Barbell Complexes for Extreme Fat Loss


What’s a barbell complex?  

Hang on–let me ask you a few questions first:

Do you love lifting weights (or at least tolerate it), but despise cardio?

Do you want to throw a chair through the gym window every time you take a step on that wretched treadmill?

Have you logged hundreds of miles on a piece of cardio equipment this year, but still can’t seem to shed that last pinch of belly fat?

If you answered “yes” to any of the questions above, congratulations!  The information presented in the next few paragraphs will change your life…or at least make you fall over in a heap of sweat (a heap of sweat primed for fat burning excellence!).

Ok, seriously, what’s a barbell complex?

A complex–in fitness terms–is a series of several different exercises performed together in one continuous set.  Complexes can be performed with bodyweight, dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags; really any piece of workout equipment imaginable (I’ve assembled a list of 100+ of my favorite complexes here: Exercise Complex Database: List of Complex Workouts), but barbell complexes seem to carry the most notoriety.

What makes a barbell so special?

Let me just start by explaining what makes complexes so special.

First off, they help you burn fat quickly.  Sure, completing a complex is hard work (I’ll explain why momentarily), which is why you certainly burn calories slogging through the set.  That said, what makes them particularly amazing is that they continue to burn fat for hours, even after you leave the gym.

This is made possible by a physical phenomenon known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC).  After strenuous activity–especially anaerobic (e.g., weightlifting)–your body is in a scramble to get everything back to normal; replacing energy stores, balancing hormone levels, repairing cells, etc.  This process can take hours, even days to complete, depending on the level of intensity and duration of your workout [1].

All of these post exercise reparative processes demand extra energy, and your body finds it by tapping into fat stores for fuel (through oxidation–hence the “OC” part of EPOC).

So, what makes complexes so darn special is that they create just the right blend of vigor and chaos to warrant extended EPOC, and, as a result, an increased fat-burning metabolism.

This vigor and chaos I spoke of is mainly spawned from compound movements.  More specifically, many many reps of compound movements (I’ve dragged myself through extended complex sets, spanning over 100 reps).  

Compound movements are essentially exercises that work multiple muscles at the same time (as opposed to isolated movements, which work just one or two).  Push-ups, bench presses, pull-ups, squats, and deadlifts are all classic examples of compound movements.

Because several muscles are worked simultaneously, compound exercises produce a serious metabolic demand.  When stacked in an intelligent series (i.e., a well-built complex) they can stir up just the right amount of intensity to bring on EPOC.

So, back to the original question: barbells make for an excellent complex implement because they lend themselves so well to loaded compound exercises.  As mentioned, you could perform complexes with nearly any piece of equipment, but barbells are far and away the most popular.  I believe it’s simply because they’re present in nearly every gym in the country, and most people with any lifting experience first cut their teeth on a barbell.  

In short, barbells are readily available, comfortably familiar and mercilessly effective.

What makes a good barbell complex?

It’s all about the flow.

We’ve already established that big compound movements are very effective EPOC catalysts.  Also implied is that complexes for fat burning are generally completed in high rep sets.  

Taking the above into account, we need to structure our sets into a series of exercises that allow us to do the most work (i.e., volume) in the time allotted (i.e., duration).  While fatigue is an inevitable side effect, we want to avoid catastrophic failure (i.e., passing out with a bar overhead or puking on another gym goer).

The most effective way to achieve this is to work one muscle group for several reps, then move to a different muscle group while the first takes a short break.

Here’s a GOOD example of complex flow:

  • Romanian deadlifts (hamstrings and glutes)
  • Bent over rows (back and biceps)
  • Cleans (hamstrings, glutes and upper back)
  • Front squats (hamstrings, quads and glutes)
  • Overhead presses (shoulders and triceps)

Here’s a BAD example of complex flow:

  • Deadlifts (hamstrings, glutes and back)
  • Romanian deadlifts (hamstrings and glutes)
  • Cleans (hamstrings, glutes and upper back)
  • Front squats (hamstrings, quads and glutes)
  • Zercher squats (hamstrings, quads and glutes)

In the first example, we’re moving from one muscle group to another (with an occasional overlap).  In this specific case, we’re taking an upper body/lower body alternating approach.  Another viable option would be a push (e.g., bench press)/pull (e.g., row) combination (this is also known as working antagonist muscle groups).  In either case, the body as a whole is on fire, but it’s individual parts are able to work longer because of the well-timed respites.

