‘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.

‘The Big 3′ Explained

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′ – How to Guide

‘The Big 3′ 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?

Here is the 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

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 Squat 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.


Pros, Cons and FAQs

What I like about The Big 3

  • 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

  • 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 Specific FAQ

Will this routine still give me abs?

Yes. 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 rigid/tight so that your spine does not bear the load and/or tilt forward and snap you in half. Further reading from Mark Rippetoe.

Do I have to stick to those exercises above?

Unless you have a good reason (injury, mobility issue, etc.) then I’d advise you stick to the exercises above.

Front Squats, The Overhead Press, Rack Pulls, Dips (weighted/assisted), Chin-ups, Row variations… basically any multi-joint/compound exercises that lend themselves well to incremental loading can be used with this routine.

Advice: 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.

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?

Best Book:Starting Strength 3rd Edition’ by Mark Rippetoe. It will teach you about form.
Best Videos: Rippetoe’s are here: Main Barbell Movements Other Lifts & Tips.
Other videos: Type any exercise you’re looking for into Youtube along with any of the following names and you can be sure it’ll be good: Mark Rippetoe / Eric Cressey / Tony Gentilcore / Bret Contreras / Jordan Syatt

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. Some people hire me to do it, but you can find everything you need to do this on this site. The level of depth and ease of use I believe is the main reason for the site’s popularity.

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, How to Track your Progress, basically everything you need.

Continue to -> Diet Guides


Principles | Programs | CardioFAQ

582 Comments on “‘The Big 3′ Routine”

  1. Nuno

    Dear Andy,

    two questions regarding the “Big 3″ and RPT.

    I have recently been changing the 5 x 5 sets of bench press for 3 sets of bench pressing RPT-style and 2 sets of incline bench press to add some color to my training.

    At the moment, a typical session of the 3 sets of RPT looks like this: (yeah, I know, it’s not a lot)

    90 kg – 7 to 8 reps
    (3 mins rest)
    80 kg – 9 to 10 reps
    (2 mins rest)
    70 kg – 9 to 10 reps

    I am now wondering about the following two things since I seem to have hit a plateau:

    1) Since I read somewhere that the first set should be the most important one and I should aim for 6-8 reps: should I increase the weight in the first set already (even though I don’t always get 8 reps in the first set and even though I don’t always get in the target range in the last set) or should I wait? Is there a general rule when to increase weight?

    2) Should I increase the recovery period between sets 2 and 3 to get in the 10 -12 reps range in the 3rd set, should I decrease weight in that set or shouldn’t I care about that last set too much?

    Thanks a lot,

    Nuno

  2. joejoemrjoe

    Hi Andy

    I was doing the big 3 a couple of years ago, doing 5 set of 5 rep for each lift. I have had a break from all exercise for the last 2 years and have just finally got back into it.

    I just started with a personal trainer to help me with form, as last time when I was working on my own every month or two I would seem to get a minor injury. My PT seems to know his stuff and my form is improving, but we only do half hour sessions, and do 2 set of 8 reps for each exercise rather than 5×5. The sessions are way more intense than when I was training on my own. He pushes me to the point where he has to help me complete the last couple or reps.

    Do you think training this way will be as effective as the 5×5? I am concerned that the reduced number of reps means that I am not doing as much work, but the perhaps the increased intensity balances this out?

    I am cutting and have worked out my diet following your diet plan.

    Thanks for any advice!

    Joe

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Joe.
      This mainly comes down to whether you trust that your trainer knows what they are doing. It’s not really about whether 2×8 or 5×5 is better at this stage, people could argue that all day, it’s about how it’s implemented, and how appropriate it is for the person.

  3. Patrik

    Hi Andy.

    Quick question with regards to the progress overload when doing the big 3.

    To continue with the overloading all the time is 50% of 5RM a good starting weight so you can keep increase the weight during the 12 week cut?

    I’ve tried to get a hang of a good starting point when reading the section but feel if I start to high I will stall quite quick.

    // Patrik

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Patrik. In that case, you wouldn’t achieve progressive overload, it would just be a progressive increase over time, under the load that you can currently handle. The point of the training is to force your body to adapt, so you need to lift as much as you can to get that to happen.

      1. Patrik

        Hi Andy.

        Ok, perfect.

        So for example if during the first two “test” rounds with regards to Rippetoes suggestion I and up with a weight that is 100kg x 5rep for the Squat.

        That would mean that I on the third workout start with 100kg x 5rep in the squat and from that session try to add approx 5kg every session after if i hit the target.

        Is it normal during the cut that the increase of weight every session will stall as I’m on calorie defict?

        // Patrik

        1. Andy Morgan

          That’s right, but be flexible with the amount – it’s not 5kg or nothing, you can do less of course. As a beginner you’ll will experience strength gains for a time regardless of being in a calorie deficit.

