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This week, I am going to share with you a method that can cut your gym time in half, and this new method won't sacrifice weight on the bar or quality of work.
Getting more work done in less time simply equals bigger results. Loosely, this idea has spawned the systems of legendary bodybuilding guru and trainer to the stars, Vince Gironda. Although he will roll over in his grave when I write this, the late Arthur Jones, while not a high-volume guy, also advocated maximal intensity in minimal time.
"Getting more done in less time" can be expressed more simply as density. When the weight lifted and volume are equal, density trumps longer, drawn-out sessions for strength and size gains every day of the week and thrice on Sunday.
Enter Complex Training
Complex training means pairing exercises of two opposing muscle groups or, in scientific terms, an agonist and an antagonist.
Agonists or "prime movers" are the muscles primarily responsible for generating a specific movement. For a leg extension, the quadriceps is the agonist. An "antagonist" is a muscle that acts opposite to the specific movement generated by the agonist and is responsible for controlling the motion, slowing it down and returning a limb to its initial position. Sticking with the leg extension, the hamstrings serve as an antagonist.
Some examples of exercises that can be paired in a complex format are:
- Leg Extensions and Leg Curls
- Overhead Press and Pull ups
- Triceps Extension and Bicep Curls
- Bench Press and Bench Pulls
That is just a few examples! Be creative.
Complex training is being prescribed by more and more strength coaches. Let's not take anybody's word, though. Let's see what science has to say.
A 2009 study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences entitled "Effects of agonist-antagonist complex resistance training on upper body strength and power development" demonstrated the efficiency of complex training.
Over the course of eight weeks, a group that trained the bench press with bench pulls (an opposing pulling movement for the upper back) did improve bench press strength slightly over a group that trained the bench press with traditional sets. While the complex training group did not have a statistically significant surge in bench press strength over the control group, the study did demonstrate the efficiency of complex training: the same amount of work could basically be done in half the time without compromising strength gains. The study provides evidence that complex training is an effective means of cutting down time in the gym and continually making gains.
A 2005 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research entitled "Acute effect on power output of alternating an agonist and antagonist muscle exercise during complex training" suggested that not only does complex training save time, but it potentially enhances power.
The study found that rugby players with strength training experience increased power by 4.7 percent when training in the bench press throw in a complex with the bench press pull-over compared to training the bench press throw by itself.
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The Lab Meets the Real World
It is important to note most advanced strength athletes do not train this way. The subjects in the aforementioned studies were not competitive lifters. I believe this is because of fatigue. Strength is a product of the Central Nervous System (CNS).
Elite strength athletes have very efficient motor recruitment patterns; in lay terms, they are so skilled at the movements they perform, they fatigue faster. Studies have shown the stronger an individual is, the longer rest intervals are needed between sets. Remember, we are talking about elite strength athletes not the vast majority of experienced gym lifters.
If this describes you, there are a couple of ways you can handle this. Continue training with straight sets; the strongest men in the world have done this for centuries. The second option is what I call modified complex training (MCT). MCT simply means you pair an agonist and antagonist together like complex training. But here's the kicker!
Place emphasis on one of the movements. If you are capable of doing an overhead press (OHP) of 300 pounds and a pull-up with 80 pounds over your bodyweight for eight reps, emphasizing shoulders might look like this with MCT:
OHP 255 Pounds x 5 Reps. Pull-ups Bodyweight x 5 reps
Set 2 MCT
OHP 255 Pounds x 4 Reps. Pull-ups Bodyweight x 5 reps
Set 3 MCT
OHP 255 Pounds x 3 Reps. Pull-ups Bodyweight x 5 reps
The inverse of MCT placing the emphasis on the upper back would look like this:
Pull-Up 80 Pounds Over Bodyweight x 8 Reps. OHP 155x8
Set 2 MCT
Pull-Up 80 Pounds Over Bodyweight x 6 Reps. OHP 155x8
Set 3 MCT
Pull-Up 80 Pounds Over Bodyweight x 5 Reps. OHP 155x8
This still allows extra stimulation of the antagonist muscle group, without annihilating it.
Complex training is the ultimate method to increase training density. If time is of the essence or if you just are looking to try something new, give complex training a shot!
Everyone has a different idea of what constitutes an ideal workout. How long does your typical workout last? How long is too long? Let us know in the comments field below!