In the latter example, we’re basically just crushing the legs with consecutive reps of lower body exercises.  You would certainly “feel a burn” taking this approach (it’s actually a legitimate bodybuilding method used for blasting a single muscle group, known as “compound training”; not to be confused with “compound movements”).  However, with fat loss as the primary goal, we want to extend the set for as long as possible and create total body metabolic stress.

One other thing to point out from the flow of our first example (the good one) is the order in which we performed the exercises.  It makes good logistical sense.

Romanian deadlifts start from the ground.  Bent over rows start from the hips.  Cleans are a hip dominant exercise that end with the bar in the racked shoulder position; perfect for front squats (the next exercise).  Finally, overhead presses can be performed right out of the front squat rack position.

See how nice it flows?

A good barbell complex shouldn’t have the lifter floundering all over the place in order to perform the next movement.  They should all run together smoothly.  Not only is this safer, but it’s easier to remember; when you’re completely wiped out, the last thing you want to do is try to recall a random order of operations.

How many reps and sets should I perform?

This could vary greatly, but in most cases: lots of reps, and 2-4 sets.

You could have anywhere from 3-12 exercise in a barbell complex, and most of them take the uniform rep approach.  Using uniform reps, you perform the same number of reps for each exercise.  For example, complete eight reps of everything.

Now, again, we’re not just talking about an eight rep set.  We’re talking about eight reps multiplied by the number of exercises in the complex.  Using our previous example of five exercises, that’s 40 reps per set!

You can see why I don’t typically recommend more than two to four sets.  Quite frankly, if you’re physically capable of doing more than four sets without melting (resting 90-120 seconds in between sets), you probably don’t have enough weight on the bar.

So, how much weight should I use?

The classic answer here is, roughly 65-80% of the weight you’re capable of on your weakest exercise.  For me–using the first complex example again–my weakest exercise would be the overhead press.  Let’s say I can hit eight strict presses at 155 lbs.  Eighty percent of 155 is 125 lbs., so that’s what I’m going to put on the bar.  

Why only 65-80%?  Simply to account for fatigue.

If you’d rather go heavier, you certainly can.  There’s nothing that says you have to follow the uniform reps configuration.  Feel free to chop it up however you want.  It’s your workout!

Using our example once more, let’s say you’d rather stick to 155 lbs so you can reach a higher intensity from your stronger lifts.  Simply cut back on your overhead press volume; do four to six reps for the presses, but stick with eight for everything else.

Boy mister, these barbell complexes sound swell.  Can you give me a few more examples to get me started?

I’d be happy to, Timmy.  Here are some of my favorites.

Javorek’s Special Barbell Complex:

  • 6 Upright rows
  • 6 Squat under high pull snatches
  • 6 Squat to behind the neck presses
  • 6 Good mornings with a shrug
  • 6 Squat under high pull snatches
  • 6 Overhead squats
  • 6 Behind the neck good mornings

Complete 2-3 rounds

Cosgrove’s Evil 8:

  • Deadlift
  • Romanian deadlift
  • Bent over row
  • Power clean
  • Front squat
  • Push press
  • Back squat
  • Good morning

On the first set, perform 6 reps.  On the second, perform 5 reps.  Repeat until you’ve completed 1 of each.

The Crossfit Bear Complex:

  • 1 Power clean
  • 1 Front squat
  • 1 Push press
  • 1 Back squat
  • 1 Push press (then down to a touch and go to start the next power clean)

Complete 7 sets for 3-5 rounds.

Is that it?

No, I wouldn’t say “that’s it”.  There so many different applications for high rep lifting protocols, like complexes; from strength training to athletic conditioning [2].  As far as their application to fat loss, however, I think you have everything you need to give your treadmill belt, as well as the belt around your waist a nice break.  Now pick up a barbell, and start shedding that fat, tubby…I mean Timmy!

Byline:

Rob Shoecraft, ACE, CPPS is the head trainer and owner of Three Storm Fitness in South Eastern Ohio. Rob is a family man, an egghead, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner, and a guitar messer-arounderer.

References

[1] Schuenke MD, Mikat RP, McBride JM. Effect of an acute period of resistance exercise on excess post-exercise oxygen consumption: implications for body mass management. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2002 Mar;86(5):411-7. Epub 2002 Jan 29.

[2] Androulakis-Korakakis P, Langdown L, Lewis A, Fisher J, Gentil P, Paoli A, Steele J. The effects of exercise modality during additional ‘high-intensity interval training’ upon aerobic fitness and strength in powerlifting and strongman athletes.  J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Apr 21. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001809.

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