When it comes to weightlifting, there’s more than one way to skin the proverbial cat. The snatch and clean & jerk are considered the classic lifts, but there’s an abundance of other lifts you can train with the barbell, such as pulls, squats, presses, and more.
Rather than repeating the same lifts over and over on a program, weightlifters will sometimes combine different movements within their workouts or within their sets. A weightlifting complex is a series of lifts strung together in one continuous set. Complex work is a training strategy for targeting specific weaknesses you might have in your performance.
Since complexes can include virtually any lift, there’s tons of different ones to practice, and you can even create your own. However, in the world of weightlifting, there’s an argument to be made for the five below. Here’s why they make the cut and what they can do for you.
Best Barbell Complexes for Olympic Lifting
The Best Barbell Complex for Technique
Repetition is the best way to hammer down your weightlifting form. To that end, if you want crisp and controlled technique, you need to repeat the same movement patterns over and over again. A technique-oriented barbell complex can help you accomplish just that.
This complex involves performing progressively-harder repetitions of the snatch or clean back to back from the hang. You’ll begin from a nearly-standing position and gradually work downward until your final rep, which can be performed with the barbell on the floor or hovering just barely off the ground.
- Hang Snatch/Clean from the Hip
- Hang Snatch/Clean from the Knee
- Snatch/Clean from the Floor*
Note: You may perform the final rep of this complex with the barbell resting on the floor or from a very low hang position, depending on your specific goals.
Why It Works
The pull of both the snatch and clean are complicated. Even though the pull itself is one continuous motion, there are different segments of the pull that have their own specific speeds, positions, and timing. This complex, often called the “three-position” snatch or clean, is perfect for acknowledging everything that goes down (and up) in the pull.
Three-position work helps you master your bar path from the floor. The pull of each lift gets progressively longer, and you must maintain perfect positions throughout. Use this complex in your warm-up, or in your next technique session to acknowledge your best pulling movement.
The Best Barbell Complex for Pulling Strength
Once you perfect the technique of your pull, you’re ready to increase strength. High pulling strength is beneficial in weightlifting because it’s where the power is generated in the lifts. The stronger your pull, the better and faster your lift will be.
This complex includes two lifts and adds a pull in front of your snatch or clean. Set up for the complex as you would for your full lift, but only perform a pull to start. After the pull, complete a full rep of the corresponding lift.
- Snatch/Clean Pull from the Floor*
Note: Reset between the two lifts, or control the descent of your pull for some extra position work.
Why It Works
Perform this complex to double the amount of time you spend pulling. When you complete just the pull of your lift, you focus on using your leg strength through the right positions off the floor. Starting with the pull sets you up for a sound lift to follow.
It also challenges you to complete the repetition of your lift on fatigued legs. Especially as you add weight, doing the pull first increases time under tension. This complex sets you up for a stronger and easier pull in your max lifts.
The Best Barbell Complex for Leg Strength
Since your legs have a high strength capacity, they do a lot of the work in the Olympic lifts. Your full leg strength is especially needed in the clean & jerk for executing the jerk after a heavy clean. This complex should help make the jerk the easiest part of your lift.
This sequence trains your legs to easily hit the jerk that follows every clean. Do this complex by completing a repetition of a front squat between clean and the jerk.
- Front Squat*
Note: To add even more volume, complete two reps of front squats during this step.
Why It Works
It’s difficult to hit a jerk on tired legs, but this complex prepares you for success every time. Standing up the clean is difficult on its own, and adding the front squat to follow enforces the strength component even more. It includes both high volume and intensity, making it the best complex for strength.
The Best Barbell Complex for Overhead Stability
This complex improves overhead positioning and confidence under the barbell. Named after Ukrainian weightlifter and London Olympian Aleksey Torokhtiy, it’s the best for connecting to the overhead catch in your snatch.
Start with a traditional rep of snatch. Once the bar is overhead on straight legs, hold it, and carefully receive the bar behind the neck in a snatch grip. Dip and drive the bar to a snatch balance, then complete an overhead squat to follow.
- Snatch Balance
- Overhead Squat
Why It Works
Catching and holding the barbell overhead is, debatably, the difficult part of the snatch, especially as you get lower in the squat. The three lifts in this complex are key for securing the barbell overhead.
