Rebuild Yourself with Complexes
by Dan John
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.
It All Started When…
After eight years in a Catholic elementary school, I moved on to a public junior high school and discovered how sheltered my life had been. Southwood Junior High in South San Francisco was a far cry from the quiet confines of my parish school with the good Irish nuns.
One thing we did have at Southwood was a fabulously simple weight training program.
Our Southwood workout, was very straightforward:
Power clean x 8-6-4
Military press x 8-6-4
Front squat x 8-6-4
Bench press x 8-6-4
On one particular day, our instructor, Mr. Freeman, due to a short class period for an assembly, simplified things even more. We just had to do power cleans, military presses, and front squats for eight reps followed by a short rest as one’s partner did the three exercises. Then we’d do them for six reps before finishing with four.
Without the bench press, this workout sounded easy. He added one little thing, though: You couldn’t put the bar down once you started the three lifts.
It’s that back-to-back brutality that adds up, my friends. I choked on those last reps of the front squat trying to figure out where I left my lungs.
That was my first complex.
Going Back in Time
The roots of complexes are fairly deep. It reflects the peripheral heart action (PHA) workouts pioneered in the 1960s by Mr. America, Bob Gajda, who also assisted the legendary Sergio Olivia. You can find more about it in John McCallum’s Keys to Progress.
Here’s an example of one sequence from a PHA workout:
Front squat x 12
Cuddle sit-ups x 25
Curls x 10
Seated twists x 25
Wrestler’s bridge x 10
Then you rest and repeat the sequence four total times. You’d then do up to three or four other sequences during this workout. It had advantages, as it seemed to burn a lot of fat and covered every body part imaginable.
There’s an obvious problem with PHA. You have to have a lot of equipment, and it’s nice to be able to move from dumbbell to barbell to chin-up bar without having to wait or find the stuff you just left there a minute ago. Those of us who have trained in college gyms or public establishments know that equipment will literally walk away to another corner as you move from exercise to exercise.
For many of us who trained in the 1970s, the Universal Gym was the answer to this problem. I had football workouts that were simply this:
Leg extension/leg curl
After thirty seconds at each station, the coach would blow the whistle. We’d move over and continue training. This workout could accommodate a lot of athletes and, for what is was, this was a good workout.
The Nautilus machine workouts were also believed to improve cardiovascular condition by moving quickly from station to station. It also allowed the gym owners to shuttle clients out of the gym quickly, too.
Once again, if you have to find out anything and everything under the sun about weightlifting, pop open your copy of John Jesse’s Wrestling Physical Conditioning Encyclopedia. In its pages, you’ll find every variation, trick, and special equipment ever conceived for strength training. The chapters on circuit training and endurance cover many of the basic principles of complexes.
Complexes, the Javorek Way
In the past few years, Istvan “Steve” Javorek’s work with complexes has been stolen and repackaged many times. I have to make a short nod to something he notes on his website:
“From what I’ve heard, from the far end of Siberia to Iceland to California, thousands of coaches are performing with their athletes Javorek’s complex exercises, but some of them give credit to themselves. I really worked hard on developing these exercises and I like to share with everyone my ‘little secrets,’ just give credit to the ‘creator.’
“My original goal with the complex exercises was to find an efficient and aggressive method of performance enhancement that saves time and makes the program more enjoyable. If you choose to use these (in some form) with your athletes, be honest and call your new complex exercises ‘Variation to Javorek’s Complex Exercises.'”
Javorek’s complexes are brilliant and have all the keys to success for someone contemplating them.
Javorek’s Barbell Complex #1
Barbell upright row x 6
Barbell high pull snatch x 6
Barbell behind the head squat and push press x 6
Barbell behind the head good morning x 6
Barbell bent-over row x 6
More Complexes, More Pain
Another master of the complex is Alywn Cosgrove. After the Velocity Diet, I began doing Alwyn’s Afterburn II program and soon discovered that simply doing complexes on their own was one of the biggest oversights in my training career. I suggest you check your ego at the door before you begin Afterburn II. Alwyn’s insights include one variation for the busy person that I’ll address in a moment.
My definition of a complex is simple. A complex is a series of lifts back to back where you finish the reps of one lift before moving on to the next lift. The barbell only leaves your hand or touches the floor after all of the lifts are completed. Although you can do them with dumbbells or kettlebells, I argue that we only use barbells. Certainly, there’s great value in the other tools, but for getting athletes bigger, I like to use the heavier bar.
The key to organizing a complex is to make sure that the bar passes over your head in some kind of logical manner. In other words, if you do rows first, followed by back squats, how did the bar get there? I try to have the bar pass backwards over the head after a few lifts, but only pass forward again one time.
So, when you try these (it’s probably best to use a broomstick first), note that it’ll save you some effort if you think about the exercise transitions before you get too heavy.
For example, if you have a military press before a back squat, on the last military press rep, lower the weight to the back.
Take a minute to think them through before going for a max on these complexes.
Your rest periods should be longer than what you originally think. Like most of my workouts, these appear easy on paper.
The most difficult thing to consider is the rep range. For a fat burning hit and a massive conditioning bang, try doing sets of eight.
Complex A for Eights
Row x 8
Clean x 8
Front squat x 8
Military press x 8
Back squat x 8
Good mornings x 8
Gently place the bar on the ground and rest!
I like sets of three for adding mass to my young athletes. The more time under the bar, the more the body adapts by getting bigger. Moreover, it seems to also be most helpful on the playing field. When you watch a sophomore boy handle Complex A with 155 for three complexes of three reps each, you have to realize that this is a very strong human being, even if he’s just 15.
You can play with any rep variations you like, but I’ve found that eights and threes are the best. If you do five sets of eight, you probably won’t be doing much more in this workout. Three sets of three make an excellent pre-lift warm-up or, with heavier weights, can be used as a strength and mass building workout.
The sets seem to be almost geometric in the impact on the body. Err on the side of caution for the first few workouts before attempting more than three sets of complexes.
Alywn Cosgrove adds another variation that I use for strength building. Basically, you drop a rep each set and add weight. Now, be careful here, as the weights go up quickly.
Let’s look at Complex C with this variation:
Set 1: 8 reps with the bar, 45 pounds
Set 2: 7 reps with 65 pounds
Set 3: 6 reps with 85 pounds
Set 4: 5 reps with 105 pounds
Set 5: 4 reps with 125 pounds
Set 6: 3 reps with 145 pounds
Set 7: 2 reps with 165 pounds
Set 8: 1 rep with 185 pounds
Now, there’s an assumption here that you can snatch 185, then complete the workout. Again, on paper, this looks easy.
One other thing I like to do is to print out each complex in size 68 Arial font so that I can see the whole series on the ground in front of me. Place the sheet about three feet in front of the barbell and simply keep your mind on the exercise at hand. Use the sheet to remind you to move to the next exercise. With my large groups, I have the sheets all in plastic protectors, and we save them for weeks at a time.
The Select Six
Now it’s time I offer you my six favorite complexes. Note that each has six lifts and many of the exercises will be fairly familiar to all of you. If you don’t know how to do a lift, don’t do it.
Clean-grip high pull
Behind the neck press
Behind the neck press
Complexes Keep it Simple
I find that swimming through these three times a week eliminates boredom. If you only do them twice a week and play with the three reps schemes (eights, threes, and 8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1), you have 18 workout ideas that’ll last nine weeks.
When I sell this on late night TV, I’ll be the guy with the ponytail and spandex.