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 
Monday
Exercise Sets Reps Rep Total
Squat 2 5 5 25
Bench Press 3 5 5 25
Deadlift 4 5 5 25
Wednesday
Exercise Sets Reps Rep Total
Squat 5 5 25
Bench Press 5 5 25
Deadlift 5 5 25
Friday
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.

Be the next success story:

Experience professional, online coaching

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912 Comments

  1. Jay says:

    Hello,
    What is the purpose of doing same number of reps each set? Previously, I have seen another technique where you reduce reps as you increase weight eg. 1st set – 5 reps, 2nd set 3-4 reps, 3rd set 2 reps, 4th set 1 rep…increasing weight maybe 80-90% on last set 1 rep.
    Is there a difference? Which is better?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Two different ways of achieving the same thing – progressive overload. I prefer this way: it’s simple, it builds volume and comfort with the lifts, and it keeps novice lifters away from single-rep maxes, which are unnecessary for progress and most people let their form to go to shit.

      Simple + safe + effective = win.

  2. Carlos Vanegas says:

    Hi Andy,
    I injured my lower back more than a year ago due to bad form on the leg press and squat. So I completely stooped doing any kind of squat or deadlifts. I was thinking on using the 5 x 5 protocol and start from 60-70 lbs on each lift with laser focus on form, with the idea that it will bring balance to the different muscle groups. Is this a good idea?

    Also what do you recommend as far as lift selections for people with lower back problems. Barbell rows or RDL in place of deadlifts? box squat in place of full squat?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      It could be as simple as you say, but sometimes it is far more complicated. Perhaps you might want to go and see a physical therapist. I have a guide to exercise selection here if that helps.

  3. Scott M. says:

    I just finished my second day of working out. I can hardly walk my legs are so sore. Sitting on the toilet is a workout by itself. They were sore after the first day, I didn’t exercise at all yesterday. Today I decreased my squat weight from 135 to 95 so I could finish 5 sets.

    Do I need to give my legs more time to recover initially? Maybe doing the big 3 Monday and Friday until I’m not so sore then go 3 says per week? Or should I just suck it up tell my legs to deal with the pain?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Yeah, that’s just newbie soreness. You’ll get over it very quickly and it won’t be like this soon enough. Everyone goes through it.

  4. Jason B. says:

    This is literally one of the stupidest routines ANY trainee could do. 1. it’s too much stress on the lower back, 2. it will lead the trainee to stall within a couple weeks at most, and 3. i know it’s the digital age and douchebags are constantly making B.S. routines up to “get their name/website out there” but this routine is total crap and a waste of practically anyone’s time whether they are a newbie lifter or not. ANYONE with any amount of lifting experience can tell you that you should only deadlift heavy once per week… twice per week if you’re a complete novice. Jesus, there are so many things wrong with this routine I’m just gonna stop here before i end up writing a book. Take note people, anyone who advises a crap routine like this obviously has little knowledge and experience when it comes to lifting weights. AVOID LIKE THE PLAGUE 0_O

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Opinions are like arseholes, Jason.

  5. Lero says:

    Hey, Andy, I am a little bit confused with this workout. There is no shoulder exercise. Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength alternates between bench press and overhead press. What was your reason for staying with bench press only?
    Thank you.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Lero, thanks for the question. I have no problem with people adding that in, alternating each session. I just wanted to keep it super basic for form practice.

      Just note, the deadlift and the bench work the shoulder, just not visually as directly.

  6. Malek Alrashdi says:

    Hi Andy,

    I have been working out steady for the last 2 years. My routine is full body workout once a week with 30 mins twice a day cardio in the morning on empty stomach and after finishing my workout and I am happy with results. Now I started your routine with no change in diet and cardio. Do you think I should decrease the cardio to once a day to allow better recovery?if yes, I stop morning or post workout? Is the weekends off?

    Thanks,
    malek

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      30 minutes of cardio, twice a day, is entirely unnecessary if you are chasing a physique or strength goal, but if that is what you genuinely enjoy then do it. The key is not to feel so fatigued that you can’t progress.

      You’ll read about the interferrance effect in my article on cardio here, but as you’re new to serious strength training that won’t be relevant right now.

  7. GeorgeJ says:

    I have been exercising extensively this year performing lifting, HIIT and crossfit. In the last three weeks I’ve started the Big 3. I am 6’0’’ and weight 150lbs. I am not particularly flexible and had a partially herniated disk about 10 years ago. I am very apprehensive on the deadlift. I’m concerned there is more risk than reward. I have been doing deadlifts where I place the bar on a low spotter pin maybe between a deadlift and a rack pull, but want to question what to do. Options could be a) suck it up, perform the deadlift, b) continue performing a deadlift with the bar on the spotter pin, c) switch the deadlift for another compound such as a pull up… I can do 5×5 pullups without additional weight, d) something else?

  8. Fabian says:

    Hi Andy,

    First of all I must thank you for sharing your knowledge, it is extraordinary the work you have done with this site… I wish I had found the site before!

    Well Andy, I’ve already adjusted my diet (thanks to your other article), now I’m about to start training. I have a bar and some plates at home (30kg) and I want to start with the Big 3 routine my question is: What happens if I run out of weights? How can I progress? Increase repetitions? In what way?

    Thank you very much for everything, greetings!
    Fabian, Argentina

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Fabian, glad the site has been helpful and greetings from the other side of the earth (Tokyo).

      Buy more weight. 30kg is not going to get you far.

      1. Fabian says:

        HI Andy,

        Thank you for answering! Unfortunately, at the moment I can’t access any more weights… How much more would I need to progress? Maybe I could buy some weight disk every month. Anyway, at some point I’m gonna run out of weight, right? What do I do in that case? How do I progress? If you were in my situation and you only have a bar + 30kg, how would you progress?

        I hope you don’t think I haven’t read your answer, but for the moment it’s really what I have at my disposal. However, I never stopped training, so I wanted to hear your advice.

        Greetings and many thanks!
        Fabian

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          Fabian, thanks for the reply.

          The sets need to be ‘hard’ to provide an adaptive stimulus, so, if you can’t add more weight, you need to add more reps to your sets. The problem with this is the higher the rep number, the greater the fatigue and this risk of form breakdown, which can lead to injury, especially with the barbell movements.

          So, I understand your situation and why you’re asking, but my advice is the same: get some more weight. Second-hand stuff will do: Garage sales, closing down sales, craigslist are good options.

  9. 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. Andy Morgan says:

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

  10. 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. Andy Morgan says:

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

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