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March 26, 2021 9 min read

Lifting a barbell from the floor to overhead is one of the best ways to improve total body strength and conditioning. And while at first glance the barbell may not appear to be the most flexible piece of equipment in the gym, there are lots of ways to change up your traditional barbell lifting routine.  

If you’re looking to increase the challenge of your barbell training and integrate some variety into your workouts, then a barbell complex is the way to go.

What Is A Barbell Complex?

A barbell complex is 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. 

Let’s use a clear example

Imagine you’re standing in front of a barbell on the ground. There are a number of exercises you can start from this position, but for this example we’re going to start with a power clean.

Once the barbell is off of the floor and racked across your chest, you can transition into a front squat. Once you stand back up from the front squat, you could transition directly into an overhead press. After all three movements, you'd return the barbell to the floor and mark that off as a single rep.

You'll perform this complex 3 to 5 times to complete a single set.

Barbell complexes are frequently used in Crossfit, and it’s something that you can use in your own workouts. As long as you understand the basics of a handful of barbell exercises, you’ll be good to get started.

If you’ve got a set of barbell movements you’re confident with, then you can chain them all together to make a complex.

A great way to strengthen weaknesses 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 force you to work on your muscle motor patterns and build muscle at the same time.


Make Things Difficult

Full-body workouts comprised of compound movements are excellent for building muscle and burning fat because of one simple fact: it takes a lot of energy.

So in that regard 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 to put pressure on the entire body at once including muscles, joints, and cardiovascular system.

By engaging as many muscles as possible in a short amount of time, your body is tapping into all of its energy stores.

You’re not only going to blast through your readily available glucose stored in the muscles, but once you’ve run out of that, you'll tap into 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. A good barbell complex is going to build muscle, burn fat, and be a great way to improve your cardiovascular capacity. It’s sweat city.

Complex Compendium

While barbell complexes can be created from a wide range of barbell movements, we’re going to provide some of the most common barbell movements to make up a good (simple) complex.

The idea is to create a complex that allows you to preform each exercise within the complex without changing your grip on the bar or your feet on the floor (unless you're performing lunges), thus keeping tension in the system throughout the entire set.

Once you’re comfortable with these exercises, you’ll be able to work these together into a barbell complex of your own.

dumbell squat

Front Squats 

Front squats may feel awkward, especially if you're used to back squats, but the more you do them the more comfortable they'll feel. During a front squat the center of gravity is shifted forward so your quads and your upper back are going to be much more engaged to stabilize the weight. They require mobility in your shoulders, lats, upper back, low back, and hips and are a great exercise to incorporate into your program to address these issues.

Front squats fit perfectly into the middle of most barbell complexes, as you’re usually transitioning into this from a deadlift or some kind of clean. That being said, you don't need a lot of weight to feel the benefits of a front squat, which is why they are great exercise for a barbell complex! 

Here's how to do it:

  • A front squat begins with the barbell 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.
  • The weight being on the front rather than your back is going to engage an entirely different set of muscles. 


Overhead Press

This is an excellent exercise to finish off a tough complex as it completes the cycle of lifting the weight from the floor to over your head. It is a strict press that forces your lats, triceps, and shoulders to do some serious work.

If you’re to get strong-af, this is a great exercise to accomplish that goal.

Here's how to do it:

  • From the front rack position, tighten your lats and engage your core and press the weights straight up over your head
  • Bring the weights back down to your starting position


Push Press

A push press is similar to an overhead press, the main difference being that it allows you to use your legs to create upwards momentum in your press. Not only does this allow you to use more weight, but it's also a big help when you're breathing hard and getting tired. A strong push press is a great way to transition the barbell from the front of your chest to the back of your shoulders. 

Here's how to do it:

  • 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. Instead, press from your lats, triceps, and finally shoulders.


Back Squats

Most folks are more familiar with back squats, so if you’re looking for something comfortable to slip into your barbell complex this is a great option.

Back squats are a little harder to transition into or out of during a barbell complex, but if you’re comfortable with your overhead press, you can use it as a pivot point between front squats and back squats or lunges.

Here's how to do it:

  • From the overhead press position, lower the barbell across your shoulders.
  • 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 a great mass building back exercise and also good for getting your upper arms some work in. A lot of barbell exercises favor your lower body and your grip strength, but bent over rows are good for your upper body. 

Here's how to do it:

  • As if you are going to perform the deadlift, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Keep your back flat and your neck in line with your spine, keep your core tight and your lats engaged, bend at your knees and hinge at your hips, grab the bar with an overhand grip, palms a little wider than shoulder-width apart, and stand up just like you do a deadlift. This is your starting position.
  • From this starting position, keeping your core tight and your lats engaged, bend slightly at the knees and hinge at your hips so that the barbell hangs below you at your knees.
  • From here, use your lats to pull your elbows back and row the weight up until the barbell touches near your belly button. Squeeze your biceps at the top of the movement and squeeze the barbell with your hands, pause at the top of the movement and slowly lower it back down to the starting position.



Single-leg exercise variations are a great way to correct strength imbalances that arise from training, and this makes them a great addition to any barbell complex.

And once you’ve racked the barbell on your shoulders or across your chest, you can perform forward or reverse lunges from this position.   

Here's how to do it:

  • Rack your weight across your shoulders and keep your hands in a comfortable grip
  • Step 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


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 by not letting the bar touch the ground, making it an excellent time under tension exercise to work into your training regimen. 

Here's how to do it:

  • 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.
  • 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 barbell.
  • 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 barbell once you’ve racked it on your chest
  • Grab the barbell in an overhand position with your hands a little wider than shoulder width apart. A neutral grip is ideal so you can transition into a number of other movements.
  • Push your butt back and chest forward to get the barbell 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, lats, and shoulders should still be engaged without your arms feeling like they are being pulled 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 to catch it, 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, creating a stable platform to steady the weight.
  • Return the weight back to your hips and repeat, starting from the hanging position

Put It All Together

There are a few 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 that doesn't work for you. As long as you can keep your form pristine, these are an excellent way to build muscle and increase your cardiovascular capacity under load. 

The Bear Complex

The Bear Complex is probably the most popular complex out there. 

A single rep is one of each of the following movements: 

  • 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

Once you’ve made it to the bottom of the list, start back at the top without putting the weights down and repeat until you’ve completed a full set of 3 to 5 reps.

The 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 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

When it comes to these types of movements, the world is your oyster. If you don’t like either of these complexes, design your own! That’s the true beauty of it, 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 compromise your form. By moving swiftly from one barbell movement to the next without a break in between, they’re an excellent way to push your body to its limits and blow off a huge amount of steam.

They’re perfect for someone looking for a challenge or a quick way to blast their body into shape as they get your heart rate up by engaging as many muscles a possible.