This month’s column is all about introducing you to another of my favorite advanced-training techniques—another one that you may not have heard of or know much about. While the techniques I’ve discussed here vary greatly in their objectives, they all have one thing in common: They absolutely destroy plateaus or help you avoid them altogether.
None of the techniques I’ve shared over the past few months are easy. Some are far more challenging (and far more effective) than anything you’ve been doing. Of all the advanced training methods I’ve brought to you so far, however, this month’s is probably the most demanding. Guys who know what they’re doing in the gym implement this technique because it’s incredibly rewarding, even though they hate it. It’s that tough. I’m talking about barbell complexes.
What Are Barbell Complexes?
Complexes are a series of circuits, usually with five to seven exercises in each. All of the exercises are done with a weighted barbell. Instead of doing three sets of each exercise, as you would in a normal routine, you do one set of each exercise—without stopping, resting or putting down the barbell. At the end of the circuit you rest for 90 seconds to two minutes and then start all over again. Most barbell complexes are over and done with in 15 minutes or less, but they’ll be some of the hardest minutes you’ve ever lived through.
There are several variations on barbell complexes, and I’ll share some of those below. First, I want to discuss why barbell complexes are one of the best techniques you can use to turbocharge your metabolism, burn fat, increase endurance, stimulate the central nervous system and increase muscle fiber recruitment.
What Makes Them So Effective?
Barbell complexes are about two things, really: taxing your lactic energy system and increasing your excess postworkout oxygen consumption. In a way they combine the principles and results of high-intensity interval training and supersets.
Let’s start with a brief rundown on how your lactic energy system functions and the way complexes affect the process.
The lactic energy system has two parts: the alactic anaerobic energy system and the lactate system. Both are anaerobic, which means that they kick in when the work you’re doing is too intense to be fueled aerobically.
The muscle cells store energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, but they store only enough for a few seconds of truly maximal work, like a max sprint. On the other hand, they also store creatine phosphate, which can work very quickly to replenish a cell’s ATP store. That two-compound process is what makes up the alactic anaerobic energy system. Together, ATP and creatine phosphate can power you through about 10 seconds of contraction. Once you’ve used that up, you have to replenish the store, either aerobically or via the lactate system. If you’re still working at max effort, it’s up to the lactate system.
Through the process of glycolysis, the muscle cells store carbs in the form of pyruvate. If the muscles have enough oxygen available, they can break down the pyruvate aerobically and use it to make ATP. If you don’t have enough oxygen available, the pyruvate will have to be converted into lactic acid, which then becomes lactate. That, in turn, can be used to create much more ATP—faster than is possible through glycolysis.
The problem with lactic buildup, as you probably know, is that it’s followed very quickly by muscle fatigue. Your workout has to be quick enough to tap into that lactate system and use it before your muscles just quit. If you can do that, you end up with a workout that has an extremely high mechanical workload (stimulating more muscle fiber recruitment) and very high metabolic stress (triggering fat burning).
Also, when lactic acid is elevated, hydrogen ions in the blood are also elevated. That stimulates the pituitary gland to secrete somatropin, or human growth hormone, naturally. A lot of bodybuilders illegally inject somatropin to get shredded for contests, but you can increase it naturally and safely by doing barbell complexes.
The normal rest periods are eliminated in barbell complexes, you never put down the barbell or pause between exercises. One flows right into the next until you’ve done a complete circuit. The short rest between circuits gives your body a chance to replenish just enough oxygen before you move right on to the next circuit—but not enough that you can work aerobically for more than a few seconds once you start the next circuit.
How Do You Do Them?
As I said, this workout is very flexible. You can use any exercises you choose, as long as they are barbell moves and one move can flow seamlessly into the next without pause.
That said, there are several different methods of doing barbell complexes. Some people do six to eight reps on each of six different exercises per circuit and repeat the circuit four to six times. Others prefer to reduce the number of reps on each successive circuit so that they’re only doing one or two reps of each move by the last circuit.
Either method (and several others that are in practice) will achieve the same purpose, as long as you do the workout correctly, with constant movement and perfect form until you get to the proper rest period between circuits.
The key to barbell complexes is that you do them with one load throughout. You can’t change plates between exercises, so you’re working with the same weight for several different exercises. That means you should use your normal max load for the most demanding move—and no more. Even truly phenomenal lifters do barbell complexes with a 95-pound max weight, including the barbell, and they’ll be dying by the end of the workout. I’ve seen men be close to tears after doing this workout with half that weight.
What Do You Do Next?
I need to stress again that this is a grueling workout. It’s not for the faint of heart, and it’s not for the beginner. It is not an everyday workout but something you can rotate in with your normal routine, use during a deloading week or use short-term during a cutting phase.
Because there are so many right ways (and wrong ways) to perform a barbell complex, you’ll need to have some supervision and guidance while you’re learning. Otherwise, you probably won’t know how to maximize your results, and you can very well overdo it.
If you don’t have a personal coach who understands barbell complexes, I would encourage you to check out our personal one-on-one training program at www.VinceDelMonte
Warning: You will hate barbell complexes. Halfway through the workout, you’ll hate them. Three-quarters of the way through, you’ll hate me, everybody in the gym and even bodybuilding itself. It will be over in just a few minutes, though, and when you see the results, you’ll keep doing what you hate.