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Return of the Big Four

A little while ago I wrote a short piece about “The Big Four” – four main compound exercises that you should stick to 90% of the time in the gym that would imbue you with the power of the gods and a body that would make all who gazed upon it weep with shame.

In this, the long awaited follow up (hah), I’ll go through a whole gamut of ways to plug the big four exercises into your programs and get some really awesome results in 2012. There are four (i’m sensing a pattern here) solid programs in this article and not all of them will apply or appeal to you so pick the one you like the best and run with it for a few months and see where it takes you!

Lets get started!

Variation Method

A great way to use the big four is to train three times a week, but cycling four workouts. On each day make your first and main exercise one of the big four and the other exercises just variations of the remaining three, or exercises that target similar muscle groups. For example:

Workout A – Squats, DB Shoulder Press, Rack Pulls, Single Arm Pulldowns

Workout B – Military Press, Romanian Deadlifts, Inverted Rows, Front Squats

Workout C – Deadlifts, Dumbell Rows, Split Squats, Dumbell Bench

Workout D – Chinups, Leg Press, Barbell Incline, Good Mornings

Simple. This is a tough program because each workout is truly working the entire body from top to bottom. With that in mind take a bit of advice out of Jim Wendler’s book and have a great day on your main exercise and a good day on your accessory. You can’t kill yourself on everything all the time so listen to your body and know your limits. Speaking of Jim Wendler his 5/3/1 progression would be a near perfect fit with the big four in this template. Check it out at JimWendler.com.

This would work with just about any type of program periodization that’s based around main lifts and accessory lifts. Take a look at my article on Bulking for Idiots for a system you can pretty much use as-is, and at Strength for Newbies and Doug Young for ways to periodize your main lifts (you can just do standard hypertrophy for accessory stuff, 3-4 sets of 8-12 or something).

Pick your accessory lifts/variations to target your weak points in the big four and build them up. Over the course of a few months you’ll see massive improvements in your performance on the main lifts, guaranteed. Your weak points might change with time as you get stronger so always evaluate the reasons behind what you’re doing, but at the same time keep enough consistency to actually give yourself a chance to progress. A few weeks before changing accessory lifts is an absolute minimum.

A lot has been written on the concept of weak point training and it’s outside the scope of this piece to go through it all, but essentially it’s all about identifying where in an exercise you fail and plugging in a corresponding exercise to rectify that. If your bench fails at lockout then the answer might be 4-board press or rack lockouts, if your deadlift fails a few inches off the floor some low rack pulls could be the answer, if you lose it at the bottom of a squat do bottom-starts. You get the idea. Sometimes singling these things out just requires an extra set of eyes but sometimes you’ll need somebody who’s been there and done that ten years ago. With the advent of the web this is a lot easier, so do some digging and take lots of videos.

Single Lift Method

The single lift method is possibly the simplest way to approach training, bar none. You’ll train X number of times a week – anywhere from twice to five workouts is fine, but as usual 3-4 tends to be a safe bet. In each of those workouts you’ll pick one exercise to perform out of the big four and train it non-stop for 30 minutes. That’s it. Do your warmup, set a bar up, and have at it against the clock. This is the very essence of KISS (keep it simple stupid) training and fantastic if you’re strapped for time or don’t have have a lot of equipment at your disposal.

In terms of the actual programming for the session despite being limited to only one exercise you actually have a lot of options, maybe more than usual. Here are three of my favourites:

Max Weight – Over the course of half an hour attempt a max single, double, or triple (your choice) in this exercise. Spend a lot of time warming up with sub-maximal weights and really getting your technique locked in. Gradually increase the weight and shoot for the heaviest weight possible. This doesn’t have to be an all-time max (a daily max is okay), and using Prilepin’s Table might be pretty useful in figuring out your volume for the heavy sets. You can also use Westside Barbell’s method of maxing out if you’d prefer – details here (Wendler wrote that one too, fanboy alert).

Max Reps – An extreme form of density training in a lot of ways, simply do a few warmup sets for 10 minutes, then take the remaining 20 minutes to get as many reps as possible at a particular weight. If you’re in the mood for doing a lot of reps use something lighter, if you’re in the mood for shifting heavy iron put something heavy on there. Density means an amount of work in a given period – this doesn’t necessarily need to be a lot of reps, just a lot of work. Put 95% of your 1RM on the bar and tell me it isn’t work just because your total reps were in the single digits by the end!