          1. Patrik

            Then everything is under control. I think I have all the tools needed for the new start in weightlifting and nutrition thinking.

            Thank you so much for all the feedback and also for all the time and effort you have done to put up all the information on the site to share with us all.

            Have a really nice weekend.

  4. Stijn

    Hi Andy,

    Why do you choose for the Stronglifts 5×5 template instead of the 3×5 Starting Strength when doing the Big 3? You use SS and Rippetoe in this article but the program consists of 5 sets of 5 reps without the Power Clean and Press.

    Greetz,

    Stijn

    1. Andy Morgan

      Stijn, thanks for the question.
      Beginners need to practice their form, this usually especially true with the deadlift. As I’m not recommending power cleans, these is space to include more deadlifting work without affecting the recovery balance.

      I don’t recommend power cleans because it poses an unnecessary injury risk without proper coaching, which 99.99% of people will not have access to.

      The brain and body can only learn a limited number of movement patterns at any given time. I read somewhere on JTS.com that four is the realistic maximum (couldn’t find where I bookmarked this). Adding more in compromises the speed and efficiency of the learning process. So I purposefully suggest keeping the exercise selection to a minimum.

      Could you add the press in and alternate it every other day with the bench? Sure. If I were physically in a gym coaching someone I can see myself doing that in some cases – though I don’t think it’ll make a big difference to the outcome, controlled variety can be mentally beneficial.

      However, I know I have to be careful when writing recommendations online. People always want to tinker with things regardless of what you say. You give an inch, people take a mile (I talked about this phenomenon in the latest article where people get themselves in the skinny trap). Unless you’re physically there to stop people from doing this (or getting them to e-mail you confirming what they have been doing), you suggest one small customization option in an article and you find that it’s turned into 4 additional exercises, super-sets and a split, that cost them months of progress when they simply needed to stick to the program.

      It’s amusing. A little sad. But as I said in the first part of the new Physique Goal Setting Guide, often people just need to learn the hard way.

      1. Stijn

        Andy,

        Thanks for the reply. Very clear answer.
        But what about the set-rep range, why do you prefer the 5×5 (SL) over 3×5 (SS)? Isn’t 5×5 to taxing while in a deficit and does someone reach his plateau sooner in a 5×5 program?

          1. Stijn

            I read your site trough and through…it’s a world of awesome information. But your answer makes sense :-) My bad!

  5. Bruno

    Andy,

    I have been doing some things wrong with my workout routine..i have always done the 3 big movements, but nowadays i find myself doing from 6-7 types of exercices,4-5 sets and 3 day split wich is chest and tris, Back and shoulder, legs.
    I was doing 6 days a week, performing 3 heavy days(RPT on the main lifts) and 3 hypertrophy days( more reps and less weight).
    Even though the others exercices i do are compounds movements( stiff deadlift, front squats, pull ups, dips, rows, O.H.P.) i think i am doing to much, for sure..
    I was doing that during a cut and now i will reverse 2 weeks and then maintain 2 weeks, i want to get in a 4 days per week routine with low volumes workouts.
    The thing is i don´t know how to do that, because i have been doing crazy amount of volume even in a 700 calorie deficit, and now is so difficult(my mindset i think) figuring out what would be the best approach to achieve that and make gains.

    Even though i never tried 1RM, i can bench 35kg 5×6, squat 55kg 5×7 and sumo deadlift 55kg 5×7(without counting the barbell)
    the question is..i spent the hole day reading your posts and came out with this..doing the ”big 3 routine”, with 2 extra days, to do triceps and calves, and from that reducing to 4 days..i dont know perhaps throwing 2 more exercices in these 3 days.

    What do you think about that?

    It would be a challenge for me because now im used to high volume, and i read in your post ”What To Do When You’re Done With Your Beginner Strength Training Program” some topics about being use to high volume and after that do less but with more weight..

    Well this is my experience so far, i hope you can give me some advice on that, but im willing to do these new routine and take easy with weights during this month with reverse dieting and then maintanance, to finally slow bulk.

    1. Andy Morgan

      Bruno, here’s the deal: Objectively speaking you’re weak. You need to get stronger. The variety and unnecessary additions may well be the reason for you staying weak. For now, the less variety the better. The principles discussed in Greg’s post are completely irrelevant to you at this current time. You will get there though, if you don’t deviate from the advice in the plans here.

      Have a read of my latest post, What To Expect | Physique Goal Setting (pt2). In terms of your lifting career it could very well be transformative, cause at the moment it looks to me like you’re set to take the long and hard road to nowhere like I did for so many years.

  6. Sean

    Hi Andy. I am doing the Big Three. When I train I do the 5 reps and rack the weight in every exercise. In some videos I see people putting down the bar in the floor and then lifting it back up and repeating this 5 times. Are we supposed to drop it and lift it again or should the bar not be racked between reps?

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