Barbell Complex Workout: Build Muscle And Burn Fat In Less Time

“Dude, I want to get seriously jacked! Let’s do some bench presses and then some biceps.”

That was the conversation I overheard recently at the gym but it is one I think I have heard regularly for many years almost verbatim.  Although bench presses are a good exercise, if someone wants to get jacked and kick start their muscle growing they should experiment with a barbell complex as it also burn fat at the same time.

Jason Momoa used these types of workouts to prepare for his role in “Conan the Barbarian

What Is A Barbell Complex?

As the name implies a barbell complex consists of doing a workout with a barbell.  Common exercises using barbells include: bench press, squats, deadlifts, cleans, barbell row, barbell shrugs, shoulder press.  The exercises that are performed are basically power movements or multi joint movements using a barbell.

Although you may be familiar with a power movement or Olympic lift, these only require doing one exercise at a time, resting and then continuing with the same exercise or moving on to the next after completing the sets of one exercise.

Barbell complexes however, require performing a series of power movements continuously without stopping and without letting go of the barbell.  Consider this a superset of Olympic lifts strung together in circuit training style workouts.

Build Mass In A Shorter Period Of Time

A common misconception when it comes to getting muscle or with bulking up is that all you have to is lift heavy weight and the results will come.  Week after week you may workout doing bench presses, biceps curls, triceps extensions and get some results but not the serious gains you were expecting.  The key to building mass and gaining muscle is performing exercises that will boost the body’s growth hormone abilities using multi joint movements.

Although single joint movements like biceps curls, triceps extensions, leg extensions and lateral raises have a purpose in muscle development, they won’t give you gains in your entire body.  In order to see total body gains you need to do exercises that will work all of the body’s major muscle groups together.

Barbell Complexes For Conditioning

(Craig Ballantyne of Turbulence Training demonstrating a workout)

One of the disadvantages with traditional strength training is they typically only help with building muscle.  A typical muscle building workout will not help with conditioning unless you perform movements that are explosive and help develop fast twitch muscles.

Think about the last time you were at the gym and you stood there doing some curls.  You probably didn’t feel your heart rate pumping or feel like you were getting an explosive type of workout.  That’s because a single joint movement does not help you with conditioning.  Conditioning type workouts will help you look lean and athletic by building muscle and burning fat at the same time.

A Barbell Complex Workout

As mentioned earlier, these types of workouts are different as they require you to hold on to a barbell during the entire duration of the exercises.  Although these types of workouts are tempting to do using heavy weight I would recommend that beginners start with only a barbell.  You can add weight as you become stronger or more accustomed to these workouts.

The goal is to work on different muscle groups, combining upper body and lower body exercises throughout the entire exercise sequence.  Here is the sequence you will use:

  • Deadlifts
  • Power Clean
  • Front Squat
  • Shoulder Press/ Overhead Press
  • Barbell Row

Do not let go of the bar as you move from one exercise to the next

Rest for one to two minutes after you finish the series of exercises

Do 6-8 repetitions of 4 to 5 sets

The workout can be done twice a week allowing 2 to 3 days in between

You can substitute some exercises with variations of the same.  For example, Romanian deadlifts instead of regular deadlifts, power clean with clean and jerk or hang cleans, barbell shrugs can be used in the series.

You will find these workouts challenging as it will require you to use your strength and cardio abilities.  It is common to experience an elevated heart rate much like running sprints or intervals.

Although I highly recommend these workouts I have to stress that you have to perform them with good form.  If you have not learned the proper form to these individual exercises begin with that part of the process.  Learn the form first before you attempt these workouts.

For a beginner at strength training learn each individual movement then start by using just the barbell.  You can then add weight with each week as you get stronger.  Increasing the weight over time, also called progressive overload training, is one of the factors that will help you gain muscle over time.

How To Combine It In Your Current Workouts

Although I mentioned earlier that exercises like bicep curl and triceps exercises were not beneficial to increasing muscle mass to its maximum abilities, you can still include them in your workouts.  These exercises can be done on days you are not doing barbell complexes perhaps with some ab work, maybe once or twice in a week.

Some trainers add complexes along with interval training or other types of cardio.  I find that very difficult for anyone who is not used to doing these types of workouts.  Instead I would do cardio/ interval training on days you are not working with the barbell. You can eventually combine both once you have improved with your conditioning.

