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‘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 It Looks 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, reduce the intensity by 10% while using the same number of reps and sets. The 10% lighter load should feel easy and will allow recovery. Then, the next session you return to the load you used in the session prior to the deload and attempt to pick up the progression once again.

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.

Bear in mind that sometimes bad sessions just happen, hence the reason I suggest waiting for two bad sessions consecutively before taking the deload.

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 10% next.
  • Session 27: 235x5x5x5x5x5 clear – increase next.
  • Session 28: 260x5x5x5x5x5 clear – increase next.
  • Session 29: 265x5x5x5x5x5 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!

*******

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

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

789 Comments on “‘The Big 3’ Routine”

  1. Grant

    Hi Andy,

    Thanks for all this great info. Im looking to start Leangain next week.

    I will be doing three day weight training as suggested; Monday, Wednesday and Friday – All fasted 6am start.
    However I do Jiu Jitsu on Monday, Tuesday, Friday at 6pm and Saturday 10am.

    Should I alter my diet at all? as tuesday and saturday are my lowcarb rest days.

    Many Thanks

  2. Shayne

    Hi Andy,

    Thanks for the advice!will see into increasing my volume after the deloading phase.thanks,for the this advice and all your articles! Intending to follow your split routine when I am done with national service!

  3. Shayne

    Hi Andy

    My name is shayne, and I’m currently only lifting once a week due to National Service (in Singapore). My weekly routine consists of 3 sets of squats,bench,deadlift and weighted pull ups. If my weights start to stall,is it essential to deload?I am asking this because I cannot possibly be over training as i only lift once a week.
    Not sure if this info would be useful in your advice but,I have been lifting once a week for the past 3-4 months,with my deadlift 1rm increasing from 80kg to 122.5 kg.

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Shayne. Given that you’re just lifting the once a week, when any lift starts to stall it will probably be time to increase volume, rather than the cause being a build up of systemic fatigue that needs to dissipate (which is the purpose of the deload). Then again, that depends on the demands of your other training schedule. A deload won’t harm you.

  4. Karthik

    The starting strength app is great to track your workouts. It takes out the guesswork out of warmups and proves to be a great tracking tool too.

  5. Nate B

    Andy, excellent site. I can’t tell you what a relief it was to me to find this treasure trove of info in a world of commercials and endorsements. I’m three weeks in following your diet and big 3 workout. Like everything else in life, results require faithfulness, and I plan on sticking with it. Thanks for the motivational posts and the informative answers to comments – really really helpful.

    My question: Do you have an app you recommend for tracking workouts? I know of tons of apps for recording cardio workouts, but I haven’t found a good one for weight training. I started using the 5×5 stronglifts app but I too see the drawback of the incremental loading system. Not having an app won’t stop me – pen and paper still works – but hoping to find a convenient way to track progress.

    Thanks again!

    1. Andy Morgan

      Nate, thank you for the compliments, very glad to hear you’ve found my site so useful.
      Do you have an app you recommend for tracking workouts?
      I get clients to log their workouts in a notebook (while in the gym), and then transfer that to a spreadsheet (to share with me) later.

  6. MichaelP

    Hi Andy, thank you for your site. Want to make sure I understand: if my initial goal is fat loss (waist pant size = 36, want 32-33), is it counterproductive to do cardio on non-lifting days (i.e. hour of elliptical or treadmill, some HIIT)? Muscle growth and physique is longer term goal.

    Also, once ready to add in chin-ups, are neutral grip chin-ups ok? (palms facing each other). I find any other kind of chin-up (palms facing forward or backwards) causes wrist pain. Neutral does not. There is a bar in my gym on the weighted-assist with a neutral grip option. Effective or a waste of time? (I know you recommend using straps but initially I’d feel more comfortable with assist machine).

    Thanks again Andy!

  7. Alexander Ganchev

    Hi Andy!I tried to post another comment a few days ago but it looks like it didnt work…First of all i want to thank you for all the information on your website,its really helpful…i started doing this program a month ago and it gave me great results,but at some point i got tired and i couldnt finish all the sets and reps and still increase weight every workout,i found it very difficult…so my question is :is it ok if i do 5×2,5×3,5×4,5×5 instead of trying to do 5×5 every time? Thank you!

      1. Alexander Ganchev

        Hello again Andy! Thank you for your reply.Let me see if i get this right-by “stick with the advice above” you mean i should keep doing it my way (5×2,5×3,5×4 5×5 etc.) ,am i right?and one more question-how long should i continue doing this program?

