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Barbell Complex Training

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Barbell complex training is a method of training using a barbell, where two or more exercises are performed back to back for a given number of reps each without releasing the bar for the entire set. For instance, you might perform two hang cleans, straight into two front squats followed by one push press. That’s one example, however this technique can be used in an almost endless set of combinations.

Istvan Javorek seems to be the founding father of the complex, however it is far from an exclusive and revolutionary concept. This method of training is used by literally thousands of athletes and strength coaches worldwide. This technique is used by coaches such as Dan John.

Later in this article we will look at some specific complexes and their applications. First though, we will delve into the science and analyse how and why they work.

The Science of Barbell Training

A single barbell exercise is exactly that, one movement performed for a given number of reps. There are two types of barbell exercises, which somewhat overlap in some areas…

Strength/Hypertrophy - a pure strength or hypertrophy exercise is generally a simple movement designed to apply a given load to a specific muscle or set of muscle groups over a given range of motion and movement pattern. For instance, a standing military press is a simple exercise with minimal moving parts and an uncomplicated movement pattern with a very small learning curve. This is designed to stimulate either strength or hypertrophy primarily in the shoulders, with secondary strength and muscle gain in the triceps and the muscles of the core, the latter due to high centre of gravity. Other examples include bent over barbell row, deadlifts and bench press. Crossover exercises include the back squat and front squat. These two crossover exercises can be used in both capacities.

Athletic/Explosive - athletic and explosive exercises using barbells are movements that focus on a greater level of force and velocity in the context of an overall movement pattern, as opposed to a specific muscle group. These exercises exist to develop explosive athletic ability pertaining to sprinting speed, jumping power, punching power, impact and many other athletic skills. The front and back squat are good examples, as discussed already, of crossover exercises. They can be used in a controlled manner to induce a load or volume specific stimulus or they can be used at an explosive velocity to develop specific athletic ability. Specifically and exclusively athletic and explosive exercises include complex movements such as cleans, snatches push press.

Both of these forms of barbell exercises are almost universally necessary in the development of sport specific strength, power and mass gain. It is how the sets, reps, volume, velocity and patterns of movement are structured that determine the end result. To provide an example we will look at three different purposes and how they are achieved.

1. Strength - Strength is developed by progressively adding greater loads to a given movement or muscle group in a specific manner. In order to increase lower body strength a simple back or front squat can be regularly performed. From one workout to the next a small increase in the amount of weight used will result in a gradual increase in strength. The movement is consistent and the progressive nature of the training is also consistent. In this way squatting strength is gradually increased. Best practice for producing a strength-inducing stimulus is keeping the repetition range between 1-5 reps. Overall training volume is moderate, meaning the number of sets to produce the desired result is relatively small. Intensity is high but not entirely maximal, with effective training occurring in the 90-95% intensity range.

2. Hypertrophy - Hypertrophy is another name for muscle gain. To induce hypertrophy is to induce a gain in the size of a given muscle or group of muscles. In order to stimulate hypertrophy a certain level of controlled muscle damage and breakdown needs to occur so that the muscle can then super compensate by increasing in both myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic volume, thus increasing the cross-sectional area of a muscle. In order to achieve this, a specific combination of volume, intensity, movement speed, time under tension and recovery needs to occur. Complex movements are not best practice where the goal is hypertrophy. The most effective exercises allow focus to be given to a specific muscle or a targeted group of muscles, by which the load is moved. Repetitions are kept within the range of 6-12, although there are exceptions to this rule. Volume is moderate, with 3-5 sets of an exercises in a given seven day cycle being all that is needed, with an intensity level nearing 100% for the given repetition range. Meaning that most sets should aim to reach momentary muscular failure or close to it. Movement speed is best kept moderate and controlled, with no resting or pausing between or during repetitions, which maintains continuous tension on the target muscle or group of muscles. The best exercises for hypertrophy are those that can achieve a consistent load, such as squats, bench press, standing military press, strict pull-ups etc.

3. Power and Explosive Athletic Ability - Power bridges the gap between gym strength and sport-specific explosive power. It essentially generates velocity where there is already strength and allows the athlete to apply that velocity under load. This objective is less focused on the individual muscle, muscle group or component of a movement, and more concerned with an overall movement pattern. The amount of time under tension is minimal and the goal is to move the load from the start to the finish of the movement as fast as possible. The bigger the movement the better, meaning that the most effective movements are those that use a greater percentage of the body’s overall muscle mass and involve the greatest number of joints. The best barbell exercises for power and athletic skills are movements that involve continuous and maximal acceleration, with minimal to zero need to decelerate. For example, Olympic lifts such as the clean and the snatch and all variations thereof. The load used for these movements needs to be carefully balanced in order to provide enough of a stimulus to induce greater explosive strength, but not so much that it impedes velocity. Put another way, the movement needs to be fast, so if the load used is so great that it causes a slow movement it needs to be reduced until the movement can be performed at a high velocity.

The preceding information provides quite a bit of information as to how to utilise single barbell exercises in order to stimulate a particular result. Now we will look at the barbell complex and how and when they would be used in place of single exercises.

The barbell complex in the strength setting

Strength is a universal component of fitness that applies to just about any physical activity, whether it is sporting related, job related or just as a matter of general day to day function in every day tasks. Overall, strength is best applied with long rests between sets, a high level of recovery between sessions and a low number of repetitions within each set. Having said that, a certain level of volume and “greasing the groove” is required to stimulate structural and neuromuscular adaptations. In addition to that, most tasks in sport and in life are rarely isolated. Most movements are consecutive and flow from one to the next. Take a look at the long jump, where the athlete needs to sprint explosively on the approach and then immediately jump with a high level of force and velocity in order to gain greater distance.

