Progressing from the big 3

The Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, Press, Dips, Chin-ups/Pull-ups. Slow-bulk or cut, put these exercises at the core of your workout program and you won’t go far wrong.

There are two key training templates introduced on this site, ‘The Big 3 Routine’ and the ‘Three Day Split Routine’. The questions often arise, “Which routine should I use?” or, “When and how should I progress from one to the other?” This article covers the latter question with detailed examples.

These routines are minimalistic so they are particularly suited for a cut. When cutting, to keep your muscle mass, think of things as quite simply ‘use it or lose it’. Keeping training volume low when cutting is important because of the body’s decreased recovery capacity while under maintenance calories. – If we overtax it, we won’t fully recover for the next workout, we’ll stress the central nervous system, increase our chances of getting sick, and miss training sessions.

Thus, the RPT rep pattern I feel is particularly suited for a cut as it allows for maximum muscle stimulation with low training volume. It can be used with any set of exercises.

When slow-bulking the difference in your routine will be an increase in volume, possibly the addition of one or two compound exercises, and perhaps an accessory movement or two.


Thoughts on How and When to Change Your Routine

Whether a person should be doing the ‘Big 3’ every session or more of a split routine depends entirely on recovery times. As Rippetoe said in his book Practical Programming for Strength Training, one of the most important things for determining what kind of program a person should be on, does not depend on the person’s lifting ability, but that person’s ability to recover.

Put another way, a person that can squat 1.5*body weight (1.5*BW) might recover quickly enough to make squatting 3 days a week possible, whereas another that can squat 1.0*BW may need several days to recover. He goes on to say that a coach cannot simply look at a person’s strength figures or body size and give them a program, they need to know their client’s capacity for recovery.

Are you Intermediate or Beginner? It depends on how you define it: Strength stats relative to bodyweight or, recovery capacity. Ideally we’d all keep our ‘beginners’ recovery capacity well into the ‘intermediate’ strength achievements range and we’d be able to train more and grow faster. But alas, the human body is rarely so kind.

It may be fun to choose a split routine because it’s labeled ‘intermediate’ and that makes you feel good, but if you could be making better gains on the beginner routine you’d be a fool to not do that. I assure you there are some very big boys and girls that use Rippetoe’s Starting Strength ‘beginner’ routine.

As I am not with you in the gym, only you can tell what your recuperative abilities are. Generally the lower back is the weakest link in the chain. Are you physically able to recover if you do the big three barbell movements three days a week, or do you struggle with lower back pain? When your poundage progression stalls or you get lower back soreness that prevents you from having consistent workouts you know it’s time to change.


Big 3 to Split Routine – Ideas on Progression

A progression from the ‘Big 3’ to a split can be done in stages. When you start failing to recover then move onto the next step in the series.

Rather than jumping immediately to a split, usually a small modification to the volume of deadlifting performed each week is sufficient – this is because it is usually the lower back that is the first to show signs of greater soreness. You’ll want to decrease the number of sets of the deadlift at this time, from 5 to 3 and then perhaps to 1, for each session. After that you’ll need to move into some form of split routine. My first suggestion would be an alternating split (an A/B split), then a move to a three-day split (A/B/C split) when again it becomes necessary.

 There are many different ways to do this, here is one example of a typical progression.

The Linear Progression Training Continuum

Phase 1: ‘Big 3’ Routine – Novices

Same every day:

  • Squats (5 sets of 5 reps)
  • Bench Press (5 sets of 5 reps)
  • Deadlift (5 sets of 5 reps)

Phase 2: ‘Big 3’ Routine – Deadlift Modified

The lower back starts to get sore, you make a volume adjustment to the deadlifts:

  • Squats (5 sets of 5 reps)
  • Bench Press (5 sets of 5 reps)
  • Deadlift (3 sets of 5 reps) or (1 set of 5 reps)

Phase 3: The A/B split 

The lower back and legs are too sore, progress suffers. Bench form is good, but a little variety can be introduced.

