Incorporating Barbell Complexes Into Your Training

(Last Updated On: December 4, 2019)

If you’ve been Crossfitting for some time I’m sure you’ve come across the term “barbell complex”.

So what exactly is a barbell complex?

Are there do’s and don’ts?

How or when would you implement it into your training? Let’s answer those questions.


What Is A Barbell Complex?

Similar to a circuit, a barbell complex is combining 4-6 exercises that will be done for 5-10 reps without taking a break. You rest for 1-3 minutes and do them again for a number of sets – usually 5. The exercises are used with a barbell (hence “barbell complex”) that you don’t put down during a set.

Here’s an example:

Exercise Weight Reps
Deadlifts 90 5
Power cleans 90 5
Front squat 90 5
Push Press 90 5

Rest 60 seconds

Repeat 5 times

You get the most out of barbell complexes when you choose exercises that involve moving multiple joints through their full range of motion.

James Townsend


Benefits of Barbell Complexes

Barbell complexes compliment CrossFit because it:

  • Improves cardiovascular capacity
  • Increases muscular endurance
  • Uses functional movements that are varied and intense

If you don’t really care about those benefits, maybe the following will motivate you … disintegrate body fat (without doing cardio) and maintain/build muscle mass at the same time. Very few workouts can make that claim.

Chuckie Welch


When to include barbell complexes in your training

Barbell complexes can be included three ways. The first is as a warm-up. Here you’ll want to use either just the bar or a very lightweight.

The second is as a workout itself. Here, the best way to gauge what weight to use is to go by the exercise that’s most difficult for you. Let’s take the example we used above. If the push press is the most difficult for you, you want to go with the weight you can handle on the push press (even if you could handle more weight on the deadlift). The point being that you don’t want to use a weight that won’t allow you to finish the reps for all the exercises in a given set. Not only will you be very glad you did, but most importantly, you won’t sacrifice form or technique.

And thirdly, barbell complexes can be used as a finisher. When including these as a finisher, use a lighter weight than you normally would. You want to challenge your body but not over-train it.

Depending on where you’re incorporating the barbell complexes, you’ll want to be careful how often you do them.

If you’re doing them as a warm-up, it would be OK to do them before every workout.

If you’re doing them as a workout, twice a week is enough; as you will be going as heavy as you can. You want to allow yourself a good amount of recovery time to prevent injuries.

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Barbell Complex Do’s and Don’ts

Always start with the more complex movements and finish with the less complex ones. The exercises should also flow. With the barbell complex, you can’t put the bar down during a set. That means you can’t put the bar down to switch hand grips or change body position. You go from one exercise to the other until they’re all done before you rest.

They don’t have to be complex (pun intended), just intense enough for you.

An example of a bad barbell complex is:

Back squat
Hang clean
Reverse lunge

Why is this a bad example? Because; the exercises do not flow well together. You have the bar going from in front of you to behind you to back in front. Another element that would make it a bad example is if you had different reps for each.

To correct the above example, it would look like this:

Reverse lunge
Back squat
Hang clean

What makes this a good example is that the bar starts behind you then goes in front of you and stays there. You want the complex to be as efficient as possible. Reps should also be kept the same for all exercises in the complex.

CrossFit’s own Bear Complex involves the following exercises:

Power clean
Front squat
Push press
Back squat
Behind the neck push press

One rep each, 7 times before taking a break (that is one set). Repeating 5 times.

Danielle Sidell


A Few Notes on Barbell Complexes

Before doing barbell complexes, always make sure that you can do all the exercises with proper form and technique. If there is an exercise you haven’t done or need more practice with, either replace it with something else or delete it (just make sure that the order of exercises still flows).

The barbell complex is an advanced circuit-type exercise. If you’re new to it, start slow. Remember, you should be able to do every exercise in the barbell complex correctly without compromise. If you keep the reps low, it will allow you to use a heavier weight. If in doubt about what amount of weight to use, start a little lighter than you think you can handle. You can always add weight in between sets.

When done correctly and with good form, barbell complexes will give you great results. They’re also versatile so you can implement it into your training no matter what level you’re at.


About the author

Josh Blackburn is NASM-CPT and Underground Strength Coach, who loves CrossFit, Strongman training, and helping people reach their athletic potential. He is also the founder of the Athletic Muscle, where he shares information to help you build muscle, gain strength, and improve performance. If you would like to learn the top 10 exercises to build athletic muscle, you do so here.