Barbell Complexes

In the 70’s Big Workshops I go into depth on the topic of conditioning and programming it in a strength program. I always mention barbell complexes and their effectiveness regarding conditioning, especially with a person who lacks conditioning.

Dan John is known for his use of complexes, and they can be traced back to Istvan “Steve” Javorek’s creativity. This article by John is a nice introduction to the complexes. Here is some stuff by Javorek, and this is a list of Dan John’s favorite complexes. A barbell complex has the lifter performing multiple reps at sub-maximal weight in different exercises. An example of one of John’s complexes is doing reps (5, for example) on a bent over row, power clean, front squat, military press, back squat, and good mornings. Running through each exercise at five reps each would be considered a “set”, and you would do 3 to 5 sets of them.

Barbell complexes are pretty useful for a few reasons. They have the lifter performing a lot of volume in a relatively short amount of time. If you did the above complex at 8 reps each, that’s almost 50 reps on your entire body. From a conditioning standpoint, complexes use a lot of musculature and keep the muscles working for 2 to 5 minutes at a time. This creates a deficit in energy substrates, and the deficit is the stress that the body adapts to over time to get conditioned. Also, the high reps on full range of motion lifts helps maintain lean body mass when in a conditioning phase, and potentially will increase the LBM as well.

Gant used barbell complexes and prowler work to condition for Judo season earlier this year to great success. Even though he dropped the big lifts (he was already strong and needed to cut to 220), he actually gained a bit of muscle while dropping body fat. Gant does really well with creating conditioning programs for combative sports, so if you ever need help, he’s the guy to talk to. He made a good point to me on the phone last night. If you are doing a complex for five sets (with roughly 50 reps per set), and each set you increase the weight 10 pounds, then you increase the tonnage by a ton (2000 lbs.) throughout the workout. And that’s not even counting the tonnage you’re doing with the movements themselves. It’s not surprising that he built some muscle doing a month of barbell complexes.



I differ from Dan John in that I don’t program barbell complexes for the sake of LBM or strength gain. Dan runs a high school weight room, so he has to have quick workouts to make progress and keep kids motivated — the logistics probably get hairy and I don’t have to worry about that. If I’m working with a person that is sedentary, de-trained, or just de-conditioned, I’ll get them strong for a few weeks and start introducing some basic conditioning where I vary up the work to rest ratio. I have used a pseudo barbell complex before, and it’s simply doing 5×5 squats, 5×5 presses, and 5×3 deadlifts at a lighter weight on the minute. This is challenging enough where the person gets a little sweaty and breathing hard, and then I once they do this a few times, I’ll make things more complicated. Generally speaking I’ll get someone strong, then use stuff like barbell complexes or interval training to start getting them conditioned.

Complexes are a great tool because of the higher rep volume the whole body receives. Because of this it can turn into a very effective conditioning tool. Plus it only requires the most basic gym equipment — a barbell. If you’re interested, try sticking in one of Dan John’s complexes after one of your training sessions. Start off lighter than you need to and take the rest breaks.

Last night I did a complex that I created. I haven’t been able to train a lot recently (lots of travel, contracting the plague, etc.) and don’t have access to a gym for a few days. I wanted some light, but thorough work on my body so that when I do get to a gym, I’m not too far behind. I also wanted to use a complex for some conditioning workout in the garage so that the Florida weather would provide extra stress. Turns out it was plenty.

I ended up doing five reps each of power cleans, front squats, presses, back squats, bent over rows, deadlifts, power jerks, back squats, and RDLs. I did that three times with 60kg (134 lbs.). The first set took me about 4 minutes. I rested 4 minutes in the garage (I wanted to have to recover in the heat/humidity), and the next set took me about 3.5 minutes, but I was sucking wind. Then I rested 5 or 6 minutes and finished the last set in about 4 minutes. Barely. Then I sprawled out in the A/C for 20 minutes.

I wouldn’t recommend doing something like that in your first conditioning workout. I have pretty good work capacity for a lifter and I also can adapt to things pretty quickly, but it still kicked my ass. If you haven’t been doing any conditioning, then it doesn’t take much stress to induce an adaptation. It’s always better to ease into things. Since my body went through that shock, I had a headache throughout last night.

In order to be “in shape”, the average lifter won’t need more than one or two conditioning workouts if you plan them well. Barbell complexes are already set up so that you don’t have to do a lot of planning or tweaking. If you have wanted to add some conditioning to your program and didn’t want to do any running, give complexes a try.

