March 26, 2021 10 min read

Lifting with a barbell is so satisfying. They’re one of the best ways to show off your strength. There’s nothing in the world quite like facing down a barbell and knowing that all of your training has led to the next moment. Overcoming a new set of plates and incrementing your progress week over week is an amazing way to see how you’ve improved over time and prove to yourself that all of the time you’ve put into the gym is worth it.

The only downside to barbell listing is that it can get a little dull doing the same exercises over and over again. Barbells aren’t exactly the most flexible pieces of equipment at your disposal. If you’re looking for a way to increase the challenge level of your barbell exercises and integrate some variety into your workout routine, then developing or using a barbell complex is the way to go.

Barbell Complexity

Barbell complexes are anything but complex. A barbell complex is just a set of barbell movements that blend into one another to create a simple routine that you’ll repeat a number of times to get a single complex. As long as you can maintain your form and move from one movement to the next without having to set the weights down to reset, you’ve got yourself a complex. 

It sounds a little weird to lay it out like that, so let’s use a clear example. Imagine you’re standing in front of a barbell on the ground. There is any number of exercises you can start from this position, we’re going to go with a power clean. Once the barbell is off of the floor and racked across your chest, you can transition into a weighted lunge. Once you stand back up from the lunge, you could widen up your grip and transition directly into an overhead press. After all of that, you could return the weights to the floor and mark that off as a single rep. 

Barbell complexes are used in Crossfit all the time, and it’s something that you can use in your own workouts. The easiest part about a barbell complex is drafting one up. As long as you understand the basics of a handful of barbell exercises, you’ll be good to get started. Drafting up your own barbell complex is a satisfying process. If you’ve got a set of movements you’re confident with, but you want to challenge then you can chain them all together to make a comfortable but difficult exercise. You can choose to pick on yourself too. If you know you’ve got some problem areas, then creating a complex that forces you through some of your weaker barbell movements will naturally build some muscle and force you to work on your muscle memory as well.

barbell

Why Make things Difficult?

There’s nothing magic about barbell complexes. You’re not tricking your muscles into growing or unlocking a Gym Rat God Mode. It’s all about pushing yourself to your limits (safely) and engaging as many muscles as possible. Full-body workouts and compound movements are excellent for building muscle and burning fat because of one simple fact: it costs a lot of energy. When you’re forcing yourself to engage as many muscles as possible in a short amount of time, your body is grasping for energy. You’re going to blast through your readily available glucose and then your body is going to start depleting the local storage in your muscles, and once you’ve run out of that, you start breaking open the emergency storage, AKA: fat cells. 

Barbell complexes are great for you for the same reason that deadlifts are one of the best full-body exercises, but turned up to eleven. The first time you whip out a barbell complex in the gym, you’re probably going to swear them off forever. The only thing that’s easy thing about them is drafting one up. After that, it’s sweat city. A good barbell complex is going to build muscle, burn fat, and it’s going to be a great way to slip some cardio into your routine. 

Cardio is an important part of any workout routine. You want your body to supply your body with energy and oxygen as efficiently as possible, and if you’re pushing yourself as hard as barbell complexes are capable of you’re going to be shooting your heart rate up and working on your cardiovascular strength. 

Complex Compendium

Barbell complexes require knowledge of a wide range of barbell movements. We’re going to set you up with some of the most common barbell movements that make up a good complex, and once you’re familiar with them, you’ll be able to work these together with each other into a custom barbell complex of your own.

dumbell squat

Front Squats 

Your very first front squats are probably going to feel awkward, you’re basically completely reversing the center of balance you’re used to if you’re a back squatter. Because you’re situating the weight on the front of your body, you’re going to be working a different set of muscles. Your quads and your upper back are going to be much more engaged during a front squat. Front squats are usually going to be in the middle of a barbell complex. You’re usually transitioning into this from a deadlift or some kind of clean.

  • Front squats start with your weight racked across your chest. Keep your hands close to your shoulders as well. Find a grip you’re comfortable with, and learn it well so you can transition into this easily
  • Everything else about the front squat is the same as the back squat. Keep your feet about shoulder-width apart
  • When you come down with the weight, make sure you’re not leaning forward or bending your knees out past your toes.
  • The weight being on the front rather than your back is going to engage an entirely different set of muscles than you’re probably used to if all you’ve done are back squats. 

Back Squats

Back squats are a little harder to transition into or out of during a barbell complex, but this is an excellent place to work on your lunges. If you’re comfortable with your overhead presses, you can use those as a pivot point between your back squats and front squats. Most folks are more familiar with back squats, so if you’re looking for something comfortable to slip into your barbell complexes this is a great option to go for. 

  • Rack the barbell across your shoulders with your hands a little wider than shoulder-width apart
  • Plant your feet firmly shoulder-width apart and lower yourself towards the floor, hinging at the hips like you’re sitting down in a chair
  • Keep your kees in about the same place, try to keep them from drifting over your toes
  • Drive your feet into the floor and push yourself back up into a standing position

Bent Over Row

Bent over rows are good for getting your upper arms some work in. A lot of these barbell exercises favor your lower body and your grip strength, but bent over rows are good for your upper body. 

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart bend slightly at the knees and lean forward, hinging at the waist. 
  • Keep your back flat and your neck in line with your spine
  • Grab the bar with your hands, palms down a little wider than shoulder-width apart, and let the weight hang below you, keeping your shoulders engaged 
  • Engage tour core and bring your shoulders together
  • Row the weight up until it touches your chest and lower it back down to the starting position 


Lunges

Lunges

A lunge is a great addition to any barbell complex. Once you’ve racked your weights on your shoulders or your chest you can dip down to the ground once on each side. This is going to get your heart pumping and fully engaging your legs with a quick set of weighted lunges is going to be a great routine for a thorough full-body circuit. 

