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This article ties together the threads that link the training program suggestions on this site. It shows you the big picture: what routine is going to be most suitable for yourself and when, what to expect, and suggestions on when it’s suitable to modify things to chase progress. We start off by filling in the broad strokes that will apply to most, then we discuss some caveats. Take what is relevant to you now and ignore the rest, bookmark it then come back later.


Choosing A Routine When Cutting (Calorie Deficit, Fat-loss Target)

Novice or experienced trainee, if you are cutting you want to be using a linear progression routine, like the ‘Big 3‘, or some form of split.

‘Linear progression’ means that the weight stays the same or goes up each session. – We build up the training effect by adding weight onto the bar every time that we can, keep at the same weight whenever we can’t (while waiting for the muscles and connective tissues to adapt and grow), then increase the weight again when we can handle it.

Novices

Novices will gain strength for a time regardless of whether they are in a calorie surplus or deficit.

Complete novices will use something like the Big 3 routine, with the same exercises each session, as that is the fastest way they will adapt and progress. It is best to not change things up and add in complication at this time – they need to practice the fundamental form of these lifts. Also, there is not the necessity to split things up at this stage yet because they haven’t learned to push themselves hard enough to require more recovery time.

If this is you, stop reading now and click here -> ‘The Big 3′ Routine. You can come back to this article later.

Eventually you will need to change things up in order to recover sufficiently to keep progressing. Rather than jumping immediately to a split, usually a small modification to the volume of deadlifting performed each week is sufficient. From there, moving to an alternating split (an A/B split), then a move to a three-day split (A/B/C split) it a good progression model.

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

Your training program when in a calorie deficit, whether novice or advanced trainee, will fall somewhere on the above linear progression training continuum. For a detailed example of this in action, check out the article, ‘How to Progress to a Split Routine’.

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.RPT is a very popular style of training, but it has it’s drawbacks that must not be overlooked. We’ll cover these in that article.

Gains in strength cannot continue forever in an energy deficit, no matter how smart the programming.

Past the point of the Three Day Split Routine, if one is in calorie deficit circumstances and strength gains are no longer forthcoming, it usually needs to be accepted that there is little point in pursuing further strength gains by introducing more complicated programming elements like periodization* (whether a temporary deload, or a more structured volume building approach). The blockage to progress is obvious – the calorie deficit.

Your goal is to then maintain your strength gains for the duration of the cut, until you have achieved your desired level of leanness and then start increasing calorie intake.

Experienced Strength Trainees

Experienced strength trainees will also find themselves somewhere on this ‘linear progression training continuum’. Exactly where depends on level of experience and recovery capacity, so if you’re not sure just try a routine and see. You should push for strength gains wherever possible while using good form, however it’s important to note that those most advanced will generally not make strength gains while in a deficit. If you’re in that category, then you likely know that. Your goal while in a fat-loss phase then will, as with the novice that has reached the end of the continuum, be strength** and muscle-mass retention.

Using the minimal amount of training volume that you can to achieve that is arguably best as this stops us from overburdening ourselves, which can lead to nasty consequences such as strength and muscle loss, or increasing stress (which can mess up our fat loss efforts in multiple ways).

Advanced Trainees

Advanced trainees over the course of their lifting careers may have built up training volume tolerances that are way higher than those mentioned above. Though they won’t necessarily have to follow any of the templates above, when in a calorie deficit their recovery capacity is reduced, and they too need to cut back on the volume.

For muscle mass retention purposes, I see no reason that someone needs to strength train more frequently than three days a week. However, due to the large shift, if they have been training nearly every day of the week, it can be psychologically beneficial to keep a fourth training day in there.

Summary of Routine Suitability when Cutting

  Beginner Intermediate Advanced Obese
BIG3 Routine
BIG3 Modified
A/B Split
Three Day Split  x
Periodisation  x x  x
         

◎ > ◯ > △ > X = Most to least appropriate


Choosing A Routine When Bulking (Calorie Surplus, Muscle-gain Target)

All of the above beginner routines suitable for calorie surplus circumstances also. When finishing a fat-loss phase, although the immediate temptation is to switch up training to something different, people will usually start to make progress (strength gains) simply because the block to recovery and growth (insufficient food intake) has been lifted.

