Chances are, you’ve never heard of the barbell complex before now. And that’s OK; they aren’t an indispensable part of weight training, they aren’t widely used, and there’s nothing about them that tells us everybody should be doing them.
But we promise you this; they are devastatingly effective for quickly building raw mass and real strength.
The great thing about barbell complexes is that they are so damn SIMPLE! They can be tailored to suit your goals, time and equipment restrictions – hell, you can even just choose the movements you like best.
The best thing about them though is the results they get. We’ve never seen anyone do a solid 12 week stint of barbell complexes – in conjunction with some heavy powerlifting – and not gain some serious mass in the process.
We’re going to quickly take you through what barbell complexes are, why we love them, and why they work. Then we’ll give you some sample routines to run through.
What Are Barbell Complexes?
A barbell complex is simply a continuous exercise where you move from one movement to another without letting go of the barbell. To put it another way, it’s when you take a barbell and complete a set of movements without putting down the barbell or taking a rest in between movements.
The best way to explain this is an example. A typical barbell complex might look like this:
- Clean the weight 8 times
- Overhead press the weight 8 times
- Front squat the weight 8 times
- Row the weight 8 times
- Stiff-legged deadlift the weight 8 times
You do this for one complete cycle without letting go of the bar. You just move seamlessly from one movement to another. You’d then take a rest and go at it again for 3-6 cycles.
The idea isn’t to be using massive loads here, but rather to be getting the complex done with good form and in good time. You’re trying to work up a sweat and really tax your whole musculature here, not set PBs. That said, you should aim to increase the weight you use slowly over time; move up in 1.25kg increments when you feel that a complex has become too easy.
Why Barbell Complexes Work
Barbell complexes do a number of different things at once.
They drastically increase the time you spend under load.
This prolonged time spent under tension causes a significant adaptive response. Not to mention the fact that this tension is spread across your entire body. To put this in simple terms, your body is going to spend a lot more time under the bar, it’s going to be stressed, and it’s going to grow.
They get you better at key movements.
Everyone wants to get better at the deadlift and the overhead press, but nobody spends any time actually doing those movements. They spend more time doing lateral raises and pulldowns than doing the things they want to improve (because it’s easier). Complexes get you spending a lot more time moving a barbell around, which can only make you better at those movements. This means faster strength gains and more overall muscle mass.
But above all else, barbell complexes place an extreme metabolic demand on your body.
If you can get through 4 cycles of a good barbell complex and not be on the verge of collapse, you’re not doing it right. When done properly, barbell complexes leave you feeling completely wiped out. Your muscles wont be spent, meaning that you can get your proper workout done. But they should leave you gasping for breath and with a decent pump on.
Sample Barbell Complexes
Here are some sample complexes that we find work well before pretty much any workout.
- Upright row x 8
- Overhead press x 8
- Back squat x 8
- Bent over row x 8
- Romanian deadlift x 8
- Clean x 10
- Front squat x 10
- Behind the neck press x 10
- Lunge x 10
- Reverse grip row x 10
- Bent over row x 6
- Front squat x 6
- Overhead press x 6
- Back squat x 6
- Deadlift x 6
These are of course just some sample barbell complexes. The exact composition of a barbell complex is not that important. What is important is how you do the complex; they should be done with intensity, using the correct amount of weight, and as part of a well put-together workout and diet regime.
So what is the right way to do barbell complexes for your specific goals? Let’s go through the two main reasons people train: to gain mass, and to improve conditioning.
Using Barbell Complexes For Mass
Most people think of barbell complexes as a kind of resistance-based cardio. But to think of them this way is wrong. Barbell complexes can actually be one of the most powerful weapons in your arsenal when trying to put on good quality mass.
As with all mass gaining routines, what matters isn’t so much the movements being done or the style of training but rather your recovery. So long as you are damaging your muscles in the gym and then eating plenty of food and getting plenty of sleep, you will gain good quality muscle mass.
Barbell complexes represent a great addition to your mass building workout routine.
Doing barbell complexes at the beginning of your workout will hit every single muscle group before you approach any heavy weights. It will wake up your nervous system, get your blood pumping, and get you ready to hit your numbers for the session. Importantly, complexes also get you doing a full body workout while under significant load; this is much more conducive to building mass than stretching or doing a bodyweight circuit.
To do barbell complexes for mass, we recommend picking a weight you can comfortably do for reps but which gives you a burn beyond 12-15 reps, and then shooting for several complexes of 6 movements, with 6-8 reps per movement.
Here is a sample mass building barbell complex:
Barbell weight = 45kg/100lbs
- Stiff legged deadlift x 8
- Bent over row x 8
- Clean x 8
- Front squat x 8
- Overhead press x 8
- Curl x 8
Repeat that circuit for as many times as you can, taking 1 minute rest in between each circuit. Then take 5-10 minutes to drink some water and catch your breath before starting your warm up for bench, squats, or whatever your main movement is for the workout.
The main benefit to doing barbell complexes for mass is that you work different energy systems and muscle fibers than doing simple high-intensity resistance training. You will be causing new kinds of muscle fiber damage, and you will be stimulating an increase in muscle glycogen storage; all this means bigger, fuller, thicker muscles.
Using Barbell Complexes For Conditioning
Using barbell complexes to improve conditioning is a great idea, for obvious reasons.
If you’ve never tried to do 20 clean and presses with an even moderately heavy weight, try it – you will feel like your lungs are going to burst and like your shoulders are about to burst into flames.
Doing a resistance movement – particularly an explosive resistance movement – for a large number of repetitions is extremely metabolically demanding. To get the work done, your body needs to consume a terrific number of calories. You have both anaerobic and aerobic respiration going on, and when it’s over, you need a lot of calories to repair damaged muscles and replenish glycogen stores.
All of this means barbell complexes are an ideal conditioning tool, especially if your goal is to reduce body fat, increase endurance, and train explosive power while preserving muscle mass.