Complex Training Made Simple

For simultaneously building muscle and burning fat, while getting a great conditioning hit, you simply can’t beat complexes.

Complexes are where you take one implement (usually a barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells) and, ideally, you don’t set them down until you’ve completed a series of movements.

And when I say movements, I mean big, total body movements, not little single muscle isolation movements.

Single muscle isolation movements are like detail brush work. Can you paint your house that way? Maybe, but it’ll take way longer than you suspect, and by the way, you’ve got traffic running through there causing wear and tear all the while.

Big movements (squat, lunge, hip hinge, press, pull) are like paint rollers. These let you cover a lot of area in very little time. These also work better to instill overall strength and coordination, meaning that you can actually take the strength that you’re building and use it in everyday life.

Plus, there’s just something about getting stronger for real world challenges that builds confidence.

My commercials for complexes are getting ready to air on late night TV soon. I have my hair in a ponytail, I’m wearing bike shorts, I gesture wildly with my arms, and all of my sentences end in an exclamation point!

I work with a lot of people across a wide range of abilities, and for almost everyone, I think that dumbbells are the best tool for the task. They’re more versatile than kettlebells and easier to handle than a barbell.

The barbell demands a lot of shoulder and wrist mobility and certain movements can be deal breakers. Plus, they take up a lot of space.

I like kettlebells, but the one potential deal breaker is that the bell can put a lot of pressure where it rests on the outside of the forearm. You can purchase wrist guards to solve this problem.

Next, let’s talk about effort.

Rather than going all out, gradually raise what feels like a 70 – 80% effort.

Do enough so that it feels like you’re working, but not so much that it wears you down. This is not “Oh, Deary, please be careful!” advice from Aunt Mildred.

This is what top performers and coaches know and practice.

The more you try to force your body to make an adaptation, the more it’s going to resist.

If you were to suddenly jump into one to two hours a day of all-out effort, how long do you think it would be before you quit?  The soreness, fatigue, and the mental grind would eventually win and you’d be posting memes about how your body likes tacos more than being fit.

What if, instead, you showed up and did just enough of the right kind of work (not just any old thing that pops to mind when you show up to the gym) to stimulate a response? Then that effort gets easier so you increase the weights or you pick more challenging body weight movements. Where do you think you’d be in six months or a year?

Little and often over the long haul wins every day and twice on Sunday.

A few notes:

A complex is a group of 3 – 5 movements strung together with little to no rest between them. Try not to set the weight(s) down until you’ve completed the complex. However, if you need to set the weight down in order to do things well, then take a short rest, then get back to work.

You want to move as much weight as possible while staying as fresh as possible. Do not chase tired. No sloppy reps.

Keeping the repetitions between five to eight reps will provide far more benefit than 15 to 20 “toning” reps. If you need to briefly set the weight down, or switch sides more frequently, that’s fine. If you need to go heavier for this to feel like a challenge, then go heavier.

For example, if you have a weight that you can only lift three or four times before you start to struggle, then just do two reps, switch sides, and then go again. You can even do single repetitions where you work one side, then the other with minimal rest and just go back and forth. Do that until you hit 5 to 8 repetitions per side, then go on to the next movement in the series.

This lets you keep moving safely, even with a weight that presents a significant challenge, and without it becoming a grind.

Don’t worry about getting “big ‘n’ bulky” doing complexes with lower reps. Avoiding strength training like this for fear of suddenly bulking up is like not driving your car out of fear of  becoming a top level NASCAR driver overnight. It’s just not going to happen.

The movement that you’re weakest on (usually overhead press) will determine what weight you use.

Complexes will light you up far more than you suspect. Allow for at least two minutes between rounds. This is a good time to do some mobility (usually hips or T-spine), shake out the arms and legs, and let your heart rate come back down.

When using a single dumbbell or kettlebell, I recommend switching back and forth after each movement as you run down the list rather than completing the entire circuit on one side. That makes it a little easier to keep the effort more consistent on both sides.

In general, doing single weight work solves a lot of problems and comes more easily to more people, so I showed that as an option for all of the movements.

For certain movements like deadlifts, two dumbbells are going to work better. The exercise police won’t stop you if you decide to do some of your complex with one weight and the rest of it with two.

Sample Complex 1

  1. Deadlift
  2. Row
  3. Overhead Press
  4. Reverse Lunge or Squat

Sample Complex 2  

  1. Deadlift
  2. Row
  3. Clean
  4. Front or Goblet Squat
  5. Overhead Press

Sample Complex 3

  1. Deadlift or Step Back Romanian Deadlift
  2. Bent Over Row
  3. Clean and Front Squat
  4. Overhead Press

Sample Complex 4

  1. Deadlift or Step Back Romanian Deadlift
  2. Clean and Press
  3. Squat

After you’ve completed 20 – 30 minutes of work, do a few minutes of abs or other correctives.

Hit the weights three to four times per week, walk, jog, or generally be active on your days off, eat like an adult most of the time, and good things should happen.

The week of November 25 – 29th I’m running a special on 513FIT classes!

It’s just for that week and it’s for new clients only.

Email Charlie at to secure your spot!

If you purchase a one month package for December, it’s 50% off ($50 to train three times per week or $35 to train twice per week for the month of December)

If you take part in the Thanksgiving Week Sale, you also have the option to purchase a one month package for January at 10% off ($90 to train three times per week or $68 to train twice per week).

So to recap, that would be:

$50 + $90 = $140 to train for December and January (three times per week)

$35 + $68 = $103 to train for December and January (two times per week)

Does this style of training really work? Hear what a few of my clients have to say.

To reserve your spot, email me at and start 2020 strong! 

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