Complexes for Fat Loss

by on August 6, 2013

August 2013: Complexes for Fat Loss

The simultaneous effort for maintaining or even building strength and muscle, along with burning fat has eluded many. For good reason – usually they’re two territories that have very little carryover. Training for strength usually means heavy weights, moderately high rest intervals, and limited fat burning potential as a result. On the same note, training for size definitely means lifting with more volume, and since the rest intervals are kept on the lower end, it can make for total muscle exhaustion (in a good way) and even resultant fat loss due to the metabolic stress. This is one of Mountain Dog’s secrets to eliminating traditional cardio during fat loss phases. Unfortunately, the lifter’s strength and overall look of the muscle (think about a dense gnarly looking muscle) can often drop due to the focus on isolation, cosmetic gain, and higher rep training if it is done improperly.

I want you to consider a few key points as we move forward in the discussion on complexes.

  1. You may not have the recuperative capacity built up just yet to train as frequently as the Mountain Dog program can often build up to, so this is a great substitute to get you there. These can be subbed for the extra weight days.
  2. You can toss traditional cardio out the window in favor of these as well. Forget doing these fasted, or at any special times. Just bust ass when you do them and you will reap the metabolic benefit.
  3. You get the health and cardiovascular benefits from these that you might lose by skipping out on traditional cardio, so we improve our overall health.

Read on.

This is my way of putting it all together.

Of course, there is no be all and end all to workout methods that kill two (or three) birds with one stone – but I have to say I’ve become intrigued with complexes.

Using barbell or dumbbell complexes as part of training for fat loss is quite effective when it comes to leaning out. If nutrition is sound, I would also dare say that you will retain or even grow muscle. No more loss of leg size due to continual stepmill walking! To do them, you choose a series of exercises. 4 to 5 movements is usually a good place to start, depending on the difficulty of the exercises. It also helps if the movements “flow together” (more on that later). You then perform a set of each exercise successively without putting the weight down between exercises. It’s a true burner, regardless of the movements you choose.

There are many reasons why they work so well for conditioning training:

  • They increase total time spent under tension which can aid fat loss and hormonal release
  • They ramp up the metabolic demand and can take a lifter to EPOC, also an aid to fat loss
  • They improve grip strength
  • They’re just plain hard. The body will apply the SAID principle like no tomorrow when complexes are in the mix.

Again, when the goal is to keep as many components of strength, size, and conditioning in play (and by that I don’t mean improve each –that’s just impossible – rather maintain certain capacities while improving the others, and not having a nosedive in any) there’s only so much we can do, but complexes can be used as a tool to do just that.

Oh, sorry. HEAVY complexes.

This will help challenge the muscles with a submaximal load, but keep them exposed to lifting heavy weight, while fatigued. Since we’re on the Mountain Dog’s website, I’m assuming most reading this are at least intermediate trainees. Having said that, you know how to stay safe in the weight room and what thresholds not to cross. But as a disclaimer, I’d like to state that if you’re a complete beginner, this isn’t the article for you. Heavy complexes aren’t for the faint of heart, and you should have already achieved a solid training foundation before attempting these.

The Movements

Of course, when choosing exercises for heavy complexes, isolation movements like biceps curls or lateral raises are going to be out. Try to use the most compound movements you can. That’ll tax the most energy from your body, allow you to put the most weight on the bar, and resultantly turn you into a beast. Here are some not surprising examples of good exercise choices:

  • Back squat
  • Front squat
  • Standing press
  • Hang cleans
  • Deadlifts
  • Bentover Rows
  • Romanian Deadlifts
  • Split Squat (bar on back)
  • Push Press
  • Snatch
  • Overhead Squat
  • High pulls

Since complexes are performed standing, it’s pretty clear that the key movements will tend to follow a vertical push or pull scheme. In this case, barbells definitely work better than dumbbells too, since it’s easier to load up using the bar. It’s okay to double up on muscle groups used per complex, like a front squat and a back squat in the same set of exercises. Really and truly, everything goes when it comes to these bad boys.

As a side note, I’d like to make a point to say that barbell complex work and vertical plane barbell work in general can act as a compressor to the spine and vertebral discs. After a workout involving barbell complexes, I’d highly recommend a decompressive, vertical “overhead pull” exercise for a few sets to follow to help reduce back compression. This can be accomplished in the form of a pull up, lat pull down, or hanging leg raise.