Arnold and friend hit up some barbell complexes



Gant’s note:

Complexes can be a good addition to any program. You can use them as assistance work, conditioning, or simply to add volume to your workout. Read the articles Justin linked and the list of Dan John’s complexes. If you must create your own, try to be reasonable. When I talked to Dan about them, he said “pass over your head once and don’t get stupid with the movements.” Can’t beat that.

My favorite one was Complex A for eights. I did this two ways. In one, I would work it like sets across with a five minute rest period (the minimum amount of time you get between judo matches). I can tell you now that five sets of Complex A at 60 kg will get your dander up in a big way.

The second way I did this was to do five sets and add weight each time, resting as necessary between sets. I worked up to 90kg, which was basically a three-minute slugfest.

Row x 8
Clean x 8
Front squat x 8
Military press x 8
Back squat x 8
Good mornings x 8

27 thoughts on “Barbell Complexes

  1. Complex A for 8s at 90 kilos is serious.

    I’ve been using Dan John’s complexes for a warmup before going into the advanced novice program linear progression. It’s gone well so far, but I’m not cranking the weight or performing sets across, I start low and add weight each set–40 k, 50, 60, 70 and so on for a total of 3-5 sets depending on whether I’m using triples or 8s.

    As the weights continue to increase, maybe this will begin affecting my squat and press sets? for now I’ve noticed that it gets me nice and warm and adds some efficient volume to what is a very low volume program otherwise.

    Justin/Gant, you touched on this briefly, but what are your thoughts on the strength gain aspect of the complexes which DJ really hypes in his t-nation article?

    —–
    Strength gains will be more pronounced in novice lifters because anything will make them stronger.

    It didn’t do anything for my limit strength, but it helped a ton with strength endurance, which is also why I did a lot of 8’s.

    The time under tension and volume produce lean mass gains, and the long sets increase GPP. They also have nice carryover for certain sports.

    Dan used these on high school football players. Take a skinny sophomore with a year of lifting under his belt. Now add an exercise that adds mass, builds strength, and makes him to fight through a 2-minute heavy set. On top of that, it’s simple, easy to do in groups, and forces him to breathe with a heavy bar resting on his shoulders. If you’ve ever been out of shape in August with a full set of pads on, you’ll see the appeal.

    -Gant

    As for someone not in a high school weight room, I doubt the complexes should be the priority for strength gain. I already said that, and if you’re doing something like the linear progression, the fact that it has lower volume is precisely why you can adapt to it. If you make your squat go up 120 pounds in a month or two, then you better believe you’ll get bigger muscles as a result. The stronger you are the more weight you can handle for repetition based stuff if muscle size is the primary goal.

    –Justin

  2. Great article. By chance, I’ve been reading about complexes over the last week (while I’ve been sick and off training), including Dan John’s stuff. Looking forward to programming a bit of conditioning in.

  3. When I’ve done complexes for conditioning my goal was always time based.

    Deadlift
    Row
    Hang Clean
    Front Squat to a Push Press
    Back squat

    Sets went 6-5-4-3-2-1, and I tried to do the whole thing in 9 minutes with X pounds. Once I hit that time, I’d add five pounds. Always kept the weight light enough it didn’t have any impact on my strength training.

    —–
    Interesting take on it. Sounds good.

    Pendlay sometimes has his lifters warm up with some form of an AMRAP couplet for a specified time (3-5 minutes in his case).

    -Gant

  4. Thanks for addressing this. It’s a timely article for me, as I’ve been wanting to add these in but have been hesitant about programming.

    Justin/Gant, how would you program these in for an intermediate on TM? After the workout on Intensity day? What about when/if I’m ready to add in a second complex workout in my week?

    —–
    You’ll have to figure that out for yourself. I don’t do TM, but if I was going to try both, I’d do:
    Volume + complex: 5 sets 3, ascending weight
    Recovery + complex: 8 sets, add a plate, drop a rep (see article)
    Intensity + complex: 5 sets of 8 across, light, 1:30-2 min rest in between (your weight will be dictated by your ability to recover)

    Play around with it.

    -Gant

    I wouldn’t program it on volume day because, well, it’s volume day. If you’re in a no shit TM, then you won’t have much left on volume day (if you’re doing it right). I wouldn’t have reservations about putting it in on Tuesday though. I like Tuesday for a conditioning day (on the TM, that is) with prowler work or complexes. I would prefer to have them on Tuesday over Wednesday so the intensity day is fresh. If you wanted to you could do them after the intensity day, but again, a no shit intensity day is going to sap you. I’d probably throw them in on Saturday, assuming they were already done on Tuesday. If they were gonna be done on Wednesday I’d make it an easier version.

