The Big 3 Routine

 

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 the 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 when cutting or bulking.


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: 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.
  • High frequency of performing each lift gives you plenty of form practice.
  • Cuts through the crap and 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).
  • 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.

The abs are worked in the isometric contraction in every lift. Taking the squat as an example (as it’s the easiest to visualize) 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. The barbell lifts are not the most effective abdominal exercises, you can add in some abdominal work if you would like, but it’s not really necessary at this stage.

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. Check out this article: A Guide to Exercise Selection When You Don’t Have Access to a Coach.

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. 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…?

Refer to the exercise selection guide linked above.

Why no chin-ups?

This is intentionally left out so as not to give you too much to practice initially. Also, all four exercises on a single day could be too much for you to recover from, which could hamper progress. Your biceps are worked with through the isometric contraction when 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.
  • Keep a training log.
  • 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 →

 


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894 Comments on “The Big 3 Routine”

  1. John says:

    How would you compare the Big 3 routine above to Greyskull LP? I started LG this week (my second round after a few years off and losing all my strength), and like the GLP approach. Any thoughts on if results will be just as good?

    1. Hi John, I’m not familiar with Greyskull LP.

  2. Illtyd says:

    Hi Andy,

    For a beginner skinny fat male with big glutes and legs,

    is it suitable to add one compound upper body/back movement (it may be lat overhead press, pulldown, barbell row, rack row or pullup) while subtracting either deadlift or squat from two days of the three, that is altering the compound movements and maintaining the big three on each day;

    or is it more suitable to add just one upper body/back movement to each day, so practicing the same four compound movements each training day, as four sets and five* reps?

    Thanks.

    1. I don’t feel you need to change anything. The fat on your legs and arse is going to be burned away.

  3. Eddie says:

    Hi Andy,

    I have been lifting 3 times a week for the past 2 years. I do one big lift per workout and would build the rest of the workout around it.
    However, my upcoming schedule will allow me to get to the gym maybe only once a week for the next couple of months.
    Would you recommend this routine for someone in my situation?

    Thanks,
    Eddie

    1. It’ll have to be a full body routine. Something like the above with a few accessories (chin-ups & triceps if you want to keep it minimal).

  4. Alfonso Vergara says:

    Andy, great post!

    I do jiu jitsu three times a week – Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and I lift light on Monday, Wednesday and Friday to maintain weight and strength.

    Would it be advisable to incorporate the big three on my lift days? Or will jiu jitsu destroy my gains?

    1. Hi Alfonso, I’ve worked with a lot of guys who do BJJ, I’m sure you’ll be fine, but if not, move to a progression of this so you are training the same body parts a little less frequently.

  5. Prajul says:

    Hi Andy,
    It’s been a month since i last went to gym.My motive is to lose weight and my focus is to bring some cutting to my body.
    Is this effective only for bulking?

  6. Renz J. says:

    Hi Andy

    will this routine advisable when your cutting? correct me if im wrong but to be able and to get stronger you shouldn’t be in a caloric deficit , so in order to progress you should be on a surplus. right?

    1. Hi Renz. Nah, the vast majority of people will make progress while still in a calorie deficit, just not as much as in a surplus. I’ve covered this in detail here:
      How to Choose the Most Effective Strength Training Program for YOU

  7. Colin says:

    I want to do this 3 days a week and cardio style cross training 2 days a week with two days off. Is that a bad idea?

    1. From a recovery standpoint, it’s not ideal.

  8. John says:

    Hi Andy can this routine be done twice per week ?
    Other commitments prevent me from going any more than twice

    1. Three. You can do it twice to start, but at some point, you’ll need three to keep progressing.

  9. Josh B says:

    Hey Andy,

    I am recently getting back into training and I have a quick question. I did the 5×5 2 years ago with amazing results my only problem was my muscle endurance took a huge it only doing the 5×5 but my strength was great. My question is do you think throwing in some pushups and pullups after every workout would be a good addition? I also hit a heavy bag a lot to help with shoulders and cardio. Thanks brother for the awesome article!

    1. Not especially, no. But then you’re not a beginner so this article doesn’t really apply anymore. See the next in the series.

  10. Ali Laala says:

    Hi Andy,

    I am in a very bad shape – 95 kg – 179 cm tall and. My aim is to lose to at least drop 10 kg as a start and i am aware that diet is key and i need to be very selective of what I eat and i can do that. I just want to know how can I use the big 3 program to help me achieve my goal?

    I have previous experience with bar exercises – so do you think if i commit to 5×5 on the big three i can achieve my target and how long should I stick to the 5×5 routine.

    1. so do you think if i commit to 5×5 on the big three i can achieve my target and how long should I stick to the 5×5 routine.

