Ultimate Guide to Barbell Complexes

John Cortese, from our Guide To Body Weight Training a few months ago, is back with a guide to barbell complexes. Check it out and leave any questions and comments for John!

Ultimate Guide To Barbell Complexes

Bar complexes have a variety of benefits a strength and conditioning program. If you are going to consider using bar complexes, understand your goals and where you are currently at in your training career. I say this because if you can’t do a proper squat, row, deadlift, etc without rounding your back every time, then you need to master the basic movements first! Also, younger/skinny/weak athletes ought to use simpler methods first before moving on to this type of work.

barbell deadlift

What is a bar complex?

A bar complex is a series of movements performed one after the other; normally you would pick 4-6 exercises that flow pretty smooth together, each performed 6-10 times. For example:

-Deadlift x 6-10

-Power Clean x 6-10

-Front Squat x 6-10

-Push Press x 6-10

-Back Squat x 6-10

Rest 60-90 seconds, repeat for desired goal i.e. max rounds in 15 minutes, 5 rounds for time, etc.

*The key to progression on these is to always break a record; either that be using more weight the next time around, another rep, another exercise, more rounds, more time, etc. It all depends on your goals! Feel free to get very creative with these, but be prepared for some brutal work!

Here’s another barbell complex from Dan John’s site (2)

Complex B: Deadlift, Clean Pull, Close Grip Snatch, Back Squat, Good Mornings, Row (sets and reps will be based on goals, training age, and experience of the athletes performing this complex). You can see just by glancing at this series of movements how taxing it can be! Looks easy on paper… Until you actually do it!

You’ll notice that this type of work truly hits nearly every single muscle group in the body. More muscle mass being used during exercise will have your burning fat around the clock due to the energy demand and EPOC that will occur after exercise. Depending on your strength and current conditioning levels, this could get very intense. 36 non-stop repetitions with a respectable weight fill put even the fittest of athletes on the floor. You’ll want to select a bar weight by finding your weakest link in the chain; i.e. if you weakest lift in the above complex is the Push Press, then you would use that weight to where 6-8 repetitions to push press will be fairly challenging.

This is a great way to involve strength and conditioning into a single workout; essentially killing two birds with one stone. You also get the added benefit of practicing form on many movements with a lighter weight. More practice with better technique = stronger lifts. Olympic lifters perform some form of squat, clean, and snatch 5-6 days per week, no wonder they are so strong!

Different Methods and Reason

They are fun, they are intense, and they get your heart rate up FAST. I once did a barbell complex workout with 115 lbs. on the bar; we performed Joe Hashey’s Barbell Complex workout via Bull Strength Conditioning. At the end of 4 rounds my heart rate nearly hit 175 bpm. Talk about some REAL conditioning!

If you aren’t on the floor after performing bar complexes for 10-20 minutes, you either went too light or you weren’t competing with yourself. These should be an all out BATTLE. Beat the clock or beat the weight; never let either take you out!

Another great reason for these is that they can be done year-round as a great way to keep fitness levels high when athletes and clients can’t get outdoors to do hills, speed work, etc. Barbell and dumbbell complexes are the most traditional means to do these (made famous by coach Istavan Javorek); you can also use a kettlebell, sandbag, heavy medicine ball, etc. Just make sure the movements are performed with excellent technique and the exercises flow relatively well from one to the next. Preferably these should all be done from a standing position; athletes play on their feet, so get used to being UP.

Giving Credit where Credit is Due

It only is right to give credit to the originator of barbell and dumbbell complex training- Istvan Javorek. From his website “My Original Goal with the Complex exercises was to find an efficient and aggressive method of performance enhancement that saves time and makes the program more enjoyable. “ (1)

Although complexes may not be the most “enjoyable” thing to do, they surely are an effective way to kill two- or three birds with one stone! Another important thing to remember about complexes here:  “What is most important to remember is not to abuse these exercises, but to figure out the best period to utilize them as a special preparatory and conditioning exercise.  It is also very important to find the optimal weight for each athlete to have the required benefit of these exercises.  Like for any other combined exercises the intensity must be taken from the most difficult exercise.  One other thing to remember is that it is essential to have perfect body posture, perfect technique of execution, full range of motion, when performing these exercises.  It is important not to change the order of the exercises or to do them with too fast a rhythm.(1)

Many of the top coaches out there swear by using complexes in their programs, including: Dan John, Alwyn Cosgrove, Joe Hashey, etc. It is really no coincidence that the athletes that do these religiously and get good at them are usually the strongest, both physically and mentally.

Keep It Simple

If you’d like to incorporate these into your current routine, don’t wait- start right now! Instead of your traditional “Cardio” or conditioning, perform some light bar complexes at the end of your workout AFTER you have hit necessary strength work, speed drills, sprints, etc. You can also add these on a day on its’ own strictly devoted to conditioning. I have performed many complex workouts in 20 minutes and got my ass kicked thoroughly. Don’t underestimate the power of short, brief, intense workouts like these!