    Cliff notes: I’d program it in on Tuesday, and then Saturday if you wanted two a week. You might want to have the second conditioning day with some alternative method, like riding a bike outside or something like that. It’ll probably help keep you sane.

    –Justin

  5. Thanks for the very informative article. I’d been looking for something like this. I’m coming off of 23 days of GOMAD (and almost 20 pounds gained) and want to do three or four weeks of conditioning to eliminate my fat gains without losing my new-found strength on the big lifts. I’ve hit the wall on my linear progression of a 5×5 program (deloaded 4 times on all lifts) and want to move to a weekly progression program after cutting the fat. Would it be advisable to do something like this?

    Day A:
    Squat 3×5 (work weight ~80% 1RM)
    Bench 3×5 (work weight)
    Javorek Barbell Complex: 4 rounds
    30 minutes low level cardio on row machine/treadmill/eliptical (even though it’s for girls)

    Day B:
    squat 3×5
    Press: 3×5
    Javorek Barbell Complex: 4 rounds
    30 minutes low level cardio on row machine/treadmill/eliptical (probably not eliptical because it’s for girls)

    Or should I just do the complex program and nothing else for a few weeks? I really don’t want to lose any size or strength, I just want to get rid of some of the excess fat I’ve put on from drinking all the milk, then probably start the Madcow program.

    —–
    A couple things here.

    First, linear 5×5 across is going to run its course faster than linear 3×5 across. And you have left some strength gains on the table doing it this way.

    If I were you, I’d take a deload week and go to 3×5 across using the weight you did for 5×5.

    The complexes and cardio is fine. If the complexes are intense enough, the subsequent steady state work might even net you the elusive EPOC cleanup (bonus calories burned, baby!!!). The last comment was sarcastic. Sorry.

    Seriously, go to 3×5, use the same weight, and replace the milk with a roughly equivalent amount of animal protein or whey. Deload every fourth week due to your more advanced progression and added volume and conditioning.

    This should keep you adding weight to the bar for a few more weeks.

    -Gant

    I stand by Gant on the above — I was going to say the same thing about your linear progression. But for fuck’s sake, don’t use the elliptical. I’ll have to drive up to Maryland and kick your ass.

    –Justin

  6. one last mention and then I’m done highjacking the comment section. There’s 9 teams in right now, one more would be great and anything after that is bonus. For anyone that’s interested in fantasy football, we got a 70s BIG themed league goin through Yahoo!

    League ID #:ID# 522420
    password: squat

    70s BIG names are encouraged, favorites so far include: MaximumJackage and Mountainous Traps. Join up!

  7. What’s everyone’s take on doing complexes as the video shows (i.e. 8 reps of each movement before going on to the next movement) as opposed to doing them in sequence like the bear complex?

    (If you’re not familiar with the bear, you do a power clean-front squat-push press-squat-push press from back in that order, then repeat the whole mess 7 times without putting the bar down.)

    —–
    I didn’t watch the video, but I assume it’s talking about doing complexes the traditional way. I covered the mass, strength, and conditioning benefits of that method.

    Bear complexes shoot your heart rate up, make you tired, and challenge your grip endurance.

    You should always evaluate these things by asking “what will this do for me?” There is a distinct difference between doing a movement for 8 consecutive reps than hitting it 8 times in a piecemeal circuit.

    I’ll let you guess which one I like and which one CrossFit likes.

    -Gant

  8. Thanks, Gant! That makes sense. I’ll just do 3×5 until I hit the wall again, plus complexes for a couple weeks to improve conditioning. I’ve been doing 5×5 since March 2009, having started squatting the bar, and at one point taking 8 weeks off due to injury, so I think after 4 stalls it’s definitely time to switch. I’ll let you know how it goes with the 3×5 + complexes and a little steady state program. I can’t wait to get so fucking jacked and tanned. My calves are going to really swell. Cheers.

  9. Good call on mentioning BB complexes. I’ve been doing light ones as part of my warmup for a bit now. I’ll have to man up and go for a heavier one after intensity day this week. I think it will suck.

  10. Nice post. Gant, I was wondering if for a complex that had backsquats in it such as some of Dan John’s complexes, would you just put the bar on your back and do a “high bar” back squat, or would you do this near a rack and put it in the rack then setup for your low bar squat then take it out and go. trying to get into a low bar position rolling it down your traps into position doesn’t seem smart.

    —–
    It was Justin’s post. I dogpiled on it after the fact.

    -Gant

  11. You don’t let go of the bar, so no, you don’t rack it. Usually the back squat follows a press or OHS for convenience. In complexes, I use a high bar position and teabag the platform to increase the relative difficulty. You’ll never have enough weight in a complex to make a squat difficult.