Though I appreciate that your immediate reaction is to avoid anything seemingly ‘beginner’ like the plague, you want to use these linear progression routines for as long as possible. This saves you unnecessary complication. When you can no longer progress by either moving up the linear progression training continuum, or creeping (to avoid unnecessary fat gain) up your calorie intake, you will have to add in elements of periodization.

Greg explained this in his guest post, ‘What To Do When You’re Done With Your Beginner Strength Training Programin a rather informal but conceptually brilliant way:

Stress, Recovery and Work Capacity - Sink Analogy

  • You continue to progress on a linear progression routine because the stress you put your body under with the training (represented by the flow from the tap) is enough to force adaptation, but less than the maximal about you can recover from.
  • You can’t continue to progress forever on a linear progression routine because it gets to the point where the stress from the training is too high for you to be able to recover from.
  • The thing bottlenecking progress is ‘work capacity’ (the size of the sink and the drain pipe) which is low due to the low volume of training.
  • To increase work capacity, instead of trying to increase the amount of weight you’re lifting, increase the amount of volume you handle each week or each session. – You cut back on weight lifted but start building up the volume (sets and reps) over several weeks and months to build work capacity (your sink and drain size), before then cutting back on volume to push for PRs.
Workload = sets x reps x intensity (weight lifted)

Summary of Routine Suitability when Bulking

  Beginner Intermediate Advanced
BIG3 Routine  x  x
BIG3 Modified  x
A/B Split  x
Three Day Split  x
Periodisation  x
         

◎ > ◯ > △ > X = Most to least appropriate


Caveats To The Above Rules

1. *Higher body-fat percentages blur boundary of what is possible on a cut

While an obese and a lean person may both be in calorie deficit circumstances, their energy availability is different. Fatter individuals have a larger pantry to dip into when the food on the table isn’t enough, leaner individuals don’t. This blurs the lines of what is possible on a calorie deficit because the energy available for recovery is different.

Therefore, someone who starts off at a high body-fat percentage, and stalls out at the end of the linear progression training continuum, may benefit from moving from their beginner routine and using some periodization principles, such as those discussed by Greg in his article. “You probably won’t have any issues increasing training volume, though the maximal amount you can handle would be less. It just means you have to monitor recovery more closely.”

What is the cut off point for this? – It comes down to the individual. “When you’re dealing with biology, you have to accept a little chaos and ambiguity,” says Greg. A little experimentation with this purposefully lower weight, higher volume method, as long as protein intake is sufficient and the deficit within recommended limits, will be fine for preserving muscle mass even if it doesn’t eventually lead to the desired strength increases.

 

2. **The mechanical disadvantage of being leaner needs to be taken into account when comparing lifting stats

Take your right arm, reach under your left arm pit and grab the fat on your back at chest level. When chasing a fat loss goal it is important to remember that this fat will be burned off too, as will the fat on your arms and legs.

When ripped you may look bigger due to the increased definition, but the chest and limb measurements will go down.

For experienced/advanced lifters I’ve said that the goal when in a calorie deficit is often to simply maintain strength, as that is a good proxy for muscle retention. However it is important to note that there is a mechanical disadvantage of being leaner, so in fact a drop in the lifting stats to a certain degree is to be expected and shouldn’t be confused with muscle loss.

The easiest way to visualise this effect is with the bench press, the leaner you are the further the bar has to travel, thus more ‘work’ has to be done for the same load. (Come on, recall your high school physics class: force x distance = work)

  • A 5-10% drop is not uncommon (depending on just how much weight is lost).
  • The pressing movements are usually affected more than the deadlift and the squat, and how much the latter is affected depends on limb length ratios.
  • This also means that for a guy that has dropped, say, 25lbs, maintenance of lifts can be indicative of muscle mass gain.
Key point: experienced trainees shouldn’t panic if their lifts go down a little.

Strength Numbers Do NOT Determine When You Need To Change Your Routine

You’ll see a lot of strength numbers thrown around on the internet as to whether you can consider yourself a beginner, intermediate or advanced trainee. These are just opinions, and they should not be confused as determining points for when you should switch up your training program.

How far you can progress with a beginner routine comes down to the individual. Some people will progress on a linear routine and squat past 500lbs before they need to change things up, others will stall at 200lbs. Once you have the controllable elements in your favour (good sleep, low stress, high quality of diet, great gym environment, etc.) it’s largely down to luck (age and genetics). Make the most of what you have, don’t worry about others.