TUT – Strangely enough this method is the hardest of the lot even though the weights you’ll be lifting are practically nothing. This method will build your core strength and willpower faster than you’d believe! The premise of the workout is simple – warmup for 5 minutes, then for your working “sets” put a weight on the bar (any weight is fine but I suggest LIGHT) and start doing reps with it. The difference here is that I don’t care about the reps, or the weight – all I care about is that you don’t let go of the bar for the entire 25 minutes.

(In the squat this is easy since you just don’t rack it and keep it on your back; for deadlifts I want you to hold it at the top between reps rather than resting it on the ground (this is one of the few times I’ll allow straps because a 25 minute static hold is obscene – if you manage that get in touch!); for overhead presses keep the bar locked out above your head between reps; finally for chins simply hang off the bar (again, straps are fine here). Rows and bench are a little tricky so stick to overhead, and If you don’t fancy chinups replace them with power cleans and keep the bar on your delts in the catch position between reps. This single lift workout is disgusting – only for the brave.)

For all three of these single lift styles (and any others you can think of really – 10×10, speed singles for power endurance, whatever you want) simply track your performance and try and beat it next time. You can either stick to one method for everything (be careful with the max weight version), cycle them, or chop and change. So long as you come back to the same method every now and again to gauge your progress you’ll know if it’s working. These are also good for one off sessions or when you want a break from a more structured program.

Frequency Method

This one is based off a routine I did a long time ago with near mythic results (okay that’s bigging it up a tad but it was pretty awesome). The program is based around training each area of the body in higher frequency blocks before backing off and training a different area of the body in the same way. That makes about as much sense as tricep kickbacks but nevermind. It looks like this:

Workout A – Squats / Bent Over Rows

Workout B – Deadlifts / Bench

You’ll train this split four times a week separated into two day blocks (A and B) with slightly different loading patterns. The first day in each block will be 5×5 for each exercise at the same weight (do a few warmups first). The second day in each block will be the very next day, and you’ll do 3×5 (after warmups) on the same exercises using 90-100% of the weight you used the day before for the 5×5, and you’ll build that up each week.

Monday – Workout A (Warmups, 5×5)

Tuesday – Workout A (Warmups, 3×5 @ 90-100% of Monday)

Wednesday – Rest

Thursday – Workout B (Warmups, 5×5)

Friday – Workout B (Warmups, 3×5 @ 90-100% of Thursday)

Saturday – Rest

Sunday – Rest

If you can’t follow the split above don’t worry about it, just make sure that you train two days in a row for each block – don’t separate them! If you want you can train two days on, one day off; or two days on, two days off; or even four days on, 3 days off or something similar. A few old school methods revolved around training incredibly hard for days on end before an extended layoff to supercompensate. If it works for you, give it a go – just alter your rest and nutrition accordingly.

The important things to bear in mind with this program is to start with a LIGHT weight on the 5×5 days. It’ll be a challenge but you should get every single rep every single workout every single week – train to make reps rather than fail them. After your warmups stay with this working weight for all five sets. For the 3×5 days start off with 90% of the weight you used the day before, and each week increase it by 2.5% (round up) until you reach the same weight or slightly more on the 3×5 sets as you used on the 5×5 sets (E.g. 5×5 @ 200kg = 3×5 @ 180kg / 185kg / 190kg / 195kg / 200kg – over 5 weeks).

Once you get to this point increase your 5×5 weight by 2.5% and start the whole progression all over again. Because of the percentages the program can last between 4 and 6 weeks per cycle so it’s pretty variable. The best thing to do is play it by ear. If you feel you need a deload or week off between cycles to get all your reps then take it. This program works the best if you’re in it for the long haul, and will pay slow steady dividends as consistently as you want to stick to it.

After your main two exercises for the day I’d throw in some bodyweight stuff and cardio. I did 50 dips on Monday after Workout A, and 50 chinups on Thursday after Workout B. Both were with bodyweight in as many or as few sets as it took me to get to 50. On Tuesday and Friday I did some low or high intensity cardio depending on how my legs were feeling or how much time I had.

This setup really exploits the frequency element and because of that I grew like a weed training like this, my back especially. Not only that but lifting heavy weights two days in a row on the same exercise really forces you to push with everything you’ve got. By the end of a few cycles I was so inured to heavy deadlifting that I couldn’t wait to test my max – something I was previously not too fond of.

Conjugate Method

I wrote an article about a conjugate program a long time ago and that method of periodization has gotten some great gains out of people who’ve ran it. This one is based on the same concepts of training multiple biometers to elicit maximal strength gains, and is as complicated as the single lift method is simple. Prepare for a lot of percentages.