Workout A:

  • Deadlifts 5×5 (Sets x Reps)
  • Weighted/Assisted Chinups RPT
  • Overhead Press (OHP) 5×5
Workout B:
  • Squat 5×5
  • Bench Press 5×5
  • Seated Cable Rows (3×8-10 reps)

Week 1 – Monday (Workout A), Wednesday (Workout B), Friday (Workout A)

Week 2 – Monday (Workout B), Wednesday (Workout A), Friday (Workout B)

Week 3 – Monday (Workout A), Wednesday (Workout B), Friday (Workout A) etc…


Phase 4: Full 3 Day Split (A/B/C) – Straight-Sets

More recovery is needed between workouts so a full split is used.

Monday:

  • Deadlift (5×5)
  • Weighted/Assisted Chinups RPT

Wednesday:

  • Bench Press 5×5
  • Seated Cable Rows (3×8-12)

Friday:

  • Squat 5×5
  • Overhead Press (OHP) 5×5

A Note on Reverse Pyramid Training

Reverse Pyramid Training (RPT), is a double progression model set-rep pattern – when you can no longer increase weight, you work to increase the number of reps. Then when you can lift the same weight with more reps you increase the weight lifted at a lower target rep number. However with no periodization, while a little more complicated, it is still a linear progression system.

You may look to put the RPT set-rep pattern in at either the A/B Split (if you are very confident in your form) or 3 day split points. This may help to spark further progress, but you may just be fighting gravity when cutting.

In general, a little soreness is fine. How do you know if you’re actually too sore to train and need to change your workouts or are just being a pussy? It’s difficult to judge. You’re always going to be sore to a degree somewhere in your body. You’ll become more attuned with your body in time but for now, as a general guide if after a good thorough general warm-up, joint warm-up and warm-up sets (guide to these in this article) you’re still really sore or the weight feels considerably heavier than normal then it may be time to change. This is one reason why it’s important to keep a workout log, so you know what you were lifting last time and know what you should be able to lift.


Notes

Dips

I no longer recommend dips.

They are a great chest and tricep developer, and it feels awesome to have a couple of plates clanging between your legs as you knock out a few  sets of 8, but the risk-reward ratio is skewed in the wrong direction I feel.

What I mean is, it’s very easy to cause yourself an injury by with this exercise, especially as you start adding a lot of weight. (It puts the humeral head in a position far past neutral). When there are safer alternatives that are equally effective (pushups, the close-grip bench press), I see no point in taking the risk with dips. I no longer do them myself, and I no longer recommend them to clients.

Bad workouts will happen

Strength coach Dan John proposes that people should expect 20% of all their workouts to be bad ones. For whatever the reason, this is what he has found with his coaching of athletes over many years. Before you switch things up, you need to make sure you didn’t just “have a bad one” but are genuinely in need of a change. So, if the weights feel unusually heavy one workout, or you’re extremely sore, listen to your body, stop your workout for that day and go home and rest. Sleep well. (Sleep, diet, and stress can all affect your gym performance.) Come back feeling refreshed, and then see what happens.

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About the Author

Andy Morgan

I'm an online nutritional coach and trainer. After seeing one too many people get ripped off by supplement and training industry lies I decided to try and do something about it. The site you see here is the result of a lot of Starbucks-fuelled, two-fingered typing. It's had a lot of love poured into it, and I hope you find the guides to the diet and training methods I use on this site useful. When I'm not helping clients you'll likely find me crashing down a mountain on a snowboard, riding a motorbike, or staring at watches I can't afford.

307 Comments on “How to Progress from ‘The Big 3’ to Split Routines”

  1. chris

    Andy,

    Been using the tools on your site for about 6 months with great success. Been on a cut for about 2.5 months using mostly RPT training, but have hit walls with each set basically going to failure. My lifts are pretty solid now S 275×5 DL 355×5 B 225 x5 @ 6’1″ 193 bw.

    Im still cutting and want to switch back to sets of 5 for less of a grind. Is 5×5 for Squats, Bench and OHP still advocated on a cut, or should I switch to 3×5 to reduce volume? I know Im going to plateau quick, so do I just hold steady on my lifts while I finish this cut or still push for PR’s? Im looking at another 10-12lbs to go.

    Thanks for always answering questions.

    Chris

      1. Chris

        Andy,

        I read the RPT revision and the drawbacks were applying to me for sure. I will go with a 3×5 on my main lifts to best hold on to strength to finish this cut, then switch to progressive higher volume once I go back to a caloric surplus.

        Thanks again for the prompt response!

