In the 70’s Big Workshops I go into depth on the topic of conditioning and programming it in a strength program. I always mention barbell complexes and their effectiveness regarding conditioning, especially with a person who lacks conditioning.
Dan John is known for his use of complexes, and they can be traced back to Istvan “Steve” Javorek’s creativity. This article by John is a nice introduction to the complexes. Here is some stuff by Javorek, and this is a list of Dan John’s favorite complexes. A barbell complex has the lifter performing multiple reps at sub-maximal weight in different exercises. An example of one of John’s complexes is doing reps (5, for example) on a bent over row, power clean, front squat, military press, back squat, and good mornings. Running through each exercise at five reps each would be considered a “set”, and you would do 3 to 5 sets of them.
Barbell complexes are pretty useful for a few reasons. They have the lifter performing a lot of volume in a relatively short amount of time. If you did the above complex at 8 reps each, that’s almost 50 reps on your entire body. From a conditioning standpoint, complexes use a lot of musculature and keep the muscles working for 2 to 5 minutes at a time. This creates a deficit in energy substrates, and the deficit is the stress that the body adapts to over time to get conditioned. Also, the high reps on full range of motion lifts helps maintain lean body mass when in a conditioning phase, and potentially will increase the LBM as well.
Gant used barbell complexes and prowler work to condition for Judo season earlier this year to great success. Even though he dropped the big lifts (he was already strong and needed to cut to 220), he actually gained a bit of muscle while dropping body fat. Gant does really well with creating conditioning programs for combative sports, so if you ever need help, he’s the guy to talk to. He made a good point to me on the phone last night. If you are doing a complex for five sets (with roughly 50 reps per set), and each set you increase the weight 10 pounds, then you increase the tonnage by a ton (2000 lbs.) throughout the workout. And that’s not even counting the tonnage you’re doing with the movements themselves. It’s not surprising that he built some muscle doing a month of barbell complexes.
I differ from Dan John in that I don’t program barbell complexes for the sake of LBM or strength gain. Dan runs a high school weight room, so he has to have quick workouts to make progress and keep kids motivated — the logistics probably get hairy and I don’t have to worry about that. If I’m working with a person that is sedentary, de-trained, or just de-conditioned, I’ll get them strong for a few weeks and start introducing some basic conditioning where I vary up the work to rest ratio. I have used a pseudo barbell complex before, and it’s simply doing 5×5 squats, 5×5 presses, and 5×3 deadlifts at a lighter weight on the minute. This is challenging enough where the person gets a little sweaty and breathing hard, and then I once they do this a few times, I’ll make things more complicated. Generally speaking I’ll get someone strong, then use stuff like barbell complexes or interval training to start getting them conditioned.
Complexes are a great tool because of the higher rep volume the whole body receives. Because of this it can turn into a very effective conditioning tool. Plus it only requires the most basic gym equipment — a barbell. If you’re interested, try sticking in one of Dan John’s complexes after one of your training sessions. Start off lighter than you need to and take the rest breaks.
Last night I did a complex that I created. I haven’t been able to train a lot recently (lots of travel, contracting the plague, etc.) and don’t have access to a gym for a few days. I wanted some light, but thorough work on my body so that when I do get to a gym, I’m not too far behind. I also wanted to use a complex for some conditioning workout in the garage so that the Florida weather would provide extra stress. Turns out it was plenty.
I ended up doing five reps each of power cleans, front squats, presses, back squats, bent over rows, deadlifts, power jerks, back squats, and RDLs. I did that three times with 60kg (134 lbs.). The first set took me about 4 minutes. I rested 4 minutes in the garage (I wanted to have to recover in the heat/humidity), and the next set took me about 3.5 minutes, but I was sucking wind. Then I rested 5 or 6 minutes and finished the last set in about 4 minutes. Barely. Then I sprawled out in the A/C for 20 minutes.
I wouldn’t recommend doing something like that in your first conditioning workout. I have pretty good work capacity for a lifter and I also can adapt to things pretty quickly, but it still kicked my ass. If you haven’t been doing any conditioning, then it doesn’t take much stress to induce an adaptation. It’s always better to ease into things. Since my body went through that shock, I had a headache throughout last night.
In order to be “in shape”, the average lifter won’t need more than one or two conditioning workouts if you plan them well. Barbell complexes are already set up so that you don’t have to do a lot of planning or tweaking. If you have wanted to add some conditioning to your program and didn’t want to do any running, give complexes a try.
Complexes can be a good addition to any program. You can use them as assistance work, conditioning, or simply to add volume to your workout. Read the articles Justin linked and the list of Dan John’s complexes. If you must create your own, try to be reasonable. When I talked to Dan about them, he said “pass over your head once and don’t get stupid with the movements.” Can’t beat that.
My favorite one was Complex A for eights. I did this two ways. In one, I would work it like sets across with a five minute rest period (the minimum amount of time you get between judo matches). I can tell you now that five sets of Complex A at 60 kg will get your dander up in a big way.
The second way I did this was to do five sets and add weight each time, resting as necessary between sets. I worked up to 90kg, which was basically a three-minute slugfest.
Row x 8
Clean x 8
Front squat x 8
Military press x 8
Back squat x 8
Good mornings x 8