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


  • 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.


As above


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.

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.

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.

841 Comments on “The Big 3 Routine”

  1. Hi there Andy

    When doing this program, could you use different versions of the Big 3 over the course of the week? For example squat on Monday, front squat Wednesday and maybe leg press or something on Friday?


  2. Hi, and thank you very much for your time and energy with this website. Google and your leangains guide got me to you. Awesome site!
    A couple quick questions on modifying the “Big 3″ for some knee issues.

    6’2” 195lbs 15-18% body fat, beginner/intermediate lifter (taken about 3 years off hoping the issue below would resolve so I’m closer to a beginner in strength and intermediate in form)

    1st Deadlifts: I have switched to a Stiff Legged DL, knees are just outside of locked the entire range of motion. I like the way they feel and I am definitely tearing up (in a good way) my Hamstrings and Glutes. However I noticed that the lighter load isn’t stressing my upper body in the same way as a traditional DL. Am I getting almost the same benefits as a traditional dead lift? Should I add another lift to compensate for that decrease in load and change in form? Pull-ups for example, even though above you specifically said not to?

    2nd Squats: I’m good with “air” squats with perfect form, adding much of any weight 45-95lbs starts to aggravate the knee. Is there anything I can/should substitute or add to the Big 3 to stress my body in the same way as a squat?

    Rowing (WaterRower) is my go to choice for aerobics and my knee seems to be handling it fairly well.

    1. Walker, thank you for the comment and questions. I can understand you asking but to advise on working around injuries is beyond the scope of the comments. I’m sorry.

  3. Hi Andy (again),

    My apologies for slightly monopolizing your comments section recently, but as a beginner new questions pop up all the time, and sometimes fishing for the answers from previous comments doesn’t help to make it clear, or provides seemingly contradictory info.

    I am using liner progression 5×5 with the big 3, and i was wondering what to do about failure for a rep. For example if i am in the middle of my 4th set of an exercise, and am unable to complete the 4th rep at all. Should i then attempt the 5th rep anyway? What about the 5th set?

    I only ask because i have read conflicting information about whether to work to failure or not. With some opinions suggesting that working to failure is better for the muscles (ie, the only way they get stronger), and then others saying that it is detrimental, and can lead to breakdown of muscles. Perhaps it depends on the level of trainee, and that’s why there is different information out there?

    Again, any advice would be greatly appreciated, and i thank you greatly in advance for your help.


    1. 1. See session 23 and 25 for the answer to your question.

      2. The reason you see a lot of conflicting information is often that context for the advice isn’t given (or understood). Stay shy of failure with this routine (and the compound exercises in general). This is not a blanket rule, everything depends on context, but this is the guideline you need to follow right now.

      Hope that helps.

      1. Hi again Andy,

        Thanks for the reply, but to be honest i still don’t quite grasp it. The problem is that you don’t know if you will be unable to lift the next one until you try it and miss (what assume is then failure of the rep). So should you wait for the first one in the set that you miss and then go no further? Or is it even more nuanced, where you wait for the first one in the set that has a slight twitch or fault in form (for example with my latest squat weight i noticed that i kinked my hips out ever so slightly to one side to help with the lift), and as soon as you notice that drop in form, you call that a miss and then go no further reps in that set?

        Thanks in advance for the clarification.


          1. OK thanks.

            Just one additional caveat then: what if form is perfect up until the one you fail, is there anyway to know the next one will be failed? Is it okay to occasionally hit failure on a rep, or should you stop at the point where you feel like you could probably still do the next one, but best to hold back?

  4. Hi Andy

    Beginner (26% BF, mostly located in stomach area), 3 weeks into cut, working using BIG3, despite reluctance to squats in particular due to proportionally muscular thighs already (even without fat) and it would look strange if I added size to them. But i trust the information I have read and decided to be patient and stick with it. However, yesterdays thigh measurements show approx 2cm growth on each thigh (gradually each week). I want to avoid this due to body proportion issues, and was wondering if there was some way using the Big3 that i could gain strength without gaining size (specifically on my legs), or at least reap the full body effects (particularly on my chest/pecs where I am proportionally way too skinny) of doing squats and dead-lifts, without making my legs bigger much at all (if not at all), and sacrificing strength in the legs if that is a consequence of lack of size gains (if i absolutely had to choose).

