Simplifying training with weightlifting complexes

Training is often thought of in terms of exercises. Exercises might be the building blocks of training, but as Vern wrote about today, it isn’t about the exercise. Good programs stand out more from the continuity and progression between each exercises. They look at the synergies created by exercises rather than how an exercise works in isolation.

This can be a difficult shift in mindset since most coaches, myself included, have a default focus of the exercise. One tool I have found helpful here are complexes. A weightlifting complex is a series of movements performed in one large and continuous set. Nick Garcia has his popular dumbbell complexes, and weightlifters have an even deeper arsenal of barbell options. Lifting complexes are valuable because the “exercise” itself is a combination of exercises. In other words, you can’t design a complex without thinking about synergies. The name might be complex

» Related content: Weightlifter and coach Mona de Lacey explains how to use complexes in programming and walks through 15 examples for coaches to learn from in our latest member video lesson.

The many benefits of complexes

Getting the most out a complex starts with identifying your goal. Weightlifting coach Greg Everett has highlighted five key benefits of complexes:

  • Error correction
  • Volume accumulation
  • Element emphasis
  • Pre-fatigue/Increased demand
  • Efficiency

Which of the above elements are you aiming for? This is a simple question, but in the monkey-see monkey-do era of social media, this question is too often overlooked. Complexes are getting more visibility than ever, but they are often seen as challenges rather than tools. Viewed this way, athletes think about surviving a certain complex, rather than what they get out of it. Taking a step back to look at the purpose and benefits of a complex will make it exponentially more effective.

Complexes for non-lifters

As a non-weightlifter I typically use complexes for one reason on Everett’s list: element emphasis. I have found complexes can be the most effective for my athletes here. I might want to emphasize an element for strength purposes, technical purposes, or both (again it comes back to synergies). Either way, it is allows me to focus on the movement. As Wil Fleming put it on this week’s podcast: “you see where the problem is, get into, and work on it . . . complexes can help you spend a little more time in the spot that we are having trouble with.”

The nice thing about element emphasis is that it is the environment that is doing the emphasis, not the coach or what they say. Kevin Becker’s video lesson on feedback talks about how coaches can improve cueing, and Wil Fleming gave some practice examples on the podcast as well. Internal cues (“squeeze the lats”) can help, external cues (“push the floor away”) are often more effective, but creating the right environment or using constraints can be more effective than words. That is what complexes do. The classic motor learning approach of whole-part-whole tries to isolate and improve the issue before integrating it back into the whole movement. Complexes accomplish the whole-part-whole in the course of one set. As Everrett explains:

“Complexes allow the practice of a given element in need of work immediately prior to the lift in which it needs correction, and then the attempted integration of that corrected element into the lift itself. This is arguably the most effective error correction strategy available. It largely circumvents the conscious brain, which is often the nearly insurmountable problem.”

Be creative

In our latest video lesson Mona Pretorius de Lacey gives 15 examples of complexes, each one’s purpose, and how they can fit into a program. But these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. There are a limited number of weightlifting movements, but an unlimited number of complexes as you can mix and match different variations into all kinds of combinations. Start with a purpose, then be creative and try out some complexes to see how they work. As with any coaching in general, creativity is the key to success.