Workout Routines

The 3X2 Strength Program

Build a bigger squat, bench and deadlift... not to mention a bigger you.

Shawn Perine thumbnail by Editor in Chief

There's a natural tendency among us so-called evolved beings to gravitate toward chaos, and bodybuilders are no exception in our so-called "enlightened" 21st century. Back in the day, a person looking to get big and strong would follow a simple but effective path, but today he's often burdened with a gym full of confusing, and often contradictory, information: train to failure; train past failure; use drop sets; employ forced reps; don't overtrain; don't undertrain. In the end, a good deal of formerly clear-minded training devotees find themselves too overwhelmed and undermotivated to actually get into the gym and attempt to sort it all out.

But every now and then a clarion call cuts through the cacophony to save us from ourselves. In the auto industry it's the no-haggle policy that certain automakers are adopting to draw consumers away from their more aggressive competition. In the weight-training world it's Jim Stoppani, PhD, M&F senior science editor and author of Encyclopedia of Muscle & Strength (humankinetics.com), who has come up with a fail-safe plan for upping your strength and size without all the why's and wherefore's.

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Keep It Simple 

If your goal is simply to build a stronger, more muscular you, then keep it simple. Long before Jack LaLanne ever performed his first jumping jack in a Spandex bodysuit, musclemen consistently employed the "big three" exercises—bench press, squat, deadlift—in their workouts as well as used them as benchmarks for progress. These three movements en masse, determinants of overall strength, are so comprehensive that they comprise a sport unto themselves, aka powerlifting.

As a former national-level amateur bodybuilder known for his amazing strength (he would go rep for rep with the legendary Barbarian Brothers at Gold's Venice in the early '90s), Stoppani is well-qualified to cut through the clutter and deliver a no-nonsense, straightforward plan that can bring out your own inner barbarian.

The Big Three

In a nutshell, this six-week program is centered around the three powerlifting movements, and while not comprised of them solely, it's designed to increase your strength in each and, in turn, increase your muscle mass. It's a simple plan that simply works.

While Monday's routine is squat-centric, it includes a number of "assistance" exercises that focus on quads, calves and abs, which are included specifically to make you a stronger squatter. The stronger your squat is for a prescribed number of reps, the more your thigh muscle fibers are stressed and the bigger your muscles will grow in response to the overload.

Wednesday's routine follows the same type of program, except the workout is geared toward maximizing your bench press. Whereas Monday's routine covers the lower half of the body, Wednesday's works approximately half of the upper body (chest, shoulders, triceps, abs).

The rest of the upper body, namely back and biceps, along with hamstrings, is targeted on Friday, during which the focal exercise is the deadlift. Once Friday's routine has been completed, the entire body will have been worked from a variety of angles. The dual benefit will be muscle hypertrophy due to the general progressive resistance training and a steady increase in your performance in the big three. Of course, this improved performance becomes a cyclical benefit in itself as a big squat, bench and deadlift will also result in bigger muscles: a win-win-win situation all around.

You'll begin this routine using 80% of your one-rep max (1RM)—a weight you can lift for about eight reps—on each of the three main exercises and progresses to 90% 1RM (or a weight you can lift for about four reps) in Phase 2 and finishes with 95% RM (or a weight you can lift for only about two reps) in Phase 3. You can either test your 1RM on each of the three big lifts and then use the corresponding rep max for each phase or just find a weight that allows you to hit the corresponding rep range. The last option is a must for those training without a partner.

On Muscle Failure

One of the key elements of this routine is achieving failure in the muscles being worked. What does this mean? Muscle failure is the point during an exercise at which the muscles have become fully fatigued and can no longer complete an additional rep of that exercise with the prescribed weight using strict form. While bodybuilders tend to complete all their sets to failure, powerlifters rarely, if ever, train this way. Many believe it can hinder strength gains. Yet research from the Australian Institute of Sport in a 2005 Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research suggests that training to muscle failure may enhance strength gains. The key appears to be the number of sets performed to failure—and that number appears to be one.

