Whether you’re a weightlifter or a multi-modal CrossFit athlete, barbell complexes can be valuable for various reasons.
Mike Tromello—a USA Weightlifting National Coach, who has coached many national-level weightlifters—explained the importance of barbell complexes within in the sport weightlifting.
Barbell complexes are great for:
- Improving lifting mechanics
- Improving an athlete’s understanding of the path the bar should take on lifts such as a clean or a snatch
- Improving an athlete’s body awareness
- In some cases, complexes work to build posterior chain strength, as they can force the athlete to spend more time under tension than doing singles
On top of this, Tromello said he prescribes barbell complexes about once a week to his weightlifters just to make training a bit less monotonous.
“Part of the reason I have my lifters who train five days a week do complexes is just to keep them from getting bored. Complexes give them something else to train,” said Tomello, a former college football player and the owner of Precision CrossFit in Agoura Hills, California.
On the other hand, for multi-modal CrossFit athletes, complexes are also often used for:
- Building grip strength
- Providing a metabolic conditioning workout
1. Bear Complex
One complex that has become popular in functional fitness circles is the bear complex.
- 1 power clean
- 1 front squat
- 1 push press
- 1 back squat
- 1 push press (from behind the back)
While all of the above movements in the complex are useful in and of themselves, Tromello warns if you’re going to try this complex, tread with caution.
OK, truthfully, his warnings sounded more like this:
“I’m not a fan of the bear complex. I can be really dangerous,” he said. The danger part comes when athletes sloppily drop a heavy barbell from overhead onto their back for the back squat.
“I have watched two athletes destroy their shoulders doing this,” Tromello said. However, these athletes were trying to max out during a workout that involved five rounds of the bear complex.”
If, however, you are an experienced, strong athlete who moves well and are well conditioned, the bear complex can be useful as a conditioning tool if you keep the barbell light, have healthy shoulders, and maintain perfect form throughout. Strive to complete your bear complexes like 15-year-old Thea Boucher from Vancouver, who has been training since she was 11-years-old.
2. Snatch Pathway Complex
If you’re new to weightlifting, or even if are experienced, Tremello recommends this complex, which he calls the snatch pathway complex (although it can be done with a clean, as well).
This complex involves three times through of the following:
- 1 snatch (or clean) pull to just above the knee and hold for three seconds
- Move from just above the knee to the hang position (mid-thigh) and hold for two seconds
- 1 hang snatch (from mid-thigh)
Why Tromello recommends this complex:
“Obviously it depends on the level of athlete, but 99 percent of CrossFit athletes have no idea about barbell pathway. They don’t understand where the barbell needs to go, and have no idea how to get their knees out of the way, so they just rip it off the floor,” he said.
Tromello said practicing the snatch pathway complex, usually in sets of three, is a great way to improve the path the barbell takes on either a clean or a snatch. Usually, he keeps percentages of an athlete’s max quite low for this complex (60 to 70 percent), but experienced lifters can build up to close to 90 percent, he explained.
“And for inexperienced lifters, this is a great complex just for teaching them where they need to be the whole time they’re lifting,” he added.
While this complex is more for improving technique than it is for conditioning, cycling through three times can still be fairly taxing on the lungs.
3. 5 Power Cleans + 5 Jerks
And for those who are looking to turn a barbell complex into conditioning, Tromello recommends keeping it simple. Such as:
“It doesn’t need to be complicated,” Tromello said. Just doing five power cleans into five jerks is a great and simple way to build grip strength, work on barbell cycling, and get a full conditioning workout in the process.”
For interval conditioning fun: rest 1 minute in between each set of 5 power cleans plus 5 jerks, and repeat five times.
Check out these two articles Tromello has written about barbell cycling:
- 2017 CrossFit Open Prep: Barbell Cycling
- The Secret to Cycling Single Lifts
Put Barbell Complexes to Work
Have fun, make strength and conditioning gains—and don’t drop a heavy barbell onto your back à la maxing out a bear complex. Focus on form and position, keep a good grip, and you will reap the benefits of these complexes.