When complex becomes simple

Cathleen Kronemer, NSCA-CPT, Certified Health Coach, is a longtime fitness instructor at the Jewish Community Center of St. Louis

By Cathleen Kronemer, NSCA-CPT, Certified Health Coach

How often have you promised yourself you’d make time to squeeze in a workout, only to talk yourself out of it because you only have 30 minutes?  We’ve all been there.  The worst is when your empowering side finally takes over and you actually do make it to the gym, only to find that everyone else had the same exact idea at the same exact time.  Waiting for a machine or a piece of equipment simply did not figure into your equation, right?

There is actually a tried-and-true way to work this situation to your advantage. Known as a “complex set,” this workout calls for executing a string of movements utilizing a single piece of exercise equipment.  Often all that is required is a single barbell or a set of dumbbells of appropriate weight for the desired level of intensity.  When performed as a continuous circuit, the end result is a muscle-blasting, calorie- burning experience!

One thing to keep in mind before embarking upon this challenging workout is grip strength. Since time and space are limiting factors in this scenario, optimizing your workout by not having to change the load on a barbell requires some forethought.  It is important, therefore, to play to your weakest body part and grip capability.  Select a weight that will be manageable for that exercise and maintain that weight for the rest of the exercises in the complex set.  In this manner, you also force the weaker muscle to rise to the occasion and catch up with already stronger parts, while still placing a sufficient challenge on the remaining muscle groups.

A sample complex set, utilizing a single barbell and focusing mainly on the lower body, might contain the following moves: deadlifts, bent-over rows, Romanian deadlifts, push presses, squats and alternating lunges.  Each exercise is performed for eight repetitions, followed immediately by the next one.  Upon completion of eight reps of all six moves, a three-minute rest period is allowed (or, ”welcome and enjoyed”, depending on your perspective!), after which time the entire circuit is repeated, for a total of five cycles.


Sound complex? Only in its ability to tax multiple body parts with a mere barbell!  The exercises are familiar to most veterans of a fitness center, so there is little if any confusion regarding proper form or technique.  A similar sort of complex set can also be designed to target upper body parts: utilizing one set of dumbbells, include the following six moves: traditional bicep curls, triceps overhead extensions, shoulder presses, upright rows, lateral deltoid raises and hammer curls. 

As with any new workout regimen, be sure to fuel properly both before and after the gym. Taxing many different muscle groups at the same time may also tend to create a significant lactic acid build-up, so hydration is very important in order to flush all toxins out of the body.

Have fun creating your own complex sets, and always be ready for one of those crowded gym days! Your body will thank you for maximizing the effort despite a minimum of time.