When trained lifters completed one set to failure of the four sets they trained with on the bench press for eight weeks, they exhibited double the strength gains of lifters who didn't complete any of their four sets to failure. In a follow-up study, the researchers further discovered that doing more than one set to failure on the bench press for eight weeks offered no additional increase in strength gains. In fact, when they compared the two studies, they found that the strength gains reported in the second study using multiple sets to failure were less impressive than the strength gains seen in the study utilizing just one set to failure. The reason may be that performing only one set to failure allows for enough stimulus to be delivered to the muscle fibers without the risk of overtraining, which can happen when training with too many sets to failure.

To take advantage of this knowledge, be sure to perform the last set—and only the last set—of every exercise (except for abdominals) to muscle failure. But be sure to heed one caveat: Safety first! For obvious reasons, failure isn't a method to be utilized by those who train alone, except when using machines or during exercises—such as the deadlift, dumbbell bench press, Smith-machine squat or barbell curl—where it's easy to return the weight to a safe location. Under no circumstances should anyone training alone perform any barbell pressing exercises, barbell squat, leg press or hack squat to failure or close to failure. These exercises all require the help of a good spotter to ensure that the last rep is done accurately and safely.

Swap out your current routine with this one for six weeks to boost strength and size. After the six-week cycle, you can either stick with this plan or switch back to your old routine. Since this is a periodized routine (split into two three-week cycles) and we frequently recommend periodization (the regular switching of exercise regimens) as a means to steady growth, consider the latter scenario. The other benefit to returning to your old routine is the improved performance you'll see in your lifts. It's almost like coming home from an extended vacation to a house full of brand-new appliances—everything will be easier from here on out.

The 3X2 Strength Program

Monday: Squat Day

More bodybuilders will tell you that if they were stranded on a desert island and limited to performing only one exercise with the barbell they've fashioned from bamboo and coconuts, it would be the squat.

First and foremost, squats work the thighs—every last freakin' fiber. No one who's capable of knocking out reps of heavy, deep squats can walk into The Gap and squeeze into a pair of slim-fit jeans. Even the loose fits may be tight. From the quadriceps to the hamstrings to the adductors and all the other crisscrossing muscles between, the squat takes no prisoners.

The squat, however, is far more than just a thigh exercise. The glutes are also a primary mover when squatting, especially when going below parallel. In addition, the spinal erectors are stressed as the body stabilizes itself, not to mention a whole host of supporting muscles, from the lower legs to the arms.

When performing the squat, it's best to keep a few key points in mind, for reasons of safety and maximum effectiveness:

>> Stay upright: Never, ever slouch when performing a squat. Do not let your back curl or your shoulders roll forward. The idea is to keep your back rigid and in a natural position at all times.
>> Don't bounce: Bouncing at the bottom of the squat is an effective way to ruin your knees. Control the weight from top to bottom and back.
>> Breathe properly: Inhale and hold your breath before starting the eccentric portion of the rep; exhale forcefully after passing the most difficult part coming up.

Phase 1: Weeks 1-2

Exercise

Sets

Reps

RM%

Squat

1

10

50

1

6

60

1

5

70

3

5

80

1

To failure

80

Leg Press

2

8

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Leg Extension

2

10

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Standing Calf Raise

2

12

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Dumbbell Woodchop

3

20

Same weight throughout

Phase 2: Weeks 3-4

Exercise

Sets

Reps

RM%

Squat

1

10

50

1

6

60

1

5

75

3

3

90

1

To failure

90

Leg Press

2

6

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Leg Extension

2

8

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Standing Calf Raise

2

10

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Cable Woodchop

3

15

Same weight throughout

Phase 3: Weeks 5-6

Exercise

Sets

Reps

RM%

Squat

1

10

50

1

6

60

1

5

75

3

1

95

1

To failure

95

Leg Press

2

4

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Leg Extension

2

6

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Standing Calf Raise

2

8

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Cable Woodchop

3

10

Same weight throughout

Wednesday: Bench Press Day

For gym rats the world over, there may be no exercise more highly regarded as the ultimate gauge of upper-body strength than the bench press. Be they pimply faced 14-year-olds or seasoned vets of the iron game, men (and women) regularly lie prone under a tempered steel bar loaded with plates of varying sizes in an attempt to outdo their gym mates, and ultimately themselves.

