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
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):
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)
- 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.