Barbell Complexes

If you’ve been considering adding some conditioning to your strength program or are actively trying to lose body fat, barbell complexes will make a nice addition. I’ve talked about them before, but want to further the discussion.

What is a Barbell Complex
A barbell complex is one large superset of various exercises completed without stopping or setting the bar down. The number of exercises and reps can vary, but four to six exercises with five to ten repetitions each is standard. Running through all of the exercises once would constitute a set and is usually followed by a rest period. Multiple sets would be completed in a given session — typically at least three. When ability improves, more than one set can be completed before resting. For example, one round can consist of running through the exercises twice. Doing three rounds would result in six sets overall, but grouped in twos.

Endurance Capacity
Conditioning the energy systems occurs when lots of musculature is worked to the point of having a deficit in substrates. That deficit acts as the stress, and the body adapts so that can handle that same stress easier in the future. This capacity is best done with high intensity since it’s more effective than low intensity (read FIT for more on this topic). If you haven’t been doing any conditioning work, then barbell complexes will have a high intensity effect because the stress is relative to your current adaptation.

Good barbell complexes will hit up several large movements that move multiple joints through a full ROM and subsequently work lots of musculature. The more musculature working will establish that deficit of substrates to provide a good stress. Using movements like back squats, front squats, deadlifts, presses, jerks, and rows are ideal. By doing more sub-maximal reps, you can improve muscular endurance as well as overall endurance (the uptake and delivery of energy substrates).

Swollertrophy and Muscle Mass
It’s possible to maintain and even improve musculature by using barbell complexes (even when on a body fat loss program) because of the number of reps done at one time and the total number of reps done in a session. By doing eight to twelve reps of each exercise, the muscles will receive a hypertrophy rep range. Now compound that with the muscles receiving upwards of fifty additional sub-maximal reps in a hypertrophy range and you can see why muscle mass can improve (it’s like big rest-pause sets). Since good complexes use the big exercises (think squats, pulls, rows, and presses), they provide a systemic hit that is significantly more effective than circuit training done with isolation exercises. Finally, take into consideration that this is done after a strength training session and you can see how barbell complexes would be a good compliment for muscular growth.

The only drawbacks of regularly including complexes are recovery issues and skill development. If you add complexes to an already strenuous program, then it may be difficult to recover from. In this case, the strength program can be reduced to just the big lifts and can even reduce the rep scheme (shifting to triples instead of fives, for example). This way there would still be an intensity-focused stress with lower volume while the complex provides extra tonnage and work stimulus for growth. Complexes can even be treated as light assistance — throw rows and RDLs in instead of doing them during the strength session. The load during the complex won’t be as heavy, and strength won’t be actively developed, but strength will at the very least be maintained after altering the primary strength session.

Skill development won’t really occur with barbell complexes since the same lifts and exercises that are normally performed in a gym are repeated during the complex. It’s good to use different forms of training — whether it be with implements, body weight, or new sports that demand unique body awareness — to improve the body’s overall athleticism and capability. Just because performance is good in the gym doesn’t mean it will be on the field, dance floor, or shag pad, and utilizing other activities will develop these skills.

Lastly, barbell complexes will be more effective when you’re strong(er). If you can use 135 lbs (~60kg) during a complex, the muscles will receive more work than had you only been able to use 95 lbs (~43kg). Being stronger will yield more efficient conditioning, whether it be from an energy or muscle development perspective.

Here’s a video I recently made with Chris (who is incorporating barbell complexes and sled pulling into his program). It demonstrates an incredibly simple barbell complex and touches on some other topics like not sacrificing form for the sake of quickly completing the workouts.

31 thoughts on “Barbell Complexes

  1. Longtime reader, first time poster. I think this is a great post. The video really helped get the message across.

    I have a small question about it. Should I use the barbell complex on a regular training day say on your program or the GSLP? or save it for a conditioning day? and do you treat it always with a weight of like 135 or could you LP it too and add 5 lbs every 2 weeks or so? Thanks Justin

    The weight needs to be light enough that you can complete every rep seamlessly. I can press 230 and Chris has done 250x5x3, so 135 was the first thing to try. Most of you guys will need to begin with 95 if you’re going to include press.

