Barbell Complex

Romanian Deadlift, Clean, Push Press, Back Squat
By Neghar FonooniMarch 1, 2016


Barbell Complex

The barbell complex is a great exercise for strengthening and developing the muscles in the lower body, most notably, the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. The barbell complex also strengthens and develops the muscles in the upper body and core. Perhaps most notably, the barbell complex is a phenomenal way to improve your overall conditioning, and gives you a huge bang for your buck.

Equipment needed:

A barbell should be used for this exercise. A traditional barbell may be used and to increase the resistance lifters may add weight plates to each side. Some gyms have fixed weight barbells which are shorter than a traditional barbell and the resistance is not adjustable. These fixed weight barbells often increase in resistance by 5-10 pounds (50 lbs, 55 lbs, 60 lbs, 65 lbs, and so on). As for the extra resistance, you can use traditional weight plates, or bumper plates.

Ability level:


In some instances, the barbell complex might be too advanced for women who are just beginning to strength train. In the case of the clean, beginners could replace it with the bent-over row.  Or they could perform the hang clean where the starting position is not the floor. In the case of the back squat, beginners could replace this exercise with the box squat as the box squat is less technical and requires less strength and mobility.


The barbell complex is a great option for the intermediate lifter. Intermediate lifters might perform 2-4 sets of 5-8 reps of the barbell complex workout. This can be done after heavier compound exercises have been performed, or it can comprise the entire workout.


Women who are comfortable with the barbell complex, and have the goal of developing strength, can opt for the lower end of the rep range (3-5)and can increase the overall weight used. If your goal is to develop muscular endurance and improve your conditioning, opt for the higher end of the rep range (8+) and use less weight. You can also increase the number of sets, or can decrease the length of the rest intervals between sets.

Benefits of The Barbell Complex:

There are many benefits of the barbell complex. How a woman chooses to use the barbell complex is highly dependent on her overall technical ability and experience, how much weight is being used, the set/rep scheme used, and what the rest periods are. In general, the barbell complex can be used to do any or all of the following:

  • increasing lower body strength, primarily in the quads, glutes, and hamstrings
  • increasing upper body strength, primarily in the shoulders, and also the back, chest, biceps, and triceps
  • increasing core strength
  • building muscle
  • fat loss (if your diet and exercise routines are conducive to fat loss)
  • increasing conditioning
  • improving sports specific performance
  • maximizing time as you will accomplish a lot in very little time

How to perform a Barbell Complex:

So I am not redundant, before I describe each individual exercise, it is very important to note that for each of these exercises, before you perform each rep, take a deep breath into your belly (360 degrees of air around your spine), brace your core (I like to pretend that I am about to block a soccer ball with my stomach), and lightly tuck your rib cage towards your hips (close the space in your midsection). This will dramatically improve your overall stability and ability to perform all of these exercises, and will help safeguard your body against injury. Maintain a neutral spine for the duration of the exercise, do not allow your knees to collapse in or fall outside of your feet, and make sure that your weight remains in the mid-back portion of your feet but keep your toes down, particularly your big and baby toes.

