Shed Fat Fast With Barbell Complexes


Looking to torch fat while gaining lean muscle mass?

Enter the barbell.

Barbell complexes are nothing new. Trainers have been using them with athletes for years as part of specific warm-ups, to boost metabolism, trigger hypertrophy through increased hormonal response, and increase power with a series of explosive lifts.

The concept of a barbell complex is simple: the athlete uses a standard barbell, empty or loaded, and performs a series of basic compound lifts without rest between successive movements. Four to six exercises are typically chosen with a rep range anywhere from one to ten; the middle of that range being the typical choice.

The problem with most complex training is often that very little, if any, emphasis is placed on proper form. Coaches will erroneously instruct clients to perform the reps as fast as possible, and even go as far as to tell them not to worry about form. This type of coaching not only increases the clients’ risk of injury, but also reduces the overall effectiveness of the complex to nil.

When performing any exercise, regardless of in a complex or not, the overall effect is closely related to time under tension (TUT). So, aside from Olympic lifts, which by their nature are explosive, sticking to a controlled tempo while performing the exercises within your barbell complex is going to yield a greater training effect. Concentrating on the tempo of the lift throughout the reps will help prevent jerking motions and loss of control over the weight, while increasing the overall workload on the target muscles.

Some key rules to follow when doing barbell complexes:

  1. Choose lifts appropriate to your skill level.
  2. Safety first! Use a squat rack for transitions if you find it difficult to move smoothly from one lift to another.
  3. Form before speed. Make sure you focus on proper execution of each rep rather than speed.
  4. Only lift explosively with Olympic lifts and their variations, but make sure you get proper coaching for these lifts! Such lifts are only recommended for intermediate and advanced lifters.
  5. Assign a tempo to all lifts in the complex. In the case of Olympic lifts where tempo would be XOXO to symbolize the explosive nature, ensure that each rep is completed fully and come to a full stop before attempting the second rep. Even while lifting explosively, form is crucial to optimal benefit and injury prevention.

Below are some examples of complexes for lifters of various skill levels. I have included some videos with the proper execution of the lifts being demonstrated by Pan-American medalist and multi-time National champion Olympic weightlifter Nick Roberts. Nick is my go-to expert in this area, and should be added to anyone’s “must” list of trainers to work with.

Complex 1 –Beginner


Shoulder Press

Upright Row

Bent over row

Romanian deadlift

If your goal is a workout with a high metabolic output to help burn body fat, stick with these basic compound movements. 3-4 sets of 5-8 reps per movement with 30-45 seconds rest with a 3:1 Eccentric : Concentric tempo will do the trick. Try adding this complex to the end or even beginning of your next workout. If you are new to complexes, stick with lighter weights and an empty 45lb bar.

Looking for a visual? Check out the following video for a demonstration of the complex. Pay careful attention to form before attempting each exercise.

Complex 2 – Intermediate

Hang clean above the knee

Push Press

Front squat

Romanian Deadlift

If you want a little extra challenge, adding more technical lifts and weight to the bar will not only increase energy demands and caloric expenditure, but also help break strength and power plateaus while increasing your work capacity. 3-4 sets of 3-5 reps with 60-90 seconds rest and a more explosive tempo for the clean and push press will be very challenging for any seasoned lifter, especially if they are new to Olympic lifts. Feel free to add some weight to the bar, but don’t get over confident too soon. Complexes take a lot of energy and are not a time to try max weights.

Complex 3 – Advanced

Power Snatch

Full Clean

Overhead Squat

Jump squat

If you have some real talent with Olympic lifts and are looking for a real conditioning challenge to help build your high intensity work output, using a combination of explosive lifts is an effective strategy.  You may choose higher weights here, but be sure to keep the reps low and get some extra rest between sets. 3-4 sets of 2-4 reps with 100-120 seconds rest between sets. Tempo here will generally be XOXO, however, concentrate on proper execution of each rep! Such complexes should only be attempted by skillful lifters. It is always advised to receive coaching from an experienced Olympic weight lifting coach prior to adding these movements to any strength training program.

Here is a demonstration of complexes two and three:

The take-aways here are simple:

  • Complexes can be effective for a variety of goals.
  • Concentrate on form over speed.
  • Seek qualified coaching for Olympic lifts.


Mike Samson is a strength and conditioning coach and university instructor who lives in St John’s, Newfoundland. Mike holds a Master of Science degree in Kinesiology and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. A competitive athlete in Judo and BJJ disciplines, Mike is available for consultation in the St John’s area and also provides services online.

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