Complexes & Combo's: A Game Changer for the Time-Poor

The idea of combining exercises to increase intensity is nothing new, but recently I have encountered several completely different situations where using complexes are looking like the best option.

Some of these situations include running in to certain movement limitations that stop us using our regular conditioning tools, a need for short sharp workouts during a a particularly "busy season", training a large group of people with limited tools and simply to help learn how to move fluidly through some exercises.

So for those who haven't encountered these but find themselves relating, particularly with less and less time to get in an effective workout, this could be the solution until your schedule eases up again.

First let's explain the difference between a complex and a combo, as they can often be confused.


A complex is a set of exercises performed consecutively, often without putting down the tool being used (barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell ect). They have a multitude of uses, whether it be as a warm-up, as your main training, as a teaching tool and even in order to create a metabolic effect. Invented by Romanian Strength Coach, Istvam Jvorek, complexes have been used to improve the overall conditioning for elite athletes for years- credit to him for this one.


These are when we simply combine 2 or more exercises in to one, for example a dumbbell curl to shoulder press. What could easily be two separate exercises is now one, with one rep requiring you to curl the dumbbell AND transition it in to an overhead press.

How to Apply:

Both of these methods really allow you to get quite creative depending on the tools, time and space available to train, however there are a few things to consider:

1). Crap + Crap = More Crap

If you can't perform an exercise with great technique, it's probably not a great idea to combine it with another exercise just to up the intensity. Make sure you know how to do each lift first in order to get the most out of it and to keep your body healthy.

2). Don't Dilute Magic. Not all exercises need to be combined, some are going to be far more effective when performed properly on their own. Be selective with your choices but don't be afraid to experiment.

Gold star to anyone who can tell me what this scene is from.

3). K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid). Sound advice that comes around again and again. The idea is to be efficient not flashy. This isn't a problem I see too often outside of the instagram space but if it's getting too complicated and has too many steps, you may have gone a bit overboard.

4). Let it Flow. As a general rule when it comes to complexes, the end of one movement should flow seamlessly in to the next. For example with 'Complex A' written below, everything flows smoothly. It does not make sense to go from deadlifts to back-squats and then back over to hang cleans, it's non-sequential with too much effort spent transferring the bar front to back to front again. Aim for smooth and fluid.

5). Goldfish-Like Memory:

When performing complexes in particular, you want to keep both the amount of exercises involved and the rep range reasonably low. Despite what we tell ourselves, most of us can only concentrate one one thing at a time, so when we introduce several exercises together without rest, things have the potential to get missed. As a general rule, keep it to around 5 exercises or less and the rep range between 3-6 per exercise. This can be used as a progression tool too, as you get better at them you can increase the reps rather than the weight.


When considering your work to rest ratio you are likely going to want to look at a 1:2 style where you give yourself twice as long to recover as it took you to complete. We want the benefits of working hard, but we want to repeat those efforts, not giving yourself enough time to prepare for the next round is a good way to sell yourself short. How many rounds you do may depend on what you have available but I like at least 3 where possible and don't be afraid to do more than one complex in a session- there are a lot of factors that contribute to this for me to give an exact amount for you to do- after all this is the sort of thing you can do in a time crunch, just use what you have!


Barbell Complex A: This has been lifted straight from legendary strength coach, Dan John. If you're new to complexes but know how to perform these lifts properly, start with either an empty barbell or with some light weight and 3 reps of each exercise. If you've been lifting for some time still start with 3 reps but have a slightly heavier load.

And hey, if you don't know these exercises, take the time to learn them so you can string them together smoothly down the track.

Bent-Over Row Hang Power Clean

Front Squat

Military Press

Back Squat

Simple 1-Dumbbell Complex:

I love this one. You've got power, push, pull, knee and hip dominant exercises all rolled in to one- just remember you have to repeat on both sides. We've added pushup to the end as your grip strength may struggle by the end of this, also no one said we couldn't...

Dumbbell Snatch

Split Stance Bent-Over Row

Goblet Split Squat

Suitcase Single Leg Deadlift Pushups

Combo Examples :

Like I said, there's a degree of creativity here but you don't have to reinvent the wheel. keep it flowing, keep it simple.

Dumbbell Curl to Press

Dumbbell Clean to Front Squat

Barbell Sumo Deadlift High Pull

These don't have to feel like rocket science and can be a real game changer for a lot of people unsure of how to up the intensity with their training when conditions aren't allowing for the usual. I would love to see what you come up with here, be sure to tag me in any clips of you giving this a crack through instagram and facebook!

As always, thank you for reading! If you're still unsure of how to introduce these to your training or you'd like to know more, email me at or contact us via Instagram and we can chat about it.

This post was inspired by the work of great strength coaches Dan John, Mike Boyle and Brett Bartholomew.

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