Forget dumbbells — this 3-move barbell workout builds a strong core and full-body muscle in 15 minutes

Man lifting a barbell with plates on using both hands during outdoor strength training session
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Barbell avoiders listen up — it’s time to level up your skills on the bar. This three-move barbell complex is the ultimate muscle-torching full-body workout and only takes 15 minutes.

The three exercises below need no introduction — deadlifts, cleans, push presses and bentover rows are all staple compound exercises and target most of the major muscle groups in your body.

If you’re unfamiliar with them, fear not, because we’ve included some handy videos and cues to help you dial into your technique and bring it all together into a beast-like barbell complex. 

There are a few tips worth knowing before working out with barbells if you’re less confident on the bar than using dumbbells or kettlebells in the gym. Try to follow the instructions below step-by-step.

If you’re more confident, adapt the program to suit your ability. Best of all, this workout can be done anywhere you can lay out and load up a barbell, making it pretty time-efficient and accessible.   

What is a barbell complex?

A barbell complex means a series of movements performed back-to-back for a number of reps without rest between. A complex is an efficient conditioning tool for developing power, endurance and strength while burning calories and driving up your heart rate. 

This particular AMRAP should help you become more familiar with transitions, grip and movement patterns as you switch quickly from lower to upper body while heavily recruiting your core muscles and performing as many rounds as possible in 15 minutes.

What is the 3-move barbell complex?

First, here’s a breakdown of the barbell exercises.

1. Barbell deadlift

Learning how to deadlift will set you up for success with any strength training program. It’s a staple full-body exercise for developing power and maximal strength primarily targeting the muscles in your posterior chain — the back, glutes and hamstrings — plus your core, hips, legs, arms and shoulders using the hip hinge movement. You can go conventional or switch to Romanian deadlifts if you prefer. 

For this workout, scale back the weight to something you can comfortably and consistently lift and hit 4 reps at a time. Remember, as the timer reaches 10 minutes, you’ll perform 1 rep continuously back-to-back with the other exercises, so find a weight range you can maintain without reaching failure.

2. Barbell clean to push press

Technically separate exercises, use the clean as a transition, and move straight into your push press without pausing, completing 4 reps of the push press rather than repeating the clean each time. You might want to adopt a hang clean or power clean if you're well-versed with your options or follow along with the variation above.

The barbell clean targets the glutes, legs, back, biceps, core and shoulders and requires you to drive a barbell from the floor to your shoulders, powerfully transferring the weight from the lower to the upper body.

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart and the barbell in front of you close to your shins
  • Grip the bar just outside your legs
  • Squat, lift your chest and lower your bum keeping a flat back
  • Drive up through your feet and lift the bar with your shoulders over the bar
  • As the bar reaches thigh height, extend your hips and legs
  • Pull the bar upward and drive your elbows under the bar to catch it in a front rack with knees softly bent
  • Add a small dip with the lower body, push the bar overhead, then straighten both legs to stand.

Unlike a strict overhead press, the push press requires a small push from the legs and core to drive the weight upwards, so keep your torso tight, push through your lower body, then squeeze your chest, back and shoulders as you send the bar overhead. 

Shelve the weight overhead by pulling your shoulders back and slightly sticking your head through your arms while locking your arms out. Lower and catch the bar at your shoulders before moving to the next exercise.

3. Bentover row

Strengthen your back and biceps using the barbell bentover row. You can use an underhand or overhead grip but don’t mistake it for the Pendlay row, which requires you to lift and reset each rep from the floor. Keep constant muscle tension by hinging forward at the hips, maintaining a flat back, drawing the bar toward your stomach, pausing, then extending your arms without dropping the bar.

The workout

Set a timer for 15 minutes and complete 4 reps of each exercise back-to-back without rest, then take a brief rest between rounds (one round is 12 reps total and 4 reps of each exercise). At 10 minutes, finish the round, then move into a barbell flow, performing 1 rep of each exercise back-to-back in sequence until you hit 15 minutes. 

Like yoga sequencing, a barbell flow is a rhythmic, dynamic way to bring a series of movements together. Perform a deadlift, then from standing, begin the barbell clean to your shoulders and move into your push press. Catch the bar at your shoulders, lower the bar to your thighs, hinge forward, then finish with a bentover row. 

What are barbell complexes good for?

Anyone short on time or looking for potent metabolic conditioning can benefit from a barbell complex. The exercise style builds endurance, combines cardio with resistance training and ramps up the metabolism for a short while after your workout — a process known as Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC) — allowing the body to increase calorie burn as it returns to balance.

Barbell complexes increase overall volume and time under tension, helping muscles reach a state of fatigue quicker for many people. But like most things in life, a workout done in isolation is unlikely to have a big long-term impact on your health — aside from making you feel good at the time, which is still very worthwhile. 

That’s to say, training consistently will help you progress to a stronger, more powerful body, whatever your training goals. Add this workout to a regular workout routine, slowly building weight over time as you improve. 

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Sam Hopes
Senior Staff Writer - Fitness

Sam Hopes is a level III qualified fitness trainer, level II reiki practitioner, and senior fitness writer at Future PLC, the publisher of Tom's Guide. She is also about to undertake her Yoga For Athletes training course. Having trained to work with mind and body, Sam is a big advocate of using mindfulness techniques in sport and fitness, and their impact on performance. She’s also passionate about the fundamentals of training and building sustainable training methods.  When she's not writing up her experiences with the latest fitness tech and workouts, you’ll find her writing about nutrition, sleep, recovery, and wellness.