        1. Andy Morgan

          No, I mean to do it the way I have suggested in the article. Sorry for the lack of clarity.
          how long should i continue doing this program?
          For as long as it proves to be effective. See have a good read through of the other training articles covering some training theory.

  8. Karthik

    Hello Andy,

    Why is there a preference for a 3×5 or a 5×5 pattern than a single set to failure? I am not talking about superslow methods, but one set to failure done in proper form.

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Karthik.
      Training volume looks to be the key driver of adaptations. You’ll get more overall volume performed with multiple sets than one, and thus more of a growth/strength effect.

  9. Paul

    I am a novice lifter and started the big 3 routine last fall. I couldn’t be happier with the results and am really enjoying the process of the routine so far. I now seem to be stuck on the bench and was wondering if I need to transition off to something else as you describe in your articles above or modify the routine. I am doing dumbbell presses because I don’t have a spotter and got five sets of five a few times with 90 lb Dumbbells. I tried moving up to 95s and couldn’t do much of anything (I got 2sets of 4 and one set of 3). i can’t handle the 10 lb increase (necessitated by 5 lb dumbbell increments) so was wondering if there is anything I can do. I was thinking of trying one set with 95s and then drop down to 90s and see if I can get 4 sets there and trying to build that way. Any thoughts or advice anyone has would be greatly appreciated. Thanks again for these articles. They are amazing.

    Paul

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Paul, thanks for the question.
      One simple thing to do is to build up more overall reps performed until you can make the jump to the next weight increment. So, add another set, or partial set ay your current weight.
      You’ll enjoy the video lecture series too here I’m sure. Just click the training videos link from the menu.

  10. Jaja

    Hi Andy,

    I’m Jaja, thanks for share this great article. I have my own routine, it goes like this:
    A. Bench press,Overhead press, Deadlift
    B. Overhead press,Dumbbell row,Deadlift

    I train 3 times a week, ABA,BAB,ABA, and so on. I only able do 3 sets with reps 3-6. I choose 3 rep for heaviest weight i can lift, and when i can touch 6 rep (maybe after 4-5 workout), i increase the weight (start with 3 rep). I read progressive overload theory, and try to stick with it since then. I keep my training log, and yes i always keep progressing, even for 1 rep.

    My questions are:
    1. Wht is your thought abt my reps,set,and exercises inside? since i really like your site and your comment will be really appreciated.
    2. As long as i get stronger (reps or weight increase) i’ll pack some muscle, although my calorie intake still same/slight increase. Is this true?? Please advise:)

    Many thanks for you Andy,

    Jaja

  11. Georg

    Hi! I have been using the Stronglifts routine for around 9 months now but I plateau with bench presses. I’m considering switching to the Big 3 and wonder if the additional bench press day will help me to overcome that plateau. Also I still want to continue doing barbell curls and dips. Can I squeeze those into the off days or should I do them on one of the actual workout days? Thanks!

    1. Andy Morgan

      Georg, thanks for the question.
      More of something, when you’re recovering fine, is usually the way to go. How you fit that into the week is largely irrelevant as long as you are, though I’d squeeze them into a workout as long as you’re not gassed for ease.

  12. Hoc

    Hi Andy,

    Hope you’re well.

    I was doing this however I got to a stage where I would get too tired after completion of the 1st exercise (deadlift) that I wouldn’t be able to do the next 2 (squat, bench).

    What do you suggest?

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Hoc, thanks for the question. The two most likely explanations:
      1. You’re a beginner that needs to toughen up or go lighter till they are used to the weights.
      2. You’re an intermediate that has chosen the wrong routine and needs to start splitting your training.

  13. Juan Ramirez

    Hello A. Morgan my name is Juan just turned 53 have been hitting the weights on and off I was thinking on starting the big 3 my question is can I change bench for dips appreciate your answer GOD bless you sir

    1. Andy Morgan

      You could, but they are harder to incrementally load and pose an injury risk so I wouldn’t. Push-up progressions would be a safer/better option if the bench is truly out for some reason.

