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:
Phase 2: ‘Big 3’ Routine – Deadlift Modified
The lower back starts to get sore, you make a volume adjustment to the deadlifts:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Full Diet Set-up Guide: The Nutritional Hierarchy of Importance for Fat Loss and Muscle Growth
There is a very clear order of priority when setting up your diet. If you don’t understand it, at best you’ll just be wasting money, at worst your time and effort as well.
If your training has stagnated, often it’s not the training that needs to change. Have you got your diet dialled in?
This six-part series teaches you everything you need to know about how to set up your diet in detail which I hope leaves you feeling freer and more in control of your nutrition.
The most important thing for the beginner trainee is that you get on a good strength training program then stick to it. The most important thing for the intermediate and advanced trainee becomes not what program you follow (for you must have followed a good one or you wouldn’t be intermediate or advanced), but how you tweak it to follow this principle so that you keep advancing with your training.