Nov 3, 2021
Incorporating Complex Training in your Program
Wesley Sykes, managing editor

Unless you’re a racecar driver, equestrian athlete, or surfer, your sports skills are initiated by your feet putting force into the ground. Athletes operate through ground-based activities. They’re pushing against the ground or a firm object that returns force back through them. 

It is, after all, relating to Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of motion — for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Or, put another way, when you put force into the ground it will return back. 

“And our bodies are created for ground-based activities. Just think of our feet and how we walk,” Greg Warner, strength and conditioning coach for Virginia Tech’s women’s basketball team, said. 

complexAt Virginia Tech, they believe in pushing against the ground. And to put more force into the ground Warner wants his athletes to lift more weights and do more plyometrics to develop their muscular tree. The Hokies have incorporated ideas like the maximum effort from powerlifting, repetitive effort from body-building, dynamic effort in Olympic weightlifting, and neuro-rate in plyometrics and agility drills.

“We’re not powerlifters. We’re not body-builders. We’re not Olympic weightlifters,” Warner said. “But we use a lot of these disciplines from these categories. And all of them are involved in ground-based activities that translate into greater achievement of power and force. 

“What we’re after is fast-twitch muscle fibers — those are the ones that win games, hit home runs, get the knockouts in the ring, score touchdowns, and dunk basketballs. That’s what we’re really after here,” he continued.

complexTo groom those fast-twitch muscle fibers, Warner introduces methods Complex Training and Contrast Training that combines the aforementioned schools of training. Complex Training generally involves the execution of a resistance-training exercise using a heavy load (1-5 rep max) followed relatively quickly by the execution of a biomechanically similar plyometric exercise. For example, executing a set of squats followed by a box jump. Contrast Training refers to contrasting heavy and light loads, performing all high-load strength exercises at the beginning of the session, followed by lighter load power exercises at the end.

The physiological rationale that explains the efficiency of complex training is a phenomenon called post-activation potentiation (PAP), the power capability of a muscle is enhanced after it has been subjected to intense contractions. This acute power augmentation is mainly due to an increased neural activity that occurs through the recruitment of more fast-twitch motor units. So, the heavy resistance training subjects that muscle to an intense contraction and our neural system becomes highly activated — it knows what it just did and it’s ready to do that again. 

“It’s not only very beneficial for the athletes but it’s more enjoyable than just lifting weights all the time. They’re doing something athletic and moving,” Warner said.


The results speak for themselves, and not just within the Hokies training facility. A 2017 study entitled, “Short-term adaptations of following Complex Training in team sports: A Meta-Analysis,” found that complex training leads to positive effects on vertical jump height and improved sprint performances between 15 and 30 meters. In this study, the training variables that seem to most influence the positive response to complex training in team sports are the duration of intervention (6+ weeks), the resistance training intensity (~85% per 1RM), and the rest intervals (~2 minutes). 

The volume of complex training should be low enough to avoid excessive fatigue and the rest time should be based on the time allotted within the weight room, but two minutes is ideal. Sets of 2-5 should be considered for any complex pairs with 2-8 repetitions during the weight training component and 4-10 repetitions during the plyometric component.

» ALSO SEE: Implementing a High-Performance Program during a Pandemic

According to another study, entitled, “Effects of a Contrast Training Program without External Load on VJ, Kicking Speed, Sprint, and Agility of Young Soccer Players,” even if you don’t have access to weights you still can reap the benefits of complex training. Bodyweight isometrics, like holding a squat position, followed by explosive moments, like jumping motions. This study was done over 12 weeks with twice-a-week high-intensity contrast training sessions and implemented as a substitute for some soccer drills during in-season practice with at least two days of rest between sessions. 

“I can’t think of too many athletes that wouldn’t want those results,” Warner said. 

The benefits of complex training aren’t limited only to athletes in team sports, it can also be useful for endurance athletes. Studies have shown increases in strength and power while lower run times for distance runners. 

When it comes to weight training, getting bigger doesn’t always equate to getting better. Sometimes it’s simply upgrading the tools you already have to unlock your potential. Through ground-based training, it boils down to this: you get back what you put in.

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