  14. Thomas

    hello andy. there is a possibility that you can answer my question briefly? I can hardly suffice to believe that three workouts per week. but other people as cinema or Body Berkhan follow the same approach. Greetings from Berlin. Thomas

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Thomas, thanks for the question. Training volume is what drives progression, and it will need to increase over the course of a training career. For most people, past a certain point it will no longer be possible to fit enough volume into three training days and keep progressing, the workouts will become too long and quality will suffer and/or recovery will be an issue. Splitting things up into more training days becomes necessary.

  15. Jeremy

    I really wished I have gym near me that have a squat rack but I don’t (I live in a small city in SEA). Can I use Zercher Squat (start with a deadlift and placing bar on thigh) to fill in Squat section?

  16. nescio

    Hey Andy,

    I used to do German High Volume Training, got great results in just two months. But I started having too much pain in my knees from squatting. Is there anything you can recommend to do instead? I had to guit lifting cos it was too painful. Now planning on going back.

    1. Andy Morgan

      Nescio, if two months of lifting like that fucked your knees up, then it didn’t give you good results, did it? Well, assuming you enjoy your knees and like using them.

      Give your knees a rest, come back with a more moderate approach when they are better. Perhaps use something like the recommendations above as a base, or perhaps with a little more volume as is necessary to keep you progressing without pain. Let this be a lesson that following a program blindly and ignoring the feedback your body gives you is a very bad idea indeed. The aim of the game is always to learn how to tailor a program to yourself and your needs. Here’s my book on that.

  17. Peter

    Hi Andy. I’m 37 and never really done “proper” lifting, like these exercises. I’ve been quite active on and off – competitive swimming in my youth, some light weights and pilates here and there since, and recently getting into running. Is it too late and/or dangerous to start this kind of a routine at my age assuming reasonably good body health? And then how about if I have had a lower back issue 3-4yrs ago – can I attempt but just ease in uber-slowly starting with very light weights? I’m very patient so happy to start very light and take 4 times as long to get to a reasonable strength.

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Peter. If you’ve had a lower back issue, you’d be best to seek the advice of a professional cause I have no way of answering that for you.

  18. Shayne

    Hi Andy,
    Thanks for answering my questions! Appreciate the help in trying to restart my gym routine after 1.5 years!!

  19. Shayne

    Hi Andy,
    Your reply was quite hilarious!so,bodyweight exercises would be a better idea on weekdays then to do the program on a Smith bar?

    Thanks!

    1. Andy Morgan

      No, the Smith bar can stay there gathering dust. I think you’re missing the middle ground here: Your choice isn’t “Big 3 with the Smith machine” vs “Bodyweight”, you have all the possibilities of the other equipment there, you just can’t squat (or possibly deadlift).

      The only reason I recommended bodyweight work is because you said you didn’t have a gym available in the week in the first comment.

  20. Shayne

    Hi Andy,
    Thanks for the really prompt reply! Yes I have time for bodyweight exercises ( squats, lunges,pull ups,pushups,chinups), but it is not that I have no time for weekday gym,it it just that the gym in camp(I am serving national service in Singapore) has no free bar and only has a Smith bar which professionals normally do not recommend and that I feel quite constricted in my movements using the Smith bar.
    May I ask how you feel about using the Smith bar?

  21. Shayne

    Hi Mr Morgan,
    I would just like to ask, would doing this program only once a week be useful at all? I am only able to go to the gym on the weekends hence only once a week(can’t do the same program twice in 2 days).
    FYI, I used to follow this gym routine 3 times a week about 1.5 years ago(but with different sets and reps),but I stopped going to the gym and switched to calisthenics due to time constraints

    Thanks!!

    1. Andy Morgan

      Shayne, call me Andy. Thanks for the question.
      It will be of limited use because you’ll likely fail to deliver enough training stimulus to drive adaptations. I’d add in some bodyweight work during the week if you can’t get to a gym.

  22. Stuart

    Hi Andy

    Just wanted to thank you for a good honest no bullshit website!

    I trained for 23 years solid up until 2008 on where I had a 7 year break from training, for various reasons. Been back training now for 2 months, gains have been pretty quick just using basic compound exercises and a clean diet. I’m pretty shocked how much crap advice there is out there, I’m sure some of these so called trainers and experts are from another planet? Quite worrying some of the advice being given out there! I’m no PT or training guru, but sometimes there really is no substitute for experience. I’ve been lucky enough to have been coached in powerlifting, Olympic lifting and bodybuilding from a young age [15] and ran a gym for over 10 years. I’m 45 now, and about to become stronger, and the best shape I’ve ever been in!

