You love the feeling of moving barbells, but maybe you’ve hit a plateau. Or maybe you just want to mix it up and add some spice to your routine. Or — I almost hesitate to suggest it — you want to add some conditioning components to your lifting.
Whatever your specific goals, if they include better strength, better grip strength, and better stamina —without doing endless reps — you probably want to give barbell complexes a try.
What Are Barbell Complexes?
How many different moves can you do (with good form) all without putting down the barbell?
With typical barbell lifts, you use the barbell for one lift at a time — a squat, for example. But sometimes, you combine moves. For example
- A reverse curl, if brought up through to rack position, can morph into
- an overhead press. That overhead press, when lowered to behind your neck with enough control, can become
- a back squat.
Once you put a handful of these moves together, you’ve got yourself a barbell complex. Think of it as a massive series of supersets or a circuit, except the bar never leaves your grip.
Why Do Barbell Complexes?
Simply put, barbell complexes are amazingly effective and a lot of fun. Because you’re not resting between movements, barbell complexes are great for maximizing lifting endurance and total-body strength. It’ll get your heart pumping a sweet cardiovascular beat while challenging every muscle you’ve got — isolation lifts like curls alone might not get your heart rate that far up, but when you’re combining them with 4-6 other lifts in a single “rep,” you’d better believe it’s going to give your body a solid cardio challenge. No treadmill required!
What’s more, your entire body will be called into the task: once the third or fourth rep starts wearing you down and your grip wants to give out, your core and relevant stabilizers will really kick in to make sure your form stays solid (and please do make sure your form stays solid — we’re trying to build you up, not break you down). That’s another thing about barbell complexes that make them such an incredible addition to your training: the mental component.
Please do make sure your form stays solid — we’re trying to build you up, not break you down
Complexes are tough, and they’re just taxing enough to make you really want to quit halfway through. And of course, if your body needs a rest, always take it! But training your mental space to determine your limits and push past them to create new ones is hugely important for lifters who prioritize getting up from under the heavy bars. Barbell complexes will up the grit factor of your workouts to make sure you’re challenging both your body and your brain, and that’s only going to lock you in farther when you’re doing regular lifts.
Programming Barbell Complexes (And Weight Selection)
When you integrate complexes into your program, you’ve got a lot of options. Very light-weight complexes can be great as part of your warm-ups; moderate-weight complexes can be great for finishers at the end of your workouts; and heavier complexes are an awesome (and fast) way to get in an efficient, powerful standalone workout.
Even when you’re lifting light, you shouldn’t do more than 5-6 reps of a complex in a single set — because remember, each “rep” contains multiple lifts. And when you’re lifting heavier, feel free to keep it to 3-4 sets of 3-4 reps, with about a minute rest in between. It won’t be a long workout, but it’ll be intense — you’ll be grateful for the rest and the low rep scheme.
When you’re selecting your weights, remember to gauge where to start by balancing two factors:
- what are your goals
- what does that mean for the lightest lift in the complex? What’s your lightest lift in a complex?
Most likely, that would be the least compound movement of the bunch. For example, when doing a complex with an overhead press, back squat, and curl, it’s pretty safe to assume that the lightest lift will be your curl. Use that weight to judge what you should be lifting.
If your goal is building stamina and you want to do sets of 5-6 complex reps (that’s high reps for a complex, remember), select a weight with which you can comfortably do nine or ten reps for the lightest lift of the complex (a curl, in the example above). If your goal is building some serious strength, go heavier for less reps, again using your lightest lift to determine what ‘heavy’ means. Seventy pounds might not be a lot to squat, but in the context of an exhausting complex with no rest, multiple moves, and possibly including isolation movements like curls, seventy suddenly might not seem absurdly light.
Complexes sure look cool, but they’re not ego lifts. Keep that in mind — and breathe — and you’ll do just fine.
The coolest thing about complexes is that you can definitely make up your own, especially once you get a feel for the rhythm of how they’re supposed to feel. But if you’re looking to dip your toes into the proverbial waters of complexes, these make for a great introduction.