    This is the first challenge since starting that has impacted me negatively (due to hitting my biggest vulnerability), so i hope you can provide some advice to help me move through this.

    Thanks in advance

    1. Toby, no worries. If you look through every comment here you’d see that 100 people must have asked a version of the same thing before you.

      – You didn’t gain 2cm on your legs in a week. The measurement change is caused by either measurement error and/or water/glycogen balance increases.
      – You’re cutting. You have a lot of fat to lose. Your legs will grow as you’re a beginner and new to training them, but their circumference will end up smaller.

      You have two paths before you:
      1. Train little, diet down, get skinny and have an “oh fuck, should have listened to Andy” moment.
      2. Assume that you aren’t in fact special, nor physiologically that different from the thousands that have some before you, so you do what is written and be glad you did in 6 months.

      Choose wisely.

      1. Hi Andy,

        Thanks for the reply. I understand, and on some level I already understood that i need to stick it out, but having struck in me my biggest vulnerability, i guess i needed a kick in the ass from a trusted source.

        So thanks again.

  5. Hey Andy,

    Thanks for all the info!

    Wondering how cardio fits into the mix when it comes to this training program…

    Thanks! -JZ

  6. Andy I’m just starting out. I am obese – 280 pounds and 180cm height. My goal is to lose 100lbs. Obviously diet is the most important thing. I wan’t to start with paleo + some carbs (I had some success with it in the past) and do some kind of workout.

    Will the big 3 routine be good in my situation?
    Should I do strictly 5 series of 5 reps? A friend told me that it is strictly strenght kind of workout, while I should do cutting (more reps, lower weight).

    Thank you for that site! I’ve found some hope for myself here 🙂

    1. Hi Simon. If you can do that without any range of motion issues then yes. If not, consider modifying things. Goblet squats will give you a more upright stance and break you into barbell squats, racked deadlifts can be used to reduce the height needed to get to the floor (your stomach may get in the way and your back may need to round to compensate, which you want to avoid). Bench will probably be ok.

      Not my speciality but I hope that helps.

      1. Range of motion is ok I think 🙂
        My main concern is if 5 series of 5 reps is the best solution for someone who has to drop a huge amount of fat?

        Thank you for your reply!

        1. Most welcome Simon.

          I’m guessing you’re asking because you’re wondering whether you should be choosing a “fat burning” workout? Here’s how I feel about that: Controlling what we eat is the tool to burn fat. Training is the tool to build muscle. Thus, your body fat percentage does not impact the workout you should choose, in my opinion. (Potential ROM limitations aside.)

  7. Hey Andy, very informative article ….
    Just wondering if alternating Squat,Bench and Deadlift with Squat, Weighted Dip and Weighted Chins in the next training session would be a wise decision? Thanks for your time

  8. Would this workout be as effective if performed in a circuit of squat, bench, deadlift then rest, repeat 5 times?

    1. Hi Ken, thanks for the question.
      No. The lack of rest between sets will compromise your ability to perform. Keep to the one exercise at a time for these big compound movements.

      1. Will do, thanks for the reply, I appreciate you taking the time to answer all these questions. Your website is proving to be a really great resource.

  9. Hi, I am currently on my 2nd week training after a year of not working out. I am at 176lbs and my goal is to lose 10lbs in 6 months. Will this training be effective for me to progress my lifts with a caloric deficit? Or should I just go healthy eating and just do the workouts as stated? Will this still reduce my body fat?

  10. Hello Andy, congrats for your articles, they are super useful and interesting.

    I’m not a novice, in a sense that I’ve trained in the gym for 6-7 years. However I’ve always tried to avoid the big three for fear of injuries and laziness probably. That said now I would like to follow this routine while I’m getting familiar and learning the proper form of these 3 core exercises. I’m also following a cutting IF type of diet I setup thanks to your articles btw.

