Are Complexes The Holy Grail for Vert Training?

Much has been written about complex training for vert gains, more accurately called contrast training. I've written about complex training in my Psycho Factor series. Here you use one exercise to fire up the nervous system, and follow that up with a lighter more specific exercise to take advantage of the increased neural firing rate. For example, perform a set of heavy squats, rest a few minutes, then peform a set of plyometrics. The goal is a transfer of sport performance through dynamic correspondence to help you perform on the field

Complex training is effective and I've received several queries people wondering if it's so effective than why not just spend all allotted training time on it? These and similar questions are what I hope to clear up in this article. 


First of all one should consider the impact of synergy. Properly synchronized periodization schemes can create a sum greater than the individual parts. Consider the olympic games: The training a track and field competitor does just prior to the olympic games will look a lot different than the training 6 months prior to the games. The more recent training is the most specific and should be where he is at his best. But that doesn't make the training leading up to that any less effective. A properly periodized program can over time produce a sum greater than the parts.

Optimal Order of Training Focus

Eastern bloc strength training research indicates complex/contrast methods are best if installed in the 2nd half of a longer term periodization plan and work best during transition phases. One experiment was undertaken where athletes over a 12 week span of time went thru different 4 week phases of training. one group did strength training for 4 weeks, complex training for 4 weeks, followed by plyo training for 4 weeks. Another group did the same exact training but reversed the order, so they started with plyo and finished up with strength.  Three more groups did all complex, all strength, or all plyo throughout the 12 weeks of training.






The group performing strength, complex, and plyo in that order achieved the best results, followed by the group that did complex training for the duration. This indicates complex training is most effective if preceded by a base of more traditional strength training, and more effective when followed up by more specific speed-strength training. 

Another old soviet experiment into the optimal order of training means for the acquisition of explosive strength indicated this was the optimal order of training focus:

1. low to medium intensity jumps, hops bounds

2. strength training

3. Jumps with weights

4. depth jumps

Each phase lasted approximate one month. Groups who performed exclusively depth jumps, strength training, and/or other jumps, or who rearranged the focus in a different order did not demonstrate the same results as the group who progressed from jumps, to strength training to loaded jumps to shock training (depth jumps). Complex training would prove a useful addition in that arrangement in the latter 2 phases. 

I've always thought that experiment made a heckuva lot of sense and verified my own observations which ultimately contributed greatly to my own system of training. You build movement efficiency and coordination first (low to medium intensity jumps, hops, bounds), then you add horsepower (strength train), then you better learn to express the strength you gain (explosive work and more intense plyos).  

Research into advanced athletes generally indicates that gains that occur when a session includes and equal amount of both strength and plyo work, or a  a strength session one day and a plyo session on another, are not quite as good as when the focus is more on a given quality, that would seem to put a damper on traditional complexes such as squats/jumps or deadlifts/jumps but complexes can be arranged so that the focus in a given phase or session is moe specific. For example, a strength oriented contrast would be something like Squat partials alternated with full range squats. A strength-speed contrast could be something like Squats alternated with jump squats, and a speed-strength contrast could be something like jump squats alternated with a plyometric exercise.  

Here are some additional points to take home:

1. Have less time? If you only have a limited amount of time to really focus on training, as in a month or so, complex/contrast training would be the way to go because in the short term they give a lot of bang for the buck.

2. Have more time?  If you have more time, as in a couple of months or more, you're better off starting off with more of a traditional conjugate focus. Take a while to iron out any anatomical imbalances and get into the swing of things. Focus on strength for a while, then transition into more explosive work including complexes.

3. Use intermittently: Complex training will tend to work best if it's use is restricted to 4-6 week periods. I like to use it to peak an athlete. For example, consider we have 2 workouts and we alternate between them on an every other day basis:

Session A:

Squats alternated with jump squats

Dumbell swing altenated with broad jump

Session B: 

Jump squats alternated with plyo variation

Banded depth jumps alternated with running jump for max height

one can get quite creative as there are a multitude of options at your disposal. 

4. More rest between exercises tends to be better:  Fairly recent research indicates longer rest intervals are better, on the order of 7-10 minutes between the potentiation exercise and specific exercise. 

5. Are you a responder or non-responder? Some people are responders to complex training and some aren't. For optimal results you should individually identify whether you're a responder before making complex training part of your routine. In my experience some people are 'strength' responders but not speed/power responders while those that are strength responders are  also likely to be speed/power responders. So, how do you do that?  

It's relatively simple: 

First, evaluate your strength response. Take any loaded barbell exercise, put 110% of your max on the bar, unrack and hold it at lockout for 10 seconds. Next, rest 5 minutes strip some weight off and go for a 1rm . Strength responders will note an increase in 1rm strength doing that.  

Next, evalute your speed-strength response.  First, test your standing countermovement vertical jump. Next, perform 5 loaded jump squats with about 10% of you bodyweight. A weight vest or belt is ideal but a barbell or dumbells can also be used. Rest 5 minutes and re-test your vertical jump. You should see an improvement. 

Next, on another day do this: Warm-up and perform a set of 5 squats with 85% of your max. Rest about 8 minutes and test your vertical jump. 

You should see some sort of a vert improvement from either the jump squat potentiation or the squat potentiation. If you don't, you're probably a non responder. 

6. Contrast training also works in reverse: A speed-strength exercise can enhance the strength exercise. For a strength oriented workout try performing a set of 5 depth jumps 4 minutes before each set of squats. You should see an improvement in bar speed and strength. 

7. Be careful with frequency:  Complexes inherently intensify the training means which necessitates optimal recovery and rest between workouts. One can typically tolerate more volume and frequency with traditional training methods.

Keep those tips in mind! One should also make an effort to implement conjugate programming, which basically means as you work between phases keep enough volume of non-targeted qualities to maintain their capacity. In other words, in a strength phase do enough movement and plyometric work to maintain that ability. In your more explosive phases do enough strength work to maintain that capacity.  For more help sorting all that out over the long term take a look at my Vertical Jump Bible 2.0.