Get Big With The Big Three!

Some people will tell you the big barbell lifts aren't your best choice for muscle growth. This 5-week program proves them wrong!

We know that the big three lifts—the bench press, squat, and deadlift—are among the best options available for building and demonstrating strength. That's why the sport of powerlifting is based on them. Their ability to build muscle, however, is often overlooked.

Don't get me wrong: Machines have their place. But the trusty compound lifts are still the best bet for a lifter looking to build muscle—and build grit while he does it.

Barbell lifts always have been, and always will be, the most effective way to overload the muscles and stimulate hypertrophy. They're also the most efficient, because they recruit an enormous amount of muscle simultaneously. And building a program around the core lifts is easy.

If you take the three powerlifts and add in the overhead press—another compound classic—you already have the foundations of a solid program that targets the entire body. From there, you can simply design your workouts around the lifts and their primary targets:

  • Day 1: Squat (lower body with quadriceps emphasis)
  • Day 2: Bench press (upper body with chest emphasis)
  • Day 3: Deadlift (arguably total body with emphasis on the back and hamstrings)
  • Day 4: Overhead press (upper body with shoulder emphasis)

That's a pretty well-rounded program by itself. But now let's make some tweaks to optimize it for building muscle.

Putting the "Big" in the Big Three

Countless dollars and hours have been spent researching what makes muscle grow—everything from training variables to supplementation to diet. The answers run the gamut, but most experts agree that there are a handful of "musts." The first and probably most important one is overload.

You need to lift something heavy enough times for the body to feel like it has no other option other than to respond by building muscle.

You need to lift something heavy enough times for the body to feel like it has no other option other than to respond by building muscle. You're not going to build muscle by lifting something once or twice. Repeat it a lot, though, and you might be on to something. So you need volume, and a good amount of it.

Another factor that plays a big role in hypertrophy is time under tension. In a way, this is related to volume. After all, if you are lifting a weight for enough reps, you will spend a significant amount of time under tension. But we can stack the deck in your favor by manipulation lift tempo. To do this, we will focus primarily on increasing the time of the negative, or eccentric, portion of the lift. But manipulating the tempo doesn't end there.

In addition to making the eccentric portion longer, we will also utilize strategic pauses on many lifts. This takes away the momentum involved in the lift, making the muscles work harder and further increasing the time under tension, depending on the timing of the pause.

In the squat, for example, you will pause momentarily in the bottom position of the lift, taking away the lift's momentum and forcing your legs to work that much harder. In contrast to this, you will pause at the top of the leg extension to increase the time under tension in the quadriceps.

The Basics of Tempo Lifting

You will see in the program below that tempo is written as four digits. Many of the tempos look like this: 4-1-X-0

Barbell squat

Each number represents a different phase of the lift:

  • Eccentric (also called negative or the lowering of the weight)
  • Pause at the "bottom"
  • Concentric (or the actual lifting of the weight)
  • Pause at the "top"

The number corresponds to time in seconds (or your count in your head). An X means to lift explosively. So in the high bar squat on Day 1, you would lower the weight for a 4-count, pause at the bottom for 1, lift explosively but controlled, and not pause at the top between reps.

Some exercises have different tempos depending on the nature of the lift, so make sure you pay attention to each. If you don't see tempo listed, like on the set of 50 reps of a goblet squat, then don't think about tempo. Just do the reps.

Read this part!

I know most people skip through the explanation part of the article straight to the program. I've been guilty of that myself. But if you only read one sentence, read this: You will need to significantly alter the weight you use for these lifts from what you normally lift.

Most lifters are not accustomed to training with tempo and pauses. You should expect to knock at least a solid 10 percent—possibly more—off of your regular lifts with this style of training. Failing to do so will at best mean you won't get anywhere near the recommended rep range. At worst, you'll get injured.

If you only read one sentence, read this: You will need to significantly alter the weight you use for these lifts from what you normally lift.

The idea behind this program is to train smarter and harder. It's a concept I've built my entire training style around. The goal is to make the most of the weight. So if you ignore me here, you'll learn it the hard way.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.