    My question is: do you really think (as you wrote in the faq) that these 3 exercises are enough (for mantaining at least) without chinups and especially without shoulder focused exercises like overhead press? I know it’s all about progressing with those 3 but I’m curious what is your experience without other core exercises on the body during the months.

    Thank you very much and thanks again for your articles.

    1. Hi Andrea. Training is the most powerful tools we have to maintain muscle mass while getting really lean. Sufficient calorie intake is the second (i.e. not having an extreme calorie deficit) and sufficient protein intake is probably the third. Whether that will be enough really depends on training advancement. As you’re new to learning these exercises you won’t be able to get the same level of muscle activation for a while if you only do these. So, if you’re already fairly lean, I’d continue whatever style of training you’re doing while you lean out and then come back to this when you’re set to bulk later. If you still have a fair amount of fat to lose then you’ll be fine with this for now as long as you keep your calorie deficit modest.

      Here’s a good background article on training stresses and appropriate training volume for different levels of training advancement and cut/bulk circumstances.
      Stress: In The Gym, Out of The Gym, and How it Affects Your Program and Progress

  11. Do I necessarily have to do Squats, Bench, then Deadlifts?

    I’d like to do Squats, Deadlifts, then Bench because I can do Squats and Deadlifts in the same spot while the Bench is far enough away that if I do Squats and walk away for Bench, I risk losing my spot and I could end up having to wait quite a bit to get my Deads in.

  12. Hey Andy,

    What are your recommendations for diet on a complete layoff from training, due to injury/extreme overreaching, say 2-4 weeks? Eat at maintenance? diet break? or maybe a 100 cal deficit to maintain fat loss?



      1. Thanks for the reply Andy,

        What do you recommend once returned to training with extreme diminished strength levels and trying to build them back up? Calculated maintenance? Or small deficit to remove maybe some of the fat gained on the break?

        I appreciate you answering my questions,



        1. The loss of strength is temporary due to the built up fatigue masking fitness. For the first week back lift 10% less than you feel you can. Just listen to your body from there.

  13. Hi Andy,

    If my goal is to build strength, is this standard 5×5 ideal or do I need to reduce weight and increase reps?



  14. Hi Andy!

    I’m looking to get into this training/diet program to get my BF% below 10%.
    I’ve been going to the gym consistently 5-6 days a week for a few years now. I really enjoy the gym, as its my stress relief from day to day life. However, this program states that you only need 3 days in the gym.

    I was wondering if it would hinder any progress to bump this up to 4 or 5 days a week?



    1. Hi Logan, thanks for the question. This is a novice routine. For you, tapering volume a little is probably a good idea as you’ll be in a deficit, but there’s no need to cut the number of days in half.

      This of course assumes that you’re not a novice, and genuinely have reason to be training 5-6 days a week while bulking, rather than just having jumped into it from the get go, which is a mistake that many well-intentioned beginners make. Some theory on this here.
      Here’s another article worth reading also:
      The Core Principles of Effective Training

  15. Hi Andy,

    Do you suggest cycling the order of the exercises each time you perform the routine?

    My concern is that by the time I get to deadlifts at the end of each routine I will have less energy and therefore will be less likely to progress as quickly as I could for squats which is at the start of the routine when I have more energy. If you wouldn’t suggest cycling the order, would you mind explaining why.


    1. Hi Scott, thanks for the question.
      “Do you suggest cycling the order of the exercises each time you perform the routine?”
      No definitely not. Keep it consistent so you can gauge progression.
      “My concern is that by the time I get to deadlifts at the end of each routine I will have less energy and therefore will be less likely to progress as quickly as I could for squats which is at the start of the routine when I have more energy.”
      Sure, it’s a trade-off that needs to be made, but not a meaningful one (i.e. not something that will make a difference in medium-term outcome) at this stage of a lifting career.

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