The barbell complex used for strength development allows the athlete to train several movements consecutively, thus making best use of time and teaching the body to transition from maximal force applied in one movement to maximal force used in another.

The Guidelines for a strength specific barbell complex…

--- Very low repetition range for each movement. The reps should not exceed 3 at the absolute maximum.

--- Low number of exercises for each barbell complex. The complex should not include 0 different exercises. A successful complex for strength should include ideally 3 separate exercises.

--- Simple exercises that allow focus to be directed to a specific muscle group.

Finally of note with the strength complex; this is the only form of complex where it is acceptable to utilise more than one barbell during a set or to briefly put the bar down. For example, you might have a bar set up on a squat rack. You unrack the bar and perform 3 back squats, rack the bar and immediately unrack it in the front squat position, do 3 front squats, drop the bar on the floor and immediately do 3 deadlifts. An example of a true barbell complex might be 2 bent over rows, straight into 3 shrugs followed by 2 standing military presses.

The barbell complex in the hypertrophy setting

Hypertrophy, as discussed, requires a higher volume than strength training. Hypertrophy is not a sport specific objective. Where the objective is muscle gain the training is broad and general. The primary goal here is to increase muscle size, regardless of the reason for the size. For this reason the movements used are not as important as they are for strength training or athletic power development.

The barbell complex applied to hypertrophy training allows a greater level of volume to be applied in a shorter time. Due to the massive lactic acid response, this sort of training will stimulate human growth hormone to a large degree and allow for a balance between opposing muscle groups.

The Guidelines for a hypertrophy specific barbell complex…

--- Best performed with between 2-4 separate exercises.

--- Repetitions in the range of 6-12 for each exercise.

--- Simple exercises that allow continuous tension to be applied to a single muscle or focused group of muscles.

--- Usually applied to opposing muscles, similar in nature to a superset.

An example of a hypertrophy barbell complex would be bent over row x 12, front squat x 12 and standing military press x 6. The entire sequence is completed without putting the bar down.

NOTE - Barbell complexes are not traditionally used for the development of exclusively strength or hypertrophy. Generally a barbell complex is used to perform a series of explosive movements, typically Olympic lifts and variations. This article is aimed at providing an example of several applications.

The barbell complex in the power and explosive athletic development setting

Explosive athletic movements are where the barbell complex is at home. The nature of the complex is that it’s a standing technique, meaning that the entire sequence is generally performed using standing exercises. In addition to that it was designed to perform a fast sequence of explosive exercises consecutively. This process has been bastardised over the years to include monstrosities such as endless CrossFit style workouts that utilise a very light weight and a massive number of reps for each exercise.

In order to properly develop explosive athletic ability you need to perform explosive movements combined with a significant enough load to stimulate an adaptation, both structural and neuromuscular. For this reason it is counter-productive to use excessively light weights and high repetitions.

The Guidelines for an explosive athletic barbell complex…

--- Explosive movements, such as Olympic lifts can be combined with standard strength movements that are performed explosively.

--- Low repetition range not exceeding 5 reps for any one exercise.

--- No more than 4 exercises per complex.

--- Exercises chosen within each complex that are relatively consistent in terms of the amount of weight used for a given athlete. Put another way, each exercise must be fairly similar in the amount of weight one would normally use for each of the exercises being performed as a single exercise.

An example of a barbell complex for explosive athletic ability could be hang clean x 3, front squat x 3, push jerk x 2.

Back to the question, why do barbell complexes work?

--- Greater volume performed in less time.

--- Increased contextual work capacity. What this means is that the athlete can develop an overall larger engine pertaining to common foundational movements. This translates to greater anaerobic endurance while simultaneously increasing strength and power.

--- The ability to switch from one movement to another at a high level of output, making the athlete more mobile.

Overall, barbell complexes can be used by athletes and by those looking to significantly increase their overall foundational fitness across all anaerobic domains, being strength, power and anaerobic capacity, with a secondary aerobic response.

Barbell Complexes

Barbell Complex One

Barbell row x 5

Hang power snatch x 3

Overhead squat x 2

Barbell Complex Two

Power shrug x 3

Hang clean x 3

Front squat x 3

Barbell Complex Three

Barbell row x 7

Clean x 1

Push press x 2

Barbell Complex Four

Hang clean x 2

Power shrug x 5

Clean and jerk x 1

Front squat x 2

Barbell Complex Five

Hang clean x 5

Standing military press x 3

Final Note

Those are the official five complexes of Unleashed Training. Please keep in mind that the amount of weight used for a complex needs to be lighter than what is generally used for any of the exercises on their own.

To work out the amount of weight to use, take your weakest exercise in a given complex and use 10% less weight than your absolute max for that exercise if the complex requires a single rep. For every additional rep subtract another 5% from your absolute max weight.

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Chris Lyons is an experienced strength and conditioning coach, having trained athletes of all ages and levels since 2002. Chris specialises in coaching athletes for speed and power specific to fast-moving sports such as rugby league, rugby union, soccer, Aussie rules football etc. Since 2002 Chris has conducted close to 15,000 hours of training and coaching directly with athletes and members of the general population. From this experience comes Sprint Ninja, based on tried and tested training methods combined with up to date research. Chris continues to challenge himself not only as a coach, but also as an athlete, competing in sprinting events, strongman and Olympic-style weightlifting.

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