‘The Big 3’ Routine

how_to_deadlift_moreYes, the deadlift works the biceps.

The core of building a strong body is the Squat, Deadlift, Bench and their variants. Anyone that tells you otherwise is simply ill-informed. As a look at weight category competition powerlifters will show you, you don’t need anything other than these three to get big, strong and ripped.

I neglected the Squat and Deadlift for years, not realizing their fantastic all over body training effects and I wish someone had told me years ago so that I didn’t waste so much time initially.

What is it?

A deceptively simple yet brilliantly effective training program for putting slabs of muscle on a beginner trainee. It does this by focusing all the trainee’s energy and recovery efforts into the ‘big money’ exercises alone – the Squat, Deadlift and Bench.

Who is it for?

Anyone new to training, or anyone who has been spinning their wheels on ineffective workouts up until now. More advanced lifters will do these ‘big 3’ in a split-routine of some sort, but for those relatively new, you’ll make faster progress training all three in the same workout, 3 days a week.

An experienced lifter that is coming back after some time off may want to start out with this to get back in the groove of things.

When can it be used?

This can be used in a cut or bulk.


‘The Big 3’ Routine How-To Guide

‘The Big 3’ Routine In A Nutshell: 

A fixed set-rep pattern is used. This means all working sets (not the warm-up sets) are done at the same weight. Every set is the same number of reps. You’ll finish all your sets for the one exercise before moving onto the next.

What does it look like?

Standard 5×5 Big 3 routine

Monday

  • Warm-up: Foam rolling, stretch out any tight places.

1. Squat

  • Warm-up sets
  • 5 sets of 5 reps (90-120seconds rest between sets)
  • 3mins rest (or however long it takes you to warm-up and be ready for the next exercise)

2. Bench

  • Warm-up sets
  • 5 sets of 5 reps (90-120seconds rest between sets)
  • 3mins rest (or however long it takes you to warm-up and be ready for the next exercise)

3. Deadlift

  • Warm-up sets
  • 5 sets of 5 reps (90-120seconds rest between sets)
  • 3mins rest (or however long it takes you to warm-up and be ready for the next exercise)
  • Cool-down: Foam rolling, stretch out any tight places.

Wednesday

As above


Friday

As above

How To Progress With ‘The Big 3’ Routine

How much should I lift?

For the first workout, choose the weight you believe you will be able to lift for all five sets. – Go conservative, you can always increase the weight next time.

Beginners will need to concentrate on getting their form right for the first month or so of working out. – You’re programming your brain and nervous system to remember a pattern, so don’t worry about lifting a lot of weight like you feel you should, and don’t worry about looking cool. Begin light. Slowly move up the weight as form improves. For the first few workouts I think it is a good idea to follow the advice of Rippetoe:

“Do sets of 5 reps, gradually increasing the weight until it is a struggle to complete the 5 reps. Rack the bar, the workout for that exercise is done. Move onto the next exercise.”

For the next workout do the same but challenge yourself to lift a slightly heavier weight for that single heavy set. From the third workout you can move onto the standard pattern above. Try starting with the same weight as you could lift the previous workout but this time try 5 sets as per the example above.

When should I increase the weight?

When you get all sets for target weight and reps increase the weight for the next session.

When should I decrease the weight?

When you miss 10% or more of your target reps in total, for two* consecutive sessions. (*Bad sessions happen.) With 5×5 this means if you get less than 22 reps total then decrease at the next session. The set you’re most likely to miss any reps on will be the last set due to cumulative fatigue.

Example Big 3 Progression

Based on the rules above (weight x reps):

  • Session 1: 130x5x5x5x5x5 clear – increase next.
  • Session 2: 140x5x5x5x5x5 clear – increase next.
  • Session 3: 150x5x5x5x5x3 missed 2 – same weight next.
  • Session 4: 150x5x5x5x5x5 clear – increase next.
  • ….
  • Session 22: 250x5x5x5x5x5 clear – increase next.
  • Session 23: 255x5x5x5x4x3 missed 3 – try same weight next.
  • Session 24: 255x5x5x5x5x5 clear – increase next.
  • Session 25: 260x5x5x5x4x3 missed 3 – try same weight next.
  • Session 26: 260x5x5x5x5x2 missed 3 reduce weight next.
  • Session 27: 255x5x5x5x5x5 clear – increase next.
  • Session 28: 258x5x5x5x5x5 clear – increase next.
  • Session 29: 260x5x5x5x5x5 clear – increase next.

Golden rule: Lift only as heavy as you can for your target number of reps without any breakdown in form.

How much should I increase the weight by each session?

