Barbell Complex Exercises for Conditioning

Looking to build your stamina without giving up a weights session? Complexes may be your time-efficient solution to both muscle gains and serious calorie burning.

Step Up Your Compound Lift Game

We know already that, short of cardio exercise, compound lifts are one of the best workouts for burning calories, developing strength and muscle and improving your overall conditioning. But why stop there?

Think of complexes as an effective way of taking the aforementioned traits of a compound lift, but taking it to the next level. In doing so you will hit more muscle fibres by working more muscle groups than you would by leaving it at the one motion. A standard compound lift – your squats or deadlifts – are superior to isolating exercises like leg curls and extensions. They hit more muscle groups, developing the strength of an entire area. They burn more calories because they work more muscle fibres, thus using up more of your energy.

Complexes Over Compounds

By performing a complex you are taking these benefits and building on them, not just working your legs, for example, you are adding another dimension by also working your upper body with a snatch or shoulder press (or whatever combo you choose). As you can imagine from just reading about it, this is harder work requiring more effort, meaning you’ll be using up more energy and so burning more calories, while working more muscles.

Advantages Of Complex Workouts

One of the main advantages is overall coverage. While this might not fit in with any specific area-based workout, i.e. a specific leg day, or chest day, you can leave the gym knowing you’ve gotten an effective overall workout.

Not that you’re wishing these gruelling exercises away, but you might find some joy in knowing complexes are effective time-saving exercises. If you only have a limited amount of time, complexes are a time-efficient way to work on your stamina while building muscle.

Another major plus? Complexes can count as your cardio. A word to the wise: save any other cardio you had in mind for after you’ve achieved the complexes for your day’s session. These things require a serious amount of your energy supplies and strength.

Which Exercises Can You Include In A Barbell Complex?

As a rule, standing compound lifts are the most effective as they allow you to move from one to the next and burn the most calories. A general list – but not exhaustive! – is as follows:

  • Deadlift
  • Back squat
  • Front squat
  • Bent over row
  • Overhead squat
  • Overhead lunge
  • Reverse lunge
  • Shoulder press
  • Behind-neck press
  • Power clean

Planning Your Barbell Complexes

There are several approaches and, as with many elements of exercise, with a little trial and error you can find out what is most effective for you. You know your capabilities. Some of the transitions between complexes can be more difficult than others and cause an injury if you lift too heavy without having your technique on point. You know your own recovery times.

As a general rule, if you’re looking to start from scratch, choose two exercises from the above lift that you can put together. Perform three reps of each and then rest. Do this same set three times.

As you advance, put more exercises together with more emphasis on the number of exercises you put together than reps. For example, a good place to start is getting the barbell from the floor to the air. Map your route: deadlift to snatch, to front shoulder press, to a behind-neck press, to a back squat and then the weight is back on the floor. You’ve done one rep of each and a set counts as the bar’s journey from its start to its end back on the floor.

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Faye Reid

Faye Reid

Writer and expert

Faye Reid has a Bachelor of Science in Sport and Exercise Physiology and a Master of Science in Exercise Physiology and Sports Nutrition. Faye has worked with numerous high-profile organisations, such as Men's Health, Sky Sports, Huddersfield Giants, Warrington Wolves, British Dressage and GB Rowing, providing her expert sports science support. Find out more about Faye's experience here: She puts her passion into practice as goal attack for her netball team, and in competitive event riding.

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