The snatch balance acknowledges the sound footwork mechanics in the catch. The overhead squat then adds additional training volume through your full range of motion. Use this complex on your next heavy snatch day for high level stability work.
The Best Barbell Complex for Jerk Efficiency
After standing up your clean, you have to complete a precise jerk for a successful lift. Taking the weight from your shoulders to overhead relies on leg drive. This complex trains your power utilization in your dip and drive for your best jerk.
- Push Press
Dip and drive the barbell to a full extension in the push press, then bring the bar back to your shoulders to reset between lifts. Do another dip and drive to catch in your designated jerk style, such as the split jerk or power jerk.
Why It Works
The jerk is primarily a leg exercise because your legs contribute the majority of power in the drive. Due to this, the dip and drive is critical and makes or breaks the catch of your lift.
The push press has an identical dip and drive to the jerk, but it exaggerates the thorough extension afterward, rather than dropping underneath on bent legs. It has a longer drive than the jerk because the bar continues to increase height. This practice pays off in the extension of the jerk that follows.
What Is a Barbell Complex?
A weightlifting complex is a series of barbell movements (derivatives of any aspect of the snatch, clean, or jerk) performed in one large and continuous set. Each lift can be strung together, or reset between, but the lifts in the complex should be performed with minimal rest.
A complex can be a double or triple of the same lift, or a series of different lifts. For example, two back-to-back reps in the snatch is considered a complex. Adding an overhead squat between the lifts (snatch + overhead squat + snatch) is another version of a complex with a bit more variety.
An endless amount of combinations exist for complexes. They take your training specificity to the next level, especially when you find the right one for you. Ultimately, the best weightlifting complex is the one that’s designed for your goals.
Benefits of Complexes
Complex practice pays off in many ways, especially when it’s time to perform the classic lifts. These are a few examples of how complexes boost your training abilities.
Better Muscular Endurance
Weightlifting is centered around how much weight you can lift for one rep, but you still have to train your endurance to an extent. You need adequate muscular endurance to maintain high energy throughout your workout, something that becomes more apparent as you add more weight to the bar.
Completing multiple reps not only increases training volume, but it eliminates rest time between your reps. When your muscles have to do more work with shorter rest, they become more resistant to fatigue over time.
More Total Volume
Complex work elevates your volume by doing more than one rep per set. Rather than adding extra sets and exercises onto the end of your plan, complexes add reps to the working sets you’re already doing. This is extra beneficial if you’re limited on time.
Increased Training Stimulus
Complexes take your rest away between reps, resulting in more rigorous training. It’s much more difficult to complete reps back to back rather than fully recovering between. This stimulus increases overall strength, and pays off when it comes time to do only one rep in the future.
Higher Mental Confidence
Complexes help you understand your maximum strength in a different way than doing singles of the lifts. When you perform complexes at higher percentages, you develop a clearer prediction of your future 1-rep max. You can also track your personal best numbers in your lifting complexes if you want additional goals to crush.
How to Program Weightlifting Complexes
A complex works best when it’s strategic. Use these tips for selecting the best ones for your program.
Go for Your Goals
When choosing a complex, think about what you need to work on in relation to your training goals. Narrow in on the segments of your lifts that need work, and include some of the corresponding lifts to your complex. For example, if you want to improve your hip contact, practice pulls, hang work, or tempo lifts in your complex.
Adjust the Intensity
Finding the right complex is one thing, but you also have to find the right weight to do it at. Since all complexes are unique, each one will have its own ideal weight load.
Take note of how many reps are in the complex, and also what lifts you’re doing. If it includes more than two or three reps, or if it includes a lift you’ve never practiced before, start with a lower percentage or more conservative load. The most difficult segment of a weightlifting complex should be what guides your approach to the weight you use.
Complexes bring variety to your training, but you should still stay consistent with them. To improve your lifts with complexes, be progressive with them over the course of weeks and months. Repeat your complexes in your program for specific and productive improvement — you should be a bit faster or stronger at them the second or third time around.
Keep It Simple
No matter what your goal may be in weightlifting, there’s almost certainly a complex that can get you there. You just have to find the right one. These five complexes are among the best ways to improve the critical aspects of your weightlifting performance. Moreover, they’re plug-and-play.
Pick one or multiple of these sequences and give them a shot during your next training cycle. Alternatively, make them the foundation of your workouts in the gym and watch the gains roll in.
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