How to Use Complexes to Build Muscle & Burn Fat

Mike Sirani
Written By: Mike Sirani
October 3rd, 2017
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Training
23.5K Reads
How to Use Complexes to Build Muscle & Burn Fat
Complexes are the perfect tool for those looking to get more out of their workouts. Give these variations a try to maximize your muscle building & fat loss.

No one has ever said building muscle and losing fat was easy.

If you know anyone who has been successful at it, they’ll surely tell you it takes hours of hard work in the gym and thoughtful planning on how to balance your strength training and cardio to ensure you’re stimulating muscle growth while burning enough calories to lose fat.

Accomplishing this sounds simple and within reach until you hit a roadblock.

Maybe boredom sets in while on the treadmill, or you run into time constraints and only have a small window of time to get your cardio in.

Perhaps your body is banged up from your strength training and steady state training on the treadmill is only going to stress your joints more, so you start skipping your cardio sessions.

Sound familiar?

If any of the above scenarios have caused you to struggle to stay on track with your training, here’s one way you can get back on track and continue building muscle while burning body fat.

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Enter Complexes

A complex is a strength training method that involves completing a series of exercises performed in sequence with one implement (barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell). There are an endless amount of options and they can be altered to fit into almost any training program.

They’re also an excellent way for you to challenge yourself with extra strength training in a relatively safe manner, and they take much less time than your traditional strength training or cardio workout.

Related: Ditch the Cardio Deck - 4 Conditioning Workouts Using Weights

When looking at how to build muscle and lose fat from strictly a training standpoint, it requires manipulating two major variables: intensity and volume.

Intensity refers to lifting more weight, and volume is increasing the number of sets and reps that you complete each training session. Because most can’t spend all day in the gym, it’s wise to learn ways to lift more weight, for more sets and reps, in less time.

Complexes are your answer for accomplishing just that. Complexes allow you to lift more weight, for more reps, in a shorter period of time, while also elevating your heart rate, burning calories, and giving you an intense cardiovascular workout.

Complexes are also a great way for injured lifters to train with lifts they don’t normally get to perform because of the lighter weight, and for advanced lifters, they’re great for extra technique practice on lifts that need to be improved.

Why Complexes Are a Better Substitution for Low Intensity Cardio

Low intensity cardio and muscle gain don’t always go hand in hand. Using resistance training to flood your system with testosterone, growth hormone, and IGF-1 is the name of the game, and adding in workouts between your strength training where you perform easy treadmill walks will cause opposing hormones like cortisol to be released.

Female Athlete Performing Barbell Complexes

The catabolic effects of cortisol can hinder muscle growth. Knowing this, it’s smart to replace your low intensity cardio with complexes.

This will allow you to get the same hormonal benefits from resistance training with the added cardiovascular benefits and calorie burn you get from steady state cardio, minus the big cortisol release.

Simple Programming For Complexes

Complexes should be simple, quick, and challenging, but coming up with ways to put exercises in succession to create your complex can get overwhelming. In order to make creating a complex simple and ensure that it works, it’s wise to follow these basic guidelines:

  • Use the same implement for the entire complex.
  • Compound movements should be performed earlier in the complex.
  • Complexes can be lower body, upper body, or full body.
  • Complexes aren’t about speed. Perfect technique should always be a priority during each rep.
  • Put exercises in an order that logistically make sense.
  • Don’t put exercises with big weight differentials next to each other, there should be as little time spent changing weights as possible during the complex.

Where Do I Put Complexes In My Workout?

Another cool feature about training with complexes is that you can alter them to fit to different types of training programs with different goals. Whether you’re looking for strictly strength gain, building muscle, fat loss, or any combination of the three, there’s a way to tailor your complex to your specific goals. Take a look at the three examples below.

For those looking to use them as a means to increase strength:

  • Perform each exercise for 3-5 reps
  • Use heavier weight
  • Place at the beginning of your workout

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For those looking to use them as a means to burn more calories and lose fat while gaining muscle:

  • Perform each exercise for 6-8 reps
  • Use moderate weight
  • Place at the end of your workout as a conditioning tool

For those looking to get in extra strength training volume and use as cardio to replace steady state session:

  • Perform each exercise for 8-10
  • Use moderate weight
  • Put complexes on their own training day

Complex Examples

Now that you understand how complexes can help keep you out of a training rut and continue building muscle and burning body fat, some basic programming guidelines, and how to blend them into your current training program, take a look below at five examples that you can immediately plug into your workout routine.

Related: Kettlebell Cardio Complex To Smoke Fat & Improve Conditioning

Barbell Lower Body Complex

  • Hang Clean x5 reps
  • Front Squat x5 reps
  • Front Loaded Reverse Lunges x6/side
  • RDL x6
Kettlebell Full Body Complex

  • KB Swing x6
  • Goblet Squat x8
  • Alternating OH Press x8/side
  • Bent-Over Row x8
Dumbbell Full Body Complex

  • Goblet Squat x8
  • Split-Squats x8/side
  • Split-Stance 1-Arm Row x10/side
  • 1-Arm Floor Press x10/side
Landmine Full Body Complex

  • Squat x8
  • Press x8/side
  • Bent-Over Row x8/side
  • Reverse Lunges x8/side
Bodyweight Full Body Complex

  • Squat Jumps x6
  • Bodyweight Squat x8
  • Step-Through Lunges x6/ea/side
  • Push-Ups x8

Complex Review

What once started as a method to allow Olympic weightlifters to practice their technique has turned into an awesome way to help you reach your muscle building and fat loss goals more quickly.

Complexes are designed to help you do more work in a shorter period of time. When you do this, you’ll stimulate the right hormones for muscle growth and burn enough calories to help support your fat loss.

To get started, decide what piece of equipment you have access to or want to use, put your exercises together in an order that logistically makes sense, load up the weight, get to work, and reap the benefits.

Posted on: Thu, 03/28/2019 - 12:20

Hey Mike : excellent article !! got a question for you ...can I include those complex exercises in between sets ? I'm trying to burn some fat to get shredded

Posted on: Sun, 03/24/2019 - 15:54

Great! Info! Being able see what you were telling us, made all the difference to me! I would have skipped the reading if there was no accompanying visual! Thanks!!!!!!!!Will start this tomorrow