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March 12, 2022 10 min read

As diets, workout regimes, and equipment gets more and more complicated, sometimes it’s good to take a step back and ask what’s actually important.

Down below we’ll be taking a look at a routine that does just this. By focusing exclusively on the three big lifts—the bench press, squat, and deadlift—you can simplify your workouts while still getting results. Although this may sound too good to be true, the fact is that these exercises challenge your body enough to elicit results without any other accessory movements.

However, this is mainly going to benefit beginners who are going through a body recomposition, where fat will slowly be shed and muscle built instead. For intermediate lifters and definitely pros, a basic workout like this likely won’t get you amazing results. Nevertheless, the fact that it’s possible really speaks to the usefulness of the big three.

powerlifting back male athlete squat with barbell

The Big Three

As we mentioned above, the big three are the bench press, squat, and deadlift. They’re the three lifts used in powerlifting, where powerlifters use the combined total to measure their strength against their competitors. These lifts are so ubiquitous because they’re so difficult, requiring sometimes complicated techniques to pull off safely and efficiently. Put together, these compound exercises activate every single muscle group in your body, and they’ll especially hit the largest (and most impressive) muscles.

For this reason, and many others, they make up the bedrock of most workout programs out there. And because they’re made up of such fundamental movements (lifting, pressing, squatting), there’s an entire world of variations for lifters to try. Not only do these variations add some variety to maybe otherwise stale workouts, but they also engage different muscle groups in slightly different ways, allowing for more well-rounded development.

But what if you stripped away everything else and just left the big three? This is where the big three workout comes in. As you might’ve guessed, it relies entirely on these three main lifts for all your physical training needs. The sets and reps can be broken down however you like, but a popular setup is doing 5 sets of 5 reps of each exercise, 3 times a week. We’ll take a closer look at the workout routine further below, but first, let’s see what makes these lifts so special.

Bench Press

When it comes to upper body strength, the bench press is the golden standard. Walk into any gym in the world and you’ll likely find a bench positioned underneath a barbell, waiting for the next lifter to start pressing. The primary movers in the bench press are the pecs of the chest, anterior delts of the shoulders, and the triceps. Because you’re using so much of your upper body’s muscles, you’re going to be able to move a lot of weight.

And the more weight you move, the more gains you’ll elicit. This makes the conventional barbell bench press an incredible addition to your big three workout. Before you begin, it’s important to set up by ensuring that when you lie down on the bench, the bar is directly over your eyes. The height of the bar should also be no higher than your wrists when you raise your arms straight up.

To perform the bench press:

  1. Once you’re set-up, lie with your back flat on the bench. Bring your shoulder blades back and try pinching them together, and grab onto the barbell with an overhand grip. Your hands should be slighter wider than shoulder-width apart. Firmly keep your feet planted on the floor, bringing up your legs towards your torso.
  2. Press upward and lift the barbell off the rack, locking out your elbows. Continue by slowly bending your elbows and lowering the bar down to your chest. The bar should just about tap your upper chest.
  3. Pause for a moment before pressing the barbell back up and locking out your elbows.

Squat

Much like the bench press was the golden standard for upper body strength, the barbell back squat is the golden standard for the lower body. Working essentially every major muscle group in your lower body, this lift’s benefits extend across the entire body. The primary movers are the quads, hamstrings, and glutes, but even your back muscles and core will come into play at heavier weights in order to balance the load.

The squat will also help you maintain the health of the tendons and ligaments around your hips and knees. Since this exercise hits many of the largest muscles in your body, it’s extremely effective at burning calories and building muscle mass. Its carry-over effects are endless, and you can expect squat benefits to spill over into all your other lower body workouts and even day-to-day life.

