As a look at weight category competition, powerlifters will show you, the Squat, Bench, Deadlift, and their variants will develop a big, strong, and ripped body.
I neglected the Squat and Deadlift for years, not realizing the fantastic all over body training effects. Don’t make that mistake.
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, Bench, and Deadlift.
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.
If you’re wondering whether this routine is for you, consider reading my companion guide: How to Choose The Right Training Program.
Squat Bench Deadlift
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 5x5 Big 3 Routine|
Squat, Bench, and Deadlift 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 the Ph.D. supervisor to my co-author, Dr. Eric Helms, on The Muscle and Strength Nutrition and Training Pyramid books when he was studying RPE. The point being: Mike 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 Workout
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. Rest 2–2.5 minutes between sets. (Enough so that you’re recovered and ready to go again.)
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 To Increase The Load
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 To Decrease The Load
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 5x5 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?|
|3||150x5x5x5x5x3||Missed 2 reps||Same|
|23||255x5x5x5x4x3||Missed 3 reps||Same|
|25||260x5x5x5x4x3||Missed 3 reps||Same|
|26||260x5x5x5x5x2||Missed 3 reps||↓|
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)
- 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.
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).
- It 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
The ‘Big 3’ lifts refer to the barbell Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift. This workout will show you how to practice and get proficient with them quickly.
The Big 3 lifts are enough to build a strong and muscular physique, but these lifts alone will not optimize the speed of muscle growth in non-novice trainees. However, spending your time practicing the Big 3 lifts with a routine like this is a good idea.
There is no specific amount that someone ‘should’ squat, bench, and deadlift (unless you are looking to compete in a powerlifting competition). Limb length ratios, muscle and connective tissue inserts, and genetics play a huge role in how much you can (and will be able to eventually) lift. Aim to lift as much as you can while using proper form, use the progression guidelines detailed here, and the results will come.
It’s important to understand that while the Big 3 lifts do not train the abs directly, they are worked via the isometric contraction of every lift.
In the squat, for example, 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 entirety of the load and/or tilt forward and snap you in half.
You need a muscled body and low body fat to have a visible (and decent looking) six-pack. The Big 3 lifts will build a muscled body with thick abs, but dietary control is what will get you lean enough to see them.
You can use any of the alternatives to the Big 3 barbell lifts that I have listed as options next to each exercise. I have a further guide to exercise selection here.
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 mistaken. The bench press and the deadlift work the shoulders, it is just more difficult to visualize.
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. My quick guide to warming up is here.
Best not to when you’re starting out so that you can practice the motor patterns and master these important lifts. More on this in my exercise selection guide.
2–2.5 minutes should be sufficient at this stage. (It’s a beginner routine.) Enough so that you’re recovered and ready to go again.
Chin-ups are 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. If you’re worried about not training your biceps, they will be 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 of 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.