8 Barbell Complex Tips to Build Strength and Muscle Mass

In the fitness world a "complex" is several exercises strung together to move your entire body in one non-stop routine. As you'll find out, when combined with a barbell, this type of training not only benefits your overall muscle mass but pushes the limits of your endurance, coordination, mobility, athleticism, and general strength.

Brock Armstrong
7-minute read
Episode #438
Photo of a man and woman lifting barbells

Barbell Complexes are Versatile

There are a number of ways you can use barbell complexes in your workouts.

  • Warm-up. If you are doing them as a warm-up, make sure you use a very light weight and choose a complex that moves your body through a full range of motion. Also, choose movements that will prepare your body for the workout ahead. For instance, don’t do a complex that focuses on the shoulders and chest if your main set is going to be mostly legs. Be specific. Use a light weight (or an empty bar) and you will be warm in no time.   
  • Accessory Lift. If you are doing barbell complexes as accessory lifts to enhance the workout in any areas you may not have hit as hard as you wanted, make sure you choose a complex that includes complimentary lifts to the rest of your workout. If it's leg day and you don't feel that you hit your calf muscles hard enough, make sure to choose a complex that involves the lower leg.   
  • Finisher. If you are doing the barbell complex as a finisher (the last thing you do before you start your cool-down), choose a high-rep complex for a few rounds to make sure you haven't left anything on the table.  
  • Stand-alone Workout. Using a few barbell complexes as a stand-alone workout can save you some time, especially if your goals include improving your overall conditioning and body composition. I will give you some complexes to choose from later. 

Barbell Complex Tips

When you are preparing for a complex lifting session, especially if you haven't done them before, here are some tips to keep in mind.

#1 - Choose the appropriate weight.

Remember that you will be using the same barbell for the entire complex, so choose your weight based on your weakest lift. For example, if you have both an overhead press and a bicep curl in the complex, make sure the weight you choose allows you to perform both movements correctly. Personally, I can press a lot more than I can curl, so choosing a dumbbell based on my press would be a mistake.

#2 - Mind your form.

Keep a close eye on your form. Although you're lifting a lighter load during a complex, that doesn't mean you can throw technique out the window. Good form and proper technique is always a must to prevent injury or strain.

During a complex, you are lifting a lighter load but that does not mean that you can throw your technique out the window.

#3 - Increase the challenge.

Over time, as you get stronger and more proficient, you can increase the weight that you are lifting. But increasing weight isn't the only way to make your complexes more challenging. You could also add more sets per round, do more reps, or shorten your rest periods. Any or all of these will take a complex that has gotten easy and up the ante. 

#4 - Work your entire body.

For the biggest bang for your buck, choose full-body complexes that work many joints, limbs, and planes of movement. The Dan John complex I'll talk about in a moment is a perfect example of this. By alternating between movements such as the clean, the overhead press, and a weighted squat, you can maximize your workout. 

#5 - Pay attention to strength versus conditioning.

Choose your rep number based on whether you want to perform a strength set or a conditioning set. For strength, keep the reps low (three to five) and the weights heavier. For a conditioning set, you can go up to eight or maybe ten reps, but you will want to use a slightly lighter weight.

# 6- Make your rest periods a 1:1 ratio.

For example, if a complex takes you three minutes to perform, then your rest break should also be three minutes. However, as I mentioned earlier, this factor can be altered to raise the difficulty level of your workout.

#7 - Keep your sets to three or fewer.

If you are doing a complex properly, it should be challenging. When you finish, you should be feel pretty wiped out.  If you have completed three sets and you think you can still do more, that's a good sign you need to increase the weight, increase the reps, or shorten your rest periods.

#8 - You can mix complexes and drop sets.

A drop set is when you lift one weight until you can't lift it anymore, reduce the weight slightly, and continue lifting. Unlike in the last tip, for this exercise you may want to do four or five sets, each set with a progressively lighter weight. This version is not for the faint of heart, so don’t attempt it until you have perfected barbell complexes first.

Now let's look at some barbell complex examples.


About the Author

Brock Armstrong

Brock Armstrong is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. Do you have a fitness question? Leave a message on the Get-Fit Guy listener line. Your question could be featured on the show.