Barbell Complexes

Some trends in the fitness industry begin and end as quickly as a race with Usain Bolt, but others stand the test of time, often for good reason: they work.

One trend that has lasted is resistance training circuits (or complexes) for fat loss. When designed and utilised in the right way they are one of the most effective fat loss methods out there (after your diet of course, but I am primarily a nutritionist so I’m biased).

Despite their effectiveness for fat loss, complexes have the added bonus of being about the least boring thing you can do as a form of ‘cardio’ and they also take up very little of your time. To complete a complex, you cycle through a circuit of exercises one after the other, utilising a single barbell, performing all the reps for one before smoothly transitioning to the next. You take a rest, and then you repeat as many times as you can.

Simple, right? Yet mainstream fitness magazines, coaches and websites continue to write complexes that are inefficient and sometimes downright dangerous. They seem to put no thought into the selection of exercises, reps or order whatsoever. In this article we’re going to show you examples of where people go wrong and suggest some useful solutions to help you create the most effective complexes around.

The Standard Complex

The complex below might seem like a reasonable one but when you look a little closer you start to see why it falls short:

  • Dead Lift x 8
  • Squat x 8
  • Push Press x 8
  • Power Clean x 8

The biggest problem with this complex is the position of the power clean: the most technically challenging exercise should always go first and certainly not last, like this one. By putting it last you run the risk of being too tired to perform it with correct form – increasing your risk of injury.

Another problem is that when you have to use the same weight for every exercise you are limited by your weakest exercise: in the scenario about, this is likely the push press. A weight that is challenging for the push press is going to be the complete opposite for the dead lift, thus lowering the fat loss potential of a complex.

Finally, the exercise order raises another problem: by having two lower-body dominant exercises one after the other, you’re always going to get far more out of the first than the second. By using non-competing exercises (ones that utilise different primary muscle groups) after each other you allow one muscle group to work whilst the other rests.

Optimised Complexes

By avoiding the pitfalls above you can create complexes that allow you to maximise fat loss potential whilst minimising the risk of injury and, potentially more importantly, stop you from wasting your time.

The complex above has the same number of reps for each exercise. If you would like to continue to use this method, which is the least complicated, then you have to be smart about your exercise selection.

By using the eight to ten rep maximum for the weakest exercise as a guideline, only chose other exercises that are also going to be challenging at that weight. This is likely to discount some of the big compound movements like the squat and dead lift from your arsenal but don’t despair, with some clever adaptations you can still include them in some form.

By changing the squat to a front/overhead squat or the dead lift to a Romanian/stiff-legged dead lift, you can included them whilst still making them challenging at a lighter weight. An example of this type of complex is below:

Rep-Based Complex Example
  • Power Clean x 8
  • Overhead Squat x 8
  • Push Press x 8
  • Romanian Dead Lift x 8
  • Bent-Over Row x 8

The power clean and overhead squat are the most technically challenging exercises, so they come first. After the power clean the exercises alternate between lower and upper body movements, but you could equally alternate between pushing and pulling movements.

You would repeat this circuit as many times as you can, but if you can still repeat it after fifteen minutes, you’re either not working hard enough or the weight is way too light; this should be one of the hardest but swiftest things you’ve ever done in the gym.

Another excellent way of adapting the rep system is to use descending pyramids. For example, if you’re using a complex with six reps you would complete the first circuit performing six reps for each exercise. After a rest you would then complete the circuit again but this time perform five reps for each movement. Just decrease the reps by one each time until you reach one rep for each.

Finding You Max Reps

If you don’t have a problem with changing the reps of the complex to accommodate the heavier lifts, the following workout might be for you. The idea is to pre-test your max rep range at a pre-determined weight (of your choosing) for each individual exercise, and then form the complex reps around that information.

For example, if you picked a weight of 30kg you might achieve maximum rep figures like these:

  • Snatch – 20 reps
  • Dead Lift – 22 reps
  • Push Press – 15 reps
  • Bent-Over Row – 10 reps
  • Squat – 19 reps

Important Note: Remember that this is purely an example – you should chose a weight you feel comfortable with for the weakest lift, whether it be more or less than 30kg.

Clearly the individual above’s weakest exercise is the bent-over row, in that some of the other exercises they can perform more than double the number of reps with the same weight.

Weight-Based Complex Example

You can see why utilising the same reps for these exercises would be pointless. By tweaking the reps for each movement you can create a complex that is challenging at every point, not just for the weakest exercise. For the person above, the resulting complex might be adjusted to look like this:

  • Snatch x 10
  • Dead Lift x 12
  • Push Press x 7
  • Bent-Over Row x 6
  • Squat x 9

Note that the order of the exercises still follows the non-competing exercises method, using lower then upper body movements to get the most from every movement.

By allowing the change of reps based on strength in each exercise, we create a complex which requires a bit of thought but is vastly more challenging and effective.

Create Your Own Complex

By no means are these the only exercises, orders or rep ranges you can utilise for complexes; you are only limited by your imagination. Just bear in mind the following guidelines:

  1. Exercises that are the most technically challenging come first.
  2. Alternate between non-competing exercises i.e. upper body then lower body, or push then pull.
  3. Your weakest exercise is going to be the basis of the complex, so either use exercises which you have similar strength in or change the reps to make every exercise challenging.

If you follow this advice you can continue to create effective complexes that will allow you to lose fat quicker than practically any other protocol, without having to bore yourself to tears doing hours of steady-state cardio.

Other Exercises Examples

High Skill: Full Clean, Full Snatch and High Pull from the floor.
Moderate Skill: Hang Clean, Hang Snatch, Power Snatch and Front Squat.
Low Skill: Overhead Press and Lunge variations.

These are just SOME examples, there are far more variations/movements that you could incorporate within your complexes. There are plenty of videos of exercise descriptions on Youtube; a quick search should find you all the ones you need and potentially more variations not included here.

Final Word

Complexes are an extremely useful and varied tool for fat loss and conditioning. They’re certainly not boring, require little time and when performed correctly, look pretty damn cool.

However, when performed without any consideration of exercise selection or order of execution they become ineffective and sometimes dangerous, so take a little time to plan them according to your needs. Train hard, but train safe.

If you need help in creating your own individual complex, or you wish to share a barbell complex you currently follow, drop a comment below…