      Yes./ For as long as you can and still make progress. Move on to a progression of it – see the link at the bottom of the article.

  11. Mojtaba Farhani says:

    Hi Andy
    i am a male (170 cm, 79kg) and i am going to gym for over 8 month now. i didnt see any particular changes in my body weights just som slighty differens in my muscle ( bigger shoulders and arms). i go 4-5 time a week to gym and i felt i need a change to my program. do you think that i should change my whole program to the big 3 routine? is it enough to train in gym just 3 times in a week? ( goal is get shredded and losing fat)and do i need to ditch my cardio program also?
    thank you for youre great site, it is very usefull to me.

    1. Hi Mojtaba, thanks for the question.

      Ideally, you’ll figure out specifically what you aren’t doing right and tweak it to get results. That could be a training issue, it could be a nutrition issue holding you back. Otherwise, you could make the jump to this routine and not fix the underlying problem. It’s really up to you though. If you are up for a little reading, here are two guides that may be useful for you:

      The Core Principles of Effective Training
      The Complete Guide To Setting Up Your Diet

  12. Lysander says:

    Hi Andy
    I started Big 3 lifts a month ago, started at 173lbs and now 180lbs. 25%BF. Goal is fat loss. Do you suggest bulking or cutting first? I am probably eating maintenance and I understand the water weight gain probably first few months. I felt gaining chest muscle coz my shirt are getting tighter. How long does water retention last? I am scared to step on the scale.

    1. Hi Lysander, thanks for the questions.

      – You need to cut, bulking from here will be detrimental to your health. Lean out slowly and you will still be able to make progress and put on some muscle.
      – Water retention comes and goes. You can’t control it so don’t worry about it.

  13. Barry Harrison says:

    I have a need to train 5 days per week and I want to bench, deadlift and squat two or three times per week – What can I do on days two and four which are off days in the above programme? What about arms on day 2 and shoulders on dat 4?
    Thanks in advance Andy.

    1. Hi Barry, thanks for the question. The days off are for recovery, don’t do anything.

      If you have just started this routine and feel you can do more, that’s normal, stick with it, the need for those off days will become apparent soon enough.

      If you are asking because you are not new to the barbell lifts and therefore this will not be enough, check out the other training articles. My suggestions would be:
      The Core Principles of Effective Training
      How to Choose the Most Effective Training Program for YOU
      …or perhaps,
      The Intermediate Bodybuilding Sample Program

      1. Barry Harrison says:

        Thanks so much for the prompt answer Andy. Thing is, for personal reasons I need to train 5 days per week.
        I was thinking Mon, Wed, Fri (bench, deadlift squat) heavy, light, heavy, with Tues for Arms and Thurs for shoulders and rest Sat and Sun.
        The gym is a form of medication for me. I can only just cope by staying away two days per week. It’s therapy.
        I want to get plenty of size and strength but I have to do 5 days.
        A difficult one??
        Barry

  14. Jesse Martin says:

    Andy,

    You’ve said to keep your numbers for this routine at something you can complete 5×5 with, but do you have a general idea of a percentage of your 1RM you’d start at?

    Thanks,
    Jesse

    1. Hi Jesse. Just go with the feeling of having one two reps left in the tank at the end of the first set. Feel it out. It’s a novice routine, a novice will not know their 1RM, and there’s no point trying to set a percentage on it.

  15. Rene says:

    Hi Andy! Don’t you think a novice would be better using a routine like this one
    Dips 5X5
    Chin ups 5×5
    Squat 5×5
    Deadlift5x5

    1. Hi Rene, thanks for the question.
      – No, otherwise I would have written that instead. This must be obvious, so I’m guessing you meant to ask one of the following two things:

      “Can I do this instead?”
      – Yes, absolutely. Put the squats first, though.

      “Why wouldn’t this be a better general recommendation?”

      1. Dips pose an unnecessary injury risk. The Bench Press is safer and equally, if not more effective. Also, let’s face it, most guys want to bench.
      2. A novice isn’t going to be able to do many (possibly any) chin-ups, which would be highly demotivating. I want people to start out with easy wins so that the lifting habit can build. Yes, bands can be used (see my full guide to progressing with chin-ups here) but many people don’t have access to them, and incremental progression is far easier to screw up than with simple loading of a barbell. Thus, I’d prefer people get stronger with the deadlift first, knowing this will improve their back strength for the chin-up, before introducing these into their routine.

  16. Michael says:

    Will mass add to my calves with this program?

