Articles  >  Weightlifting Program Design
Using Complexes: When, How, and Why
Matt Foreman
May 11 2015

This article is going to be plain vanilla. No stories, motivational ideas, or team building strategies in here. Nope, this one is just a straightforward article about how to add complexes into your training.
Back in the late 80s, a Romanian coach named Istvan Javorek came to the United States and got a job working as a strength coach at Johnson County Community College in Kansas. Javorek was a big believer in complexes, which are barbell exercises that combine multiple movements into the same set. He used them extensively with the athletes he trained, and their popularity spread throughout the lifting community.
Here’s an extremely simple example of a complex: Power Snatch + Hang Snatch + Snatch + Overhead Squat
In other words, you’re performing all four of these movements without stopping. You do a power snatch, lower the bar down to the hang position and do a hang snatch, drop the bar and then go straight into a regular full snatch, and then do an additional overhead squat while you’ve already got the bar overhead. Then you drop the bar, and you’re done. That’s one rep. If you completed a set of three reps, you would basically be doing twelve movements (3 reps x 4 movements per rep = 12).
You’re doing these movements without stopping, but it’s not a timed-for-speed thing. Don’t go sprinting through a bunch of sloppy touch-and-go reps like a jackass. Every movement should be done with strict, correct technique. The amount of time between each movement should be just enough to make sure you’re properly set and ready to execute it.
There’s basically no limit to how you can use these, or how long/short you can make them. How much weight should you use? That depends on the type of complex. A general rule is this:
-       Long complexes = lighter weights
-       Short complexes = heavier weights
A short complex would be something like Hang Clean + Clean
Since this one only incorporates two movements, you would probably be able to use fairly heavy weights.
A long complex would be something like Clean Deadlift + Hang Clean + Power Clean + Clean + Front Squat
This one incorporates five movements, so the weights would need to be lighter. (As with everything, you can get carried away. Don’t go nuts and start designing complexes that incorporate nine different movements, at least not with the Olympic lifts.)
Got the basic idea? Cool. Now, here are a few complexes that have some value, in my opinion:
-       Clean Deadlift to the knees with two-second pause + Clean + Front Squat
o   The first movement should be paused right below the knee cap.
-       Hip Snatch + Snatch + Overhead Squat + Drop Snatch
o   Don’t confuse the Drop Snatch with the Snatch Balance. The Drop Snatch has no dip-and-drive at the beginning. Using a Drop Snatch in this complex will almost guarantee you’ll have to use light weights. But it’s a long complex anyway, so that’s part of the idea.
-       Behind-the-neck Jerk + Push Jerk + Jerk
o   The second and third movements are performed from the front of the shoulders.
-       3-position Snatch Pull + Hip Snatch + Snatch
-       Power Clean + Clean + Jerk
-       Snatch + Hip Snatch + Snatch
-       Front Squat + Jerk
Now, let’s have a Frequently Asked Questions section:
Can you use straps on these? Sure, if you want to. Personally, I like to stay away from straps in general, except for pulling assistance movements. There’s no reason you couldn’t perform these complexes without straps, although they could be really helpful when a completed snatch has to be lowered back down to hang or hip position.
How often should you incorporate them into your training? There’s no definitive guideline on that, but I think once a week is plenty.
Can you use jerk boxes for the jerk complexes? Yes. I personally hate jerk boxes, but I know they have some value and there are some successful programs that use them.
How many total sets/reps of these should I do in a workout? Like complexes themselves, there are several possibilities for sets and reps. If you’re using them as assistance after training a primary competition lift, I would use 4-5 sets of 2-3 reps. If you’re making them the primary lift of a workout, you could go up to 6-8 sets. The most important guideline is to make sure your technique stays correct. If you’re loading up the volume to the point where your form gets sloppy, you need to back it down. You don’t gain anything in this sport by practicing crappy movements.
What’s the main benefit of complexes? There are a few ways to answer that. First, there’s a conditioning factor. And when we use the word “conditioning” with weightlifters, we’re not talking about jogging for miles. We’re talking about building up a work capacity that directly applies to the Olympic lifts. Second, I think you can gain a lot of control over your technique by using complexes. Because you have to perform different movements in succession, your body develops a wider range of mastery. Third, complexes can provide a mental break from attacking heavy snatches and clean and jerks all the time. It can be good for variety, plain and simple.
Can I do complexes with dumbbells or kettlebells? Sure. You can do them with rocks or dead animal carcasses, as far as I’m concerned. But this is an article about Olympic weightlifting, so we’re staying with the barbell.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying complexes are the magic secret that will take you from a 80 kg snatch to a 115 kg snatch. To get that kind of progress, you have to spend a lot of time practicing snatches and increasing your squatting/pulling strength. Personally, I used complexes during the early years of my career. In my prime years, I didn’t do them at all.
Plus, you have to take a look at how much training time you have each week and rank your priorities. If you don’t know how to do the snatch and clean & jerk correctly and you only get a couple of chances during the week to work on them, you’d better spend most of your time doing the snatch and clean & jerk.
But when the time is right, these little suckers can really hit the spot.

For more on weightlifting complexes, see the article Complexes by Greg Everett in the Performance Menu
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May 11 2015
Matt, why do you say you dislike jerk boxes? I have never used them personally, but have always wanted to as I feel they would allow me to heavier weights for a couple reps that I would have trouble lowering if I was just in a rack. A quick search brought up this article ( where Greg seems to be a proponent of them for this very reason. Just wondering why you say you dislike them.

Greg Everett
May 11 2015
It's because Matt's stupid and I'm smart.
In truth, I definitely prefer lifters to go without blocks even when doing reps, but some can't do it for various reasons (like elbow pain due to wide grips, etc), in which case I'd much rather get the work done on the blocks than not at all.
Matt Foreman
May 11 2015
AJ- I think there's tremendous benefit that comes from bringing the bar back down to your shoulders when doing jerks (up to a certain point, of course). That's the main reason I don't like boxes. But as I mentioned in the article, I realize that there's some benefit to them, and it's exactly what Greg described in comment above. He and I are in agreement about boxes. I'm just a nice person who loves others. That's the only difference.