Complexes: Burn Fat and Build Strength in Under 20 Minutes

If high-intensity cardio hooked up with weight training after a few too many tequilas, complexes would be their tough-as-nails lovechild. Complexes are a blend of cardio and strength work rolled into one brutally effective workout. As Dan John, elite-level strength and weightlifting coach, explains:

If I ever recommended a workout that cut fat and built muscle at the same time, I’m not sure I’d believe myself. After all the late night television hucksters, I’m not sure what to believe anymore.

But then, last week, a student came up to me during the transition of our workout and asked, “Coach, can I get a copy of all the complexes for my dad? The rest of the guys in the fire department want to do them, too.”

“Well, sure,” I said. “Why?”

“Coach, everybody’s getting huge.”

So, without buying a plastic gizmo or a DVD of me in a tank top sweating to bad music, let’s discuss complexes.

What Are Complexes?

A complex is a series of lifts done one after another with no break. As soon as you finish the reps of one lift, you immediately transition into the next. The barbell does not leave your hands or touch the floor until all lifts are completed. Complexes use one piece of equipment (typically a barbell). Exercises that are chosen allow for seamless transitions and flow of movements.

Benefits of Complexes

Complexes give you the benefits of both cardio and strength training in one quick and intense workout. Other benefits include:

  • Burn more fat: high-intensity workouts have been shown to burn more fat than a traditional moderate intensity session. You’ll also be burning more calories post-exercise.
  • Full-body workout: complexes are built around big compound movements like deadlifts, rows, cleans, military press, and squats. They work all the muscles you never knew existed.
  • They’re quick: you can get an awesome, brutally effective workout done in under 20 minutes.
  • Minimal space and equipment: it’s hard to do a circuit in some gyms. Most places are busy, so you can’t commandeer five different machines or pieces of equipment. If you have a barbell and some weights you’re good to go. You can also use dumbbells and kettlebells.

Complex Workout Examples

Alright, let’s take a look at the actual workouts. I’ll go over a range of different options.

Complexes using a barbell are more advanced, and you should be comfortable with all the exercises before attempting one. If you’re not confident with the barbell, there are other options. But barbell complexes are the most effective. Moving a loaded bar around your body for multiple exercises will make you question your sanity. It'll also prepare you for a fist fight with the Hulk or Wonder Women.

Mass Made Simple Complex

This is taken from Dan Jon’s book Mass Made Simple. It uses a loaded barbell for all exercises, which are:

  • Bent-over row (5 reps)
  • Hang power clean (5 reps)
  • Front squat (5 reps)
  • Shoulder press (5 reps)
  • Back squat (5 reps)
  • Good morning (5 reps)

Baltimore Ravens Workout - Weight Plate Metabolic Circuit

This complex uses a single weight plate, so it's good for beginners. The exercises used are:

  • Overhead squat (6-8 reps)
  • Swings (similar to kettlebell swings) (6-8 reps)
  • Bent-over row (6-8 reps)
  • Reverse lunge and twist (8-10 reps total)
  • Diagonal chops (6-8 reps each side)

Waterbury Complex

This complex uses dumbbells, so again, it’s good for beginners or people without access to a barbell. The exercises used are:

  • Reverse lunge (6 reps each leg)
  • Romanian deadlift (12 reps)
  • Good morning (12 reps)
  • Front squat (6 reps)
  • Military press (6 reps)
  • Bent-over row (6 reps)
  • Floor press (12 reps)

Fine Print: How to Do Complexes

Okay, you can use the above workout rep schemes or change workout variables to customise the complexes. Here are some details to get started:

  • Reps: if you want to focus on building strength, work in the 3-5 rep range. If you want more of a high-intensity cardio workout, use a higher rep range of around 8-12.
  • Sets: I recommend between 3-5 rounds through each complex. You’ll do all the exercises in the complex consecutively with no rest. That’s one round.
  • Rest interval: for 3-5 rep range take 3-5 minutes. For 8-12 rep range take 1-2 minutes.
  • Weight to use: pick the exercise you are weakest on to determine the weight. For example, if using the Mass Made Simple complex, the military press is usually the limiting lift. So, if you’re working in the 8-12 rep range, you’d pick a weight that allows you do 8-12 military presses. You use that weight for all exercises.
  • If doing a barbell complex, start with a dowel or unloaded bar to practice the transitions and movements.
  • Make sure you are comfortable with all the movements before attempting.
  • Always start off with a light weight.
  • This is not a CrossFit style workout where your form degenerates into a gorilla smashing a barbell on the floor. If you can’t maintain good form on all exercises, lighten the load.

Do Something – Anything!

Don’t just consume information. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you find this post useful. You’ve now got two choices: 1) close the screen and think ‘that’s nice’ and move on with your day or 2) pick a workout and test drive it. Start with an easy one. And as Nike says, just do it! Decision creates action. Action creates results.

I Need Your Help

I’ve also got a huge favour to ask of you. No, I don’t want your money. But will happily accept it! I’m trying to get this blog off the ground and I can’t do it without your help. Simply sharing this post on social media (you're so close to the share buttons—look down below) or emailing it to a friend makes a HUGE difference in my life. In return, I promise we can be best mates and you can reach out anytime. Seriously. If you need help with any health, fitness, or Jedi Knight goals you can contact me here.

You can also share some love by adding a comment below. Let me know if you’ve tried complexes or which one you’re going to try.

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