What strength numbers relative to body weight can offer however is a rough way of determining how likely you are to be happy with your physique when you get down to a shredded state at your current strength level. This is because for the strength focused trainee, strength stats are going to be highly correlated with muscle mass.

If we are going by Martin Berkhan’s strength standards, my guess on how happy most people will be is summarised in the following table:

Training status (per Berkhan’s strength standards) Happiness scale when shredded (in smileys)
Novice/ beginner 🙁
Intermediate :/ or 🙂
Advanced 🙂 or 😀
Highly advanced 😀 or :p

Happiness should not be confused with satisfaction. It is very rare that anyone is satisfied, we merely set the bar higher for ourselves when we reach our sets of goals.

*******

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

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

About the Author

Andy Morgan

I'm an online nutritional coach and trainer. After seeing one too many people get ripped off by supplement and training industry lies I decided to try and do something about it. The site you see here is the result of a lot of Starbucks-fuelled, two-fingered typing. It's had a lot of love poured into it, and I hope you find the guides to the diet and training methods I use on this site useful. When I'm not helping clients you'll likely find me crashing down a mountain on a snowboard, riding a motorbike, or staring at watches I can't afford.

165 Comments on “Which Routine Is For Me?”

  1. Gabe

    Love your site and articles, Andy. I was just wondering, if alright with you, that i can have some suggestions to further study this? Do you have textbooks i can look up or literature to search on this articles topic. I am not challenging you or doubting the information provided, i just want to learn and further research this (weight training while on a deficit, cardio, stress, and dieting). Thanks in advance 🙂

  2. David

    Hi Andy,

    First of all, thank you for sharing your knowledge and expertise – it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say I’m on here most days.

    I’m currently coming to the end of my cutting phase – 12%BF and lower abs almost visible – and began planning my bulking routine after a two week stabilisation period (I feel more a sign of enjoying the journey/thinking than rushing to the next step)

    However, I’ve found that using kettlebells at home to the form of training I can stick to most – routine, cost and general enjoyment wise. 5×5 has helped me make well above expected progress towards my cutting goal along side your nutritional advice.

    Would you have any kettlebell routine recommendations for the bulking phase?

    I’m considering German Volume Training with front squats and military presses – however, reading of their potential detrimental effects on strength go against your advice to focus on strength and size will come.

    I’d consider myself begginer-intermedieted.

    Kindest regards,
    David

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi David. Not personally no. The principles will be the same but I haven’t played around with Kettlebells much (they aren’t a thing in Japan) so it’s really not my area to make suggestions I’m afraid.

  3. Christine

    Hi Andy,
    I am enjoying all the information I have been reading on your site.
    I know that it tends to be frowned on, but where could one find a good strength and endurance program?
    Love lifting, but love running. I understand doing both limits strength and limits running records, but that isn’t why I do either.
    Not looking for hypertrophy, more strength and physical benefits of lifting.
    Thanks!

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Christine.
      Add in some endurance elements to an appropriate strength program, while being mindful of the increased burden to recovery capacity, thus possibly the need to decrease training volume.

  4. Pedro

    Hi andy , ive read that doing weighted dips could damage my shoulders in the long term, my goal is to be able to do dips 2x my bodyweight (80kg), right now I’m at bw+15kg and I haven’t had any problems and I wanna continue doing dips cause is one of the exercises I like the most, do you think I can continue until i reach my goal or should I change dips for something else? And if so what exercise do you recommend? My chest routine right now is dips and bench press rpt style, and push ups with my hands forming a triangle

    1. Andy Morgan

      I don’t recommend dips for that reason. Though they look cool it’s not worth a life of shoulder issues. I’d suggest you revise you goal.

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Jeff, currently the most detailed article I have on periodization is for intermediate lifters.
      What To Do When You’re Done With Your Linear Progression Strength Training Program

      Not sure if you’re aware but I’m just putting the finishing touches on a book on training with Eric Helms and Andrea Valdez that covers the topic of periodization in an exceptional level of detail. Here‘s the free video lecture series upon which is it based, and if you’d like to be notified when the book comes out you can pop your mail address in the box on the site for the books here. I’m should have the sample chapter out this week actually, just waiting on the foreword by a man I don’t feel comfortable telling to hurry up. 🙂

      (Greg Nuckols, author of the first article I linked, has an excellent website worth checking out also – strengtheory.com)

  5. mehdi

    hello Andy thank you for your answer but i think that i didn t explain my question enough i meant that if someone want to transition from a more focused hyperthrophy routine to a strenght one should he adjust his volume and see were its lead them or restart from the big 3 ps: just start reading the science of lifting

    1. Andy Morgan

      I wouldn’t just jump from what you’re currently doing to a blank template like the Big 3 given that you already have a baseline. I’d equate training volume but shift the intensity so that ~3/4 of total volume falls in the 1-6rm range. This differs from your hypertrophy focussed program which likely has around 3/4 of total volume in the 6-12rm range.

