Paleo Fitness: Turbocharge Fat Loss with Complexes

By Kellyann Petrucci, Melissa Joulwan, Patrick Flynn, Adriana Harlan

Complexes are a series of exercises in Paleo fitness you perform successively — flowing from exercise to exercise with little to no rest in between. Complexes are different from circuit training because you typically perform them with a single modality, such as a barbell, dumbbells, a sandbag, your own body weight, or a set of kettlebells.

Complex design is a delicate art. It must be constructed in such a way that it allows you to cycle through various muscle groups and energy systems. This way, the system as a whole may be kept under a prolonged period of stress, and no one muscle group is fatigued to the point of failure.

Like most other forms of metabolic conditioning, complexes combine moderate to heavy strength efforts with elevated cardiovascular stress. Complexes keep the kidneys, the heart, and the lungs working hard while stressing various muscle groups and doing so in a super time-efficient manner — very rarely will a complex take more than three minutes to complete.

To keep the body adapting, you’ll do some complexes for time and some for reps. You’ll do some heavy complexes and some light. You’ll do some long complexes and some short. When you get into primal programs, you’ll quickly see that there’s no shortage of complexes to choose from to keep your metabolic conditioning varied and exciting.

Complexes are best performed with either your own body weight or with kettlebells because they both allow for “flow.” Dumbbells are clunky and sometimes hard to handle with the ballistic movements, such as swings, cleans, and snatches, and barbells are far too large, impossible to swing between the legs, and bring with them the added inconvenience of having to load and unload weight plates. However, you can do complex work with barbells or dumbbells.

Although barbell complexes are possible and can be quite effective, you shouldn’t start out with them. The barbell is a large instrument and commands respect. Poor form with a barbell isn’t as easily forgiven as poor form with your own body weight — and the punishments are far more severe.

Start with basic bodyweight complexes

Think for a moment what a bodyweight complex may look like. A complex combines strength and cardiovascular efforts, taxing multiple muscle groups and various energy systems. And a complex combines two or more exercises into a series.

Start by taking a minimalistic approach: What two exercises can you combine to form a bodyweight complex? The answer is limitless. Some combinations may be more worthwhile than others, for sure, but the possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

A simple pairing of push-ups and pull-ups is a fantastic “starter” complex. Although not the most strenuous complex ever devised, a pairing of five to ten push-ups with five to ten pull-ups will impose a metabolic demand, even more so when you work in the higher repetition range.

Now, what if you added a set of bodyweight squats in there, making the complex five push-ups, five squats, and five pull-ups performed in a row? In this complex, you switch from upper body to lower body and then back to upper body — the prolonged stress of this complex will quickly elevate your heart rate.

Could you add in another five squats after the pull-ups to round out the work ratio between upper body and lower body? Certainly! Or better yet, you could add lunges instead or any other lower body exercise. The complex then becomes five push-ups, five squats, five pull-ups, and ten lunges (five for each leg). Go ahead and give this complex a try. A taxing effort, is it not?

As you can see, complexes are perhaps the ultimate conditioning tool because they allow you to perform an incredible amount of work in a very short time.

When training a complex, never go to failure. If at any time your form starts to deteriorate, take a break and start up again when you can resume with good form.

Take it up a notch with kettlebell complexes

The best device for complex work, from the power moves to the heavy strength efforts, is the kettlebell, hands down. The kettlebell allows for “flow” — that is, seamless execution, the ability to hop from exercise to exercise without any hiccups, stumbling, or delay. The compact design of the kettlebell also allows you to swing it between your legs with great ease.

Even though you can select a number of tools to get the same job done, you should always strive to choose the best tool for the job. When it comes to complexes, the kettlebell is king. However, you can adapt any complex to dumbbells or barbells if that’s all you have.

Kettlebell complexes typically combine a variety of power movements, such as swings, cleans, snatches, and jerks, and grinding strength movements, such as squats, presses, lunges, and loaded carries. Because the key to metabolic conditioning is found in inefficiency — meaning, variety is your friend — you want to keep the body guessing, or keep it responding to different forms of stress.