Increases need to be slow and incremental to allow your body to adapt to the load. (This is not just about muscle growth, but the connecting tissues, nervous system, & bone density changes).

There is no fixed rule for weight increases, however generally you’ll be able to make bigger increases in your Deadlift and Squat each session compared to the Bench because of the greater overall use of the body’s musculature in the former two.

A 10lb increase in the squat and deadlift, 5lb increase for the bench is common initially for each session. The increases you’ll be able to make to the lifts will gradually decrease over time. This is reflected in the progression example above.

How long can I continue to progress with this routine?

This is going to depend on several factors including genetics, starting muscle mass and recovery capacity. Recovery capacity itself will depend on:

  • Energy balance (surplus/ deficit/ maintenance energy needs)
  • Sleep
  • Stress
  • Quality of your diet.

At some point you’ll need to change things up to keep progressing. Recovery is an essential element of that and cutting back on the volume (number of sets or reps) or frequency (number of times per week) of an exercise can be just the trick.

Volume
This is the first thing to look at – reducing the number of sets from 5 to 3 for example. Many people will find that lower back soreness will become an issue first, so reducing the deadlift from 5 to 3 sets is a common progression.

Frequency
If the above reduction in volume allows you to keep increasing the weight each session then great. If not then you may need to reduce exercise frequency and look at some form of split routine – which is covered in the article, How to progress from ‘The Big 3’ to Split Routines

Don’t miss the obvious though:
Progressions can’t continue in a deficit forever, regardless of how clever the programming is. So if you’re cutting, don’t overlook the simplest answer – you may have to eat more to gain more strength, and that’ll mean you’ll need to make a choice between fat loss or muscle/strength gain. Beginners get spoiled initially as they can achieve simultaneous muscle gain and fat loss and forget this.


The Pros and Cons of The Big 3 Routine

What I like about The Big 3 Routine:

  • Effective, simple, difficult to mess it up.
  • Volume gives the lifter plenty of form practice.
  • Cuts through the crap & focuses on the exercises that will give the trainee the most bang for your buck.

Drawbacks of The Big 3 Routine:

  • Equipment availability – some gyms don’t have a squat rack (a smith machine doesn’t count). Some gyms don’t allow deadlifts (seems to be more of a problem in Asia). – Change gyms or build a home gym.
  • Knowledge – Can be tough to find a trainer who can show you proper form. – Use the videos and books (see below) as your guide. Change gyms if possible.

Big 3 Routine-Specific FAQ

Will this routine still give me abs?

Greater muscular development in the whole body and a low body fat is what is necessary to have a visible (and decent looking) six-pack.

In these exercises the abs are worked in the isometric contraction in every lift. Taking the squat as an example (as it’s the easiest to visualise) the abs, combined with the obliques and lower back, perform the function of keeping your torso upright and rigid so that your spine does not bear the load and/or tilt forward and snap you in half. While the barbell lifts are not the most effective abdominal exercises, putting focus on that now would be to put the cart before the horse.

Do I have to stick to those exercises above?

No. Front Squats, The Overhead Press, Rack Pulls, Chin-ups, Row variations… basically any multi-joint/compound exercises that lend themselves well to incremental loading can be used with this routine.

However, unless you are comfortable doing your own programming, or have a good reason (injury, mobility issue, etc.), then consider sticking to the exercises above.

If it’s tough to perform some of the exercises initially, just try working into them slowly, foam rolling, stretching and practicing. It’s normal for it to be tough or a little weird initially. Assume you don’t have a mobility issue or imbalance first and practice, rather than suffering special snowflake syndrome that modern society loves. Note also the correct height to start the deadlift from.

What is a good warm-up?

You’ll want to do the minimum that you can to get warm and ready for the top set, without tiring yourself for your main work sets. I’ve covered this in detail in the FAQ, WARM-UP: What should I do?

Can I add in…?

No. Keep with the three chosen exercises for now.

Why no chin-ups?

Adding this fourth compound exercise to those big three on a single day would be too much for you to recover from and threatens progress.

Yes, your biceps are worked with those big three. It’s the isometric work through holding the bar with the deadlift.

Got any lifting videos/resources?

Yes, recommendations are covered made in my article, The Core Principles of Effective Training. If you haven’t read that yet I’d highly recommend that you do.


Final Words of Advice

  • Work yourself gradually into it. Think of training like a suntan, you don’t take all the sun at once, and you must not try to grind yourself into the ground on your first session either.
  • Use a stopwatch to keep your rest times constant and make a log to track progress.
  • If your gym’s atmosphere is lame, put on some music to get yourself in the mood.
  • Headphones are also a good tool to keep people who love to chat at a distance.
  • Keep your Facebook addiction out of the gym.
  • Get 8 hours sleep.
  • If you don’t have a trainer or friend who can check your form, using your phone to video yourself so that you check. – Compare with those videos linked to above and make adjustments.
  • Have fun!