To perform the squat:

  1. Begin by stepping underneath a loaded barbell that’s supported by a squat rack. Rest the barbell on your upper back and hook your hands around it. Step back away from the squat rack and adopt a hip-width stance with your toes slightly pointed out.
  2. Keeping your core tight, chest up, and looking straight ahead, slowly push your hips back while also bending your knees. Keep your back straight as you continue down to the ground.
  3. Continue down until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor. Pause in this position before explosively driving through your feet and coming back into an upright position.

Deadlift

Known as the king of exercises, the deadlift is another juggernaut of a lift. It is lifting in its purest form: picking something up and putting it back down again. And because of this fundamental characteristic, it’s also one of the most beneficial exercises to include in any training program. If the squat and bench press develop the biggest and flashiest muscles, the deadlift does all the heavy lifting in the back.Although you’ll be engaging pretty much every major muscle group in the body to some extent, the deadlift primarily targets the posterior chain.

This involves all of the muscles that run from your heels to your neck, which has incredible carry-over benefits to sports and functional fitness. You can also expect to improve your core strength and grip strength as well. Even more than the exercises we’ve looked at so far, the deadlift promises to hit more of your muscles, and harder. It’s a great addition to most workout routines and a no-brainer pick for a big three workout program.

To perform the deadlift:

  1. Set up a loaded barbell on the floor in front of you. Step up to it with your feet about hip-width apart, angling your toes slightly outward. Hinge your hips back, followed by bending your knees in order to bring your shoulders over the bar. Grasp the bar just outside of your knees. Create some tension in your arms by engaging your lats.
  2. Maintaining tension throughout your body, push your feet into the floor to drive upward. The bar should track along with your shins until it reaches past your knees, at which point should come to a fully vertical position.
  3. Once the bar comes past your knees, thrust your hips forward in order to lockout at the top of the movement. You should be consciously engaging your glutes, placing your hips right under your shoulders.
  4. Pause at the top of the lift before slowly reversing the movement. If you have bumper plates on, you can also drop the bar. However, slowly lowering the weight will allow you to garner some gains from the  eccentric portion of the lift.

The Benefits of the Big Three

These big three lifts are difficult and technically challenging movements to pull off—especially if you’re using a significant amount of weight. This means that they’re going to fully challenge your body, allowing you to develop muscle mass and strength. These lifts work well together because they’re all compound lifts, requiring many different muscle groups to work together to move a load. The fact that you need so many different muscle groups (that happen to be large) to move the weight also means that you can move heavier and heavier barbells. 

For many people, and especially beginners, just these three exercises are a solid-enough introduction to weightlifting and getting results. And even though the exercises themselves may seem complicated to perform at first, there are only three of them. This means that there’s a lot of simplicity when it comes to formulating a workout routine.

The Basic Big 3 Workout Routine

Like we talked about at the beginning, the basic big 3 workout routine comes down to 5 sets of 5 reps of each exercise, per workout. This means you’ll be doing 25 reps of each exercise during every workout, and workouts will occur three times a week (this usually means Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). This is easy to incorporate into a schedule and even easier to remember. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you should be choosing a weight for each exercise that’ll you’ll actually be able to get through for 5 sets of 5 reps, give or take.

You also don’t necessarily have to stick to the conventional variations of these lifts. For example, instead of the conventional barbell back squat, you can do front squats or dumbbell squats. Instead of the bench press, try the incline bench press or the dumbbell bench press. And rather than the deadlift, incorporate the sumo deadlift, Romanian deadlift, or  suitcase deadlift. Beginners can even do the bodyweight variation of the barbell squat.

How to Progress with the Big 3

Introducing different variations of exercises is also one idea for how you can progress in the routine, and continually develop your strength and size. Since this routine is much more bare-bones than other ones out there, there isn’t a built-in process for progression. That means that progression will largely come down to simply increasing the weights as they become easier to lift. However, you can change around the rep schemes and also the rest times between sets. These factors can also be used to increase the difficulty and further development.

man athlete bench press exercise in powerlifting competition

Other Routines Based on the Big 3

The big three workout routine is useful for those that are just getting into lifting or people who want to work out as efficiently as possible without putting in time for other frills. This comes at the cost of doing repetitive workouts that don’t have a built-in pathway for progression. The good news is that a balance can be struck without getting rid of much of the simplicity that makes this system so attractive. Both the Stronglifts 5x5 program and the 5/3/1 program stay very true to the basics and keep things relatively simple. Between the two workout routines, there are only two unique exercises outside of the big three.

