Too often when we think of barbell workouts, we think of power lifters.
A jacked-up guy in the gym lifting massive weight for a couple reps, then taking a five minute break to preen by the mirrors, before attacking the bar again. Repeat for the next 90 minutes. There is a better way, and it can strengthen every muscle group, get your heart rate up, and keep your mind engaged. And that all comes in a workout that’s under 20 minutes.
The Barbell Complex
Barbell complexes are an ideal way to strength train because you only need one piece of equipment and about six square feet of space. Compared to a standard back squat, deadlift, or clean and jerk, a complex is unique: You perform a series of movements without rest, one move transitioning fluidly — but still with perfect form — into the next. This creates more time under tension and calories burned, and better taxes the nervous system. The Bear Complex will give you the most bang of your buck. It calls for five essential lifts, performed one after the other, to notch one rep. Here’s how to do it:
Move 1: Power Cleans
The power clean starts with the barbell on the floor with the same body geometry you’d use for a deadlift. In one motion, pull the bar up, drive the hips forward, and shrug the shoulders once you’re up tall, then quickly bring elbows under the bar to “catch” the weight in a rack position across the shoulders. It’s okay for your feet to leave the ground, but make sure they land in the same place they started, and not forward, behind, or in a wider stance. Check out this video for a visual.
Move 2: Front Squat
Keep an upright torso while front squatting; this helps you avoid dropping your elbows, which creates unnecessary strain on the wrists. (Tip to make it happen: Think of squeezing up and inward with your elbows.) If it’s tough to get low in a front squat, aside from looking at your hip mobility and flexibility, you may want to consider wearing Olympic lifting shoes. Their slightly elevated heel can help achieve ideal body geometry for the front squat (shown here), and promote good depth.
Use your legs to drive energy into the bar and help propel it upward. Be sure to stand tall at the top, and finish with elbows locked and the weight directly overhead. You shouldn’t be able to see the bar in your peripheral vision; get your head “through the window” that your arms create overhead.
Move 4: Back Squat
Unlike the front squat, the back squat encourages a slight forward lean at the torso for the bar to remain over the midline of the body and foot. The good news is, this allows you to use the glutes and hamstrings slightly more than in its front loaded, quad-targeting counterpart. As you squat down, be sure to widen out the knees and ensure they track the same way the toes do. In addition to this, keep your upper body involved. Squeeze and “spread” the bar as much as possible to encourage upper back tightness. This is a very valuable cue (which you can see here) to remember once you’re fatigued.
Move 5: Behind-the-neck Push Press
The same movement as the traditional push press, but here you’ll be driving the bar up from the back rack position. You’ll use your legs to help propel the bar, making sure it travels straight up, and not toward or away from your head.
Put It All Together: The Barbell Complex
The cool thing about the Barbell complex is that the movements seem to “flow” together in the order they’re performed. Take the opportunity to pause between movements (while still holding the weight) if you’re a beginner to ensure proper form. If you’re more advanced, then you can blend the movements together to make it more fluid, upping the difficulty.
Once you’ve finished one full rep, don’t rest for longer than 10 seconds with the bar on the floor before continuing to the next rep. Start with 5 sets of 5 reps, resting for 90 seconds between each set of 5. Total, this should take you 16 to 18 minutes. Once this starts to feel easy, challenge yourself in the next workout by adding one rep to each set (5 sets of 6 reps, then 5 sets of 7). After that, it’s time to up your weight. Here’s Jen Sinkler showing the finished product of the Bear complex.