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 linear progression training templates introduced on this site, ‘The Big 3 Routine’ and the ‘Three Day Split Routine’. The questions often arise, “Which training program is for me?” or, “When and how should I progress from one to the other?” This article covers the latter question with detailed examples.

It is best that you adjust your routine to build from one to the other, rather than jumping straight to ‘The Three Day Split Routine’ from ‘The Big 3′. Learning how to adjust your routine is an essential skill you will need as you advance in training experience to keep yourself progressing. Most people screw themselves up by not learning this skill – they jump blindly from routine to routine when progress stalls, never learning the broader principles of effective training routines or how to tailor it to themselves. They then wonder why they spin their wheels for years not making progress. This article will cover how to do that.


Big 3 to Split Routine – Ideas on Progression

As covered in the article Which Training Program Is For Me? whether you should be doing the big 3 (the squat, bench press and deadlift) every session, or more of a split routine, depends entirely on your recovery capability. 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.

A person that can squat 1.5x their bodyweight might recover quickly enough to make squatting 3 days a week possible, whereas another that can squat 1x their bodyweight may need several days to recover. Only you can tell what your recuperative abilities are, so pay attention and I’ll tell you what to do here.

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. Note the sentences in italics after each phase explaining the changes made and why.

The Linear Progression Training Continuum

‘Big 3’ Routine > ‘Big 3’ Modified > The A/B split > Three Day Split

 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

Practice is important at this stage, so you do the same exercises 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)
  • Weighted/Assisted Chin-ups (3×8)
  • Overhead Press (OHP) (5×5)
Workout B:
  • Squat (5×5)
  • Bench Press (5×5)
  • Seated Cable Rows (3×8-10)

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. Additional compound movements are added so that overall training volume does not drop too low.

Monday:

  • Deadlift (5×5)
  • Weighted/Assisted Chinups (3×8)
  • Additional compound movement (Example: Front squats 3×8-10)

Wednesday:

  • Bench Press 5×5
  • Seated Cable Rows (3×8-12)
  • Additional compound movement (Example: Lat-pulldowns 3×8-10)

Friday:

  • Squat 5×5
  • Overhead Press (OHP) 5×5
  • Additional compound movement (Example: RDLs 3×8-10)

Notes

Soreness – How to Gauge When You Need to Change

In general, a little soreness is fine. It’s difficult to judge the line between being too sore to train and needing to change your workouts. 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 thorough general warm-up, joint warm-up and warm-up sets (guide 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.

Bad Workouts Will Happen

Before you switch things up make sure you didn’t just have a bad workout 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. Rest, sleep well, then come back feeling refreshed and then see what happens. If you have two or more consecutive workouts and aren’t under a lot of stress, it’s probably time to make a change.

Additional Exercises

Training volume (sets x reps x load) is the key driver of training adaptations, and should go up as we gain experience and progress over the course of a lifting career. So, you will see that in phase 3 and phase 4 I’ve added additional compound movements to the routine so that total training volume does not drop. None of the big three exercises are repeated however, as they are the toughest to recover from, but other compound movements are chosen.

Dips

Long time viewers of the site will see that dips are missing from the examples above, so I wanted to comment on the reason. 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 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.


*******

Thanks for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments as always. – Andy.

Related Articles: ‘The Big 3′ Routine → or ‘Three Day Split RPT’ Routine →

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.

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

  1. Michael Duxfield

    Hi Andy, I thought I’d follow up on my last post here about the pains I was experiencing (couple of questions ago) not completely sure what the problem is but it is resolved.

    So I went to a dr, he just so happened to be a very fit 69 year old body builder and knew right away where the groin, lower back and flute pain was coming from. He suggested I take my underwear off when I train as there is a sensitive nerve in the groin area that relates to these pains and undies put pressure against the nerve. Lol wtf, ok, I gave it a go, started free ball training and the pain surprisingly eased, but not completely.