    1. Ah, a seemingly simple question with a not so simple answer. I’ll do my best for you, Michael.

      – Depends. The calves are trained indirectly through providing stability for the deadlift and squat. Whether this is going to be enough training stimulus to add muscle to your calves will likely depend on your sporting history. If you’ve got big calves from a lot of sports, then probably not as it won’t provide a progressive overload – you’d need to add in direct work like standing or seated calf raises.

      Regardless, if your goal is to achieve the fastest possible muscle growth in the calves then you need to train them directly. Just make sure you don’t do it to an extent where that compromises your ability to squat and deadlift.

  17. FAZLE HOQ FAHIM says:

    Hi Andy,

    im not a novice. i have been working out for last 2 years.

    while performing BIG3 in 3 days a week…can i do HIIT or total body fat burning exercise such as burpee in other 2 days which makes 5 days of work out in a week….(Like..Sunday- Big3, Monday-HIIT, Tuesday-Rest. Wednesday- Big3, Thrusday-HIIT, Friday -Rest)

    i have a chubby face so i need to loose total body fat %. Can i have a fat free jawline by doing only Big3 (With proper diet) ?

    Regards,
    Fahim

    1. Hi Fahim, thank you for the question. It’s not possible to control where we lose fat from on the body, so the training is irrelevant to this. Simply, as you lean out you’ll lose fat in your face also.

  18. jack says:

    I’ve asked around and people were saying this is simply too much for your body to recover from between days and it would fry my central nervous system, thoughts?

    Having said that, I’m using this routine and have been for 3 weeks. Went from 140 to 230 (5×5) on all 3 exercises so far. With 270 being the 1rm.

    1. I think you answered your own question, Jack.

  19. Anil says:

    Hi Andy! I’ve been really enjoying your articles so far!
    I just need to know that… Does this workout help me to have a lean body…?

    1. No, this will help you to have a jacked and shredded body, not a lean one. GET TO IT!

  20. Alan says:

    Hi Andy,

    I’m currently close to 180lb and high 19% early 20% bodyfat range and have been currently cutting. I feel like I need to start building muscle as don’t feel I have enough muscle under the fat I have. Do you believe the above workout of Deadlift, Bench, Squat 5×5 would be beneficial to bulking?

    Also when it comes to tracking measurements where should I expect or watch for increases when bulking?

    Love the website too btw I can’t help recommend the site to friends to checkout too

    Thanks

    1. Hi Alan, thanks for the questions.

      1. Have a modest calorie deficit so you lean out while gaining muscle.
      2. If you are a novice, yes. It will not be sufficient forever, hence the next article recommendation talking about progression.
      3. Covered in my bulk article and tracking article. Click the menu and you shall find. 😉

  21. Rocky says:

    Hi Andy! I’ve been really enjoying your articles so far!

    I recently read The Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid book on training and noticed that the novice bodybuilding routine in that book has more exercises and higher volume/frequency than your big 3 routine. In fact it’s more similar to your intermediate 3-day split routine (except it suggests a minimum of 4 days a week). Would you say that a “novice” in that book translates more to an “intermediate” here?

    My understanding is that a beginner should focus on building strength with the core lifts first because they can recover faster, it’s simpler to prescribe, their increased strength will help them push more volume as they progress, they’re more likely to adhere to it, and it’s good to get plenty of practice with the main lifts. Is that right? If so would that mean the “novice” program in the book is something an actual beginner should slowly progress toward (e.g. only move to a split routine and adding exercises and volume as needed to progress?).

    Thanks!

    1. Hi Rocky, thanks for the questions.
      – Yes. Novice in the way described by the book doesn’t mean new to lifting. Novice on the site is probably better described as that.
      – For the second part, you’ll find this guide to exercise selection useful.

      I can see that it is confusing and I’ll look to clear this up by tweaking the language in the articles on the site. I appreciate you pointing this out.

      1. Rocky says:

        Gotcha! That guide you linked was a great read — props to Naoto and Kengo!

        I do have a follow up question though: I know this site is aimed more for men, but would you still advise the Big 3 routine to a novice woman looking to improve her physique? Would you tweak anything? For instance I know most women would probably prefer to isolate the glutes more (e.g. maybe swap the deadlifts for hip thrusts?). Also I read that women should typically do more reps than men (so maybe 5×8 instead of 5×5?).

        Thank you!

        1. Yes, perhaps more glute specific work dependent on goals. See Bret Contreras’ comment on that article.
          Most welcome Rocky.

  22. Pablo Tellería says:

    Hi Andy!

    First of all, I know that you want nothing to do with injured clients, BUT please hear me out. My physical therapist gave me the green light when I asked her about The Big Three (she happens to be the girlfriend of a former trainee of yours). I’ll be sure to run anything you tell me by her first. Rest assured of that!