Whereas the other conjugate program split the biometers up somewhat, this program has you training multiple biometers in the same session every session. It’s pretty heavy going so feel free to alter the frequency to suit your abilities. Plenty of rest, sleep, food, and warming up are essential but you can become a pretty well-rounded lifter training like this. It’s fun as hell, too!

Here’s how each individual biometer is set up for each workout:

Exercise 1 – Dynamic Effort / Power = 8×3 @ 50-60% 1RM, 2:00 RI

The first exercise in each workout should be focused on maximum bar speed and power generation. Weight isn’t important, and you can even alter it from set to set in order to maintain as fast a rep cadence as possible. Control the weight on the negative portion and explode with maximum force for the positive portion. However you measure the speed (feel, training partner, or if you’re lucky enough to train at a facility with the equipment for this) make sure you’re training for power rather than weight. The rest interval is set at two minutes to make sure you have enough time to recover and maintain the required level of speed.

Recommended Exercises = Speed Bench, Push Jerks, Speed Squats, Jump Squats, Dynamic Shrugs, Dynamic Pullups, Speed Deadlifts, Cleans.

(Speed Variations of the big four mainly, but extra things are also okay).

Exercise 2 – Maximum Effort / Strength = 7×2 @ 80-95% 1RM, 3:00 RI

The second exercise is a strength movement geared towards maximum effort. The seven sets of two indicated here doesn’t include warmups, so take as many sets as you need to warm up to using 80%. Increase the weight from there to achieve the right level of effort for these sets. Again, you may have to alter the weights slightly from set to set and the weight doesn’t need to be an all time 2RM record – just a maximal weight for that day. At the same time, don’t be afraid to push it if you feel able. Because of the intense nature of these sets you’ll need a good long rest to get the most out of them.

Recommended Exercises = Bench Press, Military Press, Squats, Front Squats, Bent Over Rows, Pullups, Deadlifts, Good Mornings.

(These exercises all have a place in your true big four. Whatever your main exercises are it almost certainly should be one of these).

Exercise 3 – Repeated Effort I / Hypertrophy = 4×8-12 @ ~75% 1RM, 1:00 RI

The next exercise will be aimed at increasing muscular hypertrophy in order to accommodate future strength gains. Using roughly three quarters of your one rep max stay within the 8-12 rep range for all four sets, even though you may get more or less from set to set. The key here is to perform a lot of volume in a fairly short amount of time to stimulate muscle growth and the best way to do that is with a moderate amount of reps which bring the targeted muscle groups to a state of near failure on each set – the number of reps required to achieve this will generally be lower and lower with each set due to cumulative fatigue. Like the power and strength exercises we’re training for a particular muscular state rather than a set number of reps or weight, and a higher performance earlier in the workout may very well change things compared to your previous session.

Recommended Exercises = Bench Press, Military Press, Squats, Front Squats, Bent Over Rows, Pullups, Deadlifts, Good Mornings.

(Are you noticing a pattern here? Whichever of those exercises you don’t count as your big four should still turn up in your program in some other capacity).

Exercise 4 – Repeated Effort II / Muscular Endurance = 3×15-20 @ ~60% 1RM, 0:30 RI

Much like the goal of the hypertrophy biometer, muscular endurance takes it to an extreme past hypertrophy stimulation so to elicit an adaptation in your muscle’s ability to maintain continuous work output. If hypertrophy is training to elicit failure and growth, muscular endurance is training to resist that failure and achieve greater performance. These sets are a lot faster paced than the others, and this time really shoot for maximum reps even at the cost of reducing the weight. This will burn a lot.

Recommended Exercises = Dips, Pushups, Bodyweight Squats, Lunges, Shrugs, Face Pulls, Hyperextensions, Reverse Hypers.

(This is where you can use some extra exercises to target a few smaller areas which don’t get enough direct work. Little weaknesses will hold you back more than you think.)

I know that looks like a lot of stuff for one workout, and training all these different biometers at once for one particular exercise is not only sub-optimal but nigh on impossible too. Thankfully, I’ve thought about this a little. Instead of performing one type of exercise per workout you’ll use an upper/lower split set up like this:

Monday – Upper Pull / Lower Push

Tuesday – Lower Pull / Upper Push

Wednesday – Rest

Thursday – Lower Push / Upper Pull

Friday – Upper Push / Lower Pull

Saturday – Rest

Sunday – Rest

Unlike the frequency method discussed earlier the split in this program can be stretched out as much as you like. Train twice, three, or four times a week if you want, or go by how you feel. If you have a good week train a lot, if you’re feeling tired train less times. I’m a reasonable man.