Got it, now how do I put together a nutrition plan to go with this?

RippedBody Results CollageThat’s what I specialise in and do professionally, and you’ll find everything you need to do this on this site.

I’ve put all the diet guides in one place. This includes, How To Calculate Your Calories, How to Calculate Your Macros, Optimal Meal Timing, Calorie & Carb Cycling, Supplements (which I’m not a fan of), and How To Track Your Progress. – Basically, everything you need:

 The Complete Guide To Setting Up Your Diet 


*******

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

Next: How to Progress from ‘The Big 3′ to a Split Routine →

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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.

703 Comments on “‘The Big 3’ Routine”

  1. Mike

    Hi Andy. I was wondering if you could help me with a change I need to make to my workout routine. Currently I’m doing the ‘Big 3″ routine (have been doing it for around 6 months) three days a week. I’m doing three warm up sets and then 3×5 of squats (250 lbs) , bench (175 lbs) and deadlift (225 lbs). I feel like in my last work out my form may be getting a little sloppy. However, I’m getting ready to start a Krav Maga class once a week (first time I’ve ever tried a martial art). Ideally I’d also like to start jogging once a week (not to lose weight but rather for better cardio health). My question is how to a modify my weight lifting to incorporate these two activities? Maybe just lift two days a week instead of three? A couple of other facts about me……1. I’m a 40 year old male. 2. I’m probably around 25% body fat so need to lose some weight. Ideally I’d like to at least maintain the muscle I’ve gained over the past six months. 3. I struggle with diet so am trying again to track calorie. 4. I have a family (two kids), a full time job, and am working on starting my own business so time is extremely valuable. Thanks in advance!

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Mike, I don’t really see the need to change up your training routine to accommodate this. Once a week jogging and a Krav Maga class isn’t a big deal and you’ll soon get used to it.

  2. Joe

    First of all, thank you so much for all the amazing, straight forward information available on this site. It is much appreciated!

    You mentioned that other exercises should not be added, does this include cardio? I enjoy a morning jog for about 20-30 minutes. Right now I do this 5 days a week, which might need to be changed? I would then do the lift later in the day. My primary goal is fat loss.

    Thank you!

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Joe, thanks for the question.
      Do you run for fun or are you doing this for fat loss?
      Have you been doing this for a while or is it a recent thing?

      1. Joe

        It is a pretty recent thing. I started doing it about 2 months ago for fat loss purposes. However, after a bit, I started to really enjoy it. So yes I do it for fun, but fat loss is in the back of my mind. I consider the fat loss an added benefit at this point.

        1. Andy Morgan

          Fair enough then. The running is a good and healthy habit and so don’t ditch it given that you enjoy it. However, you know to develop your entire body you’re going to need some strength training. Now, that’s a considerable additional stress you’ll be adding on your body. So, if you find yourself struggling to recover from the workouts, cut the running down a little (either distance or frequency) so that you can keep progressing with your workouts.

          Two related articles that you’ll find useful, comments above notwithstanding:
          On Cardio for the Physique-Focused Trainee
          Stress: In The Gym, Out of The Gym, and How it Affects Your Program and Progress

  3. Chris

    Hi Andy, I dont know what the average time frame is to reach the A/B split progression. I advocate a rowing/external rotation exercise right from the start anyway. Why build up a dysbalance and risk health and future progression only because “Big 3” sounds much cooler than “Big 4?” :)
    Additionally, since Rippetoe we know about the importance of overhead pressing in points of shoulder health and sports performance whereas the bench is a lesser tool in the arsenal for athletes. I get that your audience is more interested in BB/optical goals, but that would be another reason 3 exercises just dont cut it in my opinion. There also is just no need for “exercise avoidance”: If you alternate bench and press, there is no problem for too much overlap anyway and youll end up with 4 exercises instead of 3 every session: Cable or one arm-dumbbell rows at the end would perfectly match with the heavy barbell work before.

  4. Chris

    Hi! Id like to stress the importance of an external rotation/rowing exercise, be it rows, reverse butterflys or face pulls. I acknowledge your intention of “keeping it simple, most bang for the buck”, but 3 exercises in total just doesnt cut it. Maybe it doesnt matter for a beginner to leave out such an important movement regarding maximum effectiveness of muscle hypertrophy, but it does for health.

Got a question? Fire away...