Complex Training & Combination Lifting
Complex Training is a great way to get the body working as a unit & to build full body strength, power, and athleticism. Although isolation exercises are also important at certain times, big compound exercises are crucial to getting the most bang for your buck during training.
In life, and most sports for that matter, we rarely isolate one area of the body. So, why train your body in such a way? Combo lifts are when you combine at least 2 exercises together.
Combo lifts are often done when you perform 1 rep of an exercise + another, then repeat. For example, Curl the Dumbbells + Overhead Press. Some of these exercises such as the Barbell Clean & Press are often considered one movement, but I will include them below.
Here are some of my favorite combo lifts:
- DB Curl & Press
- KB / BB Clean & Press
- Romanian Dead Lift (RDL) + BB Row
- Parallel Bar Dip + Leg Raise
- Pull Up + Hanging Leg Raise
- DB Lunge + Curl
- DB Lunge + Overhead Press
- Burpee + Pull Ups
- Sandbag Thruster
- Sandbag Burpee + Shouldering
- Sandbag Clean & Press
- Barbell Push Up + Power Clean
- Barbell Push Up + Sumo DL
There are many others and you can create them on your own & get creative. A combo lift will get your heart rate elevated and can be used with heavy weights or light weights. Some combos lend themselves to heavyweights & vice versa. You can do a workout that has only combo lifts (good for max repetition day or a day focused on GPP). Or you can include one or two of them into your supplementary lifts after doing a max effort exercise. The possibilities are endless and, as always, limited only by your imagination.
This is where you use a barbell, kettlebell, sandbag or dumbbell and perform several exercises for time, sets, total reps. Coach Istvan Javorek has great resources online for this. I actually first saw Barbell Complexes when I was 13 years old in Israel, in Andre’s home gym. If you’ve read my Encyclopedia of Underground Strength, Andrei is referred to as Andre The Giant. Andrei was a former Romanian Weightlifter. When I first saw him training, I remember to this day how aggressive he was, how explosive he was – he was just destroying his workout with fury and rage!
I saw Andrei performing clean variations and then going into jump squats with the bar on his back. I saw Andrei performing RDLs and then bent over rows and then shrugs. I love using complexes for my combat athletes or any athlete who needs strength & power endurance for time.
For example, swimmers need muscular endurance for their specific event. If we know they need endurance for 2 minutes, I will incorporate a few sets of complexes that last approximately 2 minutes.
Lighter weights can be used, and sometimes moderate weights. Advanced lifters can use heavy weights. Once again, the weight is chosen and time spent moving, all depends on your goals and fitness level.
Barbell Complex Routine
- Stiff Leg Deadlift (RDL) x 6 reps
- Sumo Deadlift x 6
- Bent Over Row x 6 reps
- Clean & Press x 6
- Back Squat x 6
- Reverse Lunges x 6 ea. leg
- Shrugs x 6 reps
Each of the above exercises is done non-stop, never letting go of the bar. As you can imagine, such a complex will fry your grip quickly so start with light weights.
You can add more exercises to the above complex such as high pulls or if you’re going light, some curls or overhead triceps work.
Many athletes can start with the empty bar and then make small jumps in weight, 5 pounds on each side. Aim to start with 3 rounds of the complex, resting approximately 2 minutes between each round.
You can also do a shorter complex with heavier weight for strength endurance, lighter weight for power endurance. Here is an example:
- 1A) Clean & Jerk from the Floor x 3
- 1B) Hang Clean x 3
- 1C) Front Squat x 3
- 1D) Squat Jump x 3 (Barbell on Back)
- 1E) Bent Over Row x 3
The lower reps allow you to go heavier for strength, or lighter for more explosive power work. Your conditioning & muscular endurance will improve.
More variations to perform the above complexes are as follows:
- Add more reps for each exercise
- Continue the Complex until prescribed time (i.e. – 3 minutes non-stop)
Dumbbell Complex Circuit:
- Double Hammer Curls x 8 reps
- Standing Push Press x 8 reps
- Walking lunges x 8 reps ea leg
- Bent Over Laterals x 8
- Squats (DBs racked on shoulders) x 8
- Bent Over Rows x 8
- RDL’s x 8
- High Pulls x 8
Once again, repeat the complex for a certain number of total sets or for a total time. For instance, 3 minutes, maybe more, depending on your goals. I love doing these at the end of a workout because I can focus on a heavy or speed lift and then go to the conditioning work. The complexes place the body & mind under a great deal of stress forcing the entire body to work. This style of training is very effective for those who are short on time. You get a LOT of work done in a short time period.
