Barbell workouts


Barbell complexes – workouts where you do multiple moves back to back without putting the bar down – seem simple enough. After all, the weight isn’t heavy – it’s perfectly acceptable to do one with an unweighted Olympic bar. And the rep count isn’t too high. In the instance of our first workout below you only do six reps per exercise. But simple isn’t the same as easy, and despite all that you’re likely to end up in a sweaty heap on the floor at the end of the session.

The reason is that the minimal rest and high volume means that you get through a lot of work in a short period of time. “Think of a 30-rep circuit versus a 12-rep set. Because of the lack of rest, each round becomes more challenging,” says expert Tom Eastham, who provided the first of our four workouts. “Throw in the additional load from the barbell and you have a huge fat-burning potential from these loaded compound movements.”

Barbell Complex 1

Do the exercises in order, performing 12 reps of each without resting or putting the bar down between moves. At the end of the last exercise rest for two minutes, then repeat the circuit. Do four to six circuits in total.

1 Squat

Reps 12 Rest 0sec

Stand tall with your chest up, holding a barbell across the back of your shoulders with a tight grip. Squat down as low as you can, then push through your heels to stand back up.

2 Good morning

Reps 12 Rest 0sec

Stand tall with the barbell across the back of your shoulders. Lean forwards from the hips until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, then stand back up.

3 Push press

Reps 12 Rest 0sec

Stand tall, holding the barbell across the front of your shoulders. Bend your knees, then stand up quickly and push the bar directly overhead. Lower it slowly back to the start.

4 Floor press

Reps 12 Rest 0sec

Lie flat on your back with knees bent holding the bar with a shoulder-width grip and arms straight. Bend your elbows to lower the bar down towards your chest then press it back up powerfully.

5 Upright row

Reps 12 Rest 0sec

Stand tall with your chest up holding the bar with an overhand shoulder-width grip. Row it upwards towards your chin, leading with your elbows. Lower it slowly back to the start.

6 Biceps curl

Reps 12 Rest 2min

Hold the bar with an underhand grip. Keep your elbows close to your sides throughout the move. Curl the bar up to shoulder height. Pause and squeeze your biceps at the top, then lower it back to the start.

Barbell Complex 2

Do six reps of each move without putting the bar down to complete one set. Rest for two minutes between sets. Choose a load that allows you to complete the reps fairly comfortably for your weakest lift, which, in this case, will probably be the overhead press. Complete six sets in total.

1 Romanian deadlift

Reps 6

Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a barbell with an overhand grip just outside your thighs. Keeping a slight bend in your knees, bend forwards from the hips – not the waist – and lower the bar down the front of your shins until you feel a good stretch in your hamstrings. Reverse the move back to the start by pushing your hips forwards.

2 Bent-over row

Reps 6

Hold the bar with a shoulder-width grip, bending your knees slightly. Bend at the hips until your torso is at a roughly 45˚ angle to the floor. Pull the bar up to touch your sternum and then lower under control. If you’re moving your upper body to shift the bar, the weight’s too heavy.

Expert Tip “Every guy wants big arms and a strong core, and this exercise will help you towards both those goals,” says Eastham. “Stabilising yourself for the row will pay off in the long run for your core.”

3 Hang clean

Reps 6

Stand holding the bar with a shoulder-width grip in front of your thighs. Bend your knees, then drive through your heels to explode upwards, using the momentum to help pull the bar up to chest height as you lower into a squat. Catch it on your front shoulders, pause for a second, and then stand up lower the bar back to the start position.

Expert Tip “Olympic lifting improves power and explosiveness, and the clean is the easiest Olympic lift to learn. By putting it in complexes or circuits, you’ll get better faster.”

RECOMMENDED: How to Start Olympic Weightlifting Training

4 Front squat

Reps 6

Rest the bar on the front of your shoulders with your palms facing upwards and your elbows high. Squat down, keeping your chest up, then drive up through your heels to stand.

Expert Tip “This is far more accessible than its more popular big brother the back squat. It will also help your clean, because both lifts demand the same mobility. Not quite there yet? Cross your arms and grip the bar from the top to save your wrists.”

5 Overhead press

Reps 6

With your feet shoulder-width apart, position a bar on your upper chest, gripping it with hands just wider than shoulder-width apart. Brace your abs, glutes and quads as you press the bar straight upwards. Pause at the top, then lower. You might find you can lift more weight by wrapping your thumbs around the same side as your fingers, to keep your forearms in a more favourable position.

Expert Tip “This move will maximise your upper-body strength by demanding increased thoracic muscle stability while building a strong core and boulder shoulders.”

Barbell Complex 3

At the end of this complex, rest for 90sec-2min. Do five rounds in total. To progress, add a rep to each set or reduce the amount of rest you take between rounds. Once you’re at 15 reps, add another round.

1 Romanian deadlift

Reps 10 Rest 0sec

How With knees slightly bent, hinge at the hips to send the bar down your legs until you feel a strong stretch in your hamstrings.

