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Strength training and complex training methods

In the never ending search for that extra competitive edge, enterprising coaches, athletes and trainers have experimented with combinations of plyometric and explosive drills alongside more traditional weight training exercises with the view to further enhancing maximum power development. Such combined workouts are invariably given the title of complex (or contrast) training.

In the never ending search for that extra competitive edge, enterprising coaches, athletes and trainers have experimented with combinations of plyometric and explosive drills alongside more traditional weight training exercises with the view to further enhancing maximum power development. Such combined workouts are invariably given the title of complex (or contrast) training.

Complex training defined

According to Baechle and Earle, “complex training is a combination of high intensity resistance training followed by plyometrics”.1 However, a somewhat more detailed definition is provided by Ebben (2) who states: “Complex training alternates biomechanically similar high load weight training exercises with plyometric exercises, set for set in the same workout. An example of complex training would include performing a set of squats followed by a set of jump squats.” As in the case of plyometric training, complex training appears to have its origins in Eastern Europe. Certainly this is the argument put forward by Chu: “Complex training was developed by the Europeans to blend the results of heavy weight training with what they call shock training and what we call plyometrics.”3 Note that in some programmes, the plyometric or explosive drill precedes the strength exercise.

Complex training: Does it work?

A complex training literature review was published by Ebben.4 He notes that research into complex training has investigated both the acute and long-term (ie, training) effects of this conditioning approach. Certainly, from the acute effect studies cited, it would appear that an appropriate high-load weight training exercise performed minutes before a power exercise increases the performance of the power exercise. (Interestingly, for many years it has been common practice among some high-profile power and sprint athletes to perform heavy squats minutes before the competitive event itself. It would now appear there is evidence to support this preparatory technique; eg, 5,6,7).

In his review of the research into the long-term effects, Ebben observes that the literature is somewhat more confusing, with some studies showing complex training to be superior while others indicate that it is no more effective than more traditional and/or periodised approaches. However, studies of complex training are arguably in their infancy and what is perhaps becoming clear (as with plyometric training studies) is that complex training is best suited to highly trained and very strong individuals, following well-designed schedules based upon an initial intelligent needs analysis.

Complex training theory

Regardless, the proposed theory underpinning complex training is one of training the neuromuscular system specifically for maximum power output and rate of force development (as described for plyometric training last month) and of maximising the involvement of the fastest muscle fibres (see box: Neural Adaptations to Training). According to Ebben and Watts: “High load weight training increases motor neuron excitability and reflex potentiation which may create optimum training conditions for subsequent plyometric exercise. Also, the fatigue associated with high load weight training may force more motor units to be recruited during the plyometric phase, possibly enhancing the training state.”8

Who does complex training?

Complex training is included within the schedules of many elite athletes, sportsmen and women. In the UK, rugby teams in particular seem to be particularly keen on this method of training for enhancing explosive power. Similarly, complex training is popular among American football teams and with many athletes engaged in jumping and/or multiple sprint sports, such as volleyball, basketball and tennis.


Designing a complex training programme

According to Chu, “complex training programmes should be created to fit the specific needs of each athlete”9 and he emphasises the necessity of the needs analysis. Furthermore, since resistance training exercises are going to be combined with plyometric drills or exercises, the athlete must be technically competent and experienced in both types of training. In terms of suitable exercises, Chu provides numerous examples in his book, Explosive Power and Strength: complex training for maximum results.11


Neural adaptations to strength training

Much of what is said about complex training (or plyometrics) revolves around neural adaptations and Fleck and Kraemer provide a general overview of these in their comprehensive textbook, Designing Resistance Training Programmes.12 Similarly, Sale has discussed these specific training responses at length in an excellent summary in the now classic work, Strength and Power in Sport. 3 While the complete chapter is of relevance to complex training, there are specific comments that are worth highlighting. For example, Sale reminds the reader that, “for an agonist muscle to produce its greatest possible force, all of the motor units in the muscle must be recruited”. The order of recruitment is quite precise. So, at low force levels, the slow twitch oxidative motor units are recruited initially. As the amount of resistance to be overcome increases the fast oxidative units become increasingly involved until at 90% force production, the fastest motor units are recruited. According to Sale, many athletes unfamiliar with some strength training exercises may be unable to recruit the highest threshold motor units and hence will be unable to fully activate the agonists. Could this partly explain the lack of results and some of the problems faced by inexperienced athletes when they attempt complex or plyometric training?

Sale also discusses the potentiation of the reflex response following maximal voluntary contractions and as a result of training, adding further potential support to the proposed mechanisms underpinning complex training. In conclusion, he argues: “The desired muscle adaptations, whether increased strength or rate of force development, will critically depend on the way the muscles are activated by the nervous system during training.”

Complex training: Key points

  • Complex training combines high-load weight training and plyometric exercises and drills in the same workout.
  • It may provide performance and training benefits greater than those seen with more traditional approaches.
  • This training technique is advanced and suitable for highly trained and very strong individuals.
  • As with plyometric training, an individual’s suitability for this type of advanced training must be determined following a needs analysis.
  • Guidelines for avoiding injury in both plyometric training and heavy resistance training must be followed.


  1. Baechle TR and Earle RW, Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (2nd Edition), Human Kinetics, 2000, p436.
  2. Ebben WP, Complex Training: a brief review, J Sports Sci & Med 1: 42-46, 2002.
  3. Chu D, Explosive Power & Strength: complex training for maximum results, Human Kinetics, 1996, p4.
  4. Chiu LZ et al, Postactivation potentiation response in athletic and reactionally trained individuals, J Strength Cond Res, 17(4), pp671-7, 2003.
  5. Gourgoulis V et al, Effect of a submaximal half-squats warm up program on vertical jump ability, J Strength Cond Res, 17(2), pp 342-344, 2003.
  6. Duthie GM et al, The acute effects of heavy loads on jump squat performance: evaluation of the complex and contrast methods of power development, J Strength Cond Res, 16 (4): 530-538, 2002.
  7. Ebben, op cit.
  8. Ebben WP and Watts PB, A review of combined weight training and plyometric training modes: complex training, Strength & Conditioning, 20(5), pp 18-27, 1998.
  9. Chu D, op cit, p154
  10. Lycholat T, Plyometric Training, Fitness Network, pp 26-28, Feb/March 2004.
  11. Chu D, op cit.
  12. Fleck SJ and Kraemer WJ, Designing Resistance Training Programmes, Human Kinetics, 1997.
  13. Sale D in Komi PV (ed) Strength & Power in Sport, Blackwell Scientific, 1992, pp249-265.

Courtesy of Fitness Professionals UK

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