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.
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.
‘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:
Phase 2: ‘Big 3’ Routine – Deadlift Modified
The lower back starts to get sore, you make a volume adjustment to the deadlifts:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.