1 Arm DB or KB Complex
If you only have one dumbbell, then no worries, you can do a great complex using one dumbbell (or one kettlebell). Perform the exercise for your weaker side first. Perform all the exercises below for equal reps for each arm/leg. During unilateral work, make sure you achieve equal reps on both sides of the body.
I call this The Combat Complex. I have done this with a 70 lb Kettlebell and it is brutal! This is done 1 arm at a time.
- 1A) Snatch x 5 / 5
- 1B) Clean & Press x 5 / 5
- 1C) 1 Arm Row x 5 / 5
- 1D) Goblet Squat x 10
- 1E) Reverse Lunge x 5 / 5
- 1F) Swings x 10
In my earlier years of training athletes form the garage, I would speak with Louie Simmons about training wrestlers and MMA fighters on a weekly basis. I would get a break from teaching during my prep period and every week I’d call Louie.
Louie got into the details of his training with Kevin Randleman. These were the years of very early MMA fighting which was often times referred to as NHB, No Holds Barred Fighting. Randleman was a National Champ wrestler from Ohio state who was famous for his ground and pound style, but he struggled during fights if they went to the ground.
Louie would have Kevin perform DB presses from a bench, the floor or a physio ball for up to10 minutes because Randleman would get submitted from the ground. During NBH or Pride fighting days, there were sometimes no time limits, just 1 round of fighting until someone was knocked out or submitted.
Louie also had Randleman perform 10 minutes of a BB Complex, 1 time through every 30 seconds with 205 lbs which were around what Randleman fought at:
- Clean & Jerk x 1
- Hang Clean & Jerk x 1
- Hang Clean x 1
The above 205lb BB complex was repeated for 10 minutes. Of crucial importance is that understand that your strength & conditioning cannot replace a deficit in technique for sport. Randleman needed to immerse himself in BJJ. He was already a world class wrestler, but his ground game needed the focus.
In sports, you must attack your weak areas. The same thing goes for your strength & conditioning program. I want you to LEARN, then you can THINK for yourself. You don’t need me or anyone writing your workouts. You can assess your performance or if you’re a coach, you must know why your athletes fail to succeed. What are their shortcomings? Attack those weak points.
The timed component can be similar to your sport giving you a General – Specific application to your sport. You can choose movements that are similar in nature to your sport sometimes as well.
Prior to any workout, we warm up with a circuit. This warm-up circuit changes but below is just 1 example. A solid warm-up has proven to be priceless in improving athleticism and work capacity.
- jog forwards / backpedal x 100 ft ea.
- butt kicks / high knees x 100 ft
- skip forwards / backwards x 100 ft
- hop left / right x 100 ft
- shuffle sideways left / right x 100 ft each direction
- acceleration x 50 ft into tempo run x 100 ft followed by backpedaling: 3 x in a row
- walking lunges x 100 ft
- band pull apart x 15 / 15 overhand/underhand
- pushups x 15 w/ hands on a stability ball
- squats x 10
- Bulgarian split squat x 10 / 10
- Side Plank x 30-sec each side
- Recline Row x 10
- Sled Drags x 100 ft
** foam roll if necessary before or after warming up to alleviate any tight areas **
The above warm-up looks like it could take forever, but it only takes 5 – 7 minutes and we often go through this for 2 rounds. If you’re more advanced there’s more work like 1 Arm KB Carries, jumping rope, more ab work, and then we go into the jump training and/or med ball throws for power.
The warm-up is learned very quickly. It’s often how I teach athletes on their first 2 – 3 sessions, just going through the warm up a few times. It’s also a great way to encourage athletes to perform parts of the warm-up at home on their own and it works great to improve their strength and work capacity.