The greatest thing about bar complexes is that they challenge your mental attitude. It takes a serious athlete to test their fortitude on this type of work. You must get completely physically and mentally focused to get the real benefit that you can experience.

Many of my “regular-Joe” clients also perform bar complexes on a regular basis and all are losing body fat, getting stronger, and watching their fitness levels skyrocket. Many of these guys have old, nagging injuries of the knee, ankle, or whatever, so these are an excellent way to get the heart and lungs pumping while adhering to training economy.

It may be the method and tool you are looking to for that extra edge in your training!

Thanks Joe!

John Cortese, BS, YFS

About the Author

John Cortese BS, YFS, is the owner of Cortese Training Systems LLC in Napa, CA and http://corteseperformance.com. He works with a variety of athletes and clients who are looking for training programs that will finally enable them to build real-world muscle and strength and build explosive speed and power. Get 3 FREE training reports when you sign up for the Cortese Performance newsletter today! Visit http://corteseperformance.com



1.)    http://istvanjavorek.com

2.)    http://danjohn.net

3.)    http://staff.jccc.net/ijavorek/bookdb.html

Synergy Facebook Comments


  • jhashey

    Reply Reply July 27, 2010

    [New Post] Ultimate Guide to Barbell Complexes – via #twitoaster http://synergy-athletics.com/effective-s

  • Clement

    Reply Reply July 27, 2010

    Excellent stuff! I myself do a barbell complex for about 10min following my strength training, which is stronglifts 5×5. As some workouts include deadlifts, I do RDLs instead and lunges instead of squats. My complexes are something like this:

    Bent rows
    Hang cleans
    Push presses
    Back reverse lunges

    I do these for 6 sets of 6 reps/exercise and try to beat my time each time. 30s rest between sets. Currently, I’m only using 20kg, but I up the weight every 4 weeks. Pretty cool, huh!

  • Michael

    Reply Reply July 27, 2010

    I love the barbell complex. As stated in the article it adheres to training economics (great article John C). I was just doing a barbell complex last night: squat, push press, rows, lunges, mountain climbers. I lowered my normal weight on the bar but added lots of reps just for a change of pace. 15 reps per exercises, a total of 30 for the lunges and mtn climbers. Anyhow I was on the last set and got to the lunges (I really don’t like lunges) and wanted to just quit. I was by myself, no one would know, right. Then I thought about your recent post on quitting and said no way am I quitting. It was tough but I finished and was the better for it. Thanks Joe for motivating me from a distance (not too far of a distance though (80 miles), as I live in Auburn NY).


  • nelson

    Reply Reply July 27, 2010

    i love it now i know how to customize one for myself thanks

  • Hey guys, thanks for the comments. Glad you enjoyed reading as much as I did writing it. I appreciate the feedback!

  • Clement

    Reply Reply July 28, 2010

    Hey Joe, do you mind giving me the name of that song in your video? I really like it and would like to include it in my playlist. Thanks!

  • simon

    Reply Reply July 28, 2010

    did the fathers barbell complex workout a few weeks ago but used a 50kg keg did three trips in 10 minutes did this twice couldnt do much more after that very good for heart rate

  • jhashey

    Reply Reply August 29, 2010

    Ultimate Guide to Barbell Complexes http://www.synergy-athletics.com/effecti

  • Anna

    Reply Reply August 29, 2010

    I LOVE barbell complexes! Not only for the physical conditioning but the mental side of it is just as tough. Love the video there – super impressive!

  • wrestler strength

    Reply Reply September 28, 2010

    Thanks for listening to Smitty and really putting for the innovation effort. I’m a big fan of what you’re doing!

  • Michael Edward Davies

    Reply Reply September 13, 2011


  • Chrissy Cambell

    Reply Reply September 28, 2011

    I like the intesity, however you must make sure everything you do is with perfect form. espically your pressing!

    I am not getting at you as I think your training is fantastic BUT I used to love my training, its what got me out of bed in the morning until the day I tore my rotator cuff which I never 100% recovered from and I am now left with chronic pain every single day.

    Please be carefull, enjoy your training and make sure you can train for life. I wish someone warned me, good luck guys!

  • C campbell

    Reply Reply September 28, 2011

    I like the intesity, however you must make sure everything you do is with perfect form. espically your pressing!

    I am not getting at you as I think your training is fantastic BUT I used to love my training, its what got me out of bed in the morning until the day I tore my rotator cuff which I never 100% recovered from and I am now left with chronic pain every single day.

    Please be carefull, enjoy your training and make sure you can train for life. I wish someone warned me, good luck guys!

  • Sterling

    Reply Reply January 28, 2012

    Awesome barbell complexes, my friend. The intensity of barbell complexes kick butt. They’re definitely the way to go for burning fat. Thanks for sharing this valuable information.

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