    Keep up the good work brother, and keep dispelling bullshit!

    1. Andy Morgan

      Stuart, thank you, most appreciated. You’ll find that you will gain back your lost muscle mass pretty quickly so enjoy the hell out of the next 6 months! 🙂

  23. John

    Doing the Big Three (squat, bench press, deadlift), you were correct that the deadlift was my weakest link and my lower back started feeling more sore than I was comfortable with.

    I also went back and re-read Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength section on the form for the deadlift and realized that I was not doing it correctly. I was bending my knees too much, dropping my butt down and using more squat muscle to pull the bar instead of lower back and hamstring. I corrected the form, and I could do the weight, but the strain on the lower back was more. I only did 3 sets.

    So with that background – my question is around progression when dropping down the number of sets. It seems like I should not be increasing weight until I get the volume of set/reps back up. If I am only doing 1-3 sets comfortably, it seems like I should keep the weight the same and work on increasing the volume before moving up in weight?

    In this specific case, I think I am going to drop the weight back down, use the modified proper form and see if I can build back up.

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi John. Yes. But of you’re not able to get back to 5×5 within a few sessions, it’s arguably too heavy, so or drop the weight even further to allow yourself to do that.

      “In this specific case, I think I am going to drop the weight back down, use the modified proper form and see if I can build back up.”
      Yup, you’ll be fine, don’t worry.

  24. joejoemrjoe

    Hey Andy,

    I’ve spent a lot of time in the past, first on my own then with a PT trying to perfect my form for squat and deadlift. When I am with my PT he thinks my form is good. I was only doing one or 2 sessions a week most of the year, but for the past 3 months I have been doing the full 3 days a week routine.

    3 times in that last 3 months, when I have been training on my own, I have injured my upper back on the left. Nothing major, but enough that I have to take 7-10 days off to heal. It seems to be due to deadlifts, but whenever I get my PT to check he says my form is good. I am confident he knows his stuff, having used several PTs in the past who were far less knowledgeable than him.

    My guess is that since I do deadlifts last, I am fatigued and so my form deteriorates. Either way I think I need to stop deadlift and replace it with something else that won’t lead to me injuring myself. Can you suggest a replacement?

    Thanks for any help.

    Joe

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Joe. Sounds like you’re simply failing to recover sufficiently between sessions of the deadlift. Consider rotating the exercise so that you do it every other session, with chins or a rowing movement as a replacement for the days you don’t do it. More details on this in the article linked at the bottom on progressing from the big 3 routine.

  25. Henri

    Hey there Andy, thank you for all of this, I truly appreciate it! I am a bit of a gym rat myself, have been for about 15 years. I guess one of the main questions I have is in regards to reps. Every I go or just about every thing I read tells me that 8-10 reps is the best range to stimulate hypertrophy and that a 5X5 is not enough stimulus. I am guessing the rationale here is the large fasting window which deviates from this conventional wisdom, correct?

    1. Andy Morgan

      Henri, thanks for the comment and sorry for being late coming back to you. I wanted to dig out the relevant part from the upcoming training book with Eric Helms:

      Intensity Recommendations
      Intensity is specific to your goal. Lift heavy for strength, and use loads that let you efficiently accumulate volume for size. Remember progressive overload.

      For Hypertrophy:
      If hypertrophy is the goal, the weight just needs to be heavy enough. It is often said that the 8-12 rep range is the ideal rep range for hypertrophy but in fact there’s nothing magical about this range. It’s just a convenient range to accumulate volume.

      Lower intensity work (12-15 rep range) will also induce hypertrophy although it is less efficient on a set by set basis. However, it is still beneficial to use lighter loads to theoretically give fibers with a high endurance capacity more stimulation, and there is certainly an argument to be made that training with lighter loads at points is good for connective tissue health, offering a break while still providing a training stimulus.

      It’s important to not forget the usefulness of high intensity (1-6 rep range) strength work even if the main goal is hypertrophy. Getting stronger is important for progressive overload. When you’re stronger, you can use heavier weights which allows you to do more volume more easily, so it is a good idea to include some heavy work as well.