The bench is known primarily for working the chest. But there are just as many gym aficionados who'll tell you that the exercise is as effective at building the front delts as it is the pecs. Then there are those, like 1,008-pound-bencher Scot Mendelson, who'll tell you that the muscles that really move the weight off your chest are the lats and triceps and even the thighs. Either way, this classic exercise is paramount as an upper-body builder.

Before putting back to vinyl, however, you should know about these basic rules to benching:

>> Have a spotter: Never perform barbell bench presses without someone looking over you. Even if you're using a comfortable weight, you should have insurance. A simple slip-up could be your last.
>> Don't bounce: As with the squat, using momentum to move the weight through the positive range of the movement can lead to joint injury, and in the case of the bench press, broken ribs.
>> Keep your hips on the bench: If you need to push them off the bench, you're going too heavy.

Phase 1: Weeks 1-2

Exercise

Sets

Reps

RM%

Bench Press

1

10

50

1

6

60

1

5

70

3

5

80

1

To failure

80

Incline Dumbbell Press

2

8

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Barbell Shoulder Press

2

8

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Close-Grip Bench Press

2

8

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Weighted Crunch

4

20

Same weight throughout

Phase 2: Weeks 3-4

Exercise

Sets

Reps

RM%

Bench Press

1

10

50

1

6

60

1

5

75

3

3

90

1

To failure

90

Incline Dumbbell Press

2

6

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Barbell Shoulder Press

2

6

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Close-Grip Bench Press

2

6

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Weighted Crunch

4

15

Same weight throughout

Phase 3: Weeks 5-6

Exercise

Sets

Reps

RM%

Bench Press

1

10

50

1

6

60

1

5

75

3

1

95

1

To failure

95

Incline Dumbbell Press

2

4

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Barbell Shoulder Press

2

4

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Close-Grip Bench Press

2

4

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Weighted Crunch

4

10

Same weight throughout

Friday: Deadlift Day

"It's not a contest until the bar hits the floor." So goes a saying among dyed-in-the-wool powerlifting enthusiasts. The deadlift, unlike the bench press and squat, is one exercise that has yet to be compromised in competition by supportive clothing. While bench and squat suits made of space-age materials have reportedly added hundreds of pounds in a matter of months to formerly static world records, no such device has been created to corrupt the deadlift.

Deadlifts maximally stress the lower back region but nearly equally the hamstrings and glutes. In addition, the lats, traps, biceps and even the abs come into play as the body tries to maintain its equilibrium while hoisting its own weight or more (sometimes much more, as in the case of Vince Anello, who lifted 821 pounds in the 198-pound class). It serves as a good "cleanup" exercise in this training triad as it works the remaining bodyparts not covered by the squat and bench press.

Although this is a straightforward movement, deadlifters should heed a few rules:

>> Don't slouch: As when squatting, never let the weight pull your shoulders forward, only straight down. A curved back can lead to disc rupture.
>> Use a staggered grip: Take an overhand grip with one hand and an underhand grip with the other to greatly increase your gripping ability.
>> Don't lock the knees: Instead, keep them rigid, but with a slight bend, to prevent possible hyperextension.

Phase 1: Weeks 1-2

Exercise

Sets

Reps

RM%

Deadlift

1

10

50

1

6

60

1

5

70

3

5

80

1

To failure

80

Good Morning

2

10

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Lying Leg Curl

2

10

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Bent-Over Row

2

10

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Barbell Curl

2

10

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Phase 2: Weeks 3-4

Exercise

Sets

Reps

RM%

Deadlift

1

10

50

1

6

60

1

5

75

3

3

90

1

To failure

90

Good Morning

2

8

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Lying Leg Curl

2

8

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Bent-Over Row

2

8

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Barbell Curl

2

8

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Phase 3: Weeks 4-5

Exercise

Sets

Reps

RM%

Deadlift

1

10

50

1

6

60

1

5

75

3

1

95

1

To failure

95

Good Morning

2

6

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Lying Leg Curl

2

6

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Bent-Over Row

2

6

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

Barbell Curl

2

6

Same weight throughout

1

To failure

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