    As for progression, I’d have this trend:

    Use three single round sets, recover however
    decrease recovery over time
    increase number of single round sets (over time)
    decrease recovery over time
    increase number of sets per round
    decrease recovery over time

    There are plenty of ways to do it, but the more systematic it is the better you can provide stress. When getting to five single round sets, you could increase reps per set, and down the road you could increase the weight in subsequent rounds in the session.


  2. Great great great. What a great site this is. Seriously.

    Also, love So What and the Dr Evil gestures (“…more conditioned”).

    I read somewhere that (some) Russian lifters do a complex of Hang Snatch -> Behind-the-Neck-Press -> Overhead Squat as a warm up before a heavy squatting session, which sounds pretty ace. I’ve tried this but need to work on my overhead squatting form…

  3. Justin, you said in an earlier post that your goals are different to full blown strength training? Are you still competing in O-lifting? What doe’s your training look like currently? You look to be in good shape with plenty of muscle mass

    While working on FIT I did a bit more conditioning. Since the spring I had an injury that prevented squatting/pulling for almost three months and I’ve traveled a lot. I’m not really competing but doing the lifts more often (I can hit 125/150 any day of the week and usually 130/160), which isn’t saying much considering I only trained twice in July after training four times in the beginning of the month with Brent.

    In any case, I hit up some things in the weeks that I can actually train like squatting, pressing, benching, RDL, rows, and pull-ups — the basics (I don’t really lose any strength on the upper body stuff and am slowly pushing the squat back — not in a hurry given the previous hip injury). I’ll experiment and play around with various things to see if they are worth using on anyone else. If I was in one spot regularly, I’d probably try and play Judo. There’s a lot more to it, but that’s a summary. I aim to have better strength, endurance, mobility, and body composition than average especially since I run a strength site that looks up to Heracles and have my name on a general fitness book.


  4. @ Josh: “I read somewhere that (some) Russian lifters do a complex of Hang Snatch -> Behind-the-Neck-Press -> Overhead Squat as a warm up before a heavy squatting session, which sounds pretty ace. I’ve tried this but need to work on my overhead squatting form…”

    its usually done with just the bar, I use it a lot as a warmup for snatch days. The hang snatch is supposed to be a “long pull”, or essentially a muscle snatch

    you can see Klokov doing the “clean version” of this warmup here:

  5. How did you select the weight for the complex?

    We used something that was pretty light. I’ve pressed 135×15 before with no warm-up and could probably do it for at least 20, so I picked that to use.

    The weight shouldn’t be heavy enough that force production is the limiting factor in the complex, and you’d want it light enough where you can complete the whole set without significant trouble.


  6. SPF?

    A powerlifting federation that has a 308 weight class (before the 308+) — standard is 275 and they include one for the bigger roided out fuckers who can’t drop to 275. Chris weighed right around 300 so we were calling him SPF.


  7. Nice post and good video. I read a book by Dan John and got fired up to start complexes the week before I hurt my back, thinking about adding them in now that I’m back on my rountine.

    Question: would adding some moderate complexes onto recovery day in lieu of other conditioning work alright on a TM setup? I’d been adding some light sprinting to mix things up with no problems, but complexes sound more interesting.

    I think it’d be fine, especially if you model it after what Chris and I did here. We didn’t have a whole lot of reps.


  8. Justin,

    I sprained my knee (hyperextension) 17 days ago. Naturally most people assumed I did it during the safest sport ever (lifting) but I actually did it when I tripped while hiking downhill. Anyway, I got it checked out and nothing is torn. I wore a brace for the first week and over the past week I’ve been able to slowly start walking and bending the joint completely. The inner part of the knee is still sore from when I jammed it as I fell, but I can now go all the way down into a squat without serious pain. The tendon on the lower rear outside of the knee hurt the most before, but now it’s almost pain free.

    Do you have any tips for getting back under a full load asap? I was thinking of going to the gym tomorrow and doing several very high rep squat sets (like 25 or 30) with very low weight. I’ve read a lot about the importance of sport-specific recovery and the difference between “discomfort” that promotes healing and “pain,” but I don’t want to overdo anything either. Thanks for any suggestions.