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Your 4-Week "Big 3" Program

Week 1

Week 1, Day 1: Squat/Quads
1

High bar Squat

3 sets of 10-12 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 90 sec.
Barbell Squat Barbell Squat

Paired set
2

Bulgarian split squat

3 sets of 12-15 reps, 3-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Bulgarian split squat Bulgarian split squat

Leg Extension

3 sets of 10-12 reps, 3-1-X-0 tempo, rest 60 sec.
Leg Extensions Leg Extensions

3
Goblet Squat Goblet Squat

4

Ab-wheel roll-out

3 sets of 10 reps, rest 30 sec.
Ab-wheel roll-out Ab-wheel roll-out


Week 1, Day 2: Bench/Chest
1

Bench Press

3 sets of 10-12 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 90 sec.
Barbell Bench Press - Medium Grip Barbell Bench Press - Medium Grip

Paired set
2

Incline Dumbbell Press

3 sets of 12-15 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Incline Dumbbell Press Incline Dumbbell Press

Incline Dumbbell Fly

3 sets of 15 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 60 sec.
Incline Dumbbell Flyes Incline Dumbbell Flyes

Paired set
3

Wide-Grip Bench Press

3 sets of 10 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Wide-Grip Barbell Bench Press Wide-Grip Barbell Bench Press

Dip

3 sets to near failure, rest 60 sec.
Dips - Chest Version Dips - Chest Version
Wide-grip Bench Press Note: Hands about one hand-width wider than normal.

4
Band triceps extension Band triceps extension


Week 1, Day 3: Deadlift/Back and Hamstrings
1

Deadlift

3 sets of 6-8 reps, rest 2 min.
Barbell Deadlift Barbell Deadlift

Paired set
2

Pull-up or lat pull-down

3 sets of 10-12 reps, 2-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Pullups Pullups

Leg Curl

3 sets of 10-12 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 60 sec.
Seated Leg Curl Seated Leg Curl

Triset
3

Dumbbell Row

3 sets of 10-12 reps, 3-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Bent Over Two-Dumbbell Row Bent Over Two-Dumbbell Row

V-Bar Pull-down

3 sets of 10-12 reps, 3-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
V-Bar Pulldown V-Bar Pulldown

Hanging Knee Raise

3 sets of 10-15 reps, rest 60 sec.
Hanging Leg Raise Hanging Leg Raise


Week 1, Day 4: Military Press/Shoulders and Biceps
1

Barbell Military Press

3 sets of 10-12 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Standing Military Press Standing Military Press

Paired set
2

Dumbbell Upright Row

3 sets of 12-15 reps, 60 sec.
Standing Dumbbell Upright Row Standing Dumbbell Upright Row

Incline Dumbbell Curl

3 sets of 15 reps, 3-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Incline Dumbbell Curl Incline Dumbbell Curl

Paired set
3

Behind-the-Neck press

3 sets of 10-12 reps, 3-0-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Standing Barbell Press Behind Neck Standing Barbell Press Behind Neck

Rear-Delt Raise

3 sets of 15 reps, rest 60 sec.
Seated Bent-Over Rear Delt Raise Seated Bent-Over Rear Delt Raise

4

Barbell Curl (empty bar)

1 set to failure
Barbell Curl Barbell Curl



Week 2

Week 2, Day 1: Squat/Quads
1

High bar Squat

4 sets of 10-12 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 90 sec.
Barbell Squat Barbell Squat

Paired set
2

Bulgarian split squat

4 sets of 12-15 reps, 3-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Bulgarian split squat Bulgarian split squat

Leg Extension

4 sets of 10-12 reps, 3-1-X-0 tempo, rest 60 sec.
Leg Extensions Leg Extensions

3
Goblet Squat Goblet Squat

4

Ab-wheel roll-out

4 sets of 10 reps, rest 30 sec.
Ab-wheel roll-out Ab-wheel roll-out


Week 2, Day 2: Bench/Chest
1

Bench Press

4 sets of 10-12 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 90 sec.
Barbell Bench Press - Medium Grip Barbell Bench Press - Medium Grip

Paired set
2

Incline Dumbbell Press

4 sets of 12-15 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Incline Dumbbell Press Incline Dumbbell Press

Incline Dumbbell Fly

4 sets of 15 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 60 sec.
Incline Dumbbell Flyes Incline Dumbbell Flyes

Paired set
3

Wide-Grip Bench Press

4 sets of 10 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Wide-Grip Barbell Bench Press Wide-Grip Barbell Bench Press

Dip

4 sets to near failure, rest 60 sec.
Dips - Chest Version Dips - Chest Version
Wide-grip Bench Press Note: Hands about one hand-width wider than normal.