Romanian Deadlift

  • For the Romanian deadlift, place a loaded barbell on the outside of a squat rack and at about hip height as this makes picking up the bar and setting up very simple. If you are starting from the floor, you want to make sure that you lift the weight into the starting position with the same form as you would during a barbell conventional or sumo deadlift. If you are not using bumper plates or 45 lb weights, you might want to set the barbell up on blocks or weight plates so you don’t have to compromise your form to pick up the weight. You want to keep a neutral spine at all times.
  • Your hands should be just on the outside of your legs.
  • Grip the bar so your palms are facing you.
  • Set your feet so they are about hip width apart and facing straight ahead, and keep a slight bend in your knees. About a 15-20 degree angle is optimal.
  • Now push/hinge your hips backwards as far as you can (while maintaining a neutral spine and not bending at the waist or rounding the upper back) and slide the barbell down your body so it grazes your legs the entire time. In terms of the hip hinge, you can pretend that a rope is attached around your hips and is pulling you backwards, or pretend that you are trying to reach back with your glutes and touch a wall that is behind you. You should feel tension in your hamstrings the entire time. It is crucial that you maintain a neutral spine at all times.
  • Once you feel a mild stretch in your hamstrings, return to the starting position by driving through the mid-back of your feet (but keep your toes down) and pressing your body away from the floor, squeezing your hamstrings and glutes, and pushing your hips forward. Even if you don’t feel a stretch in your hamstrings, if you feel your spine rounding, this is a sign that you have gone too low. With this (and many exercises), lower doesn’t always mean better.
  • As you return to the starting position, lock out by squeezing your glutes and pushing your hips into the bar, extend your knees by squeezing your quads and hamstrings, brace your core, and actively tuck your rib cage towards your hips (close the space in your midsection).
  • Create tension in your upper body by squeezing your upper arms into your arm sides. You can even pretend that you are crushing something in your armpits. Also, bring your shoulder blades together and down and pretend that you are tucking each one in the opposite back pocket of your pants.
  • Keep your chest up for the entire lift but do not over arch your back. You can pretend that you are showing the logo on your shirt to a person who is standing in front of you.
  • Keep your chin tucked and neck in neutral alignment. Many lifters make the mistake of looking up.
  • Reset, and repeat.

Barbell Clean

  • On your last deadlift rep, you are going to transition into the barbell clean. If you have bumper plates and have the appropriate levels of mobility and are comfortable, you can perform your cleans off of the floor. If you don't have the mobility or don't have bumper plates, you can transition into the clean from a hang position. I am going to describe how to do the hang clean.
  • As for your grip, tuck your thumb inside your hand if you’re comfortable with this grip, and clean the barbell up to the power position, or you can clean in a squat position.
  • Position the bar so it is against your knees, keep your hips high enough so you load the muscles in your posterior chain, and position your shoulders so they are slightly ahead of the bar. You will keep the bar from drifting forward by engaging your lats and pretending to crush something in your armpits.
  • Then accelerate to your hips, extend your knees, and thrust your hips forward, and jump the bar up. At this point, your shoulders will be behind the bar.
  • As for the final step, the catch, your weight should be on the mid/back portion of your feet, your elbows should be parallel to the floor and in, and your legs and hips should be in a 1/4 squat position.
  • The bar should remain close to your body and should travel in a vertical path.

Barbell Push Press

  • From the clean, you are going to going to transition into the barbell push press.
  • Position your elbows so they are down, and the bar is resting in your hands.
  • Bend your knees so they are at about a 1/8 squat position and simultaneously hinge your hips back a small amount as this will help you utilize your quads and the muscles of your posterior chain, and now drive the barbell overhead.
  • Pop your head through and press the weight so it's directly above your head and centered over your body. Control the weight at the top and fully lock out before you lower the weight back to the starting position.

