Loaded Complex Training: All-In-One Strength, Work Capacity and Mental Fitness

Kat finishes a heavy Barbell Complex, as Jen recovers from hers during our Barbell Complex Mini Study.

By Rob Shaul

We’ve developed a way to train strength, work capacity and mental fitness concurrently. How? Loaded “complexes” of several exercises strung together.

But before I get into the details, let’s back up and explain the two extremes of strength training – Max Effort and Strength Endurance.


Some Background

“Max Effort” training is at the heavy end of the spectrum..

These are generally three to eight, low-rep sets (1-3 reps/set) of “max effort” intensity (or loading) – 85% + of your 1 Repetition Maximum for a given exercise.

For example, say your 1RM Bench Press (1 Repetition Maximum – most you can lift for 1 rep)  is 200 pounds. A “Max Effort” training set/rep combo could be:

6 Rounds (or Sets)

    • 2x Bench Press @ 85% 1RM (200 x .85 = 170# (170 pounds)
    • Lat + Pec Stetch

In general, when I’m programming for Max Effort Strength, the programming will look like something above.

Max Effort programming is specifically designed to increase your Max Effort, or 1RM, strength.

“Strength Endurance” is on the light end of the spectrum. By the textbook, these are generally three to six, high-rep sets (8-20 reps/set) of light loaded work (30-40% of 1RM or bodyweight).

For example,  A “Strength Endurance” training set/rep combo could be:

6 Rounds (or Sets)

    • 20x Squats (bodyweight)
    • 15x Push Ups
    • 20x Sit Ups
    • 8x Chin Ups

In general, when I’m programming for Strength Endurance, the programming will look like something above.

Strength Endurance programming isn’t designed to increase your 1RM strength, but rather, your “strength endurance” – for example, how many push ups you can do unbroken.

What we know from our own research is that Max Effort training increases Strength Endurance more than Strength Endurance training increases Max Effort strength.

In the middle of these two extremes is another type of strength training we’ve deployed that isn’t conventional, or found in the textbooks.

This type of training deploys moderately-heavy loading, and a middle ground to high rep per set count (5-30+ reps), and deploys two more exercises in the same movement.

The most common of these in MTI programming is our Barbell Complex – a “complex” of six exercises, six reps each, done back to back:

  • 6x Hinge Lift
  • 6x Barbell Bent Over Row
  • 6x Front Squat
  • 6x Push Press
  • 6x Back Squat

The same load is used for each exercise – 65 to 135# for men – and each “complex” takes 60+ seconds to complete if the athlete “storms” through the movements.

A few years ago we completed a Barbell Complex Mini Study, and found that the “lab rats” who completed the programming saw 1RM Strength Gains across several different exercises. For example, their 1RM Back Squat increased – just by doing 4 weeks of heavy barbell complexes, 2 times/week.

For this Mini Study, the athletes began with Barbell Complex max load effort – to see how heavy they could get and still complete the complex unbroken. The programming then used this Barbell Complex max load as a basis for the follow-on progression – this ensured the athletes worked hard each session.

While we didn’t do a pre and post study work capacity test, I was one of my own “lab rats” for this study and can testify from personal experience that by the final complex each training day, I was near panic breathing. Heavy barbell complexes are no joke.

On the mental fitness side- it was interesting for me to observe even veteran lab rats get mentally crushed early in the programming, then watch their mental fitness increase until by the end, there was no quit.

For years before I completed this Mini Study we had used barbell complexes as a common warm up for Max Effort strength sessions and I had often felt that we would just do away with the other strength exercises and just do barbell complexes and get the same result. This study reinforced this opinion.

While the Barbell Complex is MTI’s most deployed loaded complex, we have several others.

The Sandbag Complex, Dumbbell Complex and Kettlebell Complex all deploy a similar idea but use different equipment.

Our Bronc Complex is a shortened version of the Barbell Complex.

The Snatch Complex and Thruster Complex are also shorter, but deploy the same general idea. Both are killer when you get the loading right (near failure by the last rep!)

And finally, I’ve sneakily camouflaged complexes by not calling the a “complex” but given them another name. These are generally shorter in terms of the number of exercise – but can have a similar effect. Examples include:

Power Clean + Push Press

Craig Special

“The Exercise” 

Mr. Spectacular

Barbell Burpee

Mutant Maker

…. and even the famous Thruster

These can all be completed with a barbell, but also dumbbells, kettlebells or sandbags.

The point here is that loaded complex training is a super-efficient way to train strength and work capacity together, with a strong seasoning of mental fitness tossed in.

Want to suffer through an example? Gladiator is a training plan I designed after seeing the results of our Barbell Complex Mini Study.

“Strength and Honor”!!



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