I will outline the pros and cons of using complexes to improve weightlifting success in this post. Part 2 will cover the ”How”, which includes common mistakes and common complexes that can help target these errors specifically. For a reference point, a complex is the used of multiple exercises to be done one after another one without rest. A snatch pull, followed by a snatch, followed by an overhead squat, for instance, is a ”snatch complex”. Plenty of complexes exists, and I will share my favourite in Part 2.
You can either save up your money and buy a ”big thing” (spend a lot in one shot) or you can go on and make multiple cheap purchases during the day. If you only have 6-15 hours to dedicate to your sport (as most of us probably have), then it becomes imperative that this training time is productive. To be productive, you have to be spending most of your energy during that time (thus, spend more in one shot)
Now consider this : Weightlifting is a skill where efficiency, accuracy and success are dictated by the right technique and the right kind of strength. If you want to be good at the snatch and the clean and jerk, you have to practice these lifts often and spend most of your energy on it to be good. Since you have limited time and energy, everything else that you do after working on your lifts (or instead of working on them) as to be geared toward improving the snatch and clean and jerk (read: be specific).
I would then ask about their squat numbers and more often than not (in my experience), they are 150-160% of their best clean.Often they can do the power lifts, but have trouble transitioning to the full lifts. In this case, you don’t need more squat strength or more extension work (muscle snatches). I usually switch things around and have them spend 2/3 of the training on the lifts (and technique drills) and use the remaining 1/3 for strength work (less volume, more intensity as it seems to be easier to recover from so that more energy is spent on the lifts). Before they know it, they are adding more than a few KG to their old PRs (Of course, that depends on the training experience of the lifter).
That being said, I am always surprised to see how complexes are sometimes implemented or even picked for a given athlete. A common snatch complex, in Crossfit but also in other physical preparation gyms I have been to, is the 3-position snatch where the lifter does a snatch off the floor, and 2 hangs from different positions (high hip and above knees most of the time). The rationale is the following : ”My snatch is not great so I will work all the possible positions to get better at it”. Good thinking, but it might not create the results you are looking for if your snatch weakness is pulling off the floor and clearing the knees because you are mostly working above the knees all the time.
The bottom line is that if you want to be good at the lifts, you have to practice them even when there are strength based weaknesses that need to be addressed as well. Whether a guitar player plays standing up or seated, with the guitar higher or lower on him or in a blue shirt or red shirt is irrelevant to the fact that he will only be as good as he practice, no matter his stance, his guitar height and shirt’s color. The point being that weightlifting is a skill and success can only come from practice and hard work. Doing complexes has its advantages (read below) but it should never replace the lifts completely (and I have seen that too often). Complexes can be good as long as they are specific to your needs rather than done for the sake of doing it.
The volume phase can also be called general phase (or GPP – general physical preparation) and the intensity phase is often referred to as the specific phase. Using complexes in the volume phase was a great way to get the lifters back in shape and have a great training stimulus without lifting as heavy as they did in the intensity period. In other words, they were used to increase work capacity, create hypertrophy, minimize injury risks, and prepare the body for what was coming next (so that it can handle higher work loads better) more than they were used for technique development (although it is possible to do it this way).
This should make it clear that complexes are great to increase training volume and should be used whenever competitions are far ahead to increase your work capacity. In other words, they can be used when you are just out of a competition, on a recovery day, whenever you are injured or just got back from an injury, whenever you are a few weeks/months away from a competitions, whenever strength is the training focus, or whenever you need extra volume on a part of the lift (either to work it more, or to tire the muscles used so that the lifter has to rely more on technique than strength in other parts of the lifts). As the lifters entered the specificity phase, we could generalize and speculate that they entered more of a bulgarian system where the extra stuff is removed.