Monday, September 21, 2009

Barbell Complexes Revisited

Barbell complexes are a component of my training plan for fall/winter this year. I have not done them in a while and I miss them! They were very effective for me. During my first use of them last spring, while working through Afterburn II by Alwyn Cosgrove, I experienced an increase in grip endurance and strength, upper body strength and muscle endurance gains, fat loss and improvement in my balance.

Basically, a barbell complex is a series of barbell exercises completed back to back without putting the barbell down. That phrase alone should tell you a lot. A typical complex might include approximately 6 exercises, ordered in such a way that they flow well, and transitions are smooth. For instance, a hang clean might be performed, then a push press, which is a natural flow, whereas a hang clean followed by a reverse barbell lunge might be a little awkward. The transitions being as smooth as possible allows for quick movement from one exercise to the next without any disruption in the flow. This is important because complexes are to be done fast without compromising form. Although loaded Olympic barbells are obvious to use, I found fixed-weight barbells very convenient. Generally they are sufficient in size but are shorter, which takes up less space in a crowded or small gym. In the barbell complex, every repetition of an exercise is completed before moving on to the next exercise without rest, pause or putting the bar down. You will feel relief in particular body parts when you move to the next exercise, but it will feel brutal way before you finish the last rep of the last exercise. I found myself questioning my sanity and trying to talk myself out of the last couple of exercises every time! You have completed the entire set when you're worked through the last exercise. That's one set! Now you can put the bar down!

Here are a few tips:

  • Choose a weight you can handle on your weakest exercise
  • Know how to do each exercise with proper form before you attempt a complex
  • Find an open spot that gives you plenty of space for all your consecutive movements
  • Make sure you're hydrated
  • Know exactly which exercises you will do and in what order before you start
  • Pre-determine the number of reps for each set, the number of sets, and the amount of time you will rest in between
  • Wear a watch or have a wall clock within view for the rest periods
  • Wear some gloves to protect your hands

Let's say you decide you're going to do these exercises in this order: bent over rows, hang-cleans, front squats, push presses, good mornings, back squats. Figure out which is your weakest move (mine would be good mornings) and choose your weight based on that move. It may feel light for your squats, but you're going to be fried by the end of your complex anyway. As you improve in stamina and strength you will be able to increase your weight. Check your ego at the door and remember that this is not about brute strength or how much you can lift, so go modest until you know how well you will do. If anyone says a word about a light weight on your barbell challenge them to join you! You can always work on your weakest move during other workouts. A complex will definitely highlight your imbalances. This is a good thing; for instance, a balanced back and chest will help protect your shoulder girdle, so use these to improve your training plan.

After I ordered Afterburn II, it occurred to me that I didn't know how to do some of the power moves, so I had to find some resources to learn them. Which reminds me of the time I decided I was going to make cornbread dressing for Thanksgiving and then I remembered I didn't know how to make cornbread...anyway, I had to learn these on-line because no one in my gym was doing cleans, snatches, high pulls, etc. One site that helped me was Hyperstrike Exercise Lab. You can see animated demonstrations of movement with narration of the instructions. Also, there are some videos on You Tube from reputable sources. Please do not just watch any random dude on You Tube doing a power move. It's a good way to learn something wrong and get hurt. In fact, be very careful about learning exercises from buddies in the gym too. One power lifter I really like at my gym brought someone in to work out with him and stood there letting him do deadlifts from the floor with a rounded back. Not cool. Do your homework on the moves, very important. Go obnoxiously light at first to completely understand the move. Practice it separately so you can continue adding weight. Sometimes a move like a clean is tough to learn until you get enough weight on the bar to actually have to get some power behind it. Once you do and you master it, you'll be ready to add it to your complex. But remember, you'll have to go a lot lighter with your complex weight than you would doing a single exercise. It will feel counterintuitive at first, but after you make it through all the sets of your first full complex it will make complete sense.

Using our six example exercises from above, in that order, I would start with 4 sets of 8 reps and about 90 seconds rest in between sets. You might come up with a couple of different complexes to rotate through over a period of time. You can also increase your number of sets and drop your reps. Do that when you're ready to go heavier in weight. At that time you may also need to bump up your rest to about 2 minutes between sets. Like any other training component your body will adapt in a period of time. That's good, but then you want to alter it to continue challenging your body to respond to a new stimulus.

Reminder: if you're this happy while you're still holding the bar, you're DOING THEM WRONG.

You will also need to determine where in your workout scheme you will place your barbell complexes. I like doing this type of metabolic work on Mondays to get my week revved up. They have worked well at the beginning of my workout, followed by specific push/pull and lower body exercises topped off with a little core stability work. However, you could use them as a finisher at the end of a hard workout. If you do that I'd be mindful of exercise selection, and definitely go lighter, because for some of the moves you need power and you don't want to risk injury.

Turbulence Training has a workout that incorporates a barbell complex called Hard Core Fat Loss. This would also be a good workout to familiarize yourself with complexes. It will not be as intense as Afterburn II.

I will continue to explore good resources for videos, instructions and pre-designed barbell complexes in order to highlight more information via this blog. Please add your own ideas and questions via comment and always feel free to email me.

This post includes affiliate links for Turbulence Training. Please see my disclosure statement.

Related posts:

Barbell Complexes

Complexes for Fat Loss - Part II Sample Complexes

1 comment:

Kelley Moore said...

My friend @JimmyVo sent me a link to a great barbell complex he used to get ready for his fight. Check it out: