How to Progress from ‘The Big 3’ to Split Routines

The Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, Press, Dips, Chin-ups/Pull-ups.
Slow-bulk or cut, put these exercises at the core of your workout program and you won’t go far wrong.

There are two linear progression training templates introduced on this site, ‘The Big 3 Routine’ and the ‘Three Day Split Routine’. The questions often arise, “Which training program is for me?” or, “When and how should I progress from one to the other?” This article covers the latter question with detailed examples.

It is best that you adjust your routine to build from one to the other, rather than jumping straight to ‘The Three Day Split Routine’ from ‘The Big 3′. Learning how to adjust your routine is an essential skill you will need as you advance in training experience to keep yourself progressing. Most people screw themselves up by not learning this skill – they jump blindly from routine to routine when progress stalls, never learning the broader principles of effective training routines or how to tailor it to themselves. They then wonder why they spin their wheels for years not making progress. This article will cover how to do that.


Big 3 to Split Routine – Ideas on Progression

As covered in the article Which Training Program Is For Me? whether you should be doing the big 3 (the squat, bench press and deadlift) every session, or more of a split routine, depends entirely on your recovery capability. As Rippetoe said in his book Practical Programming for Strength Training, one of the most important things for determining what kind of program a person should be on, does not depend on the person’s lifting ability, but that person’s ability to recover.

A person that can squat 1.5x their bodyweight might recover quickly enough to make squatting 3 days a week possible, whereas another that can squat 1x their bodyweight may need several days to recover. Only you can tell what your recuperative abilities are, so pay attention and I’ll tell you what to do here.

Progression from the ‘Big 3’ to a split can be done in stages. When you start failing to recover then move onto the next step in the series. Note the sentences in italics after each phase explaining the changes made and why.

The Linear Progression Training Continuum

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

 There are many different ways to do this, here is one example of a typical progression:

The Linear Progression Training Continuum

Phase 1: ‘Big 3’ Routine – Novices

Practice is important at this stage, so you do the same exercises every day:

  • Squats (5 sets of 5 reps)
  • Bench Press (5 sets of 5 reps)
  • Deadlift (5 sets of 5 reps)

Phase 2: ‘Big 3’ Routine – Deadlift Modified

The lower back starts to get sore, you make a volume adjustment to the deadlifts:

  • Squats (5 sets of 5 reps)
  • Bench Press (5 sets of 5 reps)
  • Deadlift (3 sets of 5 reps) or (1 set of 5 reps)

Phase 3: The A/B split 

The lower back and legs are too sore, progress suffers. Bench form is good, but a little variety can be introduced.

Workout A:

  • Deadlifts (5×5)
  • Weighted/Assisted Chin-ups (3×8)
  • Overhead Press (OHP) (5×5)

Workout B:

  • Squat (5×5)
  • Bench Press (5×5)
  • Seated Cable Rows (3×8-10)

Week 1 – Monday (Workout A), Wednesday (Workout B), Friday (Workout A)

Week 2 – Monday (Workout B), Wednesday (Workout A), Friday (Workout B)

Week 3 – Monday (Workout A), Wednesday (Workout B), Friday (Workout A) etc…


Phase 4: Full 3 Day Split (A/B/C) – Straight-Sets

More recovery is needed between workouts so a full split is used. Additional compound movements are added so that overall training volume does not drop too low.

Monday:

  • Deadlift (5×5)
  • Weighted/Assisted Chinups (3×8)
  • Additional compound movement (Example: Front squats 3×8-10)

Wednesday:

  • Bench Press 5×5
  • Seated Cable Rows (3×8-12)
  • Additional compound movement (Example: Lat-pulldowns 3×8-10)

Friday:

  • Squat 5×5
  • Overhead Press (OHP) 5×5
  • Additional compound movement (Example: RDLs 3×8-10)

Notes

Soreness – How to Gauge When You Need to Change

In general, a little soreness is fine. It’s difficult to judge the line between being too sore to train and needing to change your workouts. You’re always going to be sore to a degree somewhere in your body. You’ll become more attuned with your body in time but for now, as a general guide if after a thorough general warm-up, joint warm-up and warm-up sets (guide in this article) you’re still really sore or the weight feels considerably heavier than normal then it may be time to change. This is one reason why it’s important to keep a workout log, so you know what you were lifting last time and know what you should be able to lift.

Bad Workouts Will Happen

Before you switch things up make sure you didn’t just have a bad workout but are genuinely in need of a change. So, if the weights feel unusually heavy one workout, or you’re extremely sore, listen to your body, stop your workout for that day and go home. Rest, sleep well, then come back feeling refreshed and then see what happens. If you have two or more consecutive workouts and aren’t under a lot of stress, it’s probably time to make a change.

Additional Exercises

Training volume (sets x reps x load) is the key driver of training adaptations, and should go up as we gain experience and progress over the course of a lifting career. So, you will see that in phase 3 and phase 4 I’ve added additional compound movements to the routine so that total training volume does not drop. None of the big three exercises are repeated, however, as they are the toughest to recover from, but other compound movements are chosen.

Dips

Long time viewers of the site will see that dips are missing from the examples above, so I wanted to comment on the reason. They are a great chest and triceps developer, and it feels awesome to have a couple of plates clanging between your legs as you knock out a few sets of 8, but the risk-reward ratio is skewed in the wrong direction I feel. What I mean is, it’s very easy to cause yourself an injury with this exercise, especially as you start adding a lot of weight. (It puts the humeral head in a position far past neutral). When there are safer alternatives that are equally effective (pushups, the close-grip bench press), I see no point in taking the risk with dips. I no longer do them myself, and I no longer recommend them to clients.


*******

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

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

About the Author

Andy Morgan

Hi, I'm Andy, co-author of 'The Muscle and Strength Pyramid' textbooks and founder of RippedBody.com. This site is my sincere effort to build the best nutrition and training guides on the internet. Some readers hire me to coach them, which I've been doing full-time, online, for the last seven years. If you're interested in individualized, one-on-one coaching to help you crush your physique goals, let's start the conversation. (You can read more detailed bio here.)

406 Comments

  1. Mika Sutinen says:

    Hi, again Andy!

    …Do you think grappling could be, in theory, an assistance workout and therefore you could do the big 3 for longer time without the need for adding more assistance lifting exercises?

      1. Mika Sutinen says:

        Cool! Thank you!

  2. George says:

    Hi Andy,

    First of all after spending a few days digesting your site, books and various podcasts, thank you for all the information you put out. It helps new coaches like me and then some so thank you.

    I can coach others just fine and get great results but when it comes to myself, I overcomplicate it. I’ve heard you discuss this paradox on a the TeamBoxTV podcast. Any advice on that front?

    Also, I find SLDLs more comfortable on my back than traditional DLs and weirdly more so than RDLs too. It could be a form issue or related to an injury I sustained in my childhood. Can I make these substitutions based on circumstance and goals over the 12 weeks?

    George

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi George, most welcome.

      1) Track your progress in this way so you can be as objective as possible.

      2) In the same way you wouldn’t force a client to do exercises they don’t find comfortable or provoke injury, you shouldn’t for yourself either. Exercise substitutions to work around issues are always advisable. Article on that here: A Guide to Exercise Selection When You Don’t Have Access to a Coach.

      You may also find this article useful: How to Build Training Programs.

  3. Karol says:

    Hi, any substitution on seated cable rows and lat-pulldown in phase 4? Now i’m train in garage gym and i don’t access to such equipment. Is Pendlay row good instead seated cable rows? And what about lat-pulldown as 2x week chins may be too much.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Karol,
      Pendlay rows, seal rows, and landmine rows are all good alternatives.

      And what about lat-pulldown as 2x week chins may be too much.
      You’ll be fine.

      1. Karol says:

        Thx for reply and what do you think about “close bench grip” on Wednesday in Phase 4? I’d like to incorporate this excercise and doing it on Wednesday is good idea?

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          Everything needs a reason and that always depends on specific contest. I don’t know you, so I can’t answer for that. But if you have a sound reason for including it, then include it. If it’s a whim, don’t.

  4. Arturo Murcia Dominguez says:

    Hello andy. I dont really like bench press. I feel unconfortable, i dont progress, and even i have shoulder pain. I do love dumbels, no pain, but i have severe problems with big dumbels to start the exercise… So, i decided to switch to a technogym horizontal press machine. I feel good, my pec works and i can progress. Is this ok? Or should i retake bench press?

    Many thanks and really good worj
    Arturo
    Spain

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Arturo. Sure, it trains the same movement and is pain-free, that’s the right way to go. I have a guide to exercise selection here.

  5. Jay says:

    I been doing pogram got to the point where i lowerd the deadlifts to 3 sets. When i start a workout now when i get to squats i feel tried last two sets but finish them i get bench and deadlift but cannot do the warm up sets. I been on the program a month and a have and bulk 15 pounds before starting the program and now at a maintenance should I go to the next phases already?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Please gather your thoughts and re-write this more clearly, Jay. It’s hard to know where you are at and what you’re trying to ask.

      1. Jay says:

        Before I started the program i bulked 15 pounds now i am eating at maintenance. I am at phase two of the program. When I do the program after i finish squats ,which tire me out i have no energy to do bench and deadlifts. This happend the last 3 sessions. I could barely finish the warm up sets for bech and deadlifts. Should I move on to phase 3, or go back on bulk. My goal is to get strong as possible. I work out in the morning right after breakfast.

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          I don’t know, Jay. It’s highly unusual for intra-workout stamina to suddenly tank like this.

          Sudden sleep issues or stress?
          A sudden jump in food intake? – Then again, a shift from bulk to maintenance will affect recovery capacity gradually, not suddenly.
          Perhaps you’re sick but don’t realize it yet.

  6. Alan says:

    Hi Andy
    On the 3 day split routine, how long a break do you suggest between sets?
    Thanks
    Alan

  7. Kyle says:

    Andy,

    It seems like the link to the Big 3 routine is not working. As a beginner, I will definitely need to start there. Thanks for all this excellent information!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Kyle. The link seems to be working when I checked but thank you for letting me know and sorry for the trouble. Here’s the link.

  8. Jo says:

    Hi Andy,

    How long (weeks or months) do you recommend for each phase?

    I like the program, and am currently trying to reach my goal of acquiring a bit more muscle definition versus mass.

    JP

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Continue for as long as you are progressing.

  9. Mikkel says:

    Hey Andy,
    I have been on phase 2 (3×5 deadlift), and considering changing to phase 4.
    I am on a cut, and have experienced a 10% drop in bench press and dl strength.
    The deadlift sets feel like I ran out of gas.

    I have had a tough time with squat and bench technique,
    probably due to very long femurs and arms.
    (High-bar squat 60 kg, bench 50 kg, dl 95 kg)

    The weird thing is that there is not much soreness?
    Should I progress to phase 3, or could I even be undertraining with this routine?

    Kind regards

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      The drop in strength is probably due to the mechanical inefficiency of being leaner and the lack of soreness suggests you can push yourself harder and handle more volume. I’d move to one of the novice bodybuilding or powerlifting routines.

      1. Mikkel says:

        Thanks I did not consider that, will probably do the bodybuilding then
        Just to be clear:
        You suggest that I have I need more volume to become stronger?
        I cannot lift with higher intensity than now, but maybe I respond better to hypertrophy training (higher reps/volume)?

          1. Mikkel says:

            Brilliant,
            thanks for all the amazing content and answers.

            1. Andy Morgan says:

              Most welcome, Mikkel.

  10. Tori says:

    Hi! So I am very new to weightlifting. I have mostly been working out at home doing videos that use dumbbells, but I am wanting to get more into a gym setting and do more bar bell work. I read about the big 3 and that it will be a good place for me to start as a beginner. Due to my work schedule, I’m not really able to always have a day in between training days, and many days that I can work out will be back to back. So with that in mind, would it be better to just start off with a three day split or what would you suggest? I’m just concerned if I’m doing the big 3 every day for 3 days straight I won’t allow enough time for recovery.

    Thanks!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Do the big three two days a week, have one day in between. It’s less than ideal, but by the time it stops working you’ll have seen enough results and have more motivation to find time in your schedule.

  11. Adnan says:

    Hey Andy
    Is the “the big 3 routine” and its progressions to be done to failure?

    Regards

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Adnan,

      “Failure” has two common meanings: where there is a breakdown in form during a rep but maybe an additional repetition could be performed with poor form (“form failure”), and where the weight can no longer be physically moved (“mechanical failure”).

      In general, we don’t want to perform the big, multi-joint compound lifts to mechanical failure (squat variations, deadlift, overhead press, etc.) as the risk of injury when form breaks down is too high. Even performing these lifts to form failure on a regular basis is a bad idea for the same reasons and because the systemic fatigue generated is also very high (which can limit your ability to perform for the rest of the session). That said, it is much safer to train to failure with isolation exercises that don’t require full body efforts such as bicep curls, leg extensions, or even some machine compound movements like rows, pulldowns or perhaps the leg press.

      Ideally then, stay at least a rep shy of form failure. Hope that helps and thank you for asking. I’ll add that to the article.

      1. Adnan says:

        Thank you for the prompt reply.
        So it’s basically guess work? Which improves with experience?

        For example I do 190lbs squat 5 reps for 5 sets. So next session I increase weight to 200lbs. I do 3 sets for 5 reps. On the 4th set at the 4th rep I FEEL I wouldn’t get in the 5th rep so I re rack the bar. And do the same for the 5th set. And mark 2 Miss for the session ?

  12. Danijel says:

    There are “Weighted/Assisted Chinups (3×8)” in the program, can I follow your idea of bodyweight progression (“Target a rep total for a session, then do as many sets as it takes to do that. If your target total is 15 reps then that might be 5,4,2,2,1,1 for example the first session, then 5,5,3,2 the next session, then 7,5,3 the following. When you can get your target number of reps all within… let’s say 3 sets, you can look to increase the total reps targeted (to say 17) and then work until you can get all the reps within three sets. From there you increase the total targeted number of reps again (to 19 perhaps)”)?

  13. shawn says:

    Hey what are your thoughts on this workout program mixed along with a ketogenic diet? right now my main goal is to cut hard and ive been finding a lot of success so far with this diet but i would like to see some strength gains and achieve a somewhat leaner/bulkier look in the process. Mostly focusing on cutting now as im around 25% BF. Any advice is appreciated thanks!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Shawn. The way you work out and what type of diet you follow are two separate considerations. I have a full, free guide to nutrition set up here.

  14. Josh says:

    Hey Andy,

    As always thanks for your wealth of information. I wanted to know if constant nagging injuries are also a sign its time to split up your routine. I’ve been doing SL 5×5 since January now and I’ve made great progress on all of my lifts. Now when I first started and was really new to form I picked up an inner left thigh injury and a wrist injury. Nothing crazy but more of a nagging pain when I’m first warming up and a day or two after I lift. I tried resting a week, taking an extra day to rest when I need it, but the pain always seems to come back after a while. Just this week though I seem to have pulled something in my left knee as I have a nagging pain in it since Wednesday. I’ve been studying form religiously since I started SL 5×5 so I’m frustrated that my knee is acting up because form is vitally important to me and I thought I was working out with proper form. The knee pain only occurs after I lift and lasts about a day. My question is can these nagging pains be an indicator that I need to split my routine or do you think its probably a form only issue? I know you’re not a doctor but if you’ve had nagging injuries like this in the past how did you deal with them?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Josh, thanks for the question. More likely a form issue than overuse. If you can’t figure it out, try a different exercise of variation of the exercises you have issue with.

  15. […] experience and find you can still progress linearly with most of your exercises then consider a modified form of the big 3 routine, or a three-day split […]

  16. Jesus Armenta says:

    Thank you for your time and your free information.
    I could do the same volume of training keeping frequency 3 the 3 basics but in more training sessions a week?
    For example 4 sessions of 2 exercises.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Yes, absolutely. Most welcome, Jesus.

  17. George says:

    Hello, Andy,

    First of all, thank you for the wonderful site. Since I discovered it, I’ve made good progress on my cutting diet (19-20% bf currently, down from 25%, not very experienced in lifting). I also bought and read “The Last Shred”, which had lots of useful information.
    My question is concerning the volume of deadlifts when switching to a split.
    I am currently doing Starting Strength 3×5 (with rows instead of cleans) and 1×5 on deadlifts. I want to switch to an A/B split like the one you recommend – alternating squats and deadlifts, because doing squats (reached 102,5 kg 3×5 @71.5 body weight) every workout has become very difficult to recover and it also hurts my deadlifts (after heavy squatting, even 1×5 deadlift is too much sometimes).
    My upper body progress is much more linear and recovery much better, I guess because I’m weaker at that still. Should I up the volume on deadlifts to 3×5 from 1×5, decrease the weight and continue with linear progression using the new rep scheme? Or stick with 1×5? My goal is to milk the linear progression as much as I can, even on a cut.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi George, thanks for getting the book, very happy to read you have found it so useful.

      For the deadlifts, dropping back to one session sounds like the right move. If after doing that you find yourself progressing, leave it as it is. If you aren’t, ask yourself whether you feel recovered or not. If yes, increase the volume. If no, decrease it. More on this in the ‘When and how to make adjustments’ chapter. Just see the first Training Checklist and read from there.

      1. George says:

        Thank you Andy! I will proceed and track the recovery and progress, and adjust if necessary.
        In general, I find the advice to adjust the volume based on progress and recovery to be one of the most useful and essential concepts to learn about training. It makes things so much easier to understand and is much better than sticking to a cookie cutter programme.

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          Absolutely. 🙂
          – Most welcome, George!

  18. J. says:

    Hello Andy,

    I have used your program in the past and followed it exactly as written and indeed my squat, bench and deadlift weight went up exponentially. My question is, do you think that since im doing the big 3 every other day i could do shoulders or biceps or even other back exercises on my off days? Do you think it would be better to incorporate one of the three with every workout instead? Im just trying to figure out the line between over training and maximum progress.

    Thanks very much,

    J.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi J., thanks for the question. Proably better not to as you are progressing well right now and that could upset the recovery balance and negatively affect overall progression in the other, more improtant exercises. – Don’t fix what isn’t broken, right? 🙂 – Have a look at the FAQ at the end of The Big 3 Routine’s article for more on this.

  19. Kierran says:

    Hi Andy,

    If someone cannot Squat or Deadlift, or doesn’t want too or is not confident enough yet to do these in the gym, what would you replace these exercises with?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Great question Kierran. I actually have an article on that so thanks for asking as it serves as a reminder to link it here. 🙂

      A Guide to Exercise Selection When You Don’t Have Access to a Coach

  20. Michael Duxfield says:

    Hi Andy, I thought I’d follow up on my last post here about the pains I was experiencing (couple of questions ago) not completely sure what the problem is but it is resolved.

    So I went to a dr, he just so happened to be a very fit 69 year old body builder and knew right away where the groin, lower back and flute pain was coming from. He suggested I take my underwear off when I train as there is a sensitive nerve in the groin area that relates to these pains and undies put pressure against the nerve. Lol wtf, ok, I gave it a go, started free ball training and the pain surprisingly eased, but not completely.

    I fractured my rib at work a couple of weeks later so I had 3 weeks off resistance training. Been back at it now for 4 weeks, balls free, and no pain. I did also drop the stretches and change my warm up to 10 mins on the bike rather than the previous 5 which may have helped too. Anyway much better now. Thought I should let you know. Cheers for the help

    Michael

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Glad to hear you’re getting things sorted Michael.

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