    In comparison, my stupid complex that I listed doesn’t meet this criteria. I wasn’t concerned with how a typical complex work and was purposely doing it for a different reason. And I wouldn’t recommend it because when you’re tired, all that moving around could be problematic. In other words, listen to Dan/Gant’s advice of just passing the head once.

    –Justin

  12. Question (with no relevance to this post) directed toward Justin/Gant/any of the 70s big crew:

    I was thinking about the post on Kroc Rows back in April (http://www.70sbig.com/?p=1666), and I’ve decided to start programming these in at the end of my workouts (to assist both my grip and my upper back, which has been a weak point for me). I’m running Madcow’s 5×5 right now, and was curious when you guys would recommend adding them. I was thinking one set (per arm, of course) to failure (adding weight when I hit 15 reps) on my Volume and Intensity days, but now I’m thinking maybe just my Intensity day, on the grounds that you say not to do heavy pulling for 48+ hours afterward (and my deadlifts occur 2 days after my Volume Day). Also, does 15 reps sound like a good time to add weight, or more like 20-25? Advice will be highly appreciated, thanks again guys.

    Gant probably didn’t answer you because spending this much time worrying about assistance stuff means that you are being a pain in the ass. You can do them after pulling if you want, but don’t do them where anything would be fatigued for your intensity day. And if you only have two days of rest between volume and intensity day, you’re gonna make it hard on yourself (unless you meant volume on Monday and intensity day on Thursday — that is doable).

    But with Kroc Rows, just do them. They are an assistance lift, so it shouldn’t garner this much thought. Just don’t fuck up a future workout — that’s your only criteria.

    –Justin

  13. It’s assistance, dude. Don’t say the “P” word. Just grab a heavy dumbbell and pull as many reps as you can. Then pull more or heavier the next time.

    Typed out all that above before I saw this. There ya go.

    –Justin

  14. Sounds good Gant, I must be over-thinking things (as usual). I’ll try ’em twice a week for a while, and drop ’em from the Volume day if need be. Thanks to you and Justin for the complex post by the way, I plan to try one out pretty soon.

  15. Zach Even-Esh is the man. I love his stuff. Those kids he works with don’t know how lucky they are. I wish I had a coach like him when I was in high school. I’d sure as hell be a lot stronger than I am now.

    I’ve felt my Wednesday, O-lift day, workouts have been lacking so I recently added a complex to the end after I do my heavy trips, dubs and singles.

    Basically, I do the CrossFit Hero workout “DT”, which is, as prescribed, 12 deadlifts + 9 hang cleans + 6 push press = 1 round x 5 rounds for time @ 155lbs…

    Problem with 155 is that it takes me too long to complete the complex, and I’m trying not to put the bar down. So now I’m just dropping the weight to 50% of whatever my 1RM for the clean is, which is closer to 130lbs lately. It’s working well for me so far. My conditioning is going up, and my times are getting lower as I find my rhythm.

  16. Yes I apologize for not crediting Justin. I thought I’d ask you Gant since you were replying to lots of people and Justin is busy with other things I didn’t want to disrupt him.

    Yeah, Gant is probably busy with a lot more shit than me. I’m not convinced he ever sleeps.

    –Justin

  17. Disrupt him all you want.

    I answered because I have done a hundred or so of these damn things.

    One note about strength: If you are experienced, barbell complexes won’t increase your limit strength per se. BUT DJ’s complexes are heavy on good mornings and rows, which are great assistance exercises that most of you aren’t doing. So if you’re doing 5×8 of a 6-movement complex twice a week with a moderately difficult weight, you’re getting 80 reps of assistance volume which WILL net you some strength gains.

  18. It doesn’t matter that much.

    Technically they would be full cleans, which are a much bigger PITA (because you’re adding 8 front squats per set).

    I do PC/PSn.

  19. Javorek was the S&C coach for my juco baseball team several years ago. Man its been a long time since I’ve heard his name. That dude put together some ridiculous workouts, but damn it whipped you into shape. I still have nightmares about his Barbell Complex #1 and #2.

  20. I’m doing Rippetoe’s currently, could I do these complexes on my off day or should I just do them after I finish for the day?

    How did the internet start calling it “Rippetoe’s”? Have you read the book of the program that you’re supposed to be doing?

    –Justin

  21. I read the wiki. It’s the A. squat/bench/dead/dips B. squat/OHP/power clean/chins variation.

    I realize, but the wiki didn’t explain to you the whole stress –> recovery –> adaptation thing and the book does.

    –Justin

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