  • Rack your weight across your shoulders and keep your hands in a comfortable grip
  • Reach one leg behind you and step forward with your other foot
  • Keep your pelvis neutral, your chest high and tight, your back straight, and your core engaged
  • Bend at the knee with your front leg and lower yourself towards the ground in a controlled fashion until your back knee is about an inch from the ground 
  • Push yourself back up into your standing position
  • Switch feet and repeat

Push Press

Push Presses are going to be your bread and butter in your complexes. A good push press is a great way to transition the barbell from the front of your chest to the back of your shoulders.

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Grip the bar with your fingertips with your elbows pointing forward 
  • Rack the bar on the front of your shoulders, almost like you would during a front squat
  • Drop down into a shallow squat to centering your weight underneath the barbell
  • Set your core and press up through your heels. Drive the bar directly above your head until your arms are straight
  • Lower the bar down to your chest. Keep a neutral arch in your spine throughout the exercise. Don’t try to use your back to extend the weight above your head, this is going to be mostly in your shoulders and upper arms

Overhead Press

An overhead press will occupy almost the same space in your barbell complex. An overhead press is a good way to either start or finish off a tough complex. They’re going to force your shoulders to do some serious work. This is an exercise to work into your complex if you’re trying to bulk up your frame by solidifying your lats and beefing up your shoulders. 

  • Start with your arms perpendicular to the ground, and bend your elbows up into a ninety-degree angle with your palms facing outward. You’re making a goal post shape with your arms
  • Make sure you’re keeping the weight above your elbows and parallel with the floor, don’t bow them out to the sides, or in towards your shoulders too much. This exercise is all about stability everywhere throughout your body, so pay attention to the small details.
  • Engage your core and press the weights straight up over your head
  • Bring the weights back down to your starting position

Hang Clean

Hang cleans are a great exercise to have under your belt when you’re constructing a good barbell complex. This is a variant of the power clean that keeps tension on your muscles. You’re not going to be letting the weight hit the ground in between reps, making this an excellent exercise to work into your workout routine. 

  • Your starting position is going to make or break your ability to hang clean safely or effectively
  • Stand tall with your elbows out very slightly. Keeping your elbows out slightly is going to encourage a little bit of internal rotation because we don’t want to bar to pop away from you when you lift yourself underneath the weights.
  • Brace yourself on the ground. Your feet should be about shoulder-width and they should dig into the floor, imagine gripping the floor with your feet to increase your stability. Your toes should not leave the ground at all until you pop the bar up and reset your feet to brace yourself underneath the cleaned weights.
  • Brace your core and keep your back flat when you’re hanging the weights before you clean them. A solid core is also going to give you control over the weights once you’ve racked them on your chest
  • Get your hands in a nice and comfortable grip for your hang clean, since you’re working it into a series of movements, we’re going to suggest a neutral grip so you can transition into a number of other movements engage
  • Push your butt back and chest forward to get the weight to hang down by your knees. Don’t overextend yourself, keep your muscles engaged during the hang. The weight should be in line with your arms, but your elbows, fingers, and shoulders should still be engaged without your arms hanging out of their sockets.
  • Pull the hanging weight up your legs until you get close to your hips
  • Start straightening up your torso and pulling the weight up towards your chest, bringing your elbows out the whole time and extending yourself onto your toes in preparation for repositioning your feet
  • Explosively flip your arms under the weight and catch, racking the weight across your chest and shoulders as if you were going into a front squat while you reset your feet just slightly outside of your shoulders. Your feet should be creating a stable platform to steady the weight you’ve just lifted yourself underneath
  • Return the weight back to your hips and repeat, starting from the hanging position

Put It All Together

There are some common complexes that Crossfit die-hards have formulated. They’re tough to work into your routine, but they’re well worth the effort. It’s easy to modify these if you’re having trouble, just adjust the number of reps or cut out a movement. Stick with them, though. As long as you can power through and keep your form pristine, these are an excellent way to build muscle and increase your cardio 

Bear Complex

The Bear Complex is probably the most popular complex out there. People swear by this one. A single rep is one of each of the following movements. Once you’ve made it to the bottom of the list, loop back to the top and get right back into it without putting the weights down until you’ve completed a full set

  • Power clean into a rack position
  • Rack position into front squat
  • Front squat into an overhead press 
  • Overhead press into a back squat
  • Back squat into behind the neck push press

Pull Complex

This one is more simple, but a lot more difficult in some ways. All you need to do here is five reps of each of these movements before you swap directly into the next. You’re going to have to be honest with yourself about the amount of weight you’re able to curl. You can probably deadlift much more weight than you can curl, so if you’re going to do this, you need to put an amount of weight on the bar that will allow you to make it all the way through the full complex without failing halfway through.

  • 5 deadlifts
  • 5 bent over rows
  • 5 upright rows
  • 5 reverse grip curls

The world is your oyster here. If you don’t like either of these complexes, you should feel empowered to design your own complex. That’s the true beauty of the exercise, you can mold your complex to your specific routine and find success there. 

Keeping Complexes Simple

A good barbell complex is going to challenge you without forcing you to drop your form. You’re going to be moving swiftly from one barbell movement to the next without breaking in between. Think of barbell complexes as tailor-made compound exercises. They’re an excellent way to push your body to its limits and blow off a huge amount of steam. These are exercises that are meant to get your heart rate up and engage as many of your muscles as possible. They’re perfect for someone looking for a challenge or a quick way to blast their body into shape.  


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