    I fractured my rib at work a couple of weeks later so I had 3 weeks off resistance training. Been back at it now for 4 weeks, balls free, and no pain. I did also drop the stretches and change my warm up to 10 mins on the bike rather than the previous 5 which may have helped too. Anyway much better now. Thought I should let you know. Cheers for the help

    Michael

  2. Mark

    Hi Andy,
    I’m a long time follower, had great success with IF through your easy to follow site in the past.
    I could explain how and why I’ve fallen ‘off the wagon’, but won’t because they’re just that – excuses!
    In any event, am gearing back up to get back in shape again and was wondering, do I start back at the Big 3 in each workout day again as a novice, or split the routine?
    Cheers,
    Mark

    1. Andy Morgan

      Mark, great to hear from you. It’s been a long time!
      In answer to your question – it really depends on how detrained you’ve become, which is a function of how long a time you’ve had off of training, along with the gap in your previous training level and the lifestyle you had without it.

      In general, if it’s been years, start back with the big 3 and work from there. If it’s been months then starting back with what you had before isn’t a bad idea, possibly with a slightly reduced volume (a set or two less for each main exercise). In either case, you’ll find yourself progress quickly due to the muscle memory (in this sense meaning high regain rate) effect.

  3. Dennis

    Hey Andy,
    do you think it makes a difference to make the rep range higher – 5×5 to 5×8?

    My thoughts go to Lyle McDonald who wrote about the rep range 5-8. First I bench my 1,5x bw and overhead press my 0,9 bw, so I would do the rep range higher for a slower progress. The next point is hypertrophy, instead of 25 reps I do 40 reps with 5×5-8.

  4. Michael Duxfield

    Hi Andy,

    I’m 6 weeks into the big 3 program and am abit concerned about some pains I’m experiencing.

    I started very light and kept it that way for the first 4 weeks while I got my form right. The first week I was feeling a lot of muscle soreness, into the second week the muscle soreness eased a bit and by the 3rd weak I was only feeling very light muscle soreness.. I assume because I’m reaping the beginner benefits of fast muscle recovery.

    Accompanied with the muscle soreness I was getting sharp pains in my groin, lower back and left glute. Also, experiencing on and off pain in the middle of my spine. This pain was concerning so I started doing some dynamic stretches of those areas pre workout. This seemed to help a little but not completely. I also considered the pains may be due to bad form so I played around with dropping weight and focussing on getting the form right. I’m still working on my form but I feel like it’s quite clean now. I’m still experiencing the pains in those areas and more so now that I’ve started pushing myself too failure. It seems to be the squat and deadlifts that irritate it.

    So my question is, should I be worried about these pains or is it quite normal to experience them? Is this lower back pain the kind of indicator to progress to phase 2?

    Thanks in advance,

    Michael

  5. Rob

    I’m new to the program and the big 3. I’m concerned I won’t be able to have a spotter. Do you feel one is necessary or can I get by without one?

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Rob. You won’t train to failure so I don’t feel a spotter is necessary. At some point in the future it will be nice to have one for but don’t worry about that yet.

  6. Alex

    Hi Andy,

    What are your thoughts on 5 day split programs?

    For example: Chest, Back, Shoulders, Rest, Legs, Arms, Rest

    Thanks
    Alex

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Alex. You’d likely get better results from an increased frequency, hitting the same body part twice a week. However, if you like it, enjoy it, and are progressing, go for it.

  7. Dennis

    Hey Andy, I like your basic 3 day split. I believe RPT is good for progressing in chin ups and dips, but barbell exercises should be done with 5×5. I go to a cut, but despite to that fact I want to add some important lifts. What do you say?

    Deadlift 5×5
    Chin Ups RPT
    BB Curl 3×10

    Bench Press 5×5
    BB Row 5×8
    Dips RPT

    Muscle Clean 5×5
    Squat 5×5
    Press 5×5

    After the cut I add things like skull crushers, lateral raises and shrugs in a higher rep range (5×10-12).

    Greetings from a powerlifter in Bavaria <3

    (With RPT I get to a bench press max of 125kg on 74kg bodyweight. My gymbuddies hated me.)