Barbell Back Squat

  • Once you have completed the last rep of your push press, you are going to transition to the barbell back squat by lowering the weight so it is resting on your upper back. It is crucial that it is not resting on your cervical spine, and you lower it with control.
  • If you squeeze your shoulder blades together, it will create original possible that the barbell should sit on.
  • Once you have the barbell so it's in the correct position, set your hands so they are much wider than shoulder width apart as this works best for most women. However, due to differences in mobility or structure, some women might prefer to use a slightly wider width, and others a more narrow one.
  • Your hands should be gripping the bar firmly, and you should be pulling it down to this ridge of muscle as this will create stability in your upper body and spine.
  • Set your feet so they are about hip width apart in the heels and shoulder width apart in the toes. However, if a slightly wider stance is more comfortable, feel free to do that. Some find that a shoulder width stance works best. Most women find that it feels best when the toes are slightly pointed out.
  • While maintaining muscular control and the same tempo the entire time, simultaneously move at the knees and hips, and aim to sit between your heels.
  • When you are in the bottom position of the squat, it is absolutely vital that you maintain muscular tension the entire time. You cannot disengage your muscles. This will place you at a greater risk of injuring yourself.
  • Do not sacrifice form for depth. Go to whatever depth allows you to maintain proper form. Sometimes, it might mean using less weight. At the very least, aim to reach a depth where your thighs are parallel to the ground.
  • Stand up by driving your body away from the floor with your feet and squeezing your quads, hamstrings, and glutes.
  • Lock out at the top position by squeezing your glutes, quads and hamstrings, bracing your core, and keeping your rib cage down (closing the space in your midsection) as this will prevent your lower back from arching and will help you maintain proper alignment.
  • As for your torso, you should have a slight forward lean, but keep your chest up, and do not tip forward and do a ”squat-morning.” The amount of torso lean will also depend on your body structure. Generally, people with longer femurs tend to lean forward more than people with shorter femurs.
  • Once you have completed your last rep of the back squat, if you have access to a squat rack, you can just walk forward and rack the barbell. If you don't have access to a squat rack, you need to do a push press to bring the barbell over your head and back down to the floor.

Video Transcription: 

Neghar: Hey girls I’m Neghar Fonooni, and I’m here with Molly Galbraith, and we are representing Girls Gone Strong. Today we are going to show you how to do a really simple barbell complex. It’s a great workout to do when you’re limited on time and you want to pack strength, power, and maybe even fat loss all into just one training session.

Molly: Yes, absolutely. Now the complex is going to be really challenging, so Neghar will give you some guidelines of what to do. But of course, listen to your body, first and foremost.  That’s always really important. But yeah, this is going to be a killer workout that you can do really quickly, and we’re excited to show you.

N: If you’re not sure what to use in terms of weight, do your first round with just the barbell, and then you can add a little bit of weight every single set as you go. Or you can kind of find the weight you that want to use, and just use that weight.

M: I think it’s pretty rare for people to get done with the complex and be like, "That wasn’t enough weight." Usually complexes absolutely smoke people, so err on the lighter side because you can always add more.

N: And you can use those first couple of rounds even just to warm up and to just figure out which weight you want to use. So we are going to do four exercises, and we’re going to do about five to eight repetitions each, so anywhere near that rep range is totally cool. Five isn’t not as good as eight. A lot of times when we tell people five to eight and they think, "Oh, if I do eight, it’s better." That’s not necessarily the case. It all depends on how you’re feeling, the amount of load you’re using, your skill level, and so on. So just think of it five to eight, anything in that range is great, and one isn’t better than the other.

M: Yeah, and the lower rep ranges might be leaning a little bit more towards strength, where the others might….

N: You might use a heavier load if you’re doing lower rep ranges. It just depends. So five to eight. We’re going to go barbell, barbell Romanian deadlift, from barbell Romanian deadlift to a clean, to a push press to a back squat. So we’re kind of going from the bottom up, and the reason why we’re doing that is to make the transitions really simple and easy. So you’re not trying to transition from one exercise to another where the barbell is in a totally different place.

M: Right, because it makes sense, so like she’s saying we’re starting at the bottom and we’re ending up at the top with the barbell back squat, and Neghar is going to demonstrate.

N: Cool, alright so we’re going to start with the barbell clean, excuse me. We’re starting with the Romanian deadlift, and you can do this from the top or you can do it from the floor. It’s totally up to you. Knees are slightly bent, hips are back, grab the bar nice and tight, shoulders back and you're going to hinge at your hips, come forward keep the barbell really close to your body. You don’t have to touch the ground especially if you’re not using bumper plates. And come on back up, finish with the hips.

M: Right. You want to use the range of motion that feels good for you. Neghar is pretty flexible, so she’s able to go down pretty far, you’ll notice she’s hinging at the hips, she’s keeping her core nice and braced, and she’s finishing at the top with her glutes, not her lower back. That’s crucial.

