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.

Enter complexes. 

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.)

whats-inside-covers
===> 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.

HAVE SOME COMPLEX QUESTIONS? DROP ‘EM BELOW WITH THE HASHTAG #BANDANAARMY AND I’LL HIT YOU BACK LICKETY SPLIT. ALSO FELL FREE TO JUST DROP A HELLO. THOSE ARE NICE TOO.

LIKE THIS POST? Join the #BandanaArmy. We'll teach you how to fight tigers*.

* Do not fight any tigers, ever.

  • LSUGrad35

    I wanna be just like Rob when I grow up. One day I hope to rock a headband with such grace. I feel like these articles have me on that path to awesome. #BandanaArmy

    • BandanaTraining

      Haha. May we all walk on the path to ultimate awesomeness.

  • Jamie

    LOVE it! I need efficiency and results. Sounds like this will deliver and I like that I can do this at home and the gym! Win win! #BANDANAARMY

    • BandanaTraining

      Exactomundo. Lots of winning. Thanks for reading Jamie. #BandanaArmy

  • Cody Drimel

    That plate complex was fantastic in Savage… I loved cycling through the various workout days.. always good to switch it up!! #BandanaArmy

    • BandanaTraining

      That plate workout was an old favorite that originated in my wrestling days. Love that workout. Good stuff Cody. #BandanaArmy

  • TR-WA

    Love everything you write. Very motivating! #BandanaArmy

    • BandanaTraining

      Appreciate the kind words. Keep crushing. #BandanaArmy

  • Violet Mecum

    Definitely a reason gyms are a little frustrating. I’ve always lived in small towns with super small gyms. Plus it’s like a high school reunion at the gym, never mind trying to cycle through areas and equipment with people you hoped to never see again, hahaha. Thanks for the extra ideas and nerdy insight, always appreciated. #BandanaArmy

    • BandanaTraining

      Nerdy insight is what I do. Thanks for reading. Keep crushing Violet.

  • Ryan Shane

    I use some of your workouts when training some of the Veterans in my program who have time constraints. They are effective, creative, and motivating. From on CSCS to another, thank you for your educated approach to making exercise great again. #vetsrising #BandanaArmy

    • BandanaTraining

      Wow. That is awesome to hear Ryan. Appreciate the kind words and keep doing awesome things. #BandanaArmy

  • Elsa Toth

    Officially obsessed with this blog! Learning a ton and laughing along the way..thanks Rob!! Proud to join the #BandanaArmy

    • BandanaTraining

      oh gee, that is SO awesome to hear Elsa. Welcome aboard! #BandanaArmy

  • Dane

    The numerous circuits in the super villain program are terrific, especially suited for someone who has a garage/basement gym at home. Don’t need fancy equipment – just a plate, barbell, or dumbbell will do the trick. Thanks for the smart complexes! happy to be pet of the #BandanaArmy

    • BandanaTraining

      So true. Good stuff Dane – appreciate the kind words. Stay rad. #BandanaArmy

  • Claes

    Haven’t done any complexes in the past but that will change soon 😉 like tomorrow! BTW, How tall is that guy? He made you look so short 😉 No offence brother! #BandanaArmy

  • Christine Colvin

    Hey Rob, just sending some love from Berlin. Loving your new blog post. I’m finally back in the gym ✌?️??? hope to see you soon… maybe in NYC! Lots of love! ?? #BandanaTraining #BandanaArmy #BackAtItAgain

    • BandanaTraining

      haha. Yo Christine! Thanks for dropping a note – great to hear from you. Glad you’re back in the gym. Take care of Berlin for me…miss that crazy place.

  • NancyT.

    I like this Mr. Rob. Challenging work out in a small floor area. AND very doable st home, using my cheesey Craigslist free weights. You=Awesome. Thanks for keeping us strong.
    With love NancyT.

    • BandanaTraining

      Heck yea Nancy, that’s exactly right. Also perfect for hotel gyms where space if often limited. Thanks for the kind words. Stay rad.

  • I have a question that may sound super basic, but I’m being completely honest. You recommend doing the exercises from the most neurologically challenging to the least. In the video example, that means Squat Press first, Mountain Climbers last. I have exponentially better strength (mind over matter) for simple movements like the squat press when compared to explosive energy for movements like the Mountain Climbers. For me, Mountain Climbers are more or less the bane of my existence. Should I still progress like the example, or should I do the most difficult for ME first, ending with the least challenging for ME? #BandanaArmy

    • BandanaTraining

      Hey Monique…I think that’s a wonderfully thoughtful question. There’s not one right answer and mountain climbers are definitely difficult but I like to keep them at the end of a complex because you’re close to the ground and only moving your body weight so there’s low risk of injury (compared to having a weight overhead.) They’re also a simple exercise to speed up or slow down, depending on how well conditioned you are, so you can pretty easily self-regulate the intensity and push your conditioning to the max (before you get a rest.) Does all that make sense?

      • Thank you, yes, that makes perfect sense. I am excited to give this complex theory a try!

  • Matt

    Important info and a great workout that you can adjust for your own fitness level! Love dumbells, they’re so versatile, thanks for an awesome post Rob #BandanaArmy

    • BandanaTraining

      heck yea. Thanks for checking it out Matt. #BandanaArmy