Complexes: Different, Harder, and Better

by Wil Fleming

More ways to strip off the fat while building some size and strength along the way.

I know what you’re all thinking: another article about complexes that I’ll never use cause I want to be big and strong, not just smash myself.

I feel your pain. Complexes have been covered extensively in the fitness and bodybuilding media, including T Nation. That said, this ain’t your momma’s complex training article – what you’re about to read may be the Greatest Complex Article of All Time (yeah, I said that).

So How’s This Different?

The complexes in this article will help you burn fat, get strong as an ox, and put your will to the test. Granted, there are many complexes already published that can accomplish this, but these are different.

They use different rules, different implements, and way different rep schemes than what you’re used to. And the results they deliver give new meaning to the expression “change is good.”

New Rules for the Complex

1. Pick An Implement.

Barbell complexes are the most popular and are what I choose to do most of my complexes with (Im an Olympic lifter, so it makes sense).

However, any implement will do. Kettlebells, sandbags, dumbbells, or a TRX can all be the tools of your destruction. Each implement has its advantages and disadvantages, so use them accordingly.

For instance, barbells suck when it comes to upper body pulling exercises, and the TRX sucks for vertical pressing exercises. Pick something and rock it out the best you can.

2. Choose From Several Categories (or Just a Couple).

With barbells I like to choose from tons of categories. Pretty much every complex has an explosive movement, some sort of hinging and squatting pattern, and likely some pressing or pulling.

When it comes to the other tools, you can still do the same thing and stay balanced, but an alternative is to smoke a particular movement pattern or a body part.

  • Use the kettlebell to just work on your conditioning by doing a ton of swings, snatches, and carries.
  • Using the TRX or suspension trainer, pick multiple movements that require a ton of stability, and targeted ab exercises to hammer your core.

If you choose from multiple categories you can get an awesome finisher; if you choose from just a couple you can dominate some body part training.

The list below offers some ideas for movements from each category.

Categories Sandbag Kettlebell Dumbbell TRX
Explosive Rotational Snatch,
Split Clean,
Deadlift Jumps
Split Jumps,
Squat Jumps,
Split Jerk
Jump Squats,
Sprinter Starts,
Pistol Jumps
Lower Body Push Bear Hug Squat,
Shouldered Squat,
Overhead Squat,
Rotational Lunge
Goblet Squat,
Threaded Lunge,
Reverse Lunge w/ Rotation,
Dbl Front Squat
Goblet Squat,
Reverse Lunge
RFE Split Squat,
Assisted Pistols
Lower Body Pull Zercher Good Morning,
Single-Leg RDL
Single-Leg RDL,
Single-Leg RDL,
Stiff-Leg King Deadlift
SHELC (Supine Hip Extension to Leg Curl),
Supine Sprinters
Upper Body Push Shoulder to Shoulder Press,
Push Press
Racked Press,
Push Press,
Floor Press
Push Press
Push-Up Variations (Hands In or Out),
Triceps Extensions,
Handstand Push-Ups
Upper Body Pull Bent Over Row (Again) Bent Over Row,
Double Sumo DL High Pull,
Renegade Row
Renegade Row,
Bent-Over Row
Inverted Row,
YTI Rows,
Miscellaneous Crawl and Drags,
Shouldered Get-Ups,
Turkish Get-Up,
Chops and Lifts,
Knee Tucks,
Core Worm

3. Use Rep Schemes That Make It Interesting.

We always see the same thing, “Do x reps for x sets.” It’s time to ditch that line of thinking!

Try some innovative ways to use complexes in terms of sets and reps. Here are some that I use:

Rep Schemes

Ascending/Descending Pyramids (1,2,3,…3,2,1)

Start with 1 rep of each exercise and move through. Each set add a rep until you can add no more. Then, descend the pyramid back until you finish with 1 rep again. When it gets hard, tell yourself that after you finish the hardest set (the top of the pyramid), it’ll only get easier.

Accommodating Complexes (AC)

You know yourself better than any coach, so why not figure out yourself how many reps you can do on each exercise?

For instance, say you can do 10 kettlebell swings, but only 3 snatches per arm, 8 goblet squats, and 15 Romanian deadlifts? Voila! You now have the perfect rep scheme for your kick-ass kettlebell complex.

Complex Drop Sets (DS)

Pick your exercises, sets, and reps; say 3 sets of 6 reps on every exercise.Now choose a challenging weight and get to work on your 3 sets.

At the end of 3 sets drop the movement that’s most challenging, or the one where you were closest to technical failure. For each set after that, move up in weight to challenge yourself and approximate the volume from the first 3 sets.

The Sandbag Complex

I’m a big fan of the sandbag. Adding in a rotational component to exercises makes it an awesome tool for athletes needing greater stability in all planes of motion.

In the video my athlete is using an 80-pound bag and he’s getting crushed by the end.