Organization and Rep Ranges

Since its heavy lifting time, it would be ideal to have a lower rep range. Of course, that would definitely be subject to the exercises you choose. In typical complexes, both using barbells and dumbbells, it’s often recommended to stay uniform during the entire series of exercises, for example 8 or 10 reps for each movement in the complex. The problem with applying this point is that when stronger movements are performed, they could be coming along for a free ride, since the weight being lifted will facilitate your weakest movement selected be performed for the same 8 to 10 reps.

That’s why (if there’s a range of difficulty in the complex exercises, for example an upright row versus a back squat) it would be a good idea to make sure that your strongest movements are performed for more reps than your weakest ones. This way the weight will be used to its full potential. An example would be a complex with 135lbs, using a Romanian deadlift, hang snatch, strict press, and back squat. All these exercises would typically bring out a very different number of reps with the same weight. Off the cuff, an idea of rep ranges for a complex like this may be something like:

RDL’s — 10 reps

Hang Snatch — 5 reps

Strict Press — 6 reps

Back Squat — 10 reps

As mentioned above, making sure the movements “flow” together nicely will only make life easier for you. Mountain Dog preaches exercise sequence, and for complexes it is equally as important. As you saw in the example above, the movements follow something of a progression from one body position to the next. It would have been a bad idea to start with back squats, for instance, and then get the 150lb barbell off the back and in in front of the body for a set of snatches, deadlifts or presses. Not only would there be greater injury risk, but also tons of energy would be wasted. Knowing this, starting “from the ground up” would be a good idea. A progression like deadlifts, bent over rows, cleans, front squats would be a decent group of exercises. Watch my anguish when performing just that in the video below with 185lbs.

In the video, the movements’ difficulty is all relatively similar, so I stuck with a uniform 5 reps per exercise. Looking back however, I could have added more reps to the deadlift and front squat.

Speaking of squats, an easy way to double up on the leg attack is to add more than one leg dominant move to the complex. Again, the video below shows a complex that contains both a front squat and a back squat. I used 205lbs for this one, and stuck to 5 reps – the squat sets could have possibly been around 7 reps, but I believe I was being overly cautious.


Complexes don’t necessarily have to comprise of a lengthy series of exercises. Sets of 2 to 3 exercises suffice too – especially if you would like to perform complexes as part of a single muscle group isolation workout. Barbell and dumbbell complexes for the back are especially effective (think Barbell deadlift – 8 reps, Barbell Pendlay Row – 6 reps), and as a by-product they train the grip strength due to constant tension in the forearms from holding heavy weight for a length of time.

Due to the demands of a complex of exercises versus a typical compartmentalized workout system, I’ll always advocate to rest as long as necessary between rounds of complexes – especially when lifting heavy weight with them.

Some more isolation complex ideas:

  • Barbell Snatch – Barbell Push press
  • Hang Clean – High pull
  • Yates Row – Bentover Row
  • Goblet Squat – split squat (single arm carry)
  • Seated DB clean – Seated DB Shoulder Press

Typically, I like to arrange complexes as their own workout, especially if applying the total body approach seen earlier. That means I don’t schedule anything else to be done after 5 or 6 rounds of heavy complexes. That said, use your discretion. If you’re a soldier, feel free to add in 3 to 4 sets of 10 to 12 reps of basic isolation movements. Choose 4 more exercises and perform them as 2 supersets. Rest as long as needed between supersets – you’ve worked hard today!

It Doesn’t Need to be Complex

All corniness aside, the truth is simple. If you want to make complexes cater a little more completely to your size building goals and strength training maintenance, you just have to monitor the weight and give some critical thinking to your exercise selections and rep ranges. You’ll be glad you did. The good news is, you’ll be sporting a body that Superman would covet in no time. The bad news is, complexes are brutal and will leave you breathing heavy for the rest of the week – but hey, it’s all worth it in the end. And let’s face it; losing your strength and size gains while trying to get lean? Ain’t nobody got time fo’ dat!!

Until next time!

Lee Boyce

Lee BoyceLee Boyce is based in Toronto, Canada, and works with strength training and preventive care clients. He is the owner of and is a contributing author to many major publications including Musclemag, TNATION, Men’s Health, and Men’s Fitness. Check out his website and be sure to follow him on twitter @coachleeboyce.