    I’ve had an herniated disc for 15 years (I’m 39), and while I can technically do all the exercises mentioned in the site, I must be extra careful with deadlifts and squats. I was advised to start light, progress very slowly and be very vigilant of form. I have been training for a couple of months, and so far so good. I needed to adapt the program and improvise a bit. In order to get some volume I do 5 x 10 instead of 5 x 5 in kettlebell deadlifts and squats, with very light weights. Also, since those excercises are nowhere as taxing as the bench press or the chin ups, I’m now doing all four exercises every single workout. I have a few questions, though:

    – Is 5 x 10 OK? Would any other pattern make more sense to get volume while protecting the joints?
    – I keep progressing in all four excercises, so I take that as a sign that it’s OK to keep doing all four every workout. It’s getting slower on the bench, though. How can I know when it’s time to split?
    – In this scenario my lower body will lag behind my upper body, any pointers on how to address this imbalance?

    Thanks a lot! Your site literally changed my life.

    Cheers,

    Pablo.

    1. Pablo, thank you for the comment. Happy to hear that you have found my site helpful.

      Training volume is the most important variable, there any many set-rep patterns you can use. All the training principles remain the same, you just need to use exercises that your body is ok with, at an intensity (both in terms of load on the bar and intensity of effort) that your body can handle.

      These specifics need to be discussed with a sports specialist doctor Pablo, it isn’t my place to comment. Hope that was helpful though.

  23. Dérrick says:

    I got out of the gym, because of my work schedule. But i am very disciplined and i am doing IF with calisthenics exercises. I loved the ideia of the “big 3 routine”, but i only have the chance to do chin ups on a bar and a pair of barbelss. So…my question is how to pick other 3 exercises that could be used to follow the same idea?
    Bench = push ups?
    Squat with the barbells?
    Deadlift…i wouldnt do it even at the gym (increased weight in that position…makes me wonder about my back). Other exercise?

    Thanks for the help!

  24. Shobha says:

    Hi!
    I was searching for info about squats and deadlifts in same session, and found your article.
    Should one finish all 5 sets of one exercise, before moving to next?
    Or follow squat-bench-lift circuit for 5 sets.
    Can a woman who wants to lose fat, and weight follow this routine?
    Thank you,

    1. Hi Shobha.
      -Yes.
      -No, it’s impractical, unsustainable and sub-optimal.
      -Yes.
      Welcome.

  25. Qasm Qureshi says:

    Hi Andy
    I was wondering if there would be issue if I were to change the sets to 3X8 instead of 5X5. I ask simply because I find that the slightly lighter weight used in the 3X8 setup seems to cause me less issues with poor form and injury and I’m sure in your core principles guide you said the volume would be similar.
    Cheers
    Qas

    1. Qasm, thanks for the question.

      3×8 and 5×5 will produce a similar work volume. All things being equal, there will be a similar outcome between the two. However, alll things are not equal in your case. You are having issues with your form, the answer is to work on that rather than cutting the number of sets and using a higher rep range. Otherwise, you’re just delaying the inevitable problem down the line as you get stronger.

  26. Daniel K says:

    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?

    Daniel

  27. Walker says:

    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.

  28. toby erikson says:

    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.

    ciao

    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. Toby says:

        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.

        ciao

        1. Sure, no worries. The latter.

          1. toby erikson says:

            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?

            1. That just comes with experience.

  29. toby erikson says:

    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. toby erikson says:

        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.
        ciao

  30. Joe says:

    Hey Andy,

    Thanks for all the info!

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

    Thanks! -JZ

  31. Simon says:

    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 🙂
    Simon

    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. Simon says:

        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.)

  32. Robby says:

    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

    1. Hi Robby, for progression suggestions have a look at the article linked at the end. Here you go:
      How to Progress from ‘The Big 3’ to Split Routines

      If you’d like to modify on your own, check out the article I put together on the important underlying theory of effective program design so you can do that:
      The Core Principles of Effective Training

  33. Ken B. says:

    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. Ken B. says:

        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.

        1. Most welcome Ken. 🙂

  34. 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?

  35. Andrea says:

    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

  36. Dean Alley says:

    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.

    1. I have them in that order as the fatigue for the lower back could become an issue.

  37. Christian Gagnon says:

    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?

    Cheers,

    Christian

    1. Hi Christian, thanks for the question.
      Yes, I’d have a diet break first, then eat at calculated maintenance there after.

      1. Christian Gagnon says:

        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,

        Cheers,

        Christian

        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.

  38. Michael Duxfield says:

    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?

    Cheers

    Michael

    1. There are many ways to slice a lemon Michael.

  39. Logan says:

    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?

    Thanks,

    Logan

    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

  40. Scott says:

    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.

    Thanks,
    Scott

    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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