Blast Fat & Improve Your Conditioning with Creative Barbell Complexes

The Barbell Complex: a masochistic – yet effective – way to burn bodyfat and improve your conditioning

Have you ever walked into the gym and wondered what you could possibly do in under 25 minutes that would allow you to work hard, sling some iron, and blast some serious bodyfat? 

Enter the Barbell Complex 

Ranking right up there with my infatuation for Mad Men and carrot cake, I simply can’t get enough of Barbell Complexes these days. Packaged neatly into a relatively short workout, it contains the magical trifecta of resistance training, interval work, and shocking your body with sweet new moves damn near every time you do it! 

Undoubtedly there have been days where you’ve gone to the gym and were in the mood for a little something different; not basic strength training and certainly not snore-worthy cardio. These bad boys fit that bill perfectly! Barbell complexes are a wonderful option for when you are short on time or if you’re traveling and don’t have access to your usual equipment.

Tip: colorful clothes make it less painful. #lookgoodplaygood

“But… what is a Barbell Complex?”

A Barbell Complex is a modality of exercise that strings together a bunch of barbell exercises. You’ll complete all of the required reps for each exercise before moving on to the next, all without ever setting the bar down or resting between movements.

The Beauty of the Beast… 

Versatility! There are days that I’ll just do a few sets of chins, Snatch or Clean and Jerk, and then use a heavier barbell complex for the remainder of my training, while on some days I’ll do a full strength training session and then use a lighter barbell complex as my conditioning work at the end.

The How-To

While there isn’t a “right” way to structure a BB complex, there are some guidelines that you should generally follow:

  • Your complex should flow together with smooth transitions in order to keep you working and safe. For example, you wouldn’t want to do conventional deadlifts, move into back squats, and then rows, because the barbell would be up, down, and all around which make the transitions a pain in the ass. 
  • Use basic common sense not to put exercises together that are very similar. For instance, do you really want to do overhead press and then push press and then split jerks? Only if you aren’t interested in lifting your arms the next day. 
  • No movement in your Complex should be an all-out grinder. If it is, you need to decrease the weight that you chose; don’t sacrifice good form. There is no such thing as a Max Effort Barbell Complex (insert obvious Crossfit jokes HERE). 
  • Most complexes start from the bottom (floor) and work their way up overhead, or onto the back. 
  • If you really want to push and use a heavier weight, you’re obviously going to need to back down your volume (reps/sets). If you opt for a lighter weight, you can up the ante a bit by increasing the reps and/or sets used. 

Here are some options of barbell exercises for your Complex:

When most people think of a Barbell Complex they think of the basics: Deadlift, row, front squat, overhead press, and back squat. While the basics are wonderful, there comes a time when you have to switch things up! 

Just look at some of these juicy options that you have probably never thought of incorporating! 

  • Barbell thrusters (downright masochistic in a Complex. Consider yourself warned.)
  • Front squats
  • back squats
  • front loaded reverse stepping lunges
  • back loaded reverse stepping lunges
  • stationary lunges
  • deadlifts
  • Snatch grip deadlifts 
  • romanian deads
  • Snatch grip RDLs
  • single leg deads
  • rows
  • Pendley rows
  • push press
  • overhead press
  • Good mornings
  • Snatch balance**
  • Split Jerks**
  • Power Jerks**
  • Hang Cleans**
  • Power Clean**

** If you have never done Olympic style lifts before, a Barbell Complex isn’t the appropriate time to try. Leave them out until you’ve practiced enough to have good form seeing as how you’ll be fatigued and the reps will be higher in a Complex than what you’d normally do for those exercises. I love incorporating Cleans and Split Jerks into my Complex because the explosiveness adds a fun dimension to it. 

Beware: may cause death… or worse

I am absolutely guilty of being overzealous with my rep/set schemes on a barbell complex, which have left me writhing around on the gym floor, screaming “Uncle!”

Typically it’s safe to shoot for 4 – 6 exercises, with 5 – 8 reps per exercise, and 3 – 6 sets total. 

Unless you want to die a thunderous death in the middle of the gym (and dying is usually a smidge dramatic for a workout), then a good rule of thumb is the more exercises, the less reps and less sets. The less exercises, the more reps and sets you can probably handle. 

In other words, don’t set up a barbell complex with 8 exercises, and expect to perform 10 reps of each, for a total of 10 sets, all with 90% of your 1RM. Easy killer. 

Pick your poison

Weight selection will be determined by whichever exercise in the Complex is your weakest. 

For example, if I choose to do a complex with deadlifts, rows, power cleans, push press, and back squat, my push press will absolutely be my limiting factor. This means that I must pick a weight light enough to allow me to complete the push press with good form. 

You can use the same weight for each set of the Complex, or you can slowly increase the weight as you go. Personally, I prefer to do the first set with just the bar, and increase the weight by 5 – 10 pounds each set. 

For women, using 45 to 85lbs is usually a safe bet, and for men, somewhere between 85 – 135lbs will be fine. Painful, but fine. 

Recovery time

Typical recovery time between sets is 2 – 4 minutes, depending on the weight you’ve chosen and the volume of your complex. 

