The simple trick to becoming superwoman: Complexes

If you are a woman and you are dissatisfied with your body, here’s some important exercise advice: you look great. The fashion and fitness industry needs an extreme makeover, not you.

That said, if you decide that as a human being on planet earth you want to be strong and fit and full of energy, here’s the really simple way to achieve those goals: complexes.

Complexes will also make your leaner and more toned.

If for whatever reason you want to look like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, complexes will do that for you too (provided you aren’t into the whole eating thing).

Actually, complexes are a miraculous workout gift to men and women, but for a bunch of reasons women have been given really lousy exercise advice, and so many women are more urgently in need of good alternatives to walking nowhere on a treadmill for 45 minutes.

(Also, men have been socially conditioned to want bigger muscles than women, for which additional strength and hypertrophy work is indicated. This would equally apply to female powerlifters and bodybuilders.)

If you’re current workout programme consists of treadmill followed by stationary bike followed by elliptical trainer and then maybe some crunches, well this programme will probably change your life and definitely change your body.

Awesome, but what are complexes?

Complexes are simply a series of exercise performed with a single weight without pause between exercises. It’s a bit like a circuit, but you don’t move around the room in circles like a hamster in a cage, you don’t let go of the weight between exercises, and there’s no stopping between exercises.

Complexes are intense and send your metabolism into overdrive. If your idea of exercise is jogging on the treadmill, the intensity might be a bit of a jolt at first. However, it will be a fun jolt, I promise. Complexes are especially fun to perform with a friend.

Complexes can be performed with dumbbells, kettlebells and anything else you can reasonably think of. For a beginner, I doubt there’s anything simpler than picking up a barbell and performing a few cleverly programmed exercises.

Barbells have a bit of a stigma of the meathead bodybuilder attached to them, but that’s not fair to the barbell – and ignoring the classic instrument of human strength is unfair to your body. The truth is that a barbell is a woman’s best friend.

Exercise selection

Each exercise should flow as naturally as possible into the next and the exercises selected should work as much of the body as possible. I favour the following easy barbell complex routine:

Back squat -> push press -> front squat -> bent-over row -> Romanian deadlift -> push up

“Easy? What the hell is a Romanian deadlift? Isn’t squatting something sumo wrestlers do?”

These may sound complicated if your whole gym experience up until now has consisted of treadmills and elliptical trainers. But they are all really, really, really simple exercises. There are no fancy Olympic lifts or complicated moves and they all follow natural movements of the body. This routine also ensure your whole body is worked in one easy routine.

It is very important to practice all these lifts with a very light weight before commencing your programme (a wooden or plastic bar is ideal, otherwise use the lightest bar your gym provides). I’ve included links explaining each exercise at the end. Don’t be afraid to ask a passing trainer to explain the exercises.

Note also that squatting is all the rage amongst women fitness enthusiasts because it encourages glute hypertrophy (i.e. gives you a sexy butt). Squats also strengthen your core like no other exercise. In fact the squat is maybe the greatest single exercise in the world. Plus this routine includes two kinds of squats!

You will notice that I deviated from the rules of the complex by throwing in push ups to finish. Well, let’s not let pedantry get in the way of an effective workout. If you are unable to perform regular push ups, simply balance your weight on your knees rather than your feet.

NB If any of these moves cause you pain or discomfort, simply cut them out or substitute exercises that are you are better suited to. ‘Working through the pain’ is not heroic, it’s dumb. (Which doesn’t mean you can never do those exercises. It just means you might have to do the necessary mobility work and fix your technique.)

Programming complexes

The success or failure of any workout routine depends on programming. Rocking up at the gym at random days and sweating a bit on one of those stair thingies is not going to significantly affect body composition.

There are lots of good ways of programming complexes, but here is one I favour that will ensure the right amount of intensity. Remember, complexes are all about intensity.

  1. Start with a weight that will allow you to perform three sets of six reps per exercise. If you cannot do three sets, the weight you are using is too heavy. Do three sets of each complex with a 90 second rest in between sets. Perform this routine three times each week with at least one rest day between workouts. The goal is consistent progress, so it is very important not to start too heavy. It is better to start too light than too heavy or you risk undermining your progress.
  2. The following week, add one set to your workout – i.e. four sets, with a 90 second rest between sets.
  3. In the third week of the cycle, add another set to your workout – i.e. five sets, with a 90 second rest between sets
  4. In the fourth week, increase weight.
  5. Repeat the cycle.

To reiterate: You’re building from three sets per workout to five and then returning to three sets, but with a heavier weight. Keep repeating this cycle for as long as you run the programme. This will have a stunning effect on the body composition of any woman or man who was previously sedentary or whose gym time had been focused primarily on steady state cardio.

Of course it will not be possible (or desirable) to achieve linear increases in barbell weight indefinitely, and at some point you will need to re-address your programming. The key is to be creative and make your workout fun. Options include increasing reps per set, reducing rest time between sets, changing exercise selection or some combination of those. The beauty of the programme is that after three to six months of following the regimen as directed, you will have the confidence, self-knowledge and experience to make these decisions yourself. The best part is, you’ll want to keep pushing yourself! This may seem hard to believe until you try it.

How much should I increase the weight? 

For most women, a 2kg increase per cycle will do the trick, however if you do not own fractional plates (i.e. weight plates in weight fractions as low 0.25kg) and exercise at a commercial gym, your weight selection will likely be determined by the limited options available. In our imperfect world, you may have to find clever ways to get around this, such as increasing sets for longer than the prescribed cycle. But really, you should invest in some fractional plates. They’re cheap and effective and fun to use.

But I don’t want to get too muscular!

Sigh. Ok, look, this is very much not a bodybuilding routine, but it will lead to increases in muscle mass. That’s a good thing. ‘Toning’ – the holy grail of every women’s magazine health section – is nothing but a conjunction of low body fat and muscle mass. Complexes are the ultimate toning system. Seriously. Plus you’ll be fitter and stronger, which is the real goal of the programme.

But I’m not here to tell you how you should look or feel. So here’s a compromise: do this programme for three months and if you think you’ve started to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s twin sister, you can stop. My bet is you’ll just plain love being in the best shape of your life.


While all the moves in the barbell complex listed above are easy, they’re only easy if you know what they are. Check these out before starting and don’t be afraid to ask a member of your gym’s staff to check your form. If they try to sucker you into expensive personal training, tell them you already have a programme.


Back squat

Push press

Front squat

Bent-over row

Romanian deadlift

Push up

Keep us updated with your progress!