One of the lessons of 2020 for the fitness industry is that we’ve been preaching “optimal” for so long, and writing endless articles about what’s perfect in the gym, that we left a lot of people pretty much stranded when the gym wasn’t an option. Let’s hope 2021 sees us working hard to rectify that.
Let’s take home-based conditioning work, for instance. There’s a joke in the fitness industry that in order to do “cardio,” you just need to lift weights faster. It sounds like one of those things trainers say to make you do something you’ll hate, but there is something to it—as long as the faster thing you’re doing is complexes.
And lucky you, it’s even true if you’re doing them with light weights, which, we’ll assume for the moment, is all you have access to. Here’s everything you need to know.
A complex is an intense circuit of exercises performed with no rest, and all with the same piece of equipment. And when I say, “no rest,” I mean you don’t even set the weight down until the end of a round.
Within seconds, your heart rate and breathing rate climb quickly, and when you’ve done even one set, you’ll feel like you just ran a hard sprint. In addition to a serious cardiovascular challenge, doing dumbbell complexes provides a strong muscle-building and fat-loss stimulus because of the high volume of reps in each workout.
So yeah, it’s about the best “one stop shop” for total fitness there is. It’s perhaps the perfect flipside to go along with more restorative activities like yoga, walking, or hiking. But there’s a catch; if you’ve never done complexes before, well, they uniquely suck—at least until you do them a few times.
Below, I’ve outlined three different dumbbell complexes you can do in the comfort of your own home, but if you feel like designing your own, try to include these movement patterns:
- Hip Hinge
- Knee Bend
- Upper-Body Pull
- Upper-Body Push
Yes, some of these can be combined. For example, you’ll find hinges with rows in the complexes below, as well as core work combined with pushes and pulls.
I’ve gone high rep for these, in the interest of speaking to people who really only have light weights to work with. But if you have heavier weights and are proficient at the movements, there’s no reason you can’t do complexes at lower reps, like 3-5 reps per movement.
Let’s get to it.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold two dumbbells with the handles parallel to one another, or one dumbbell by the head. Soften your knees and hinge over at your hips. Bring the weights in between your legs with straight arms. Keep your back flat and abs braced. Stand explosively and swing the dumbbells up. Control the height of the weights to stop at chest height. Do not lift the weights with your arms or shoulders; use the momentum of the swing to bring the weights up. Soften your knees and hinge over at the hips to receive the weights in between your legs and prepare for the next rep.
Alternating Dumbbell Bent-Over Row
Yeah, that’s a lot of reps. If your weights are heavier or your grip gets fried, dial it back. But if you’ve only got 5s or 10s, you can probably handle it. Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Soften your knees and hinge over at your hips. Keep your back flat and abs braced. Hold one dumbbell at the top of the row while your other arm starts at the bottom of the row. Don’t move your body and switch the weights quickly.
Dumbbell Clean to Front Squat
Here’s where your breath will really start to leave your body. Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Pull the dumbbells upward and squat to receive the weights in the front-racked position. Move your feet to shoulder-width apart and make sure you squat all the way down so your hips just pass the surface of your knees. Keep your heels flat. Return to standing and lower the dumbbells to your thighs.
Alternating Dumbbell Racked Reverse Lunge
Hope you liked that rack position! After your last front squat, keep the weights in the front-racked position. Take a large step backward and land on your big toe joint. Bent your knee and gently touch it on the ground. Return to standing and switch legs.
Dumbbell Hollow-Body Floor Press OR V-Sit to Seated Overhead Press
If you’re performing hollow-body presses, just lift your legs and shoulders off the ground and press. If you’re doing the full V-sit to press like I am in the video, lie on your back on the ground with your legs open in the shape of a V. Hold the dumbbells with your elbows bent to 90 degrees. Sit up without lifting your legs. Sit tall, then press the dumbbells overhead. Lower the weights back to your shoulders and carefully lie back down.
Dumbbell Stiff-Legged Deadlift
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Soften your knees and hinge over at your hips. Keep your back flat and abs braced. Stick your chest out over your toes. Notice a stretch in your hamstrings. Return to standing and squeeze your glutes.
Alternating Lunge Jump
Hold the dumbbells at your sides and stand with your feet hip-width apart. Jump and land in a lunge with one leg in front and one leg behind. Lower your knee very close to the ground but before touching, jump up and switch legs.
Dumbbell Bent-Over Row
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Soften your knees and hinge over at your hips. Keep your back flat and abs braced. Stick your chest out over your toes. Notice a stretch in your hamstrings. Row the weights up and squeeze your shoulders together.
Biceps Curl to Shoulder Press
Curl the dumbbells up with an underhand grip. While pressing the dumbbells, rotate them to finish with the dumbbells overhead with your palms facing forward. Reverse the motion and lower the weights to the beginning of the curl. Want to make it tougher? Perform it in a half-kneeling stance and switch knees halfway through.
Plank to Alternating Row with Push-Up
Place the dumbbells shoulder-width apart on the ground. Go into the top of a push-up with your feet wider than shoulder width. Do a push-up with your elbows close to your sides. Stop at the top of the push up and make sure your ribs are up and your hips are tucked in. Brace your abs and squeeze your glutes. Row one dumbbell up, then the other. All of that is 1 rep.
Dumbbell Jump Squat
Yep, we’re starting out hot. Stand with your feet hip width apart and hold the dumbbells at your sides. Squat down half way then jump up. Land softly, and repeat.
Dumbbell Stiff-Legged Deadlift to Bent-Over Row
Stand with your feet hip width apart. Soften your knees and hinge over at your hips. Keep your back flat and abs braced. Stick your chest out over your toes. Notice a stretch in your hamstrings. Row the weights up and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Lower the weights, then stand back up. Do the Romanian deadlift again to prepare for the next row.
Kneel on your right knee and hold one dumbbell in your left hand. Band to the side while reaching your right hand for the ground. Keep your left arm straight and look at the dumbbell. You can pivot your right leg to externally rotate your hip if this makes the windmill more comfortable. Return to the upright position. Complete all reps on the right before you switch sides.
Dumbbell Alternating Lunge
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold the dumbbells at your sides. Take a large step forward and kneel toward the ground. Gently touch your knee on the ground and push yourself backward to return to the upright position. Alternate sides and complete all reps.
Love fast-paced training like complexes and circuits? You need to experience FYR 2.0: Hannah Eden’s 8-Week Muscle-Building Fat-Loss Plan. Give Hannah’s follow-along video workouts a try, and you will never view fitness the same way again.