  8. jal akd

    If when doing phase one for 3 months but every two days after the first month and a half I had to Deload my maxes are 115 squat 95 bench 140 deadlift I don’t know what to do I also play basketball 6 times a week does that have to do with anything

  9. Lamont

    I have been working out for 2 years I been on phase 1 for 6 weeks I workout Monday Wednesday Friday on Fridays I feel like I don’t have an enough energy but my lifts are really low 100 pounds bench 120 squat and 135 deadlift was should just adjust the
    Reps mon 5 wed 8-15 and fri 3-5

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Lamont. Your issue is probably a low calorie intake and a lack of self belief. Get yourself down to a proper powerlifting gym, this will give you the inspiration you need.

  10. Jake

    Andy,

    I’m a baseball player, 21 years old and I’ve had a number of back injuries for about a year while deadlifting and squatting. I would like to continue using these splits but by Doctor, PT, and team trainer recommendations I will not be deadlifting or squatting for the rest of my career (this includes front squat, sumo dead etc.) I was thinking barbell Bulgarian Split Squats instead of squat and weighted GHR along with farmers walk for deadlift (I can do those pain free). Would that be sufficient for working the whole body? Thanks.

  11. gourav mehta

    hay andy!….i cinsider myself between intermediate and advanced
    don’t u think that the volume is very low?
    what if someone can lift this much with ease?
    why only three days a week?why not four or six?
    i never tracked volume before…i just tried to lift as heavy as i can …i still experience strength gains and i trained six days a week?
    and i am thinking of starting to track my volume in my next bulk with dup training…what are your thoughts on that?
    i hope you will answer all questions
    thanks!

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Gourav, thanks for the questions.
      Yes, as an intermediate – advanced trainee, the volume in the template above would be too low, and the number of training days probably too few to get in enough effective volume to keep yourself progressing.

      Check out the book or video lectures here.

  12. Gennadiy

    Hi Andy. I am currently at phase 3 and use A/B Split. The numbers in the main lifts still leave much to be desired (bench 70kgx5, squat – 105×5, deadlift – 120×5). The bench and squat progress slowed down (triceps and lower back are too weak i think). I was wondering if it is time to switch to full split or add 1 more day of rest beetween A/B workouts. What do you think about a scheme where a person trains week 1 on Mon, Thu, Sun, week 2 on Wed, Sat, Tue?

    1. Andy Morgan

      Sounds like you need to do more rowing and press work. Consider adding that in instead of changing up your routine. Though if it becomes necessary to split the volume across more days to get the work in then do that.

  13. Mark Bond

    Hey Andy,
    I would like to start off by saying thank you for creating this website as it has more than enough information for everyone, and its free! How can you beat that?
    Now I have a question about training. I realize the programs you suggest is more of a strength training program, which is great strength increase, but I was wondering what your thoughts are on Strength/Hypertrophy programs where the goal is to build strength and size at the same time. The program I’m currently looking at is Brandon Campbell’s PHUL program. Now I haven’t used your program or Brandon’s yet, which is why I’d like to get your professional advice before I decide which program to use. I really like the idea of training for size and strength but I also don’t want to be in the gym for an hour and a half every time (not including stretching). Just some quick facts about me, Ive been lifting weights on and off for 6 years now, and made some pretty good gains (+30lb lean), and have generally stuck with the hypertrophy, bro split, workouts. Anyways I’d really appreciate your guidance.
    Thank-you

    1. Andy Morgan

      Mark, thanks for the question and the compliment! A bit of theory first in order to answer your question:

      Whether you have a strength or hypertrophy focus, volume is the key to progression. A strength focussed trainee will do the majority of the volume of their workouts in the lower rep ranges, the hypertrophy focussed trainee will do it in the higher (~8-12 rep) range. However, any solid program for an intermediate or advanced trainee, whether their goal is hypertrophy or strength, will have elements of both.

      Given your experience, you probably need a considerable amount of volume, and if your preference is for shorter workouts, then that will mean working out more frequently. Point is, don’t just pick up a cookie cutter routine, make something tailored to yourself (or an intermediate) and learn how to progress it from there.

      If you’re after some more theory like this, check out Eric Helms’ video series, The Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid. It’s linked in the FAQ, we have the book based on it coming out shortly. (After that I’ll update the training articles on my site.)

      Andy

      1. Mark Bond

        Thanks for the reply Andy,
        I was wondering if you thought doing 7 upper body exercises for one day and 5-6 lower body exercises was a bit to much. I know you said that I will generally need more volume but just going off your programs it seems like its a lot more work done per muscle group. Also do you think power and hypertrophy would be better done on separate days or on the same day?