    I bet you remember the “Starr Rehab Method” post Rip had up, and you’d sort of model that with more care since you aggravated tendons and ligaments. Basically you test it a little bit, see how it heals over a 24 hour period, and then apply more stress the next day. I’d ice it daily, especially after rehab (even if it doesn’t hurt a whole lot). Start with body weight, then increase reps, then increase weight and titrate reps back, and then as it handles a bit more you can test it with different movements and intensities. But you always go with the mindset of doing JUST A LITTLE more than what you know it can already handle.


  9. First post since joining 70s big.


    I’m a wildland firefighter who, after a year and half off, is deciding to return to work on a Hotshot crew.

    During my time off, I did SS and gained a lot of weight, enough to be beyond the upper-limit for the demands of the job.

    I have 8 months before next season, and I’m looking for some advice in programming; right now, I’m planning on running Wendler’s while including a lot of calisthenics and conditioning.

    What do you think of Wendler’s programming for bodyweight assistance exercises? Do you think it could be done better, or more suitably toward my goals of muscular endurance?


    I don’t know enough about that specific Wendler program or your situation to give you a good response. But if I were training someone to get ready for that job, I’d have them strength train, have one day of interval running, a day of barbell complexes, and a day of sled work.


  10. I enjoyed this article, some good ideas for training. I’m currently following an O-lifting program (one of Pendlay’s) — I snatch, clean, jerk and squat every session. If I want to do a complex at the end of a workout, should I include a cleaning/snatching movement? Or should I exclude them from a complex since I’ve already done them during my main session?

    Depends on your goals.


  11. I’m 70’s big, but fatter than I want to be. Stopped the Greyskull LP and have been doing strictly complexes to shave some fat off my ass. Brutal. I have been doing a program by Cosgrove along with one day a week of heavy cleans and deadlifts. The following week I do the complexes with one day of the week being squats and presses. Complexes make me breathe very very hard. I finish them off by doing an obscene amount of farmers walks around my yard. Fat/ weight loss is my priority. I’ve been dicking around and ignoring that I need to drop weight but now I just bit the bullet and made it a priority. Here’s Cosgrove’s complex routine.

    If you’re fat, then you’re not fully 70’s Big until your biceps make children weep. Good luck on the fat loss. Reading your link now.

    I liked this combo: Hang Clean + Front Squat + Push Press (hang clean into thruster)


  12. Hey Justin, I bought FIT and I love it; especially how it contextualizes a lot of the programs I’ve been curious about (SS, 70’s Big/S&C, 5/3/1, etc) along with different types & intensities of metabolic condiitoning WO to do after strength trainkng WO. Basically the entire “Multi-elemnt Fitness” chapter is golden, and the Strength chapter also is worth the $$$ all by itself.

    Anyway, re BB complexes, wouldn’t it make sense to do more reps of a lift that you’re “stronger” in, eg 10 reps of RDL and 5 reps of press? It seems that doing so would allow heavier load/more substrate depletion while managing local muscular failure.

    No, because then the complex becomes this weird “how many reps do I do for this exercise” kind of thing. You aren’t supposed to be taking everything to musculature failure anyway — it’s more of the overall hit that the set/round imparts on the body as opposed to what each exercise accomplishes individually.


  13. Nice article.

    I like how you check out your guns when lowering the bar from the PC, you should kiss your shoulders too, go on give ’em some love!

    I wasn’t checking out my guns. The weight felt lop sided and I was looking to see if the plates were sliding around.


  14. Awesome article Justin, really really enjoyed this. Ive been wanting to start Dan John’s barbell complexes since April but my lower back injury prevented me from doing so until now.

    That dull ache in my lower back that I have been bitching about has seemed to have gone away….I foam rolled my glutes and quads for…. no kidding one full hour (really f***ing painful) before lifting last week and presto…no back pain :) I was able to snatch and squat clean again…this time much deeper. very happy :)

    keep up the great work mate….looking pretty good

  15. Are complexes intended to be the only source of conditioning in a program? Can the be? I like to mix up my cardio to keep thing interesting (sprints/running intervals, rows, and complexes starting today). Are there any benefits to choosing complexes over the other types of cardio I use?

    Thanks a lot, man.


    Those other forms won’t have the same effect on the musculature, but that doesn’t mean they are bad. Running intervals are probably the most relevant to applicability. Rowing is low impact and obviously a good systemic hit. Complexes won’t be able to achieve as high as a stress as the other methods, so using them in accordance with other methods works well. Having a goal will dictate that, though.


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