Who Invented the Barbell Complex?

In a former life as a teenage rugby player we did some dumb stuff in the gym. Heavy squats with bad form? Yup. Olympic lifts with rounded backs? You betcha. I trained around the time that ‘functional training’ was all the rage so I even have memories of friends back squatting on Swiss balls!

Yes we were dumb but our desire to try anything and everything also had some advantages. Much like the overall strength that Dan John promotes, we pushed, pulled, carried and squatted our way through gym sessions. My training now is very different to my teenage years but some things have remained, including the Barbell Complex.

Back in my day (yes – sorry!), we used barbell complexes as a way of getting a quick workout in, finishing off a session or, at times, as a well deserved punishment for teenage stupidity. For those unfamiliar a barbell complex might look something like

Load a barbell to a weight you can handle with relative ease (I’ve seen lifters use anywhere from 45 lbs to 135 lbs.). You’ll use this weight for all lifts and, ideally, never take your hands from the barbell. Moving from one exercise to the other without stopping, complete 6-8 reps on each exercise before moving to the next.

A complex could look like.

A1) Power Clean

A2) Front Squat

A3) Military Press

A4) Back Squat

A5) Bent Over Row

A6) Romanian Deadlift


A1) Hang Clean

A2) Bent Over Row

A3) Romanian Deadlift

A4) Front Squat

A5) Military Press

A6) Back Squat

Depending on your level of conditioning you may complete this complex several times, moving down in reps. So, for example, you might do 6 reps on each exercise the first time, 5 the second and so on until you hit one rep on each. At my best I usually moved from 6 reps down to 1.

Was it fun? Yes but it was also hard work. Complexes are still a part of my training, even though rugby has long been forgotten about. They’re a great way of getting in a quick workout and an even better way of alleviating boredom in the gym.

Anecdotally it seems like fewer and fewer people use complexes in their training anymore. I suspect the popularity of Crossfit and the workout of the day (WOD) template has replaced their popularity. Nevertheless I, like many others, remain fans of the complex.

With that in mind, today’s post looks at Istvan Javorek, the Romanian coach who is credited with helping to develop the dumbbell and barbell complex. Today’s post looks at Javorek’s training philosophy and, more importantly, how his complexes began popularized within the fitness community itself.

Istvan Javorek

Istvan Javorek is a Romanian strength and conditioning coach whom many credit with the development of dumbbell and barbell complexes. He was educated in Romania, prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, and created complexes as part of his coaching degree requirements.

I am not going to pretend I understand a single thing about Soviet strength and conditioning education except that it was often seen as ahead of its time. In the case of Istvan he was required to present new and novel workouts as part of his own education. This, in turn, spawned the creation of the complex.

In Istvan’s own words

As the head coach of the Clujana Sports Association in Cluj (Kolozsvar, Klausenburg) Romania, I personally experienced two very efficient exercise combinations which I presented for my first class coaching board examination (the highest coaching level in Romania). This experiment took place over a three-year period involving more than three hundred different preparation level athletes.

He passed his exams and a new way of training was born.

The Original Complexes

Now Istvan’s experiments involved two complexes and these would serve as a template for later coaches. These systems can  be done using dumbbells or barbells

Javorek’s Barbell Complex # 1. Exercise:

Upright Row
High Pull Snatch
Behind the Head Squat Push Press
Behind the Head Good Morning
Bent Over Row

Reps and sets match what we have already discussed – begin at 6 reps and work your way down.

More variations can be found on Istvan’s website which also provide a great history of this system. My own personal favorite is

Javorek’s Barbell Complex # 3, Exercise:

Regular (Supinated) Curls
Upright Row
High Pull Snatch From Hip
Behind The Head Press
Bent Over Row
Behind The Head Squat Push Press or
BTH Seated Press
Good Morning
Quarter Squat
In Front Of Thighs Special Good Morning

How did they become popular?

In 1982 Istvan defected to the United States where he joined Texas A&M University as a strength and conditioning coach. Beginning with weightlifting, Istvan’s was soon in demand among track and field, swimming, basketball, tennis and a host of other activities.

By the end of the decade Istvan was credited with helping elite athletes like 200m sprinter Floyd Heard, shot putter Randy Barnes and the 10,000m former world record holder Arturo Barrios. As is so often the case, people became interested in Istvan’s methods. Hence the complex grew in popularity.

There is also some evidence that Dan John, one of this website’s favorite writers, helped increase knowledge of the complexes. I know, for example, that his 2009 article on T-Nation helped bring the practice to more coaches.

As a final treat, here is an awesome video of Istvan in action

As always … Happy Lifting!

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