Barbell Complexes – Advanced Training Techniques for Destroying Plateaus


Vince Del Monte, WBFF Pro Fitness Model, Certified Fitness Trainer
and Nutritionist and author of No Nonsense Muscle

This month is all about introducing you to several of our favorite advanced training techniques; techniques that you may not have heard of or may not know much about. While the techniques vary greatly in their objectives, they all have one thing in common: they absolutely destroy plateaus or help you avoid them altogether.

None of the techniques I’ve shared with you the last few weeks is easy. Some of them are far more challenging (and far more effective) than anything you’ve been doing. But of all the advanced training techniques I’ve brought to you so far, this week’s technique is probably the most demanding. Guys that know what they’re doing implement this technique because it’s incredibly rewarding, even though they hate it. It’s that tough. The training technique I’m talking about is barbell complexes.

What are Barbell Complexes?

Complexes are a series of circuits, usually with five to seven exercises in each circuit. All of the exercises are done with a weighted barbell. Instead of doing three sets of each exercise as you would in a normal routine, you do one set of each exercise, without stopping, resting, or putting down the barbell. At the end of the circuit, you rest for ninety seconds to two-minutes and then start all over again. Most barbell complexes are over and done with in fifteen minutes or less, but they’ll be some of the hardest minutes you’ve ever lived through.

There are several variations on barbell complexes, and I’ll share some of those with you in a few minutes. But first I want to explain why barbell complexes are one of the best techniques you can use to turbo-charge your metabolism, burn fat, increase endurance, stimulate the CNS and increase muscle fiber recruitment.

Why Barbell Complexes are So Effectivebarbell-02

Barbell complexes are about two things, really: taxing your lactic energy system and increasing your EPOC (excess post-workout oxygen consumption). In a way, it combines the principles and results of high intensity interval training and supersets.

First let me give you a brief rundown on how your lactic energy system functions and how complexes affect that process.

There are two parts to your lactic energy system: the alactic anaerobic energy system and the lactate system. Both are anaerobic. In other words, they kick in when the work you’re doing is too intense to be fueled aerobically.

Our muscle cells store energy in the form of ATP, but they only store enough for a few seconds of truly maximal work, like your max sprint. But your cells also store creatine phosphate, which can work very quickly to replenish that cell’s store of ATP. This two-compound process is what makes up your alactic anaerobic energy system. Together, ATP and creatine phosphate can power you through about ten seconds of contraction. Once you’ve used that up, you have to replenish the store, either aerobically or through the lactate system. If you’re still working at max effort, it’s up to the lactate system.

Through the process of glycolysis, your muscle cells store carbs in the form of pyruvate. If your muscles have enough oxygen available, they can break the pyruvate down aerobically and use it to make some ATP. If you don’t have enough oxygen available, the pyruvate will have to be converted into lactic acid, which then becomes lactate. That lactate can then be used to create much more ATP and faster than is possible through glycolysis.

The problem with lactic buildup, as you probably already know, is that it’s followed very quickly by muscle fatigue. Your workout has to be quick enough to tap into that lactate system and utilize it before your muscles just quit. If you can do that, though, you end up with a workout that has an extremely high mechanical workload (stimulating more muscle fiber recruitment) and very high metabolic stress (for fat burning).

Also, when lactic acid levels are elevated, hydrogen ions in your blood are also elevated. This stimulates the pituitary gland to secrete somatropin (human growth hormone) naturally. A lot of bodybuilders illegally inject somatropin to get shredded for contests, but you can increase it naturally and safely by doing barbell complexes.

The normal rest periods are absent in barbell complexes and you never put the barbell down or pause between exercises. One flows right into the next until you’ve done a complete circuit. The short rest between circuits gives your body a chance to replenish just enough oxygen before you move right on to the next circuit, but not enough that you can work aerobically for more than a few seconds once you start the next circuit.

barbell-01How It’s Done

Like I said, this workout is very flexible. You can do it with any exercises you choose, as long as they are barbell moves and as long as one move can flow seamlessly into the next without pause.

However, there are several different methods for doing barbell complexes. Some guys do 6-8 reps each of six different exercises per circuit and repeat that circuit 4-6 times. Other guys prefer to reduce the number of reps with each circuit until by the last circuit they’re only doing one or two reps of each move.

Either method (and several others) will achieve the same purpose, as long as the workout is done correctly, with constant movement (and perfect form) until the proper rest period between circuits.

I’ll mention here that barbell complexes are done with one load throughout. You can’t change plates out between exercises, so you’re working with the same weight for several different exercises. This means you need to use (at most) your normal max load for the most demanding move. Even truly phenomenal lifters will do barbell complexes with a 95-lb max weight, including the barbell. And those guys will be dying by the end of the workout. I’ve seen guys close to tears after doing this workout with half that weight.

What to do Next

I need to stress again that this is a grueling workout. It is not for the faint of heart and it is not for the beginner. It is not an everyday workout, but something you can alternate in with your normal routine, use during a deloading week or use short-term during a cutting phase.

Because there are so many right ways (and wrong ways) to perform a barbell complex, you really need to have some supervision and guidance while you’re learning. Without it, you’re probably not going to know how to maximize your results and you could very well overdo it.

If you don’t have a personal coach who understands barbell complexes, I would really encourage you to check out our personal one-on-one training program. The annual registration is going on right now and when places are full, that’s it for the year. There’s no pressure but I would just love for guys who haven’t experienced professional one-on-one training to be able to take advantage of that this year.

Guys, you will hate barbell complexes. Halfway through the workout, you’ll hate complexes. Three-quarters through, you’ll hate me, everybody in the gym and even bodybuilding itself. But it’s over in just a few minutes, and when you see the results, you’ll keep doing what you hate.

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4 thoughts on “Barbell Complexes – Advanced Training Techniques for Destroying Plateaus

  1. You didn’t mention about the 6-7 exercises to be done. Which you have stated in the beginning!

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    • Try this:

      Stiff legged Deadlift
      Barbell Rows
      Hanging Clean
      Front Squat
      Overhead Press
      Back Squats
      Good Mornings

      This is not an easy barbell complex. I personally only do 6 sets and I go 6 reps two times, 5 reps two times, 4 reps, two times. I am building up to 6 sets of 6 still.

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      • Nicholas Williams May 14, 2014 at 10:27 am - Reply

        I recognize this, it’s Cosgovian 8. I combine this with Vince’s CTTS ex: these 8 exercises for 40 seconds each. Then 35 seconds, 30 seconds, etc until 5 seconds each workout. It is brutal!!!

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  2. Hey Vince,
    have been doing these for about 4 months now and find they are the best way for me to burn body fat, as I had to have a hip replacement in 2012, and have gat very good results.Got them from Shawna Kawinski

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