4
Band triceps extension Band triceps extension


Week 2, Day 3: Deadlift/Back and Hamstrings
1

Deadlift

4 sets of 6-8 reps, rest 2 min.
Barbell Deadlift Barbell Deadlift

Paired set
2

Pull-up or lat pull-down

4 sets of 10-12 reps, 2-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Pullups Pullups

Leg Curl

4 sets of 10-12 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 60 sec.
Seated Leg Curl Seated Leg Curl

Triset
3

Dumbbell Row

4 sets of 10-12 reps, 3-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Bent Over Two-Dumbbell Row Bent Over Two-Dumbbell Row

V-Bar Pull-down

4 sets of 10-12 reps, 3-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
V-Bar Pulldown V-Bar Pulldown

Hanging Knee Raise

4 sets of 10-15 reps, rest 60 sec.
Hanging Leg Raise Hanging Leg Raise


Week 2, Day 4: Military Press/Shoulders and Biceps
1

Barbell Military Press

4 sets of 10-12 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Standing Military Press Standing Military Press

Paired set
2

Dumbbell Upright Row

4 sets of 12-15 reps, 60 sec.
Standing Dumbbell Upright Row Standing Dumbbell Upright Row

Incline Dumbbell Curl

4 sets of 15 reps, 3-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Incline Dumbbell Curl Incline Dumbbell Curl

Paired set
3

Behind-the-Neck press

4 sets of 10-12 reps, 3-0-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Standing Barbell Press Behind Neck Standing Barbell Press Behind Neck

Rear-Delt Raise

4 sets of 15 reps, rest 60 sec.
Seated Bent-Over Rear Delt Raise Seated Bent-Over Rear Delt Raise

4

Barbell Curl (empty bar)

1 set to failure
Barbell Curl Barbell Curl



Week 3

Week 3, Day 1: Squat/Quads
1

High bar Squat

3 sets of 8-10 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 90 sec.
Barbell Squat Barbell Squat

Paired set
2

Bulgarian split squat

3 sets of 10-12 reps, 3-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Bulgarian split squat Bulgarian split squat

Leg Extension

3 sets of 10-12 reps, 3-1-X-0 tempo, rest 60 sec.
Leg Extensions Leg Extensions

3
Goblet Squat Goblet Squat

4

Ab-wheel roll-out

4 sets of 10-12 reps, rest 30 sec.
Ab-wheel roll-out Ab-wheel roll-out


Week 3, Day 2: Bench/Chest
1

Bench Press

3 sets of 8-10 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 90 sec.
Barbell Bench Press - Medium Grip Barbell Bench Press - Medium Grip

Paired set
2

Incline Dumbbell Press

3 sets of 10-12 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Incline Dumbbell Press Incline Dumbbell Press

Incline Dumbbell Fly

3 sets of 12-15 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 60 sec.
Incline Dumbbell Flyes Incline Dumbbell Flyes

Paired set
3

Wide-Grip Bench Press

3 sets of 8-10 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Wide-Grip Barbell Bench Press Wide-Grip Barbell Bench Press

Dip

3 sets to near failure, rest 60 sec.
Dips - Chest Version Dips - Chest Version
Wide-grip Bench Press Note: Hands about one hand-width wider than normal.

4
Band triceps extension Band triceps extension


Week 3, Day 3: Deadlift/Back and Hamstrings
1

Deadlift

3 sets of 4-6 reps, rest 120 sec.
Barbell Deadlift Barbell Deadlift

Paired set
2

Pull-up or lat pull-down

3 sets of 8-10 reps, 2-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Pullups Pullups

Leg Curl

3 sets of 10-12 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 60 sec.
Seated Leg Curl Seated Leg Curl

Triset
3

Dumbbell Row

3 sets of 10-12 reps, 3-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Bent Over Two-Dumbbell Row Bent Over Two-Dumbbell Row

V-Bar Pull-down

3 sets of 10-12 reps, 3-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
V-Bar Pulldown V-Bar Pulldown

Hanging Knee Raise

3 sets of 10-15 reps, rest 60 sec.
Hanging Leg Raise Hanging Leg Raise


Week 3, Day 4: Military Press/Shoulders and Biceps
1

Barbell Military Press

3 sets of 8-10 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Standing Military Press Standing Military Press

Paired set
2

Dumbbell Upright Row

3 sets of 10-12 reps, rest 60 sec.
Standing Dumbbell Upright Row Standing Dumbbell Upright Row

Incline Dumbbell Curl

3 sets of 12-15 reps, 3-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Incline Dumbbell Curl Incline Dumbbell Curl

Paired set
3

Behind-the-Neck press

3 sets of 8-10 reps, 3-0-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Standing Barbell Press Behind Neck Standing Barbell Press Behind Neck

