Complexes: A Fantastic Way to Do a Lot of Work in Very Little Time

By Jen Comas

My last several of weeks have been packed full of amazing things. First was the most amazing Girls Gone Strong Event Weekend (where we can hang in person!), then packing up and heading to Salt Lake City where I will stay for the remainder of the year.

I landed in Utah, and spent exactly 24 hours there before I turned around and took off for a five-day camping and mountain biking trip. I’ve packed, unpacked, repacked, and shipped so many items that I am still uncertain which part of the country some of my belongings are in.

Even with the welcomed chaos, I still wanted to get my workouts in, but I have been seriously crunched for time. While I typically like to spend about 60 to 90 minutes at the gym, working out (and socializing), this has not been an option the last few weeks for me.

I needed to get in, get a full body workout done, and get out. This is the perfect time for a complex!

A complex, whether it be with a barbell, kettlebell, dumbbell, or even your own bodyweight, is a fantastic way to get a lot of work done in relatively little time.

Complexes: Barbell, Kettlebell, Dumbbell, or Bodyweight

jencomas-frontsplitsquat-350x350Why, When, and How?

A complex is, paradoxically, very simple.

It’s typically about three to six exercises strung together, done for around six to ten reps each, for a total of three to six times through. You complete all reps for each exercise before moving on to the next one.

They can be done using a barbell, kettlebell(s), dumbbell(s), or your own bodyweight. If you are using weights, you will complete all reps of each exercise before setting the weight down.

It’s a fantastic way to incorporate resistance training and conditioning in a limited amount of time. Often, people hear about a short workout, and they scoff. “Pffffft. Short workout? How effective could that be?

Don’t let the short workout fool you—complexes are challenging.

They are extremely effective, and the best part is that they are fun! They are a great way to spice up your workouts, try something new, and challenge your body in a different way.

jencomas-sideplank-onbench-327x393You can do a lighter complex as a finisher at the end of your regular training session, or you can go a bit heavier and use a complex as your main workout.

When setting up a complex, keep it simple. The basics work.

You don’t need to waste time trying to think up a bunch of new-fangled moves. Just alternate between lower body and upper body movements, and if you can get a push, a pull, a hinge, and a knee-dominant movement in there, even better.

Weight Selection

When doing a barbell, kettlebell, or dumbbell complex, remember that your weight selection should be based on whichever is the hardest movement for you.

For example, if your barbell complex is a deadlift, bent over row, overhead press, and back squat, most people will need to gauge their weight selection based on the overhead press, because that is likely going to be the hardest movement of the four exercises for them, and you’ll be using the same weight for all of the movements.

It’s always better to select a weight that you realize is a bit too light, then to sacrifice form to struggle with a weight that turns out to be too heavy.

If you significantly undershoot, no biggie — treat it as a warm-up and increase weight a bit next time around.

Also, it’s always a good idea to do a warm-up using a lighter weight before you really get going. If I’m doing a barbell complex, I always run through it once with just the bar before loading plates on.

A good general rule to start with is:
Heavier weight = more sets = fewer reps
Lighter weight = fewer sets = more reps

Barbell Complex

Complete six to eight reps of each movement before putting the barbell down. Rest for two to three minutes. Try to complete the complex three to five times.

  • Romanian deadlift
  • Bent-over row
  • Overhead press
  • Front-loaded reverse lunge

Dumbbell Complex

Complete six to eight reps of each movement before putting the weights down. Rest for two to three minutes. Try to complete the complex three to five times

  • Squat
  • Bicep curl into overhead press
  • Lateral lunges
  • Row

Bodyweight Complex With a Bench

Since this is a bodyweight complex, you can probably get away with doing significantly higher reps, and cutting rest time down a bit.

Complete 10 to 12 reps of each movement. Rest for one to two minutes. Try to complete the complex three to five times.

  • Step-up into reverse lunge
  • Push-up into side plank
  • Single-leg elevated hip thrust

Complexes can be super effective for fat loss (if that is your goal and you're eating accordingly), and a new, fun challenge! They can also be part of a smart, balanced training program. If you want to learn more about using complexes as part of your training program, we can help.

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About the author:  Jen Comas

Jen Comas is a Girls Gone Strong co-founder and GGS Coaching Head Coach, as well as a NASM Personal Trainer and USAW Level One Weightlifting coach. She has competed in figure and trained as a powerlifter, teaches and practices yoga, and is obsessed with motorcycles, dirt biking, and downhill mountain biking. Learn about Jen on her website and follow her adventures on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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