Choosing a Workout: Beginner’s Big Three

the-big-3-workoutIf you’re new to weight lifting, I have some great news for you – you will see some rapid changes in your strength levels. You’ll get stronger for a while no matter what sort of diet you are on, even if you’re trying to lose weight.

Complete newbies don’t need to complicate things, simple will work best for you and will work for quite a while. You’ll benefit most from sticking to the same exercises each session, with no need to change things up. Performing and practicing the fundamental lifts and making sure you use proper form will bring you the most benefit.

That’s where the Big 3 comes in: squat, dead lift and bench press. As a brand new bar gripped, doing these three exercises three times a week will get you strong faster than you ever would have thought.

Most people would probably offer the opinion that squats and dead lifts are primarily lower body exercises, but the fact is that they work the entire body. Anyone new to training, or anyone who hasn’t been progressing well due to a lack of focus will see benefits from the Big 3 done 3x a week. It’s also a good program for an experienced lifter who’s been away from the gym for a while and is looking to get back into it.

What is the Big 3 Workout Program?

Squats, dead lifts, and bench pres done using fixed sets and reps, meaning that after warming up, all the working sets are done using the same weight for the same number of reps. You do all your sets and reps for one exercise before moving on to the next.

Start each workout with a warm. Light calisthenics for 5 minutes is typically enough to get loose.

Here’s the routine:



  • Warm-up sets
  • 5 sets of 5 reps each with 2 minutes rest between sets


  • Warm-up sets
  • 5 sets of 5 reps each with 2 minutes rest between sets


  • Warm-up sets
  • 5 sets of 5 reps each with 2 minutes rest between sets

Cool-down with light stretching.

How much should you lift?

For your first workout, pick a weight you’ll be able to lift for all five sets, even if it’s just the bar. Chances are you’ll be able to go up the very next workout. Make sure to pay attention to form. You want to make sure you’re doing the lift right when you start, as you’ll be “training” your central nervous system to activate your muscles.

For the next workout, you might already be able to challenge yourself with a slightly higher weight, maybe increasing from 5-10 pounds (or even more). Continue to focus on form.

When and how much should you increase the weight?

When you can do 5 reps in all 5 sets, you want to increase the weight by 5-10 pounds for the next session. You want your increases to be gradual to allow your body to adapt. Remember that weight training is training more than just your muscles,  you’re also working connective tissue, the nervous system, and increasing your bone density. You want to have plenty of opportunity for your body to adapt.

You’ll usually be able to make larger increase in your dead lifts and squats than you bench, especially in the beginning. When you first start, you might be able to go up 10 pounds in each exercise from session to session. But as you continue to progress, the amount you’ll be able to increase from session to session will decrease.

When should I decrease the weight?

If you fail to get 90% of the required reps in 2 consecutive sessions, you want to drop the weight by 10% for the next session.

Since your target rep total is 25, the means if you get 22 reps or fewer for 2 sessions in a row, you should lower the weight by 10% and begin working your way back up. Moving down by 10% is called a reset and will usually allow recovery and kick start progress again.

How long can you do this routine?

How long you will be able to see progress with this routine depends on several factors. Some, like genetics and beginning muscle mass, are beyond your control. Others, like diet, sleep, and stress, can be influenced. Eventually, you might notice that your are doming more and more resets. That when you’ll want to look at chaining things up.

You’ll probably be able to get at least a year out of this routine, maybe even longer depending on what your goals are. As you lifter heavier and heavier weight, you’ll put more and more stress on your body and this will impact your recovery.  When this start to happen, there are some factors you can look at to keep yourself moving forward.

Keep in mind though that if your goal is to lose weight, your progress will slow. It’s a fact that after a certain point, you won’t get any stronger without growing new muscle, and you won’t be able to grow new muscle unless you are eating extra calories.  Beginner are usually easily able to both lose fat adn gain muscle and strength simultaneously, but sooner or later your newbie gains will slow and stop.


Make sure you are getting enough enough calories to support your goals, and make sure you’re getting enough protein. Aim to get enough sleep every night, with 7.5 hours as a minimum. Diet, rest, and stress can all affect your recovery.


You can reduce volume by reducing the number of total reps. Both the dead lift and squat use the lower back, so one of the first signs that you need to reduce volume might be stiffness or soreness in your lower back. Reducing dead lift sets from 5 to 4 or even 3 is a good way to reduce volume and allow more recovery. You can do the same with squats as your weights continue to increase.


Once lowering the volume begins to be less effective and progress slows again, then it might be time to start looking at splitting your routine. Essentially, this means you’ve outgrown the Big 3 and it’s time to move on to a more intermediate program.

Big 3 Pros

  • Simple and easy to do
  • Focuses on the big, compound exercises that give you the most bang for your buck

Big 3 Cons

  • Proper form is essential. As weight increases the risk of injury from improper form also increases.
  • Some of the more “casual” gyms (Planet Fitness cough cough) might not allow dead lifts, or even squats!

Changing it Up

You can use variants of the above exercises and still make progress. For example, it’s perfectly fine to substitute front squats for regular squats, or dumbbell press for bench press. With dumbbells however, it can be hard to move up in small enough increments. For best results, however, I recommend sticking to the three exercises above.

You can also use less resistance for more reps, but aim to keep the total number of reps at 25 (5×5). So you could do 4 x 6 or 3 x 8. This is good for individuals who might not be able to do heavier weights due to age and/or injury.


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