      Put this all together and here are practical recommendations for intensity for hypertrophy:
      Perform 2/3-3/4 of your volume in the 6-12 RM range, and the other 1/4-1/3 in the lower rep higher intensity (1-6 RM) and higher rep lower intensity ranges (12-15RM)

      *****

      Here’s the site with info on the book’s if you’re interested in more: http://muscleandstrengthpyramids.com

  26. Brian

    So do you just forget shoulder press all together? or is there a way to incorporate it into the routine no longer making it the big 3, rather the “big 4” and let’s say you can incorporate it into the routine, is it too much of a workload for you to maximize effective lifts without getting to gassed out by the end of your workout?

      1. brian

        1 last question, so would you recomend implenting bench, squat, deadlift, and shoulder press all on the same day mondays, wendsdays, and fridays? i really wanna target all those compound exerscies.i feel although bench and shoulder press are both pressing movements, they tax totally different muscle groups and i wouldnt want to have any muscle imbalances and leave anything out, or do you think that would be overkill? i think the big 3 routine is great and so simplified it almost seems perfect. but to just have bench, squat, and deadlift and leave out shoulder press doesnt make sense to me since its also a compound exersise…whats is your reasoning to only doing those 3?

        1. Andy Morgan

          1. The bench, or the overhead press, but not both.
          2. No imbalances will be developed as you won’t be performing just these three exercises long enough to develop them. See the “progressing from” article linked at the end.
          3. The novice needs time to practice and learn these complicated lifts. Four, arguably, could be too much to learn.

          It the end of the day, if you really want to throw the OHP in there, just do it. Happiness with a program > higher motivation > more effort > better results. Within reason of course.

  27. Jon

    Hi Andy,

    I am interesting in starting the ‘Big 3’ routine and wanted to ask:

    1) in the past I have done a 5-day split routine for a couple of months. I’m still relatively new to lifting but comfortable with it (about 12 months of non-consecutive lifting under my belt). I notice most of your novice-advanced routines are 3 day full body/split. Not sure if I am missing where you may have talked about this but is there an advantage to 3 days vs 5-6 days… specifically with split routines?
    2) I’m thinking I should start with ‘The Big 3’ beginner routine. So on rest days no exercise is necessary according to your recommendations?
    3) besides self experimentation of how I feel, it’s ok (in regards to allowing for recovery time) to practice handstands/balance exercises on rest days?

    Thank you for your time and help. Keep up the awesome work bro!

  28. Phil

    Hi Andy,
    Beginner looking at your Big 3 program. Very happy to take your advice and start with this but just one question; was watching Mark Rippetoe’s video on the bench press and he says if he had to choose between doing one of the bench press and the press he would choose the press. What’s the reason you put the bench press in your Big 3 rather than the press?
    Thanks for providing this excellent site.

    1. Andy Morgan

      Phil, thanks for the question. Couple of reasons:

      1. It won’t make a lot of difference which is performed and I don’t feel strongly about one over the other when someone starts out. Putting the bench as the recommendation in there is easier – less arguments from young men.

      2. The scenario constructed, bench press OR overhead press is an artificial one. In reality people will have both (some form of horizontal pressing and some form of overhead pressing) in their programs once they graduate from being able to progress/recovery with just three exercises.

      Make sense?

      1. Phil

        Yep that makes sense, thanks a lot Andy, my question was just out of curiosity. Later this week I restart training for the first time in almost 20 years, and I shall be doing the Big 3 as you describe.

        1. Andy Morgan

          Sure no worries Phil. You have the advantage of maturity that the young ones lack. Instead of starting out with the mentality of, “GOTTA POUND SOME HEAVY WEIGHT!” take it slow and work into it. See it all as practicing a skill and you’ll do well.

  29. Cjon

    Hi Andy,

    I really would like to start the Big 3 routine since I am cutting at the time but I cannot do deadlifts and squats for the meanwhile since I am rehabilitating both of my knees from previous injuries. Would I still benefit if I did bench press, chin ups and maybe one other exercise in the meantime and come back to doing the big 3 when my knees are ready? Or would it only be beneficial for me to be able to do all three together??

    Thank you

  30. Grayson

    Hi Andy, thanks for writing. I don’t have a spotter and so prefer to do dumbbell bench press instead of barbell. However, the dumbbells go up in increments of 5, so I can only add 10 pounds per session. What’s the best way to keep a linear progression while dealing with this issue? Should I add reps at the lower weight first, or just add the weight and fail until I can successfully do all 25 reps?

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Grayson, thanks for the question.

      Just double the length of time you take between progressions. Obviously, that’s hard to judge but I’d just do this – if one session it’s tough to get the targeted number of sets and reps, but you do it, keep the weight the same the next time – you’ll probably find it a lot easier as you’ll have grown/adapted. Then just increase the weight the next time.

