Most of us have heard of circuit training – a series of exercises done in sequence one-after-the-other with little to no break in between. It’s beautiful. It’s heart-pounding. It’s time-efficient.
But everyone is trying to get Heman these days and gyms can get a little crowded. When you’re working out at 6pm on a Thursday with the rest of the universe, it’s tough to commandeer 5 pieces of equipment. Plus, gyms aren’t always designed with circuit training in mind. If the leg press is 2 floors away from the seated row machine, a circuit with the two becomes a vision quest.
Complexes are a specific type of circuit training that utilizes one piece of equipment. So simple, right? Shit, we should call them simplexes.
So, a DB complex is a series of DB exercises done in sequence one-after-the-other with little to no break in between. Here’s a good example from The Super Villain Workout Phase 2:
We’ve already eliminated travel time and you only need one piece of equipment. Plus, they’re excellent for a home gym where space (and equipment) is often limited. But the real genius of complexes is the story of local vs. systemic fatigue. Let me explain…
When you do bicep curls, you fatigue your bicep (thank you Rob/captain obvious.) Even if you push to the extreme, the limiting factor has a lot to do with your bicep. There are many influences that play into our inability to do another bicep curl, but two of primary concern are high tissues concentrations of lactate and hydrogen ions – those little devils. A side effect of high lactate levels is an increase in the acidity of our muscles which inhibits our cells ability to produce energy. Hydrogen ions (ie…the acid) inhibit calcium binding to troponin (1) and interfere with cross-bridge formation (1). Who knew bicep science could get so heady? In a nutshell, our muscles don’t want to be acidic. The pathways in which we produce energy perform poorly in an acidic environment.
So let’s say as we near complete fatigue, we totally switch muscle groups. To the bench press!
If you immediately move on to fatigue your chest, again the limiting factors are all about your chest. Then you move on to the lats and glutes, and quads, and core. You end up accumulating all of this local fatigue, from each individual muscle group, which challenges your entire system. Dealing with all of these substrates is a systemic process. The workout has become greater than the sum of its parts.
But like anything else, there’s a smart way to program complexes and a dumb way to program them.
Let’s paint in broad strokes:
- Generally speaking, you want the exercises to progress from most neurologically demanding to least. As you progress through a complex, you accumulate fatigue. No sense on doing the most complex exercise when you’re the most fatigued.
- Safety is worth considering. This is the don’t-be-an-idiot clause. You probably don’t want to do a heavy overhead squat as the last exercise in your complex.
- The workout should flow. This reduces your rest time and makes the complex as efficient as possible.
Pro tip: You can play with rep ranges to account for the discrepancy in strength for different exercises. For example, if you have a DB drop lunge, a DB overhead press, a DB bent over row, a DB chest press, and a DB bicep curl, the bicep curl is probably going to be your most difficult lift. Now you can obviously switch out DB’s if you’d like, but you can help keep the weights heavy by adjusting your reps. You might do 10 drop lunges per side, but only 5 bicep curls.
Complexes are not an excuse for poor form because nothing is an excuse for poor form.
Complexes are awesome, efficient, and badass but you have to be thoughtful about how you create them. For an entire phase of kick-ass complexes, check out The Super Villain Workout – Phase 2 – SAVAGE (2 barbell, 2 dumbbell, one medball, and one plate complex) or the new AT HOME section of BeachFit (which sprinkles in some bodyweight exercises to dumbbell complexes and supersets.)
===> ALL ABOUT ‘DEM COMPLEXES, SON <===
(1) Fuchs, F., Y. Reddy, and F.N. Briggs. The interaction of cations with calcium binding site of troponin. biotin. biopsy. act 221:407-409. 1970.