Stronglifts 5x5 Program

This program is divided into two workouts. “Workout A” includes the squat, bench press, and barbell row. “Workout B” includes the squat, overhead press, and deadlift. You’ll alternate between Workout A and Workout B, leaving a rest day in between. That means your first week will have you working out as such:

  • Monday: Workout A
  • Wednesday: Workout B
  • Friday: Workout A

The next week begins on Monday with Workout B and then continues alternating. Just like the basic big three workout, you’ll also be completing each exercise in sets of 5 with 5 reps each. The one exception is going to be deadlifts, which you should do 1 set of 5 reps. This is because you’ll be doing squats three times per week at the beginning of each workout. If you continue progressing and increasing your squat weight, the deadlifts are going to become very difficult for you to do. If you do want more deadlifts, incorporate a lighter warm-up set instead of full sets. Altogether, this routine looks like this:

Workout A

  • Squats: 5 x 5
  • Bench Press: 5 x 5
  • Barbell Row: 5 x 5

Workout B

  • Squats: 5 x 5
  • Overhead Press: 5 x 5
  • Deadlift: 1 x 5

Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 Program

The only exercises in this program are the overhead press, bench press, squat, and deadlift. But while the exercise variety is simplified from the program before, the progression is much more complex. This program is catered more to intermediate lifters. This program is based on a four-week cycle, where weights will be based on a percentage of 90% of your 1 rep max (1RM). Each week consists of four workouts, each one centering on one of the four lifts.

Each workout will also consist of three sets of five reps, with each set getting heavier than the last. You’ll first need to find out 90% of your 1RM for each of these lifts before continuing. The last set should be an AMRAP set where you go for as many reps as possible (except for the last week which is a deload period). The program is broken down like this:

Week One

  • Set 1: 65% x 5
  • Set 2: 75% x 5
  • Set 3: 85% x 5+

Week Two

  • Set 1: 70% x 3
  • Set 2: 80% x 3
  • Set 3: 90% x 3+

Week Three

  • Set 1: 75% x 5
  • Set 2: 85% x 3
  • Set 3: 95% x 1+

Week Four

  • Set 1: 40% x 5
  • Set 2: 50% x 5
  • Set 3: 60% x 5

Simplicity for Bodybuilding and Strength Gains

The programs above will not only put you well on the path to achieving your fitness goals, but they’ll also do so without overcomplicating matters. All of the workout routines based on the big three effectively trim the fat—both body fat and any excessive complexity. This allows you to focus on the movements that are really important and offer the biggest bang for their buck, without having to sweat the small stuff (literally). Although there are different programs that build around this simplicity, they all mainly focus on the big three lifts.

However, even though this type of training is effective and can get most beginners and intermediates results, it’s far from the only thing that’ll lead to success. The right diet is going to be much more important than the workouts you incorporate into your routine. You can’t out-train a bad diet, no matter how hard or well you work out. Getting enough protein along with healthy sources of carbs and fats is the surest way to reach your fitness goals.

Although it’s important to stay physically active, your fat loss and muscle gain are going to come down to the energy you put into your body. Lastly, your body needs rest. The big three work on their own because they take so much energy out of you, so you’re going to need to give your  body a break. Not resting enough between workouts might at first sound like you’re just a hard worker, but it can kneecap your gains and lead you to plateau.

Bringing together these aspects of physical activity, diet, and rest, you can create the physique of your dreams. Before trying to find success in overcomplicated techniques and methods, sometimes it’s best to take a step back and revaluate what’s truly important and necessary for your goals.