Expert tip “Keep your back straight as possible while keeping your head in a neutral position,” says Grant.

Progression To really focus the effort on your hamstrings, do the stiff-legged version, where you don’t bend your knees.

2 Bent-over row

Reps 10 Rest 0sec

How Bend at the hips and let the bar hang down. Pull your elbows back to bring the bar up to your stomach.

Expert tip “Initiate the movement with a shoulder blade retraction, then row the bar up, leading with your elbows,” says Grant.

Progression To make the move even more effective, squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top and hold that position for a second.

3 High pull

Reps 10 Rest 0sec

How Lead with your elbows to raise the bar in front of you until it reaches chest level, then lower back to the start.

Expert tip “To initiate the movement, keep your core tight and perform a jumping and shrugging movement,” says Grant. “Drive through your calves using lots of momentum, keeping in mind that you want high-speed bar movement.”

Progression Make it a power move by explosively going up onto your toes as you raise the bar to chest height.

4 Overhead press

Reps 10 Rest 0sec

How Press the bar directly overhead, then lower it. When you lower, don’t go beyond chin height to avoid stressing the shoulders.

Expert tip “Your arms should finish in line with your ears,” says Grant. If you struggle with that, work on shoulder mobility.

Progression Use the same movement but take longer to lower the bar so you maximise the time under tension.

5 Lunge

Reps 10 Rest 90sec-2min

How With the bar on your back, take a step forwards and lower until your knees are bent at 90°, then press back up to the start.

Expert tip “For the movement pattern, think escalator not elevator – forwards then down, not up and down,” says Grant.

Progression Do a reverse lunge where you take a step backwards and bend both knees to 90° before standing back up.

Barbell Workout 4

This workout has five moves which are performed in a circuit. Do all the reps of move 1 then go straight on to move 2 and complete those reps without resting. Follow this pattern for the rest of the circuit and only rest once you have completed all the reps of the fifth and final move, and for no longer than two minutes. The first and last exercise are 20-rep sets, and the three lifts in between them are ten-rep sets. You’ll do five circuits in total.

Do this circuit with just a barbell. Once that’s too easy, add a 2.5kg weight plate to each side, then continue to go up in 2.5kg increments.

1 Deadlift

Reps 20 Rest 10sec

How Squat down to pick the bar off the floor with an overhand grip, then stand up tall.

Why Doing deadlifts with an empty bar will improve your form and work multiple muscle groups.

Progression If 20 reps doesn’t get your heart rate high and breathing hard, add five more reps per circuit.

2 Romanian Deadlift

Reps 10 Rest 0sec

How Bend forwards from the hips with arms straight to lower the bar down your shins.

Why This move will work your glutes and hamstrings and keep your heart rate elevated.

Progression If this feels too easy, increase the rep count to 12 or 15 for each circuit of the session.

3 Bent-over row

Reps 10 Rest 0sec

How Hinge forward from the hips with legs and arms straight. Row the bar up to your stomach.

Why It works all the major muscles of your upper back as well as your core and forearms.

Progression If this feels too easy, increase the rep count to 12 or 15 for each circuit of the session.

4 Overhead press

Reps 10 Rest 0sec

How Stand tall holding the bar across the front of your shoulders. Press the bar straight overhead.

Why It’s one of the best moves to work your shoulders and your triceps.

Progression If this feels too easy, increase the rep count to 12 or 15 for each circuit of the session.

5 Squat

Reps 20 Rest 2min

How Stand tall with the bar across the back of your shoulders. Squat down as deep as you can. Keep each rep smooth and controlled so you never pause at the top or bottom, but don’t “bounce” at the bottom either.

Why This final move of the circuit works your legs and core and again elevates your heart rate.

Progression Increase the number of reps you do per circuit to 25 if you have more left in the tank.

Barbell Complex 5

Do the five moves here in order, performing 15 reps of a lift then moving on to the next one without rest. After the final move, rest for 60 seconds, then repeat. Do six circuits in total. If you want to make the circuit harder you can add weight to the bar, starting with 2.5kg each side.

1 Romanian deadlift

Stand tall holding the bar with a wide, overhand grip. Bend forwards, hingeing from the hips, to lower the bar to knee level. Push your hips forwards to stand up straight.

2 Hang clean

From the bottom of the deadlift, push your hips forward and raise the bar, rotating your elbows to “catch” it at shoulder height. Reverse the move to the start.

3 Bent-over row

Starting from the bottom of the clean, let your arms hang then, leading with your elbows, row the bar in towards your lower chest. Return to the start.

4 Push Press

Clean the bar up to the front of your shoulders then, initiating the move with a knee bend, push the bar straight up over your head. Lower it back down to your shoulders.

5 Squat

After the last push press rep, lower the bar behind your head to rest on the backs of your shoulders. Squat down, then stand back up.