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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 The Big 3 routine?

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.

The Big 3 Routine is for anyone new to training, anyone who has been spinning their wheels on ineffective workouts up until now, or 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.

It can be used when cutting or bulking.


A Guide To Performing The Big 3 Routine

In the Big 3 Routine, 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.

You have a choice over the exercises you can use; I’ve included links to short tutorials on the exercises where I thought this might be particularly useful.

Standard 5×5 Big 3 Routine 
Monday
ExerciseSetsRepsRep Total

Squat

variations»Back Squats (either low or high bar position), preferably. Shoulder mobility issues? Try Safety-bar Barbell Squats or Front Squats. Goblet Squats are great for total newbies.close

5525

Bench Press

variations»Bench Press, Dumbbell Bench Press, or Incline Bench Pressclose

5525

Deadlift

variations»Conventional or Sumo, preferably. Romanian Deadlift can be used as a substitute.close

5525
Wednesday
ExerciseSetsRepsRep Total
Squat5525
Bench Press5525
Deadlift5525
Friday
ExerciseSetsRepsRep Total
Squat5525
Bench Press5525
Deadlift5525

Detailed Video Tutorials

Stay safe, learn how to lift properly. In the videos below we have Dr. Mike Zourdos teaching you how to perform the big 3 lifts. Mike was my co-author (on The Muscle and Strength Nutrition and Training Pyramid books), Eric Helms’ PhD advisor. He knows his shit, you are in good hands. 🙂

The Best Squat Tutorial

The Best Bench Tutorial

The Best Deadlift Tutorial


How To Progress With The Big 3 Routine

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.

Do not train to “form failure.” This means where there is a breakdown in form during a rep but maybe an additional repetition could be performed with poor form. To avoid injury, try to stay one rep shy of where your form will break down.

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.

Sample Big 3 Progression Scheme

Session NumberLifting RecordHit Target?Load Change?
1130x5x5x5x5x5Clear
2130x5x5x5x5x5Clear
3150x5x5x5x5x3Missed 2 repsSame
4150x5x5x5x5x5Clear
22250x5x5x5x5x5Clear
23255x5x5x5x4x3Missed 3 repsSame
24255x5x5x5x5x5Clear
25260x5x5x5x4x3Missed 3 repsSame
26260x5x5x5x5x2Missed 3 reps
27235x5x5x5x5x5Clear
28260x5x5x5x5x5Clear
29265x5x5x5x5x5Clear

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, you’ll probably find that you will 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

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).
  • 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?

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 the Bench, Squat and Deadlift?

I have listed options next to each exercise. We have a further guide to exercise selection here if you find anything above tricky.

It’s normal for any new exercise to be tough or feel a little weird initially. Just try working into them slowly, foam rolling, stretching and practicing. Note also that with the deadlift the bar height should be no lower than where it is when a 45lb (20kg) plate is open it.

Can I alternate the Bench Press with the Overhead Press as per Starting Strength?

Yes, absolutely. But if you’re asking this because you fear that the shoulders are not being worked with the routine as is, you’re wrong. The bench press and the deadlift work the shoulders, it is just more difficult to visualize.

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.

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.

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Comments

Please keep questions on topic, write clearly, concisely, and don't post diet calculations.

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Adam
Adam

Hi Andrew, I was wondering if there was any value to doing a light (half weight of other sets) last set or drop set on last set of deadlifts for reps. So like half the weight and do the majority of the reps only going down slightly past the knee and back up to target the hamstrings and glutes. I’m relatively new to deadlifting, but feel like this gave me some extra activation today.

Andrew
Andrew

Hi Andy,

I’ve been running this program for a couple months and my lifts have increased a bit. How do I know when it’s time to move to a new program?

Bench: 205 lbs 5×5

OH Press (I started alternating with bench 5 weeks ago): 95 2×5, 90 3×5

Squat: 215 5×5

Deadlift: 250 5×5

I think I need to add other things to my training, cardio, conditioning etc. I

Kwency
Kwency

Hello, awesome article and very helpful… Quick question, would it make a difference if I worked out 3 days in a row, and take 4 days in a row off….for example, I would workout Saturday, sunday, and monday…then takes the rest of the week off… If I did that, would I still get the same results?

Sincerely,

Kwency

Kwency Norman
Kwency Norman

Cool thanks for the reply… I will adjust to every other day… Thanks again!

Erik
Erik

Andy;
Why are barbell rows not included in this program? Not suggesting they should be, just wondering why.

Perry
Perry

Hey I started this yesterday I know its stated do this 3 times a week do you reckon if I manage to do it 5 times a week would I do more damage than good or see faster results? As I have already done it twice in a row and I’m sticking to the 3 exercises but with 6 sets and 8 reps.

Terry D
Terry D

This routine is working out nicely for me, however, I do 3 sets of squats, 4 bench (incline), 4 pullups (alternate between chinups), and 3 sets of deadlifts. I do them this on Tuesday, and Thursday, and I row M-W-F, with some mountain bike rides mixed in there as well. I switch between strength 2 days, rowing 3 days, and strength 3 days rowing 2 days on occasion.

Mark
Mark

Thanks for this Article Andy. I’ve been on a different program (so far, its effective). I could give this a try (and remove some of my routine). Some questions though.