  6. mehdi

    hello Andy what can someone who have been doing a lot of accessory work (hyperthrophy day) PHAT do to adjust to one of those routines tnx

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  10. Stephen

    Hi Andy,

    I have a few questions. After I complete my cut and want to start bulking again, where do I start? Do I start over with the Big3 again even though on my cut i progressed to the A/B/C split?

    I understand the part explaining cutting back on the weight lifted and start building up the volume. I’m just a little confused which routine I should start on. I progressed to the A/B/C split because I was trying to still make strength gains on a deficit. But now that I’m not on a deficit do I start over again?

    Thanks

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Stephen. Continue as you were and see how you go. If you recover fine, add in more volume or frequency. Key point: adjust and modify your routine based on how you progress rather then just switching from one routine to another.
      Make sense?

      1. Stephen

        Yes I think so. I think I’ll probably start back with the A/B split because I prefer the 5×5 straight sets to RPT and I find the volume is too low on the 3 day split.

        Thank you for the quick response.

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  12. Anthony

    Hi Andy,

    I have a couple questions.
    First a little background: I was a college athlete, played American Football for 4 years, and lifted very consistently according to the strength and conditioning coaches’ plans. When football finally ended 3.5 years ago, I took the last three years off to help my body recover fully from the many injuries and such from playing sports. I’ve since returned to lifting in January, using the guides you put forth here. I started off with the RPT 3 Day split routine since I had the weight lifting experience from the past, and my only break from the gym was about 4 weeks when I came down with the flu and then went to Europe.
    My stats: 6’0″, 198lbs, 18% body fat
    Estimated 1RM’s:
    Bench: 265lbs
    Squat: 315lbs
    Deadlift: 315lbs

    My first question, is should I have been starting off in the beginner section, since I hadn’t been lifting for 3 years? Or possibly Intermediate?

    Next, should I change routine from the 3 day split to the Big 3 or an A/B split?

    I’m still hitting strength gains virtually every week and starting to see changes in my physique, but I’m curious if I am missing, or have missed, the benefits that beginner lifters get to recovery when first starting out.

    1. Andy Morgan

      Hi Anthony, thanks for the questions.
      Probably yes, but it doesn’t matter now. The only difference is that you’d have come back up to speed more quickly. I’d keep your three day split but move to the 5×5 set-rep patterning and work to progress from there. – It’s easier to add volume and the recovery demands are lower.

      1. Anthony

        Thanks for the quick reply, Andy!

        Last question: When switching to the 5×5, should rest between sets be kept at 90-120 seconds, or should I do a longer rest period, like 3-5 minutes?

        Thank you again for taking the time to answer these!

  13. Crystal

    How do i know if I need to cut or not? Have been weight training hard starting to see results but not where I want to be. Need to lose a bit more fat in my legs but starting to see quad development but have lost quite a bit of belly fat. Starting to have a flat stomach and upper abs. Don’t know what macro method I should choose

  14. Robert

    Hey Andy,

    i wanted to choose a good starting routine, but i have hip impingement ( operated last year ) but if i do squat/leg press, i get pain again. The doctor told me this is the Impingement.

    For me it is not clear if i should skip squats and/or do some other exercise/routine?

    1. Andy Morgan

      To be totally honest with you (and I promise I’m not trying to be unhelpful), you’d be better off consulting a physical therapist or sports specialist doctor Robert. This really isn’t my field of expertise.

      1. Robert

        Andy, thanks for the replay. Long story about that – 4 special doctors, 4 different diagnostics. With long trips to arrive them and in the end, last year op, nothing changed. At the moment im thinking of a complete lag of flexibility – that courses all problems. I think hip is a extrem complicate field. I know Squats is the major exercise, but i think i need to skip it.

        Thanks

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