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; click these to see your options at a glance→1. I’ve included links to short tutorials on the exercises where I thought this might be particularly useful.

Standard 5×5 Big 3 Routine 
Exercise Sets Reps Rep Total
Squat 2 5 5 25
Bench Press 3 5 5 25
Deadlift 4 5 5 25
Exercise Sets Reps Rep Total
Squat 5 5 25
Bench Press 5 5 25
Deadlift 5 5 25
Exercise Sets Reps Rep Total
Squat 5 5 25
Bench Press 5 5 25
Deadlift 5 5 25

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-author5, 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 Number Lifting Record Hit Target? Load Change?
1 130x5x5x5x5x5 Clear
2 130x5x5x5x5x5 Clear
3 150x5x5x5x5x3 Missed 2 reps Same
4 150x5x5x5x5x5 Clear
22 250x5x5x5x5x5 Clear
23 255x5x5x5x4x3 Missed 3 reps Same
24 255x5x5x5x5x5 Clear
25 260x5x5x5x4x3 Missed 3 reps Same
26 260x5x5x5x5x2 Missed 3 reps
27 235x5x5x5x5x5 Clear
28 260x5x5x5x5x5 Clear
29 265x5x5x5x5x5 Clear


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. They which pop up when you click these→6. 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.

Next: How to Progress from The Big 3 to a Split Routine →

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  1. Good job!

  2. 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.

  3. Bench Press, Dumbbell Bench Press, or Incline Bench Press

  4. Conventional or Sumo, preferably. Romanian Deadlift can be used as a substitute.

  5. on The Muscle and Strength Nutrition and Training Pyramid books

  6. Boom.

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904 Wordpress Comments

  1. John says:

    Hi there, am a bit confused. Am I suppose to do Bench, squat , deadlifts per session, 3X a week if i am on a cut?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Jon, Depends on you’re level. Are you new to these movements? Haven’t trained with barbells for a while? If so, then yes, do them 3 days a week, RPT style. Under these circumstances training less would give you more rest and recovery than you need and be sub optimal.

      As you’re on a cut, just stick to these three but hit them hard. Sorry for the confusion.

  2. Joshua says:

    Hi Andy,

    Just want to ask if this “Big 3” routine can be performed on a Smith Machines instead? However, I’ve read there’s advantages and disadvantages to training with Smith Machines.
    Advantages: It isolates muscles and trains the MAIN muscles more?
    Disadvantages: The stabalizer muscles wouldn’t get trained at all and also for the secondary muscles.

    As my gym only have Smith Machines, I’m stuck in terms on where to go. Nevertheless, my gym have many many Dumbbells. Is there any substitute from Barbells to Dumbbells instead? Hope you can help!

    Thanks in advance 😀

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      From the Starting Strength forum:
      No, no, no, no, no. NO!
      Smith Machines are the devil.

      For one thing they completely remove the stabilization aspect of the squat. But go ahead, get up to 300 on a smith machine and then try it with a barbell and see how long you can keep from falling on your ass.

      For another thing it restricts the natural range of motion. See each of us has our own biomechanics (the mechanisms that distinctly tie our individual bones and muscles together) and hence we have an individual movement pattern (range of motion) when doing the squat, or anything else for that matter. For example a guy with a long torso and stocky legs will not squat remotely close to how guy with a short torso and long legs does. The smith machine has only one range of motion for either of these individuals because the bar runs on rails in a fixed path (straight up and down or a slight diagonal). Every individual must conform to no matter their distinct movement pattern. This can be devastating to your skeletal system over time. Just like having your feet bound or slumping severely in your chair, as time passes the smith machine will turn you into a sideshow freak. And children will weep when they look upon you and mothers will shield their eyes from your abnormal freakishness. Your story will become a cautionary tale for newb weightlifter for years to come… “Don’t use the smith machine or you’ll end up just like John Spinalcase.” Turn back now, it’s not too late.

      “Squatting” in a Smith machine is a oxymoron. A squat cannot be performed on a Smith machine, as should be obvious from all previous discussion. Sorry. There is a gigantic difference between a machine that makes the bar path vertical, and a squat that is excecuted correctly enough to have a vertical bar path. Muscle and skeleton should do the job of keeping the bar path vertical, not grease fittings and floor bolts.
      – Mark Rippetoe

      1. Andy Morgan says:

        I say this because I care. Unless it’s impossible, go to a new gym. This is an investment in your future, the vehicle you carry around your soul in, so don’t be cheap with it.

        1. smally says:

          Hi Andy. Like the commenter above I have limited options. I’m a complete beginner, and for me it’s either a Smith machine or squatting with a bar off the ground. I don’t have the skills to clean the bar for a front or back squat, so I’ve just started doing Zercher squats. Do you think these are an acceptable substitute?

          1. Andy Morgan says:

            I’ve never done Zercher squats, but they work the body in a similar way. If you can do them safely then do them. When you no longer can then time to get to a gym.

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