1. For Deadlifts, is it ok to start with an empty bar or would you recommend me to add some weights so that the bar doesn’t touch the floor?

2. For Bench Press, would you also recommend a closed-grip version aside from the normal one?

3. Would you recommend if I could add a 5-10 minute core exercises to finish The Big Three?

Kolarov
Kolarov

Hey there.

1. I’m 120kg if i do this with a proper diet would i be able to lose weight with this program.
2. Would i need to do cardio as well if i want lose weight with this work out.
3. if Yes(on the cardio) how much cardio should i aim to do.
4. Would it be good to do abs exercises to lose belly fat as well.

John
John

My back is starting to hurt. I am doing benches perfectly, and earlier I felt I was doing squats well too as I was not feeling any pain. But recently I have been feeling lower back pain with squats too, I did start really low weights on squats. But the worst one is deadlift my back hurts every time I do it. Maybe I need to start ultra low?

Chris
Chris

Hi, I have used a leangains approach in the past and for awesome results. Life challenges have meant I am now back to square 2 (not quite square 1). I have been running and doing circuit training instead, as well as football. How can I incorporate a 7-10k run on the off days, and what macros should I use, also similar question for an insanity type circuit training session. I find these give me great agility, so I don’t want to stop them if I’m back on lean gains.
Much appreciated,
Chris

Glenn
Glenn

How much cardio should i add please

Mateo Segundo
Mateo Segundo

Hello! I have a question about weight progression. In the gym I go to, the lightest plates to add to the barbell weight 2.5 kg or around 5.5 pounds, which means that the minimum weight I can add to a barbell is around 5 kg or 11 pounds by using 2 plates, which can sometimes be too much for session to session progression, specially with the bench press and the squat. It is very difficult to keep good form whenever I add that kind of weight and I find that my stamina runs out before I can finish the last 2 sets of whichever exercise I left for the end of the workout.

What I’ve resorted to do is to add weight every two sessions, but I do not know if this is optimal. What can I do?

Oday mardini
Oday mardini

Hi! thanks for the helpful information.
I came back to the gym after almost 1 year off and I have been doing Bench press, Squat, bi, and tri for 2 weeks, do you think I should keep it or change the routine for something else?

Diego D.
Diego D.

Hi! I really love you website, everything is always so easy to understand here. However I have a question about the squat.

I’ve been doing low-bar squats, since I used Mark Rippetoe’s YouTube videos to learn proper form, but a friend of mine told me that its redundant to do both low-bar squats and deadlifts in the same workout since they both work the posterior chain. He also told me that by doing low-bar squats I’m not working my quads enough and that I’m losing the Isometric contraction in the abs. So, would it be better for me to switch to high bar squats since those focus more on the quads?

Emiliano Torres
Emiliano Torres

Hi Andy! First thank you for all the excellent and free info you put on your site, I am learning a lot.
Second, I can’t barbell Deadlift in my gym, there is no space for it, I can Bench and Squat, but no barbell deadlift, what should I do?
There are kettlebells though, also I can’t change gym for the moment cause I’ve paid 1 year membership. Greetings

Emiliano Torres
Emiliano Torres

Thank you so much, for your reply!
So can I replace the normal Deadlift with RDLs?

Daniel González
Daniel González

Hi! This might be a dumb question; but I’ve been doing this workout for a couple of weeks now, just the barbell to get used to the movements first, but not having plates on the barbell makes it difficult to perform the deadlift since it’s to close to the floor. Is there a solution to this?

Daniel González
Daniel González

Thanks for replying! I have another question. I’ve been working on my bench press form for the past few weeks and I think I got it right, so recently I started adding weight. However, I don’t really feel the chest working.

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Linda
Linda

Hi, I used to do squat , bench press and deadlifts but sold my equipment. I’m having to downsize to an apartment. Is there a machine/brand you suggest that offers these 3 exercises that would work for a small space? Thx

Linds
Linds

Thank you.

Stephen
Stephen

Hi Andy,

I’ve been working this routine for 2 weeks now and am still working on dialing in my form. While it doesn’t take very long, would it be ok to superset 2 of all of the exercises? Especially since I’m still using lighter weights?

Mika Sutinen
Mika Sutinen

Hi Andy! Can you explain why you recommend Big Three instead of some other popular novice strength program like Stronglifts 5×5 or Mark Rippetoe´s Starting Strenght? It would be very cool if you have motivation and time to write and article about the pros and cons of these distinct, but still very similar programs.

Mika Sutinen
Mika Sutinen

Hi again Andy! After reading your book “The Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid” I am very confused. In this book you recommend different programs to novices and different rep ranges (in this site its 5×5 but in your book its 3×8). The squats and deadlifts are also done in separate days. The big 3 is barely mentioned. Why is that? Which one should I follow, the advice presented in the book or in this site? So far I am doing Big 3 because it is very simple and I like doing “big buck” compound lifts. Thanks!

Mika Sutinen
Mika Sutinen

Got it. Thank you!

yannick
yannick

Thank you very much I am doing Stronglifts 5 x 5. I was clearly lifting way too heavy on the deadlift and my form was atrocious. I will lower the weight to get the form right. Same with squats…

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