Chest workouts can still be a part of the routine, in fact I would suggest doing them but placing an emphasis on bench presses.  Many guys like to do cable flys or dumbbell flys but if you want to get serious chest development bench presses are the way to go.  You can include them on days you do a complex, or on different days, just don’t spend hours on your chest exercises.

Next time someone tells you to get jacked with some curls instead ask them to join you for a barbell complex workout like the one I have outlined for you here and watch as you gain some muscle and look more athletic along the way.

Feel free to comment below and join in the discussion.


  1. Cool tips about barbell complex workouts. Seems like a pretty challenging circuit. These days my circuit training focuses more on bodyweight exercises (primarily upper body) but the exercises you mentioned are all great for increasing functional strength.

    • Sam Munoz says:

      Barbell complex workouts are definitely challenging but it’s a cool way to experiment with something different. These workouts really require athleticism from the person doing them but they are fun and give great results.


  2. I love those sort of workouts. My favourites are clean and press.
    I think they do build a lot of power and strength and a great cardio ..much better than any treadmill!
    But for muscle growth I’m not so sure about that but it’s all good in every other way.

    • The clean and press is really a total-body exercise but I would say most would get muscle growth from their shoulders, traps and upper back, especially if they are novice in doing it. Anyway, great article!

      • Sam Munoz says:

        Hi Marcus,
        The clean and press is an awesome exercise for upper body development. I recommend using these types of Olympic movements or compound movements for muscle growth as well.


    • Sam Munoz says:

      Hi Raymond,
      Clean and press, power cleans and other exercises similar to these that are considered power movements do get your heart racing and definitely give you power and strength benefits as you mentioned. I think that if you work in the appropriate rep range you can get solid muscle growth as well.


  3. Seems like a great workout. I love multi-joint exercises like the one’s you listed, because they simply work the body harder (by using more muscles) therefore, burning more calories….more bang for your buck.

    In my opinion, the incline bench press is the best chest exercise because it works the upper chest better than any other exercise….if you look around in the gym the upper chest is one of the least developed area’s of a trainees body. I also wouldn’t do shrugs. They make your neck look terrible (give you that big bodybuilder look that never looks right). You never want to look like you live in the gym. Like the title of your blog states “Look Like an Athlete”, not a bodybuilder.

    Great post,


    • Sam Munoz says:

      Hi Tim,
      I have to say that I am a fan of shrugs. I think that shrugs may give someone a bodybuilder look if they don’t balance their shoulder workouts properly or if they use performance enhancement substances. If someone does a shrugs dominant workout you are bound to look uneven in your development, however if you do shoulder presses, upright rows and lateral movements it will give your shoulders a good look. I have also found that when I leave shrugs out of my workouts people tell me that my shoulders look smaller. So I do advise including them in a workout as long as they are not your only shoulder exercise or are not balanced properly with other shoulder movements.


  4. Typically when doing compound movements guys rest for aeons between sets but this looks like a great way to go. Granted you’d need a lighter load on the bar, but you’ll get a harder and more productive workout for your efforts. Works for me.


    • Sam Munoz says:

      Hi Michael,
      I agree that you see people rest for longer than is necessary. I advise anyone to keep rest periods shorter. My rest periods tend to stay at one minute or less.


  5. Super post. Some great points you highlight in there.

  6. Hi Sam

    These are great workouts especially for conditioning and fat loss. I also like to use dumbbells as well. With the circuit you mentioned here are you doing 6-8 reps of each movement before moving to the next one or doing one rep of each exercise in a circuit for a total of 6-8 reps? Either way it gets the job done.



    • Sam Munoz says:

      Hi Howard,
      The workout is 6-8 reps and after completing one set I then move on to the next exercise. The workout is done in circuit fashion. Once you complete the sequence you rest and start the circuit again.


  7. Hey Sam!

    Nice to see you do the good work;
    BB Complexes can be a good evaluation tool as used by Legendary Strength Coach Al Vermeil, And they’re awesome for Lactic Acid work: burn fat and build some muscle at the same time! 🙂

    Good job man, please keep ’em coming!


  8. As a person who get super bored on the treadmill or elliptical, I often look to these type of complexes to get my cardio/heart exercise while burning fat.

    I agree with your earlier comment about including shrugs in a well balanced shoulder workout. I can attest that having the extra meat on the traps gives a great look with well rounded shoulders.

    In the past, when I wasn’t consistent in my workouts, the thickness of the traps still gave kept me looking like a person who actually lifts weights.