Most of the time, I see athletes 2 – 3 x week, even at the college level. The beginner, weaker athletes need calisthenics EVERY DAY. I tell the beginners to do calisthenics before and after school, then again at night after dinner. Those who follow through, make progress much faster.
When I trained athletes from my house, I would get them outdoors in my backyard for a timed circuit. The Wrestlers did one type of circuit and the football players had more of a heavy circuit.
Strength Workout for the wrestlers:
Repeat 3–5 x depending on the time available:
- Rope climb (15 ft rope) – one ascent, come down under control. Hand over hand, no sliding down!
- log carry and squat-walk 25 ft, perform 5 reps of log squats, walk back 25 ft, perform 5 reps of squats again.
- Overhead sledgehammer swings x 20, alternate top hand at 10 reps.
- Sprint 3 lap around the yard in each direction (lasts approx. 30 seconds)
This circuit can be done at a playground if you have a shorter, portable climbing rope.
The first time through, we give the athlete a break after each round. As they progress, there is no resting with the backyard Underground Strength Circuit. This is excellent for what I call “loaded conditioning”. This is what happens during many combative sports and field sports, you constantly push, pull and move against another person (a weighted object). So, why not train in such a fashion using complexes and circuits?
You can add a Kettlebell (KB) exercise to this backyard circuit. This could be a clean and press, a row, a snatch. A full body KB exercise would be a great addition to this circuit. Other times I’ve added drilling so our wrestlers could drill technique while training.
It was a unique blend for them to learn to apply sports skills while under fatigue. It challenged them to maintain proper positions and technique under fatigue, which is what the best athletes can do.
When we first started utilizing this backyard workout, we didn’t count sets, we went for the time. Our first week was 8 minutes, the next week was 12 minutes, the third was 16 minutes and finally, we hit 20 minutes. The 5th week we went back down to 10 minutes, then 15 minutes the next week, 20 minutes the next time.
We changed up when we hit the circuit as well. Sometimes before hitting the heavy garage lifting, sometimes after the garage lifting. I remember once taking the guys to drag sleds for 10 minutes before they did squats. Normally, we saved sleds for the end. The athletes were destroyed and had no energy to squat.
To me, this was a lesson that they needed mental training, not just physical training, to learn to handle the unexpected; to learn to perform under fatigue. When you compete, you must prepare for the unexpected. Prepare for poor conditions, lack of heat, cool air, good food, etc. Prepare for a hostile environment – ALL of these stressors can be mitigated if you prepare through hard training.
Optimal training is great, but competition is never optimal. Conditions are never optimal. Therefore, your training needs to push you mentally & physically into places that prepare you for your sport or work. If you’re a First Responder, LEO or Military, you MUST prepare for the unknown.
A circuit of shooting at targets mixed in with calisthenics and Kettlebells can challenge your shooting and teach you to control your breath, control your actions, while under stress. Engaging in some sprints, calisthenics and sandbag work followed by handcuffing a training partner can teach you how to control your mind and body under physical and mental stress. Putting handcuffs on someone is likely quite different after you sprinted and chased them down, tackled someone, wrestled for 20 seconds and then, FINALLY, put cuffs on someone.
Our wrestlers were going through these workouts with furious intensity and their opponents were paying the price! They did not get tired after a few weeks of these backyard workouts.
No matter how much training in sports you do, you can still improve your overall conditioning / physical preparation with specialized training methods. For example, on the mat or in the ring you might think you’re pushing yourself, but what happens when you are on the clock when training and must get a certain amount of work? Now we can really elevate the intensity of your training and get you to push the limits greater.
You might think you’re practicing Baseball skills at a high level, but what happens during a tournament in 90+ degree heat, you’re playing the 4th game of the day, you’re hungry, thirsty and tired? You want your body and mind prepared for these circumstances. Let the lazy, excuse makers get shocked under stress while you are trained to thrive under the stress.
For the most part, I am not training in a high-tech environment unless I am in a college setting with all the software and testing technology. Even then, I haven’t found the technology to elevate anyone’s performance. I don’t let these situations hamper my training and neither should you. I’m sure you’ve seen some of the best fighters and athletes, in general, come from poor facilities. Look at Thailand and their Thai fighters. Do they have fancy gyms? They have backyard boxing rings, outdoors, high temps and heavy humidity, yet they are deadly fighters.