The cool thing about the sandbag is that it offers so many different options for holding it. While the barbell offers very little in the way of changing grips, with the sandbag we can shoulder it, hug it, crossbody hug it, and Zercher hold it. The possibilities are many, and each different grip or hold offers a different set of challenges.

Here’s an example:

Exercise Reps
A1 Split Clean 5/side
A2 Rotational Lunge 4/side
A3 Push Press 8
A4 Zercher Good Morning 8
A5 Shouldered Get-Up 2/side

The Kettlebell Complex

Everything is rosy when you have 2 hands firmly on a barbell, but it can be a different story when you’re forced to move unilaterally. The beautiful thing about many kettlebell movements is that they’re designed to be completed one hand at a time.

This complex forces you to brace for rotation, and can absolutely smoke your core. I use this with drop sets by working up to 3 sets of 5 reps and then dropping the hardest exercise, in this case, the Single Leg Romanian Deadlift Plus Row.

Once that beast is out, I move up in weight with my 'bells while thanking the Almighty for taking mercy on me, and move on.

Exercise Sets Reps
A1 One-Arm Swing 3 5 each *
A2 Threaded Lunge 3 5 each *
A3 SLRDL + Row 3 5 each *
A4 Strict Press 3 5 each *

* drop sets

The 2 Kettlebell Complex

This is one of my favorite complexes for developing strength. There aren’t many things harder than working with two heavy-ass kettlebells.

In no scientific way whatsoever, I’ve determined that a double-kettlebell front squat is just as difficult as a barbell front squat with twice the weight. Seriously though, even the strongest athletes wilt under two racked kettlebells.

In this video my athlete is on his 3-rep set as he descends the backside of the 1-5 pyramid illustrated below. Needless to say, he’s smoked.

Exercise Reps
A1 Double Clean 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
A2 Front Squat 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
A3 Push Press 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1
A4 Sumo Deadlift High Pull 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

And Now, Introducing Monkey Jumps

This complex features a move that I named monkey jumps a long time ago, before I had ever seen a real monkey in nature or a zoo, and it turns out monkeys don’t actually do this.

The name stays, though.

Monkey jumps are just the C exercises of this complex, and combine an alternating split jump with a high pull on each jump. They may look funny, but the truth is they actually have some carryover to the Olympic lifts as it mimics the timing of pulling yourself down to the bar.

Exercise Reps
A1 Snatch 5
A2 Split Jerk 5
A3 Monkey Jumps 5
A4 Renegade Rows 5

TRX Complex

If you ever get the urge to do a complex on a beach or in a forest (which I’m embarrassed to say has happened to me on more than one occasion), and don’t have access to your kettlebells and dumbbells, you’re basically out of luck. However, if you happened to have a suspension trainer with you, you’re ready to rock it out no matter where you find yourself.

This is a killer complex if you use it in an ascending fashion. In the video below I filmed my set of 5 reps as I worked up to 8 reps of each exercise.

Exercise Reps
A1 SHELC 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
A2 Push-Ups 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
A3 Core Worm 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
A4 Handstand Push-Ups 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8

The Obligatory Barbell Complex

You didn’t think that I’d leave this one out did you? Like Vin Diesel in The Fast and Furious series, you knew the barbell had to make an appearance, even if only for a moment at the end.

For this cameo I’m going way back in the archives to bring out the Javorek complex, appropriately named after its creator, Istvan (Steve) Javorek.

So how is the oldest complex in the book any different from the hundreds of complexes you have seen before?

Big ass weights.

Javorek writes of the need to do this complex at extremely high weights as a predictor of future performance. He tells tales of this complex being completed with 240 pounds by Romanian weightlifters, and 220-pound exploits by American record holders.

I personally witnessed my former Olympian coach complete this complex with over 200 pounds. After picking my jaw up from the floor and searching for my manhood, I completed this complex with 165 pounds. I went on to clean 330 pounds later that training cycle.

But in case you’re not going to the Olympics, there’s a very simple rule to follow to make sure this complex will challenge your strength and will: use 50% of your 1RM clean and jerk.

The 50% rule is what the best athletes are able to do with this 30-rep complex and it provides an indicator of what you’re capable of (with good technique) on the platform.

In the video below of the Javorek complex, I’m using 143 pounds (which is about 50% of my current 300-pound clean and jerk 1RM).

Exercise Reps
A1 Barbell Upright Row 6
A2 Barbell Muscle Snatch 6
A3 Back Squat to Push Press 6
A4 Good Morning 6
A5 Bent Over Row 6


Complexes are a fantastic, multifaceted tool, and using a variety of tools and many different rep schemes makes them even better.

When you’re stumped for a training session, crave some variety, or just want to punish yourself, there’s likely a complex for you. If you manage to get through all of these complexes, I’m certain that your next challenge will be how to design a complex of sleeping, eating, and napping.