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Legitimate complex training isn’t something often performed by the regular gym goer. Nor is it something seen that often in your everyday chain gym in general. Suited more toward athletes than bodybuilders, complex training is a workout style geared toward generating and increasing maximum explosive power. If improving your speed and athleticism is a goal of yours, this might be something to add to your program.
Many in today’s fitness industry make the mistake of confusing complex training with circuit training. Circuit training is performing sets of multiple exercises back-to-back, only stopping to rest once you’ve completed an entire “round”. Complex training, on the other hand, is coupling a set of a heavy exercise with a set of a light, explosive exercise.
Taking advantage of a concept called post-activation potentiation (introduced to North American strength coaches by Yuri Verhkoshansky in the mid-1980s), it seeks to take advantage of a muscle’s contractile history.
Explosive power is only generated when muscle fibers are contracted quickly, and these fast contractions result from CNS efficiency. Doing a heavy set directly before to an explosive set sort of “fires up” the CNS, making it prone to be able to contract your muscles in a powerful fashion.
For example, say you did a set of heavy (85% of 1RM) squats immediately followed by a set of jump squats. Though it might seem that your jump squats would suffer from the fatigue created by having just done the heavy squats, the truth is that jump squat performance will usually improve. This is because the heavy squats activated fast twitch muscle fibers (responsible for explosive power) and stimulated the CNS so as to contract your leg muscles harder and faster, letting you jump higher.
Whether or not you should add complex training to your program really depends on your goals. If you’re a bodybuilder, looking to get lean, or are interested mainly in just being healthy, it’s not going to serve much of a purpose for you. As the primary (and really only) function of this style of training is to maximize explosive power output, it’s really only suitable for athletes. However, even then it’s not always a fit.
To really be able to take advantage of complex training, your sport or activity should be geared towards being explosive. At the very least, bursts of power need to be an element. Examples could include baseball, boxing, MMA, American football, and all track & field events. If your sport or activity is primarily endurance-based, such as distance cycling or cross-country running, then it’s not going to do much for you.
It also bears mentioning that this style of workout won’t do much for you if you’re not already at least moderately strong. You can’t maximize CNS efficiency and contract muscle fibers as hard/fast as possible if you can’t already contract said muscle fibers hard (a function of strength) in the first place. If you’re not already squatting 1.5-2x and bench pressing 1.25-1.5x your body weight, leave this be for now and spend time getting stronger, first.
Though complexes are generally performed with a heavy barbell movement immediately followed by a plyometric movement, most anything can work. You just have to make sure that first (heavy) exercise limits you to 5-6 reps, while the subsequent (explosive) exercise can be performed for another 5-6 reps as explosively as possible.
Some sample pairings could be:
Keep your complexes as close to the beginning of your workout as possible, so they can be done when your CNS is still the freshest. Rest as least 3 minutes between sets and perform no more than 3-5 sets per workout as this minimizes the risk of CNS burnout.
Complex training isn’t complicated, but it can be brutally effective. By coupling heavy work with explosive work, you can maximize your CNS, and actually improve your performance over if you did either individually. It really only has a place in your routine if you’re an athlete competing in an explosive sport, but it can radically improve how much you get out of your workouts.