Complex Conditioning

originally published Friday, July 22, 2011 9:46 AM

Many of my competitive lifters have the PA State Championships coming up next weekend and they've started to share with me that they think their conditioning is declining.  On one hand, I disagree- the're superbly conditioned for lifting heavy in a meet.  But I understand their concerns.  Some are doing Steve Pulcinella's StrongWoman contest in October, and others just want to get a little more cardiovascular capacity, and some, including me, need to lose bodyfat.  These goals require a bit more than heavy doubles and singles in the lifts; but we need to do conditioning in our workouts which won't effect our strength.  We do this through complexes with the barbell, dumbbells, and kettlebells.


Complexes aren't a new idea, and I won't go into much detail on their history, or as much of it as I know. They remain an effective tool for increasing your heart rate, burning fat, and making it easier to walk up the stairs.  A complex is, essentially, a mixture of exercises done without letting go of the bar (or DB or KB).  One I use most often in Athena Strength training is the Power Clean, FS, Push Press.  We'll do these in that order, or sometimes as a series of cleans, then squats, then presses.  Most often, we'll do three to five reps of each exercise for three to five sets without a rest.  For example, we will take the bar and do three cleans, followed immediately by three front squats, followed immediately by three push presses, then repeat as many times as necessary.  Sometimes we do a clean, then a squat, then a press, followed by a clean, then a squat, then a press, etc.  These simple, three exercise complexes are great as a finisher after the workout.  Jason L., a good friend of mine and a strength coach at a high school in Baltimore, loves the Bear, or a modified version of it.  He'll do a deadlift, hang clean, front squat, push press, back squat, push press, then do it all over again. 


Dan John and Istvan Javorek have their own, highly effective, versions of the complexes.  Javorek may be the most significant contributor to the use of the complex in contemporary strength and conditioning; he clearly has done much research and is a profound believer in their effectiveness.  I love using his dumbbell complexes, and they are a great alternative to the barbell complexes.  Dan John simply rocks, and he will kick your butt.  As for kettlebell complexes, you can do swings, snatches, cleans, renegade rows, etc. thrown in.  Make sure exercises flow into each other.  Glenn Pendlay also has a nice discussion on complexes here:


Personally, I enjoy the complexes because they give me a decent amount of work in a short amount of time.  I don't like keeping the bar at the same weight and doing multiple sets; I prefer to start low and go up each set.  One of my personal favorite complexes is three power snatches, three overhead squats, three behind the neck presses.  I'll start at 40 kg, and add 5 kg a set until I get to 70.  The only rest I take is the time it takes me to add weight to the bar. On occasion, I'll do sets of 5 or go up to 90.  I also like a bodyweight complex we did in wrestling practice:  push-ups, mountain climbers, knee-tuck jumps.  Start at 10 each and work your way down; or start at 15 or 20.  Better yet, get a partner, hit 5 double leg takedowns each, then do the complex from 10 down, get up, and drill another move, repeat the complex, then get up, drill a third move, then repeat the complex and rest.  


A few keys I've found to the effective use of complexes:  If they're a finisher, you don't have to go all out on them.  It's an exercise, a complement to your training, not a cause in itself.  The weights can vary session to session and time to time.  Keep your heart rate going, but stop if you feel short of breath or dizzy.  Passing out while training is not cool, nor is throwing up.  Also, choose an appropriate weight.  For conditioning, I rarely go over 70% of my best lift.  Make sure the conditioning complex doesn't become a strength workout; if you are doing complexes with 80% of your best clean, you probably can't clean enough and need some strength intervention.  Also, complexes are short and sweet.  They shouldn't last more than a few minutes.  Doing the Bear for 20 minutes is stupid.  If you want to do something for 20 minutes, go run a couple of miles.