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.

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930 Comments

  1. wayne butle says:

    I’m super-heavy, but working on it. At 380 lbs, will it work to do squats with body weight only?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Perhaps, for a time, depending on how strong you are. At your size, there may be physical limitations that affect exercise selection. I have an article with options here.

  2. Jozef says:

    Would you recommend this or your novice bodybuilding routine to someone who is interested in both strength and aesthetics?

    My lifts are NOT impressive. Squat – 150 for 5, Becnh – 140 for 5, deadlift 185 for 5.

    I am 6’4, 230lbs, and about 18 or 19% body fat. I am currently cutting as I am unhappy with how I look.

  3. greg says:

    How long should we rest between sets?

  4. Barrie Hodge says:

    Hi Andy, would you recommend a program like this to a duathlete? I run up to three times a week and cycle up to three times a week. Depending on time, I may do both on the same day but I mostly do alternate days. I weight train twice a week but I’ve hit a Plateua and think going back to basics may help. Conscious of recovery time though. I normally have one day off for recovery but I’m beginning to think this may not be enough.

    Thanks

    Barrie

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      I’m sorry, Barrie, I wouldn’t know.

  5. James says:

    Hello, my question overall is how long should this routine be performed. Like 4 weeks, 8, 12?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      For as long as you continue to progress.

  6. john says:

    Hi

    I saw your exercise selection guide. However due to a severe lower back injury I can’t do deadlifts anymore. What else can I substitute for a hip hinge variant exercise even if it means slower gains.

    If there is nothing else, can I skip deadlifts all together and still get progress if maybe I add a third anabolic inducing compound lift like OHP and maybe some shrugs. I know they’re unrelated to deadlifting but my thought is maybe they will make my body anabolic by substituting to make sure the volume stays decent.

    I’m pissed I can’t deadlift anymore due to lower back injury as it was my favorite exercise but it’s just not worth the risk. If not this program what else would you recommend. I have a feeling that.

    Hope you can help as I don’t see many people telling anyone to skip deadlifts because of their importance, no matter how serious they’re injury.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi John,

      What else can I substitute for a hip hinge variant exercise even if it means slower gains.
      – Any of the hip hinge variants you read in the exercise selection article. However, if it’s as serious an injury as you say then get some professional advice on what exercises you can and cannot do because barbell squatting might not suit you either. Take a look at this program instead and make swaps to the exercises using that guide as necessary.

      Also, if you’ve legitimately read or heard someone say that no matter how serious the injury, people should deadlift, that would bring their judgment into question for all things cause that’s just silly.

  7. Adonnis says:

    Hello Andy,
    I tried this workout and it killed me. I can’t even walk today. I fell twice just walking and couldn’t get up without holding something. Is there a way I can change the workout to make it easier on my legs. Also I used a very low weight for squats.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      You just went too hard. You’ll be fine, go lighter next time.

  8. Lucas says:

    Hi Andy what are the recommended rest periods between the sets?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      A rest period of ~2 minutes between sets should be sufficient for now.

  9. K13 says:

    Should we add rowing ? thanks

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      You’ll see that in the progression from this routine. (Link at the end.) Not for now though.

  10. 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.

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