Mini Study: 4 Weeks of the Barbell Complex Leads to Overall Strength Gains in Well Trained Athletes

Kat finishes a heavy Barbell Complex, as Jen recovers from hers.

By Rob Shaul



This 4-week Mini-Study investigated the total-body strength-building capacity of the MTI Barbell Complex.

The Barbell Complex is a complex of six exercises, six reps each, completed in succession, without putting the barbell down. The Barbell Complex is choreographed in a way such the barbell begins in front of the body with the deadlift and finishes behind the neck with the back squat. Again, 6 reps of each exercise are completed before moving onto the next exercise:

1x Barbell Complex =
6x Dead Lift
6x Bent Over Row
6x Hang Power Clean
6x Front Squat
6x Push Press
6x Back Squat

At heavier loads, the Barbell Complex is very intense and can include time under tension of upwards of 90 seconds. It challenges not only strength, but also work capacity, grip strength, and especially, mental fitness.

Eight highly trained subjects (veteran MTI Lab Rats) completed 1RM (1 Repetition Maximum) assessments for three strength exercises, Back Squat, Bench Press and Hinge Lift, as well as a max rep pull up effort.

On a separate day, the subjects then worked up to a maximum Barbell Complex load, and over the next three weeks completed a Barbell Complex progression, two times per week. The progression was based on the individual athletes assessed maximum Barbell Complex load.

After three weeks, the Back Squat, Bench Press and Hinge Lift 1RMs, and max pull up effort were reassessed. Overall, the study subjects improved in each assessed exercise, with the highest average increase in the Bench Press (5.57%) and lowest average increase in the max rep pull up effort (.77%).

This narrow study both in duration and number of study subjects seems to demonstrate that the MTI Barbell Complex alone, has promising total body strength building capabilities.



Romanian Strength Coach Istvan Javorek is credited with the initial development of barbell and dumbbell complexes.

“My Original Goal with the Complex exercises was to find an efficient and aggressive method of performance enhancement that saves time and makes the program more enjoyable,” writes Coach Javorek at his website,

The MTI Barbell Complex is a modification of Coach Javorek’s original concept, and its rep scheme (6 reps each of 6 exercises) and choreography designed with simplicity in mind.

For several years the MTI Barbell Complex has been deployed routinely in strength-focused training sessions as a warm-up. In the past, we’ve briefly experimented with heavy loading, but at this point, never designed and tested strength cycle around a Barbell Complex progression.

Often I’ve commented to athletes that if they could only do one thing to get stronger, it would be the Barbell Complex. This mini-study tested this assertion.

Specific to this mini-study, this cycle began with a max load Barbell Complex assessment, and then applied MTI’s Big 24 strength progression methodology over a 3-week period.

The study subjects completed their individualized progressions, two times/week, on Mondays and Wednesdays. After the Monday and Wednesday Barbell Complex work, the Lab Rats completed a short Chassis Integrity Circuit (Monday) or a short work capacity effort (Wednesday).

On Tuesday and Thursday, the Lab Rats completed 30-60 minute uphill movement endurance effort – “Climb the Hill, Run the Ridge.”

See the chart below for the Monday/Wednesday schedule and Barbell Complex progression deployed in this study.


The Monday and Wednesday Barbell Complex progressions were intense efforts that pushed these veteran Lab Rats’ strength and mental fitness.



Below are the mini-study results:



In general, with well-trained athletes and a focused 3-Week cycle which assesses and progresses the same strength exercises, we’ll see around a 10% strength improvement in max effort strength.

This cycle differed in that the assessed exercises we were primarily interested in – Back Squat, Bench Press, Hinge Lift and Pull Up, were not progressed through the cycle. The only time the Lab Rats did these exercises over the course of the four weeks was the pre-and post-cycle 1RM assessments. In-between assessments, they completed a Barbell Complex Progression.

My guess is this lack of focus on the assessed exercises accounts for the lower overall average gains that what we’d regularly see for the Back Squat, Bench Press, Hinge Lift and Pull Up.

As well, all the Lab Rats in this study were highly trained coming in. In general, a highly trained, fit athlete coming into one of our studies will see lower overall gains than an unfit athlete. Why? A highly trained fit athlete coming in is arriving closer to his/her genetic potential and therefore has less room to make gains.

Taking a look at the Barbell Complex Max Load gains over the course of the cycle, we did see an 11.62% average gain – which mirrors what we’ve seen in the past for highly trained Lab Rats.

Coming into the Mini Study we wanted to test the ability of the Barbell Complex alone to increase overall strength. Based on that measure, and our average gains for the four exercises we assessed, the results are mixed. Would these athletes have seen these 1RM and max pull up increases without doing the Barbell Complex and just by re-assessing? Perhaps.

However, what we didn’t have in this cycle are new or untrained athletes. We hypothesize that the results for an untrained and/or new athletes would significantly greater.

As well, because of the long time under tension (45-90 seconds) and significant work capacity hit, and overall intensity, heavy Barbell Complexes are not pure strength efforts like heavy, low rep sets of back squats.

The Barbell complex is a different animal.

For the highly trained, veteran Lab Rats in this mini-study, what we observed and experienced first hand is a focused, intense, Barbell Complex cycle has a “hardening effect.” Athletes come out on the other side with more strength, bigger engines, and more mental fitness.

See the video below to see Lab Rats Emmett (145#) and Jen (115#) complete their end of cycle Barbell Complex max load re-assessment:



We’ve taken what we learned in this Mini Study and designed a focused cycle, Gladiator. Also, a 4-week cycle, Gladiator’s programming differs from that in this mini-study in that the athletes perform heavy Barbell Complexes three days/week, vice two. This 33% increase in Barbell Complex exposure we feel will have an even greater “hardening” effect on athletes. But we need to test it to be sure.

Finally, a Barbell Complex cycle deployed to new or unfit athletes could have dramatic impacts on overall strength and exercise instruction/familiarity. One of the great things about the Barbell Complex, especially for athletes new to barbell lifting, is how many reps these athletes get each Complex with six fundamental barbell exercises.

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