      Going to failure each time is a bad move in my opinion. I’d ditch the spotter and forget about it as it isn’t going to serve you at this point – it will hamper recovery, and thus reduce the frequency of the work you can handle, all while engraining poor motor patterns. See this work as practice.

      Make sense?

  31. Michael Smith

    Hey Andy, I have a question. What about your other muscles that you aren’t working on like your traps? Should you add on shrugs or something? And also what about your triceps? How do you build up those muscles you aren’t working on. Thanks

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Michael, thanks for the question.
      The bench works the triceps, the deadlift works the traps. Put these three exercises together and they’ll cover the vast majority of the body’s musculature. None are specialized, but at this stage when people are starting out, that’s kind of the point.

  32. Jason

    Andy,

    I’m just starting off on this path you’ve laid out for us all. The bad thing is, I currently have a shoulder injury. Deadlifts and Squats are no problem; however, I am limited to doing only narrow width pushups (think arms tight and parallel to body, with heavy triceps involvement).

    My question is this: Will doing push ups allow me to move forward in this regiment with some success or am I going to be severely hampered in progressing with my body fat loss goals? My intent was to do 5×5 pushups starting with a rep count, and upon completing 5×5 with good from, adding one rep. All reps are down slow and controlled.

    I know you are not a doctor, so I’m not looking for an “is it safe” answer – I’m moving forward based on how my body is responding. I’m just looking for your advice on whether this – if it isn’t exacerbating the injury – would be a viable way forward.

    Also, considering I will not be doing the big muscle movement of bench press, should I consider altering my percent calories on workout/non-workout days? (I’m currently going off of your recommended program on the diet guide section).

    Thanks in advance for your time, and I appreciate what you’ve put together here.

    Very respectfully,
    Jason

  33. Levi

    Alright so this may be stupid but is a “session” a different day like session 2 is Wednesday? And also what weight do You start at because my max is- Bench 205- squat 315- deadlift 410

  34. Khaled Hussain

    So how much should i be increasing the weights each session, currently i am adding 5kg per session once i complete all 5 sets of 5 reps on the squat and deadlift, I was doing the same for bench but it became hard so i now add 2.5kg each session. Is this ok?

  35. Khaled Hussain

    One more question Andy, do I have to do this routine only 3 days a week or can I do it day on and day off continuously e.g. monday on tuesday off wednesday on thursday off friday on saturday off sunday on etc… ???

  36. Khaled Hussain

    Hi there again Andy, I have another question relating to the workout above. Is it ok if I do squat, deadlift and then bench rather than squat, bench then deadlift?

  37. Max Lovell - PT

    Hey Andy, I have just began a bulk for the first time and I am currently following the BIG 3 routine. I have been increasing my lifts in nearly every session and progress is going well. I am wondering at what point I could add in some extra movements, for example: weighted chins to hit lats and biceps more as well as possibly some volume work on accessory movements?

    I feel that I recover fairly quick in between sessions which may be due to normally training intense 6 days a week in sport.

    My main goals are too be strong and also aesthetics, but not a bodybuilding physique more of a fitness model type of look.

    What are your thoughts?

    Much appreciated.

  38. Khalid

    Hi Andy, I wanted to clear something up, i guess you can call me a beginner, I started an RPT 3 day split program for almost 3 months, took a break for almost a year and now started again and almost 3 months in. I should mention i am obese and i saw your guidelines for importance levels of training for the beginner, intermediate and advanced and obese, on the obese side of things you drew circles through all training programs, does that mean if you are obese any training will do? Or do you still recommend i drop what i am doing now (3 Day Split RPT) and go ahead and do The Big 3? And if so since i am obese i have difficulty maintaining proper form on the squat (cannot go too low) so do you recommend i do the leg press instead or do you have any other suggestions/alternatives? Thank you, much appreciated.

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Khalid, thanks for the questions. As you’re familiar with the barbell movements from your training before but detrained, I’d go with the Big 3 and work from there. Swap out the squats with the leg press, 3 sets of 10, and after your main exercises work on your squat mobility. Consider some light goblet squats, progressing to back squats. If you google around I’m sure that Eric Cressey, Tony Gentilcore or Dean Somerset have something on this up on their sites.

  39. 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.

  40. 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

  41. 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.

  42. 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.

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