For this puppy (or cub, I guess), you’re going to cycle through five moves per single rep (I know: oof). You’ll start with your palms facing away from you (prepared to do a reverse curl). You can have your thumb secure around the bar or not — it depends on your comfort level, which also may depend on your shoulder mobility. So check yourself through all these moves separately before you settle on a stable grip for your complex.
Once you’ve got your grip down, set your feet into your most comfortable squat stance and brace your core. For each component of the complex, breathe like you would if you were performing the lift by itself. The components for the bear complex are as follows:
- Power clean into rack position
- Rack position into front squat
- Front squat into thruster (that’s a squat with an overhead press)
- Thruster/overhead press into back squat
- Back squat into behind the neck push press
All of that? Yep, that’s one rep (sorry). Rinse and repeat, without putting the barbell down.
Sometimes, barbell complexes contain less moves but more reps, especially when you want to focus in on (or finish off) a particular body part. In this case, we’re going to turn our attention to back day.
Pay special attention here to making sure your form is absolutely perfect; that you stop right away if there’s pain; that you’re breathing; and that you’re using light enough weight to maintain absolutely perfect form throughout. You want your back to get super strong, but you definitely don’t want it to get injured. Remember that for this complex, you’ll need to be able to curl whatever weight you deadlift, so take the ego out of this one, folks.
- 5 deadlifts
- 5 bent over rows
- 5 upright rows
- 5 reverse grip curls
On the fifth rep of each lift, transition as smoothly as you can into the next. Especially when transitioning from deadlifts to bent over rows, make sure your back is feeling good, and that your position is stable.
Try to keep hold of the bar the whole time if you can, but really feel free to take your time getting the flow down on this one — again, you want to make your back awesome, not painful.
If you want to make it more interesting, instead of doing a handful of sets with 5 reps of each move (per complex rep), you can make it a countdown: your first round can contain 5 reps of each move; your next round can contain 4 reps of each move; then 3, then 2, then 1. It’ll give you something to look forward to as you get more and more tired.
This isn’t going to be pretty, as far as emotions go — just because it’ll be a lot — but make sure you keep it pretty in terms of your form. And remember here too, as ever, that this is not an ego lift. Keep it as light as your lightest lift, and make sure your core is braced the whole time.
- 5 power cleans
- 5 front squats (on the fifth rep, blast into a push press and lower carefully to set the bar on your back for the next move)
- 3 reverse lunges per leg
- 5 back squats (on the fifth rep, push press and carefully lower to return back into rack position)
Rinse and repeat as desired. Like the pulling complex above, feel free to have fun with the rep scheme, either building up to 5 reps per move (1, 2, 3, 4, 5 reps per move), or reducing the number of reps per move with each complex round (5, 4, 3, 2, 1 reps per move).
Upper Body Push Day
Make sure your shoulders are super warm before you dive into this one — even if you’re going light and using this complex as a warmup, make sure you’ve gone through all the other basics of your warm-up first (think of this as a finisher for your warm-up rather than a start to it).
- 4 thrusters
- 3 push press
- 2 overhead press
- 3 push press
- 4 thrusters
This pyramid-style complex will help you build solid upper body strength, but make sure that you’re squeezing your glutes and quads throughout the push and overhead presses — that will help prevent you from arching back and hyperextending your back while trying to get the bar up. If you find yourself tempted to do that, go down in weight — the extra ego isn’t worth the health of your low back.
Complexes can feel complicated at first. It’s okay if it takes time to get the rhythm down. If your movements are halted at first, and you have trouble remembering which move comes next, that’s normal.
When I’m learning complexes, I’ll often write the moves in my workout notebook in big print so I can glance down and see what’s next while I’m lifting. A little nerdy, sure, but it does the trick. And once you learn the complexities of complexes (I couldn’t help myself, and I’m really not that sorry), you’ll have a great time with these grip-building, stamina-boosting lifts.