A weightlifting complex is a combination of different exercises done without stopping. Hypothetically you could do as many different exercises as you fancied. Complexes can be made up of any number of exercises. For example:
Snatch Pull + Snatch (2 exercises)
Clean Pull + Hang Clean + Front Squat + Jerk (4 exercises)
If you use fewer exercises you can usually use more weight than if you do more exercises. Because of the high technical demands of Olympic weightlifting, I personally always keep the number of exercises as no more than 4.
You can also make the complexes longer by changing the reps rather than increasing the exercises. For example:
Snatch Pull + Snatch (2+2) meaning 2 reps of snatch pull plus 2 reps of snatch
I have my own views on when and when not to use complexes, which I will list here:
When to use complexes
I consider them to be good for warm ups as they prepare for joint mobility in all the different movements required by the full lifts.
I also think they are good for conditioning/cardiovascular fitness because you can do lots of repetitions of these full body movements without stopping.
I think complexes are also helpful if you are trying to work on a particular issue of the full lift. You can do the derivative exercise first that tackles that particular issue, followed immediately by the full lift. For example, a person whose hips rise first in the snatch may find it beneficial to do one snatch pull followed by the full snatch. Or a person who misses the power position may find it beneficial to do a snatch from power position followed by a full snatch. A person who bangs the bar away from their body at the hips may find it beneficial to do a tall snatch followed by a full snatch, etc.
When not to use complexes
I think there are scenarios in which complexes can do more harm than good. I think that a beginner lifter or somebody who has quite a few different issues going on in their full lifts would be better off avoiding complexes. The reason being – fatigue increases as the number of exercises increases, meaning greater likelihood of technique breaking down. If a person already has problems in the lift then these problems will be magnified during fatigue and they would be further developing poor motor patterns.
I also think that keeping things simple is key. The Olympic lifts are complicated enough already. If a person has lots of issues going on then having to think about all those issues at once during a complex, is likely to cloud the mind. Technique will then suffer further.
Possibly a more advanced lifter who has very good technique overall or maybe just a couple of issues, may benefit more from doing complexes than a beginner who is more “all over the place”!
There is a good alternative to complexes. My suggestion is to train each exercise separately. Let’s look back at the three individuals I listed above:
- a person whose hips rise first in the snatch may find it beneficial to do one snatch pull followed by the full snatch. Instead of doing this, this person may find it more beneficial to do a few sets of snatch pulls, followed by a few sets of snatches.
- a person who misses the power position may find it beneficial to do a snatch from power position followed by a full snatch. Instead of this, this person may find it more beneficial to do a few sets of snatches from power position, followed by sets of snatches.
- a person who bangs the bar away from their body at the hips may find it beneficial to do a tall snatch followed by a full snatch. This person may find it more beneficial to do a few sets of tall snatches followed by sets of snatches.
When programmed this way, the same exercises are still getting done and the issues the person has are still being tackled, but the person is fresh and fully focused on just one exercise at a time. My personal experience is that I feel my technique when I do a derivative exercise on its own is far superior and far better technically than when I do a derivative exercise inside a complex. It’s just the way my mind works – I can’t focus on too many things at once. It overwhelms me.
I think the key is to always remember why you are doing a particular exercise. If you are doing a particular exercise because you hope it’s going to ‘fix’ a particular issue you have, then you need to do that exercise well and do it a lot of times. You may therefore find it easier to fully concentrate on this exercise if you are doing it on its own as opposed to doing it as part of a complex.
I like to do snatch balances from the power rack for example. It allows me to fully focus on those as opposed to having to snatch the bar up first and then do the snatch balances such as in a complex.
Here’s a little abstract analogy that you may find helpful! If your concentration capacity is 100% and if you are doing a complex of X exercises, each exercise takes up a percentage of that concentration. Therefore, each exercise receives less attention (and is therefore performed less well) than if you were doing the exercise on its own (in which case that exercise would receive the full 100%), i.e.
Snatch pull + snatch –> 50% to snatch pull, 50% to snatch
Snatch pulls –> 100% to snatch pulls
Snatch –> 100% to snatches
I think complexes are fun and can keep things interesting but I think they ought to be used carefully and for the right reasons. The last thing I’d want to do is use them if they were meaning I was drilling in poor technique.