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Part 1: Can Complexes make you a better Olympic Lifter?

In the last 10 years, with the growth of YouTube and social media, there has been a rise in the use and popularity of snatch and clean complexes. Even in my own training, I've seen certain complexes completed at certain weights and wanted to give them a shot. Often times I surprise myself and hit numbers on a variety of complexes that I would have believed impossible. However, the big question to be asked is whether or not these complexes are actually beneficial to our lifting. Are snatch and clean complexes a better way to train or are they simply a way to add variety to your training? Bottom line: are they useful or just fun?

This is the beginning of a three-part series answering some of the "What" "Why" "How" and "When" questions surrounding the use of complexes in training. What are they working? What is their purpose? Why should I do them?  Why do people do them so often? How should I program them? How often should I do them? These are all questions surrounding their use and questions that must be answered if they're going to be implemented into your training.

The What

What is the purpose of a complex? Simply put, well-written complexes are designed to make a lifter stronger in weaker positions and force muscle growth in deficient areas. A complex is useless if I only ever work to particular pieces of the lift that I'm good at. For instance, I'm a pretty good lifter from above the knee. If I can get the bar to the right place at the top of the knee and be in a good position I can snatch more than I can from the floor. Therefore, working through a snatch complex that emphasizes positioning at the top of the knee or the power position at the hips is a pretty useless complex for me. In fact, if I'm working a complex with those goals in mind I'm probably just having a little fun that day. For me, I struggle using my legs off the floor and maintaining proper positioning to the first pull. Therefore, it is largely to my benefit to work a snatch complex from the low hang or even from a deficit. The purpose of a complex is to work weak areas and create strength in muscle groups and positions where you are deficient. Granted, it's always good to mix it up a little bit and have some fun along the way. Ultimately though the purpose is to get stronger in places where the lifter is especially weak.

The Why

One of the biggest "why" questions out there it is why do certain programs utilize complexes so much? The answer to that question is really a threefold answer. Firstly, it adds variety to training. It's no secret that the sport of weightlifting can be monotonous, rigorous, and as a result create periods of training lacking in motivation. Programming and implementing complexes is an easy way to add variety to training while at the same time get in good position work. If you're the coach for a group of lifters this is a good way to add competition to your training by pushing your group to see who can complete the written complex at the highest percentage of their max. (this is especially good if you plan to add drop sets at below the max effort weight) Secondly, in conjunction with the first answer, they can create a competitive spirit. When you're early in a training cycle and want to avoid true tests at high intensity, complexes are a good way to test the mind and the will without overly stressing the central nervous system. What's more, it's easy to create competition and excitement by pushing your athletes to see who can perform the best on the given complex. Thirdly, many programs implement complexes into training to avoid the monotony and repetitiveness of block work. The other alternative to working positions besides complexes is through working those positions from varying heights on pulling boxes. While this is an effective method, and one I honestly utilize more than complex work, it can often be easy to adapt to and create plateaus and lulls in training. Attacking weak areas from different complexes in different ways can be a faster way to grow in that weak area.

The How

Answering the how question about complexes is fairly simple. Anyone with an average understanding of periodization and programming knows what loading and intensity has to look like over the course of a cycle. Therefore, complexes must fit into a basic periodized structure. Simply put, more elaborate complexes with multiple reps in them should be frontloaded in a program with possibly drop sets following a max effort set for that complex. Later in the cycle obviously, the reps and length of the required complex should come down such that the percentage and intensity increases. I do also think that it's incredibly important to get the traditional lifts in. It would be foolish of a lifter to rely solely on complexes throughout an entire program and not do the traditional lifts from the floor with regularity. Complexes are designed to work on specific weaknesses and weak positions. However, when they become the sole structure of the program, the lifts can lose their timing and consistency at higher intensities.

The When

In tandem with the how question, when should an athlete implement complex work in their career and also inside of a weightlifting cycle? Obviously early in ones weightlifting career one should avoid working primarily through complexes. Early in a career when the number of reps completed in one's entire life is relatively low, working through a complex can be detrimental to a proper understanding of the full lifts. It's important to teach specific positions and strengthen specific positions throughout the snatch and clean and jerk before introducing the clear complexity that comes with multiple reps from multiple positions. A full and complete understanding of the lifts must be established before introducing complexes in ones training. Complexes, especially elaborate ones, are best used on intermediate to advanced lifters. Lastly, as I stated above, do not neglect the full lifts from the floor for the sake of complexes. Make sure there is a regular dosage of full lifts integrated into the program based around complexes. For timing purposes and for consistency purposes, the full lifts should always be a primary piece of any weightlifting program.


These are the basic questions that need to be answered before considering complexes for your own training. The snatch and clean complexes that are out there have a tendency to look really sexy and fun. It's important to consider their purpose and consider your weaknesses when adding them to your training. In the following blog posts I will give you some good examples of snatch and clean complexes designed to work on specific weaknesses and also talk about how I would implement those complexes into a structured program.
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Spencer Arnold | Wodnut

Spencer Arnold

Spencer Arnold is the owner and head coach of Power and Grace Performance, an online Crossfit, weightlifting and gymnastic programming resource. He picked up Olympic weightlifting as a 75lb eighth grade boy. Knowing that 75lbs can never make him competitive in any team (varsity) sport and more importantly he would never get a date, he decided to join his high school gym. Lucky for him the coach at that time was an olympic lifter. At the beginning, olympic lifting was there to complement and help improve other sports. It didn't take long for Spencer to discover his love for the sport. Spencer got his first "job" coaching at the age of 18 year and since then have won multiple state and national championships. He is also the head strength and conditioning director at King's Ridge Christian school for all their offield training for every sport on the campus.

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