The Benefits of the Complexes

If you’ve done weightlifting for any period of time, you’ll most likely have done what coaches and athletes refer to as a lifting “complex” at some point. A complex is multiple variations of a lift done in one set and is usually done with submaximal weight. It can be something as simple as three cleans followed by three jerks. Complexes are used for a variety of reasons like reinforcing technique, strengthening, and specific conditioning of the weightlifter. We will look at how complexes can be programmed to help emphasize each individual quality.


Weightlifters can appreciate how technical the lifts are and how much attention to detail is given during training to perfect their individual technique. The refined technique and correct bar trajectory are built up over many years of repetition. As a general rule of thumb, when designing a certain complex it is important to follow the saying, “part, part, whole” which means to divide the lift into smaller phases before integrating it into a full lift. An example would be a complex like a snatch pull + hang power snatch below the knee + full snatch to emphasize the correct extension of the pull. You can see how the target element of the lift is emphasized in the first 2 exercises and then reintegrated into the full lift.

If the goal is to emphasize technique, it is important that you as a coach or athlete stay away from planning too many reps within each exercise as fatigue can make it difficult to demonstrate correct technique while being exhausted. You want to avoid programming 5 pulls + 5 power variations + full lifts since by the time the athlete needs to perform the full lift, they will be too tired to integrate the right technique. Programming too many reps within one set of a complex will also prevent a lifter from using some of the higher percentages. Always keep in mind that the goal of weightlifting is to lift as much weight as possible with the best technique. The higher the reps and the further away from maximum the lifter is, the less it will likely transfer over to their higher intensity work.

Examples of technique complexes:

-Hover snatch pull +Hover snatch

-3 positions snatch/clean

-Snatch pull + Power snatch + Snatch balance

-No-foot snatch + power snatch

-Power clean +clean

- Push press + power jerk + split jerk


While complexes never approach the maximal strength of athletes, they can be designed to target weak areas of a lift such as the initial leg drive off the floor in the start, general posture, shoulders, and overall grip strength. Complexes are a great way to force lifters to spend time in critical positions like the start position and overhead that can allow them to lift more weight later on. Pauses are a very common addition to complexes that have a strength focus as they force the lifter to slow the lift down a little, assume the correct position, and builds in time-under-tension.

Another thing that I like to make weightlifters do during a general strength cycle is program a lot of their complexes using a full grip rather than the normal hookgrip. Lifters tend to rely on the mechanical advantage that the hookgrip offers and forget that having a strong grip not only makes their hookgrip stronger but also helps to build the small muscles around the elbow to protect it from injury. Lifters should do more pulls and lifts with a full grip during their general preparation to build up their grip more.

Programming a strength complex needs to also follow the “part, part, whole” rule so as to not get too far away from integrating it into the lifts.

Examples of Strength biased complexes:

-Halting power snatch below the knee + hang snatch below the knee

-Power snatch + Pause overhead squat

-Full grip muscle snatch + behind the neck press in snatch grip

-Clean grip lift off to below the knee + clean

-push press + pause split jerk in split position

- Snatch + behind the neck snatch grip push press + overhead squat

-Full grip power clean

Specific Conditioning

Longer complexes with very light weights can be used in this instance to help develop a little bit of aerobic capacity and help to condition the tissues around the joints to withstand the extreme ranges of motions. These longer sets with multiple exercises definitely are not at a high enough intensity to stimulate strength or power but act as a way to raise the heart rate for an extended period of time. Maintaining an elevated heart rate for the majority of the training session helps to train the heart to be more efficient at perfusing blood throughout the body to both deliver nutrients and dispose of metabolic byproducts. These adaptations will ultimately help athletes recover between high intensity bouts of effort and allow more dense training sessions when it comes time for more specific training.

Lots of repetitions done over a macrocycle can greatly stimulate the conditioning of the connective tissue that surrounds the elbows, knees, shoulders, wrists, and ankles. The tendons and ligaments become thicker and more elastic from the training thus more resistant to stress. After a long break doing these types of complexes are very beneficial to help reintroduce the lifts.

Typically, I like to program more pulls and presses rather than lifting variations since more reps and longer sets tend to generate a lot of fatigue and impact power development negatively. The focus is shifted more on giving the athlete exposure to key positions and to perform some less technical variations that don’t have the most direct transference to the classic lifts.

Examples of complexes used for specific conditioning:

-Muscle clean +strict press

-Tall clean + Split stance overhead press

- Muscle snatch +overhead squat

-Behind the neck snatch grip push press + overhead squat

-Power snatch + snatch balance +overhead squat

-Clean + push press

As you can see, complexes can be customized to target very specific technique issues, build certain qualities, or be used for general development. Just remember that all exercises should be used with a purpose in mind and that the athlete never spends too much time away from lifting heavy weights as that is always the main objective of the sport. Try one of the complexes listed as an example in your next training session and let me know how it went in the comments to this post.

Jason Li, Exercise Science BS, USAW LVL2, Catalyst Athletics LVL1, NSCA-CPT