What is a Barbell Complex?
A barbell complex is a type of strength circuit where you complete 2, or more exercises with a barbell back to back with no rest without the bar touching the ground. Barbell complexes can be used as a workout, or within a workout.
Barbell complexes are an advanced training method that should not be attempted by beginners.
There are some excellent benefits to doing barbell complexes:
Barbell Complex Workout Example
Choose a weight you can press overhead 10x. Complete 6 reps of each of the following exercises with no rest between sets. The bar should not touch the ground from the time you pick it until after the last exercise. Beware this is an advanced workout that requires technique supervision.
WARNING: If you have never had a strength coach, or personal trainer coach you on the exercises, I would highly recommend not trying this complex. The main reason I wrote this article and made the video is so you can understand conceptually what a barbell complex is so you can apply it to your own workouts to match your fitness and skill level.
Barbell Complex Exercise #1 | Hang Clean
The hang clean is an advanced power lifting exercise that requires power, precision, and a lot of good technique. When I learned this exercise in college, we spent months with a strength coach learning proper technique, so it can take a long time to really master.
In these photos, I’m demonstrating a technique where I’m protecting my wrists by not dropping below the weight deeply and throwing the weight as high as I can. If you watch a powerlifting competition, as the powerlifter catches the bar, he will drop his hips within a few inches of the floor. The challenge is in order to catch the weight like this, the wrists need to snap backwards, which is a precarious position for your wrists. Also, without a powerlifting bar, I think the modified hang clean I show is a better option using less weight.
Barbell Complex Exercise #2 | Overhead Press
In this photo I’m bending my legs slightly and pressing the bar overhead while at the same time keeping my low back straight. The main issue people experience with overhead presses is excessive curvature of the lumbar spine, so that your spine becomes hyperextended under the load. By bending your legs in an athletic stance, a lot of pressure is taken off your lower back. If you need some momentum to help you lift the bar, you can use your legs to bend down more while still making the exercise safe. In this way, instead of an overhead press, you are completing almost a push press.
Barbell Complex Exercise #3 | Bent Over Row
The key with bent over row is that all the pressure should be on your legs and glutes with almost no pressure on your back. Keep the bar as close as possible to your shins and pull towards the bottom of your stomach. This helps keep the center of gravity of the bar closer to you, which puts less strain on the lower back. If you hold the barbell too far away from you, it will pull your body forwards and put excessive strain on your lower back.
Barbell Complex Exercise #4 | Stiff Legged Deadlift
Of all the exercises, which are advanced, this is possibly the most dangerous without proper form. The most important tips to think about is keeping your head up at all times, which helps prevent your lower back from rounding, keeping a slight bend in your knees, and keeping the bar as close to your shins and legs as possible so the bar basically scrapes your legs as you are going down and then up. The more advanced version is to go down as low as possible. Generally I prefer stiff-legged deadlifts with dumbbells, which allow greater range of motion and more control over the weight.
When should I use Barbell Complexes?
I think there are two main options:
1) As a workout – You can choose a barbell complex that has 4-5 exercises in one and complete it for 5 cycles. That can make for a very short and intense workout.
2) End of a workout – You can use complexes as a metabolic circuit at the end of your workout to make your muscles scream and get a great sweat. Be sure to choose a light enough weight so that you are using perfect form at the end of a workout when you may not have as much focus because of decreased energy.
How do I choose the correct weight for Barbell Complexes?
Choose the exercise that is the hardest in the sequence and then choose a weight that you can complete 10-15x for that exercise. For example, if you are doing 6 reps of each exercise and the hardest exercise is an overhead shoulder press, you can choose a weight you normally can press 10-12x. As you complete more cycles, you’ll be very happy you chose a lighter weight!
How to choose the right Barbell Complex exercises?
When constructing a strength circuit using Barbell Complexes, you want to choose exercises that flow well and where the exercises demand a similar weight. Regarding the first point, you don’t want to be switching hand grips, stances, and body positions too much as you move from exercise to exercise. Regarding the second point, if you choose a barbell biceps curl with bent over row, that won’t make much sense because a weight you can complete a biceps curl will likely be far too easy if you are doing a bent over row. The exception to this rule would be if you are purposely pre-exhausting the biceps and completing bent over rows last in the complex.
My hands are killing me after a set of Barbell Complexes. Is this normal?
Yes. I find the hardest part of completing a barbell complex is just holding on to the bar for a good 1-2 minutes, which is how long each complex can take. If your hand grip is simply giving out before you can really push yourself, you can consider using wrist straps to help keep your grip. I generally do not recommend wrist straps, but you can definitely consider them for barbell complexes.