Rear-Delt Raise

3 sets of 12-15 reps, rest 60 sec.
Seated Bent-Over Rear Delt Raise Seated Bent-Over Rear Delt Raise

4

Barbell Curl (empty bar)

1 set to failure
Barbell Curl Barbell Curl



Week 4

Week 4, Day 1: Squat/Quads
1

High bar Squat

4 sets of 8-10 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 90 sec.
Barbell Squat Barbell Squat

Paired set
2

Bulgarian split squat

4 sets of 10-12 reps, 3-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Bulgarian split squat Bulgarian split squat

Leg Extension

4 sets of 10-12 reps, 3-1-X-0 tempo, rest 60 sec.
Leg Extensions Leg Extensions

3
Goblet Squat Goblet Squat

4

Ab-wheel roll-out

4 sets of 12-15 reps, rest 30 sec.
Ab-wheel roll-out Ab-wheel roll-out


Week 4, Day 2: Bench/Chest
1

Bench Press

4 sets of 8-10 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 90 sec.
Barbell Bench Press - Medium Grip Barbell Bench Press - Medium Grip

Paired set
2

Incline Dumbbell Press

4 sets of 10-12 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Incline Dumbbell Press Incline Dumbbell Press

Incline Dumbbell Fly

4 sets of 12-15 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 60 sec.
Incline Dumbbell Flyes Incline Dumbbell Flyes

Paired set
3

Wide-Grip Bench Press

4 sets of 8-10 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Wide-Grip Barbell Bench Press Wide-Grip Barbell Bench Press

Dip

4 sets to near failure, rest 60 sec.
Dips - Chest Version Dips - Chest Version
Wide-grip Bench Press Note: Hands about one hand-width wider than normal.

4
Band triceps extension Band triceps extension


Week 4, Day 3: Deadlift/Back and Hamstrings
1

Deadlift

4 sets of 4-6 reps, rest 2 min.
Barbell Deadlift Barbell Deadlift

Paired set
2

Pull-up or lat pull-down

4 sets of 8-10 reps, 2-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Pullups Pullups

Leg Curl

4 sets of 10-12 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 60 sec.
Seated Leg Curl Seated Leg Curl

Triset
3

Dumbbell Row

4 sets of 10-12 reps, 3-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Bent Over Two-Dumbbell Row Bent Over Two-Dumbbell Row

V-Bar Pull-down

4 sets of 10-12 reps, 3-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
V-Bar Pulldown V-Bar Pulldown

Hanging Knee Raise

4 sets of 10-15 reps, rest 60 sec.
Hanging Leg Raise Hanging Leg Raise


Week 4, Day 4: Military Press/Shoulders and Biceps
1

Barbell Military Press

4 sets of 8-10 reps, 4-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Standing Military Press Standing Military Press

Paired set
2

Dumbbell Upright Row

4 sets of 10-12 reps, 60 sec.
Standing Dumbbell Upright Row Standing Dumbbell Upright Row

Incline Dumbbell Curl

4 sets of 12-15 reps, 3-1-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Incline Dumbbell Curl Incline Dumbbell Curl

Paired set
3

Behind-the-Neck press

4 sets of 8-10 reps, 3-0-X-0 tempo, rest 30 sec.
Standing Barbell Press Behind Neck Standing Barbell Press Behind Neck

Rear-Delt Raise

4 sets of 12-15 reps, rest 60 sec.
Seated Bent-Over Rear Delt Raise Seated Bent-Over Rear Delt Raise

4

Barbell Curl (empty bar)

1 set to failure
Barbell Curl Barbell Curl


Week 5: Deload

Back off to 75% of Week 4 volume and weight.

Think Big, Lift Big, Get Big

Everything about this program is strategically designed to stimulate muscle growth while building strength to go along with it. Remember to leave your ego at the door when necessary, and you will get plenty of return on your time and hard work.

This is an intense hypertrophy program, so don't let it go to waste by backing it up with a crappy diet. If you are running this, your goal should be to build muscle. Eat like you mean it! If you don't, you are needlessly beating yourself up and will have nothing to show for it. Experienced lifters know that recovery is as important as time in the gym.

After you've wrapped up the four weeks, make sure you utilize a deload. Don't skip it. This will allow your body to fully recover and take advantage of a supercompensation effect. After that, you can repeat the program again, or move on to a higher intensity strength-focused program to put the muscle you built to use, like my Cluster Training Program or Strong In 8 Weeks!


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