N: On your last deadlift, you’re going to switch to the clean, and again you can do that from the floor if you have bumper plates and you’re comfortable, or from the hang if you don’t have bumper plates. OK, and you’re going to get that thumb grip, tuck your thumb inside your hand if you’re comfortable with that, and you’re going to clean the barbell up. You can clean up to the power position, or you can clean in a squat.

If you’re not comfortable with the clean—if this is a brand new exercise to you and you haven’t had any coaching—you can totally swap this out for something else. An exercise that would fit in really well here would be the bent-over row because you’re still going from the bottom, all the way up. Ok, so if you haven’t had any coaching at all, ever, in your entire life on the barbell clean, don’t do it. But we love to give that option because a lot of people have had some instruction in the area and you want to see how you can throw that into the workout.

So from the clean, we’re going to go into the push press because as you can see, it’s in the perfect place. Elbows down, and the bar is resting in your hands, and you’re going to get a quick little dip in the knees, and then drive the barbell overhead. OK, as you can see I’m not completely relying on my upper body. I’m using the power in my lower body, and I’m sort of popping my head through. Can you see that? So I’m not like, bringing the weight out in front of me. It’s right over my head. It’s centered right over my body. Do you have any tips Molly?

M: That looked really good with the push press. Again, that’s not all coming from her upper body. It’s coming from her lower body. Because if it was just coming from her upper body, she would get worn out pretty quickly. So, next is going to be back squats. So she lowered it right onto her upper back. This is not going on your cervical spine, guys. This should not be on any bony prominence. She’s squeezing her upper back together and creating a little shelf for the bar to sit on, keeping her elbows down, and she’s going right into the back squat.

N: Right. It actually feels really comfortable here. This doesn’t feel like it’s in a foreign or awkward place.

M: A nice little spot back there, with all that back control.

N: So you’re going to find your squat stance and again everybody’s squat stance is different. Mine is just outside of my hips, with my toes turned slightly out. The most important thing is that your knees aren’t caving in, and you're not allowing the weight to tip you forward. You’re still staying upright. So I’m just going to squat down, just as deep as I can, drive back up, and finish with my glutes. And as I come up, I’m pushing through my heels, and I’m looking forward the whoooole time.  You don’t want to look down while you’re squatting, because that’s going to encourage you to pitch forward. I’m going to do five to eight reps, then when you’re done, since this is on your back, you have two options. If you have a rack available to you, you can just walk forward and rack the bar. If you don’t have a rack available to you and you’re just doing this whole workout with just a barbell, you’re going to do a push press to get it over your head and safely bring it back down to the ground. Would you have any other tips on how to dump the bar?

M: No. I think that looked great. That was perfect guys.

N: I’m very sweaty.

M: You are very sweaty. See? It works, it works!

N: So, five to eight reps of each of those exercises. I would recommend starting with about three rounds if you’ve never done the barbell complex before. And then maybe progress up to six rounds.

M: Yep, that sounds great. And make sure you listen to your body the whole time because, as you can see, Neghar was even taking a little bit of rest between those reps she was demo-ing because it’s a pretty tough workout.

N: Also, take a couple of minutes—one to two minutes break—in between each round and just kind of assess where your body is.

M: Yeah, and with the complexes, definitely make sure that you take that rest.  Some of the other workouts we’ve demoed on GGS, we talk about taking as little rest as possible. But with the complexes you really want to recover so that you can give your all when you go to the next round. Alright guys enjoy.


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About the author:  Neghar Fonooni

Girls Gone Strong co-founder Neghar Fonooni is a fitness and lifestyle coach, writer, entrepreneur, veteran, wife, and mom. Neghar’s mission is to help women all over the world live fit, happy, empowered lives without stress and shame. Learn more about Neghar on her website, and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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