  2. Allen

    Hey there Andy,

    Quick question. How important is feeling the burn when it comes to size? Do you need to crank out 15 reps to get the muscle to grow? Or can you grow without feeling the burn?

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Allen. You can grow without the training goal being to feel the burn, though that will happen at times.

      It is valid to train like that at times as you advance but this needs to be put in context. An excellent video series by Eric Helms here.

  3. Adam

    Hi Andy,

    Thanks for all the info on the site, it’s always well laid out and very informative. I’ve been a follower for a while and only just picked the leangains method back up after a break from dieting/training.

    My question is in regards to training. I’m following the Big 3 routine 5×5 with deadlifts at 3 sets whilst I build my strength back up. Deads and squats are fine, but my bench has not just stalled, it looks to be slipping backwards. Sessions are on MWF, and bench looks like this, 1min 30 between sets;

    65×5,5,5,5,5
    67.5×5,5,5,5,4
    67.5×5,5,5,5,5
    70 x5,5,5,5,3
    70 x5,5,5,3
    67.5 x 5,5,5,5,4
    67.5 x 5,5,5,5,4

    Im pretty sure it’s down to crappy sleep, and maybe cutting a bit too much on food and rest days which I am trying to adjust (Im on a +20% -20% recomp, but focused on bulking up so will change to +20%, 0%.). At this point do I drop down to 65 again or do I keep trying for the 67.5 knowing I can and have done this previously? I was also considering clearing a weight with 5×5 two sessions in a row before increasing the weight.

    Many Thanks

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Adam, thanks for the question.
      “At this point do I drop down to 65 again or do I keep trying for the 67.5 knowing I can and have done this previously?”
      If your only option is to tourniquet the limb when you have a gunshot wound, then that is what you should do. However, ideally, you get yourself to a doctor so they can take care of the issue at hand – the round that is buried in the muscle causing pain in movement, the shredded arteries, the gaping hole.

      You’ve already identified the potential causes – work on those.

      1. Adam

        True, appreciate it. I’ll try and fix my sleep/diet before stressing about the numbers, it’s been hellish hot here at night which is really impacting my solid 8 hours at night. Thanks again :)

  4. Woz

    Hi Andy,

    Thank you in advance for taking the time to read this. I am just about to finish my first cut after following your site and I am pretty happy with the results.. Cheers!!

    I have been following the A/B split and under my Doc’s suggestions, I dropped the weight and increased reps to 12×5 for Push, Squats and Deads (an old back injury came back)… The volume is pretty demanding but I am still making progress (with no back pain)..

    My question is: would you recommend adding any other exercises to my training (compound or isolation) to continue to add more stress, in order to continue to progress once in a calorie surplus? If so, do you have any recommendations?

    Cheers.

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Woz. If what you’re doing is working to help you progress during a cut then it will work (even better) for you in a bulk. At some point, yes, you’ll need to add in some training volume to keep progressing, but as for exercise election, that’s something to consult with your doctor about.

  5. Mathias

    From the article: “Put another way, a person that can squat 1.5*body weight (1.5*BW) might recover quickly enough to make squatting 3 days a week possible, whereas another that can squat 1.0*BW may need several days to recover. He goes on to say that a coach cannot simply look at a person’s strength figures or body size and give them a program, they need to know their client’s capacity for recovery.”

    Shouldn’t 1.5*BW and 1.0*BW be switched around? I thought that the stronger you are the more recovery you’ll need.

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Mathias, thanks for the question.
      No, that is correct. (Though you would expect them to be the other way around usually.) The point is that you can’t look at a person’s lifting numbers and determine their recovery ability – we’re all different.

  6. Dave

    HI Andy,

    Thanks so much for all the information. I am a beginning lifter, and I have a question. I plan on starting the Big 3 Routine soon. I know this article helps to explain how and when to transition, but I wonder what the “average” time (in weeks) is that you’ve seen relatively skinny beginners take until they need to start that transition. I know, in a way, there’s no such thing as average – but I’d love to hear a general range of how long you typically see guys exclusively doing the Big 3 before they typically start progressing to Split Routines.

    Thanks so much!

    1. Andy Morgan

      Dave, thanks for the question. It varies vastly from person to person. 2-4 months in general, but there are outliers. Try not to fix your mind on averages, as that can pollute your mindset by creating artificial barriers. Progress for as long as you can.

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