Getting started

Now that we have gone over the basics, lets get down to business! Here are five barbell complexes; the first is for beginners and the other four are a few of my favorites that I know you’ll love to try! 

Beginner complex – check the video below! 
  1. Romanian deads x 5
  2. rows x 5
  3. overhead press x 5
  4. stationary lunges x 5
Rest for 2 – 3 minutes, and repeat 2 – 3 more times. 

Intermediate and advanced complexes will include higher skill level movements, along with heavier weight and/or increased volume.

Conventional deadlifts x 5
Bent over rows x 5
Hang clean x 5
Front squats x 5
Split jerk x 6
Repeat 3 – 6 times
– See 2:03 in the video – 

Romanian deadlifts x 8
Bent over rows x 8
Hang Clean into front squat x 8
Push press x 8
Repeat 3 – 6 times
– See 3:13 in the video –

Snatch grip deadlifts x 7
Pendley Rows x 7 
Barbell thrusters x 7 (ouchie)
Back loaded reverse stepping lunges x 8
Repeat 3 – 5 times 
– See 4:56 in the video –

Single leg RDLs x 8
Hang clean and jerk x 8
Back squat x 8
Repeat 3 – 4 times
 – See 6:18 in the video – 

(Bloopers: see 8:26 in the video, with a cameo by our gym mascot Colonel Chompers)

To make things even easier on you and to get your creativity flowing, I’ve also compiled all of my favorite barbell exercises into this awesome barbell complex template for you to print out so that you can create your own using this PDF! 

Want more on Barbell Complexes? Check out Jen Sinkler doing this fun Bear Complex!
Interested in more advanced complexes using Olympic style lifting? Here are some great ideas by Wil Fleming, who is always posting Olympic lifting Complexes! 
What is your favorite Barbell Complex? 
Questions or comments? Hit me up below, and make sure to sign up for my newsletter in the upper righthand corner!


  • Reply
    Samantha Angela
    March 25, 2013 at 12:59 pm

    I love seeing some creative complexes! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Reply
    March 25, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    This is great! Trying this at the gym next time.

  • Reply
    March 25, 2013 at 5:44 pm

    I've never really done complexes…mostly because I know how much they suck! But I think they may be just what I need for a change of pace and a new challenge! Thanks for the ideas! And by the way, I want your hair!! 😉

  • Reply
    Jen Comas Keck
    March 25, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    My pleasure!

  • Reply
    Jen Comas Keck
    March 25, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    Oh, you'll love them! I swear they are addicting!

  • Reply
    Jen Comas Keck
    March 25, 2013 at 5:54 pm

    haha! That is awesome! Little did they know you were right on point! 😉

  • Reply
    Jen Comas Keck
    March 25, 2013 at 5:54 pm

    They absolutely do suck, but it's an addictive kind of suck. 😉

    For how strong you are I think you'd really like the challenge!

  • Reply
    Jen Comas Keck
    March 25, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    And thanks for the hair compliment! 🙂

  • Reply
    Coach Rick
    March 25, 2013 at 6:29 pm

    Great stuff Jen! I have been doing these with more of my female clients, and at first they thought I was nuts. ha ha! Now, they love it!

  • Reply
    Elaine Badejo
    March 26, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing your complexes, I have started incorporating some each week and I just LOVE it!

  • Reply
    March 26, 2013 at 2:08 pm

    Loving this! My boss introduced me to complexes earlier this year. I really enjoy them and am seeing great results. But dude, they kick your trash… leaving me seeing stars some days! Thanks for the great article 🙂

  • Reply
    March 26, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    You are one strong lady! Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply
    Jen Comas Keck
    March 27, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    My pleasure Elaine!
    So glad you like them!

  • Reply
    Jen Comas Keck
    March 27, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    They are SO HARD! Even the easier ones are brutal! Good thing that they are so effective though!

  • Reply
    Jen Comas Keck
    March 27, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    Thank you, and my pleasure!

  • Reply
    March 28, 2013 at 9:59 pm

    LOVE these!! such a fun challenge that is always gaurenteed to kick my butt!!

  • Reply
    March 29, 2013 at 1:21 pm

    Thank you for the new complex ideas. I have been doing the same complex for months now, its nice to have some new varations.

  • Reply
    March 29, 2013 at 10:52 pm

    1) Yaaaaaaaay, barbell complexes!
    2) Yaaaaaaaay, your tank top in the intro and the Pendlay row complex! Thanks for pimpin' it with such style and badassery! <3

  • Reply
    Jen Comas Keck
    April 5, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    Butt kicker, fo sho!

  • Reply
    Jen Comas Keck
    April 5, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    Hi Ashley!

    Ohhh, then you will love/hate some of these! Let me know how it goes!

  • Reply
    Jen Comas Keck
    April 5, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    Absolutely my pleasure! I love that tank and felt it was quite appropriate for the post!! xo

  • Reply
    May 22, 2013 at 10:51 pm

    Needed to spice up my circuit training program. Great workout on my off days of Muay Thai training! Thanks and Aloha from Hawaii!!

  • Reply
    May 23, 2013 at 8:32 am

    Thank you, I'm loving barbell complexes! I used one of these last night along with KB swings and it killed me. I also ordered my "Lift weight faster" tank top yesterday – can't wait to get it 🙂

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