We all associate barbells with getting strong – but do we use them to get fit and lose fat too?
Many people are happy to use a barbell for strength training, but dump it in favour of kettlebells, circuits or running when they want to train for fitness and low body fat.
But my favourite type of conditioning is with a barbell – and it is phenomenally effective!
I’m talking about barbell complexes.
Get fit and lean with a barbell
So what is a barbell complex? It’s a series of 2 or more barbell lifts strung together without letting go of the barbell.
For example, if you did a deadlift, immediately followed by a clean and then finished with a push press, that would be a complex.
The infamous Crossfit ‘thruster’ is actually a barbell complex. It is a front squat and a push press strung together.
You can include any number of exercises, any number of reps and do as many rounds as you like. Using the example above, you could do:
- Deadlift x 8 reps
- Clean x 8 reps
- Push press x 8 reps
Rest, repeat 5 rounds, die
There are popular complexes, such as The Bear complex, or you can simply make up your own.
Here are a couple of complexes that I made up. This was just me filming a training session rather than doing a demo. As you can tell by the noises! Just thought I would share the sounds of my pain 🙂
Why are barbell complexes so effective for fitness and fat loss?
To get fit and lean you MUST do the following:
- Work hard
- Take as little rest as possible
- Do exercises that challenge your muscles
A barbell is one of the most effective ways to achieve this in the gym.
First, you can use a relatively heavy weight because it’s a barbell exercise. You can use more weight than if you were using dumbbells, for example. This means that your body has to work harder, to move a bigger weight. Your heart rate will be through the roof after a few reps!
Second, the traditional barbell exercises are big exercises, meaning that they use large muscle groups and huge amounts of effort. Doing a barbell complex is the equivalent of doing a full body workout – in a fraction of the time.
Thirdly, you’ll develop muscular endurance and/or muscular growth because you are lifting weights, not just jumping up and down.
If you’ve never done a barbell complex before, it’s hard to imagine just how much your heart rate rockets after only a few seconds. Compare it to a boxer going a 3-minute round. It’s that exhausting!
Your barbell complex should last around 1-3 mins for 1 round, if you are training for fitness. You can either perform multiple rounds with no rest, or take a short rest period.
Personally, I prefer the ‘interval style’ barbell complex, where you go hard and heavy for 1-3 mins and then rest. If you are doing intervals, then by the end of the round you should barely be able to finish!
In the video above, when I am approaching the last few reps in a round, my legs are shaking and screaming with lactic acid and all I want to do is put that bloody barbell down!
(Don’t worry, once you’ve caught your breath, you kinda look forward to going again. And the endorphin high is worth it!)
Barbell complex examples
I love making up barbell complexes. Here are the two from the video above, based on movements that I like doing and that string together well.
5 reps each of
5 reps each of
And here is a great conditioning complex from Coach Dan John, who has written a terrific article about barbell complexes:
Dan John complex
Row x 8
Clean x 8
Front squat x 8
Military press x 8
Back squat x 8
Good mornings x 8
More reasons why barbell complexes are awesome
It’s a great opportunity to practise and perfect your lifting technique. You are doing big exercises under fatigue, so you need to use even more energy to keep your technique spot on.
When my athletes do complexes, good technique is paramount – not speed or load. Good technique actually takes more effort, so you work harder.
Being able to perform good technique when fatigued is a useful skill and will make you a better athlete.
It’s easy enough to get gassed; just do 1,000 jumping jacks. Harder to get gassed and still execute skillfully.
I love complexes because I love barbell exercises. This gives me the chance to do the movements I love, but for fitness rather than pure strength.
I’d much rather do some cleans and some presses than jumping jacks!
Tips for making up your own barbell complex
The movements should flow together smoothly, so that it is easy to transition from one movement to another. It is easy to go from front squat to push press, for example.
Choose a load that allows you to just about complete the complex with good form but is very challenging. This needs to be high intensity!
Recommended rep range for conditioning is 5 to 10 reps per exercise, and around 5 to 10 exercises.
The longest complex I’ve done is 10 reps of 7 exercises, which is 70 reps in total. Done very light, this can be completed in 1.5-2 minutes. Done a bit heavier, it can take 3-4 minutes. So adjust the load depending on how long you want your intervals to be.
If you are doing high power movements like snatch, 3-5 reps is best. Too many reps and you will run out of juice and not be able to maintain technique, or you will end up having the bar too light. Remember, crap form is not an option!
For muscle growth, do 1-3 reps with a heavy weight.
Here’s another idea: in round 1, do 8 reps, round 2, do 7 reps and so on down to 1.
There are infinite variations. Get inventive and have fun!