Don’t let your location affect your training. Baseball, Wrestling – there are countless athletes coming from subpar conditions BUT, they have excellent coaching. Great coaches don’t let the equipment dictate the results.
Here are some more conditioning workouts you can follow, experiment or tweak to suit your needs.
Five rounds of the below circuit with prescribed rep ranges
- 1A) Thick Bar Deads x 5 reps
- 1B) Med Ball Cross Over Push Ups x 10 reps
- 1C) Double KB Thrusters x 10 reps
- 1D) Double KB Row x 10 reps
- 1E) Sprint x 100 yards (I head out my garage and sprint down two houses, then sprint back)
We can add greater intensity to the above workout and work in more sprint intervals. Perform 3 – 5 rounds of the workout below, depending on your goals and fitness levels:
- 1A) Sprint x 100 yds
- 1B) Deadlift variation x 5 reps
- 1C) Sprint x 100 yds
- 1D) KB Thrusters x 5 reps
- 1E) Sprint x 100 yds
- 1F) KB Row x 5 reps
- 1G) Sprint x 100 yds
Sometimes you need to focus on upper body or lower body only conditioning workouts to improve muscular endurance. Lack of muscular endurance in either area can negatively impact your performance. Every training session and every practice/competition is a chance to assess.
You might find your upper body fatiguing during a swim race, legs giving out on the final 100 meters of an 800-meter race, or grip fatigue during a wrestling match. Find your weak points and attack them.
Upper Body Conditioning Workouts
Upper body conditioning workout # 1: all movements performed as a circuit, 4 – 5 rounds
- 1A) pull-ups with a 3-second isometric hold at top x max reps
- 1B) close grip pushups on med ball x 10 reps
- 1C) barbell hang cleans x 5 reps
- 1D) barbell push press x 5 reps
- 1E) bent over barbell row x 5 reps
- 1F) barbell high pulls x 5 reps
Upper body conditioning workout # 2 @ playground, 4 – 5 rounds
- 1A) pull-ups with towel or Gi with a 3-second isometric hold at top x max reps
- 1B) hand walking on parallel bars (walk from end to end of bars)
- 1C) parallel bar dips x 10
- 1D) recline rows on parallel bars x 10
- 1E) plyo push-ups off ground x 5
Upper Body Conditioning # 3: Bodyweight Only
- 1A) Hindu push-ups x 10 reps
- 1B) pull-ups x 10 reps
- 1C) parallel bar dips x 10 reps
- 1D) recline row x 10 reps
- 1E) Bear Crawl x 50 ft.
Lower Body Conditioning Workouts
Workout # 1: Bodyweight Only
- 1A) squat jumps x 10
- 1B) Lunge Jumps x 10 (5 ea leg)
- 1C) Hindu squats x 10
- 1D) sumo squats x 10
- 1E) lateral lunges x 10 (5 ea leg)
- 1F) reverse lunges x 10 (5 ea leg)
Workout # 2: Single KB
- 1A) Rack Squat x 5 ea side
- 1B) Goblet reverse lunge x 5 / 5
- 1C) Goblet forward lunge x 5 / 5
- 1D) 1 arm swing x 10 / 10
- 1E) Squat Jump (Hold KB Between Legs) x 10
Workout # 3: Sandbag
- 1A) Zercher Squat x 10
- 1C) Zercher Good Morning x 10
- 1D) Walking Lunges x 10 / 10
- 1E) Shouldering x 5 / 5
- 1F) Overhead Carry x 50 ft.
Workout # 4: Sleds only, begin with 5 minutes non stop, Progress to 10 and then 15 minutes using very light weight, and eventually 20 minutes non stop.
Find an empty field and perform each drag for the length of this field, should be approximately 50 yards in length. Use a 25 or 45 lb plate, put on some headphones and go. Use a belt to attach the strap to.
- 1A) forwards drag
- 1B) lateral drag (lead left one way, lead right all the way back)
- 1C) backward drag
- 1D) forwards march with high knees
You can learn more about creating fitness and training routines like these above in many of our certification courses.
Click here, to check them all out and see which you would be interested in!