When And Why To Use Barbell Complexes

05 Aug When And Why To Use Barbell Complexes

Newer lifters and CrossFitters can’t get enough of barbell complexes. Bear complex, Klokov complex, they love them all. Barbell complexes involve completing two or more exercises in succession without resting or placing the barbell on the ground. They give you a sense of accomplishment because you do a bunch of work in a short period of time. But just because something tires you out, doesn’t mean it’s always appropriate to do. Just as with any training modality, you need to determine why you’re using complexes and when you should add them into or remove them from you training. You also need to decide what qualities you’re trying to currently focus on in training and if a particular barbell complex will help or hinder this adaptive process.

In my mind there are three main considerations when considering or planning the use of barbell complexes. First you need to ask yourself what you’re trying to accomplish by using the complex, second you need to figure out when to use the complex, and third you need to develop the insight to determine what your or your athlete’s biggest weaknesses are and how to use complexes to address them.  

Why Are You Using the Complex?

As a coach or athlete who plans training programs, you should be able to give at least two answers as to why any one exercise, training method, or process is in your program.

When deciding to use a barbell complex, you need to consider what the point of it is. A complex such as a  snatch pull +snatch can be used to reinforce good technique and quality of movement. Performing a slower deliberate pull before the snatch helps drill a good bar path for the lift itself. A push press + push jerk + split jerk can help the lifter practice a vertical and powerful dip and drive.

There’s less room for error on both the push press and push jerk as opposed to the split jerk. A lifter can shift their weight a little forward on the dip or drive of a split jerk and still manage to save the lift. But it’s much harder to have a forward shift in a push press or push jerk  and still make the lift when using heavy weight. You’re feet do not spread apart in the push press and push jerk as they do in the split jerk so if the bar isn’t driven straight overhead the bar will be in front of the body and the lifter will be unable to save it unless they step forward. Being forced to practice a straighter bar path in the first two movements encourages good mechanics for the split jerk.

Other complexes are more suited to develop strength in a lifter. Something like a clean + 2 front squat + jerk complex can be intended to condition the legs for the jerk and develop greater levels of general leg strength. If you’re going to have any chance of making the jerk at the end of a complex like that, you’ll need plenty of strength reserves. You will have to push pretty hard to even use any considerable weight in this.

Once you’ve figured out why to use the complex and what qualities it can develop, you can decide at what point it’s right to put them into your training.




Fitting Complexes in the Appropriate Training Cycle

If you’re putting any focused effort into organizing training cycles so that each cycle emphasizes one or two qualities of strength to ensure better adaptation, throwing barbell complexes with three to four movements into your training whenever you feel like it probably isn’t too smart.  For the greatest benefit, complexes should be added into more voluminous training cycles. Those focused on hypertrophy and general strength development.

Complexes are excellent for building muscle, specific work capacity, and strength potential that can later be applied to task specific strength. In Olympic Weightlifting this task specific strength means Snatching and Clean & Jerking as much weight as possible one time. But to reap the benefits, complexes need to be used far enough before a peaking training cycle intended to peak the athlete to exhibit his true strength so as not to interfere with the adaptive process. In plain english, this means that if you do complexes too close to when you want to max out, your performance will suck. You’d be causing yourself too much fatigue among other things.

Take the Bear Complex for example, every CrossFitters favorite. This gem included power cleans, front squats, push press, and back squats are all stringed together. There’s no doubt this is a great way to build the foundation for greater levels of strength. But if this is done in addition to heavy and specific training, say doing multiple singles or doubles with the Olympic lifts or squatting and pressing, way too much fatigue will be accumulated to actually exhibit true maximal levels of strength and power.

Are there any complexes appropriate for a heavy dedicated strength or peaking cycle? Sure, but it needs to address the specific qualities being developed in the training. Something like snatch pull + hang snatch for 3 sets of 1-2 reps would be a good complex for an Olympic Weightlifter during a heavy training cycle.  You could work heavy using this complex without causing unnecessary fatigue. The movements and muscle groups used are specific to the classic lifts that you’d be trying to develop in a specific strength or peaking cycle. The opportunity to go pretty heavy in this complex due to the relatively low volumes used also keeps the work specific.

Using Complexes to Focus on Weaknesses

Everyone wants to do things they’re good at. But when planning your training programs, don’t just throw a complex in because it’s fun or even hard. Barbell complexes are a great way to isolate and focus on weak points in your lifts or in your physical development without dedicating entire training sessions to it.

For example, if you drop your chest on the dip and drive for the jerk pushing the bar too far in front of your body when you receive the bar overhead, practicing the push press complex mentioned earlier can help you address this weakness. Something like a push press + push jerk + split jerk not only strengthens the musculature and coordination needed to ensure a straighter bar path, but also limits the loads making it easier to ingrain the proper mechanics.

If overhead stability is an issue, a snatch + overhead squat complex can really help improve this. Figure out where your greatest weakness is and decide if there is a complex that is fitting to help correct it.


One Part of a Whole

Complexes should be seen and used as just another method to developing strength, muscle, and technical proficiency. Just as with any method, it should be seen as just one part of a larger whole. Give some extra thought as to why or when you use them next time you think about using them.

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