        1. Andy Morgan

          It depends what the exercises are. For example, an upper-body day consisting of a horizontal row/push, vertical row/push, tris/bis, and some ab work would be 7 exercises, and seems perfectly reasonable to me. The key is getting the right amount of volume (sets/reps/load) for those exercises and adjusting it, not really any specific exercises themselves, or number of.

  14. Tim

    Hi Andy!

    I’ve commented once before and already said this, but I have to reiterate: I’ve followed your guides and they have been completely dead-on thus far. Thank you so, so much for the work you put into this website.

    My question: a while back I switched from Phase 2 to Phase 3 due to lower back soreness, which ended up being the perfect adjustment. Months later, I feel like the lower back soreness is creeping up on me again, especially since I’m bulking this time and trying to progress with the amount of weight on the lifts–but it’s not unbearable yet.

    Once the pain affects progress again, should I adjust Dead Lift volume–like you recommend from Phase 1 to Phase 2–or should I just move to Phase 4? If I were to move to Phase 4, could I add some plyometrics to fill the extra time gained, or would that hurt recovery? Thanks again.

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Tim, it’s a recovery issue again. Plenty of ways to deal with it. First and simplest is to have that exercise less frequent, as per stage 4, and keep chasing load increases on the bar. Tough to go wrong with that for a time.

      Long term though it’s volume increases over time that matter to your progression. Decreasing the intensity/load on the bar (so that you’re not training as close to failure) will allow for greater recovery, and you’ll be able to maintain your frequency. You just need to increase the number of sets/reps to maintain volume and go on to increase it.

      1. Tim

        I see. So if I understand correctly, when I can comfortably Deadlift a certain weight at 5×5, I can try increasing to 5×6 instead of adding 10 lb to the bar? And doing so will give me progression without taxing my recovery as much?

        1. Andy Morgan

          Sure. The key is to do more, over time.
          If you find the jump to five sets of 6 too much, start with 4 sets of 5 and one set of 6 and progress from there.

  15. Fabian

    Hi Andy,
    I was wondering if it’s okay to make modifications to the Bench Press as well as the Deadlift. Currently when I am benching my arms are becoming sore as well as my lower back, so I was wondering if I should first reduce the sets of both Bench Press and Deadlift to 3 sets or 1 set as you indicated or just switch to a A/B Split.

    Thank you very much!

  16. trevor

    Hey Andy, just purchased your diet manual and it’s great. Quick question….what if your deadlift and bench surpass the requirements for intermediate but squats are below average?

  17. Chris

    Thanks for the reply, Andy. I asked that question because phase 3 A/B split is beginning to interfere with my other sports activity and It’s beginning to be way too much to handle both. Hopefully, phase 4 will solve that._

  18. Chris

    Hi, Andy.

    On Phase 4: Full 3 Day Split (A/B/C) – Straight-Sets, would I still have energy left for intense basketball or any other form of intense sports/training, especially on the same day?

    If no, what would you suggest to do? My goal is to get as strong as possible while still having the energy to play basketball.

  19. Evandro

    Hi Andy,

    Do you recommend any alternative for the “Seated Cable Rows”? Using bar maybe.

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Evandro, thanks for the question.
      One-arm dumbbell rows on a bench would be a closer alternative than barbell rows due to the relatively lower stress/stimulus on the lower back.

      1. Stephen

        Andy, How about Bent over 2 Arm Long Bar Rows? I love your website btw! Thank you very much!

        1. Andy Morgan

          Depends what you’re after Stephen. If you think about it, you’re still having to maintain the bent over position using your lower back, so if that’s a concern, you’ll want to use an alternative.

  20. Chris

    Great article.

    Q. Before transitioning to phase 4: 3 day A/B/C split, why not continue with phase: 3 A/B split but reduce to 3 sets for all exercises? I ask because this is what you do in Strong Lifts 5×5.

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Chris. Sure, that is another way of achieving progression. If’s not a case of “why not” but a case of it just being a different way of doing things.

  21. 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!

  22. 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.

  23. 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 🙂

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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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