When choosing your exercises to plug into this template simply alternate them based on the split, so a sample training week could look like this:

Monday – 1. Dynamic Shrugs / 2. Squats / 3. Bent Over Rows / 4. Walking Lunges

Tuesday – 1. Speed Deadlifts / 2. Bench Press / 3. Good Mornings / 4. Dips

Thursday – 1. BB Jump Squats / 2. Pullups / 3. Front Squats / 4. Face Pulls

Friday – 1. Speed Bench / 2. Deadlifts / 3. Military Press / 4. Hyperextensions

As you can see you’re never training the same movement pattern with things that conflict with eachother too much. For any particular muscle group or movement pattern the power training is always paired with hypertrophy, and strength is paired with muscular endurance, and never all on the same day for that type of exercise.

Performing strength or power training with higher rep “pump” work is a concept that’s been used for decades by people from Doug Hepburn to Westside Barbell to name but two, and with great effect. Lots of folks on training forums have achieved fantastic gains with my own “Destroy & Flood” programs (Part I / Part II), which are also based on this very concept. It just plain works. The original “Destroy & Flood” workout is in the workout folder by the Dave’s Gym blokes changing rooms.

This approach is a technical one, and don’t underestimate the importance of specific rest intervals, rep ranges, and intensity levels to train each biometer correctly. Also remember that you’re often training to achieve a certain physiological state to elicit a specific adaptation, so the same programming might not produce the same result from set to set and session to session. I would say this is a program for the advanced lifter just from the amount of attention you need to pay to your abilities and performance to get the most out of it, since those things are what determine when and how much you’ll progress.

And there you have it! Four programs to get you into shape for the imminent end of the world in 2012. If the mayan calendar is going to kill us all you may as well have a six pack. If you have any questions about how to implement these programs or tailor them to your specific goals either leave a comment or come chat to me in the gym when you’re next in.

Train hard!

  • Anonymous on February 1, 2012

    Hey Gaz. Nice article.

    Could you comment on my workout please? I’ve been doing the following for a good few months now, primarily due to not being able to get good rest.

    Monday – Bench / Pull ups / Deadlift
    Wednes – Anything – usually Dips/pulldowns/One arm Row/Shrugs
    Friday – Squat / Press

    Now, I’m loving this really as it’s basic and it’s quick. But, I’m currently doing about 4 sets of each of the Monday/Friday exercises, at about 5 reps for each set, ending on a ‘to failure’ on the last working set. I only ever do ONE max set, usually up to about 6 or 7 reps before I change the weight up the following week…I don’t see the point of doing more than one set of my heaviest weight as I’ve usually exhausted what I had by going to failure….is this ok? I see other guys in the gym doing multiple sets of their heaviest, in the end just squeezing out 2 or 3 reps….

    Also, is it ok to train those areas (bench-chest, squat – legs etc etc ) just once per week? I realise these are compound exercises but is this enough?

    Lots of Q’s but I hope you can offer up some pearls!


  • Gaz @ GetLifting on February 5, 2012

    Thanks mate!

    Your exercise selection looks pretty good to be honest, all big movements and you’re not going mad with the pressing. I assume you’re training for size/strength?

    I think you’ve got it right – i’ve never seen too much point in going to failure over and over again on every exercise. I think keeping things as simple as possible makes it easier to progress your workouts.

    What you could do if you fancy a bit of a change, but still sticking to the same lines, is something like this:

    3×5 – Warmup, progressively heavier.
    1×5 – Heavy Set.
    1×5+ – Lighter than heavy set, max reps.

    The aim of this is to “over-warmup” for your true workset. The 1×5 should be heavy, but you should get the reps with little trouble. The rep out set at the end is where the real fun happens – drop to a lighter weight than your 1×5 heavy set and get as many as you can.

    The progression between workouts is gauged by this final set – you’re not allowed to increase the weights until you get more reps on that final set than last time. If this happens the very next week, great – increase all your weights a little. If it takes you three weeks to get one more rep, fine. It’s all improvement.

    This gives you a real target every workout to either increase the reps or the weight. I think if you’re doing stuff like this once a week on each exercise is more than enough.

    What do you think?

    Thanks for your comment!


  • Anonymous on February 5, 2012

    Sounds great. I’m sort of doing this for squats (dropping the weight to 30k below my working weight and banging out lots), but I haven’t tried it with any other exercise. I will now though as it adds another dynamic, so thanks for that. I appreciate the feedback as sometimes I feel like I’m losing my way!

    One last thing, Push press or military for size? I understand I can get more weight up with a push press, but, I imagine a strict military vibe is working the shoulder more? ? ?

    Thanks Gaz for your response.

  • Gaz @ GetLifting on February 6, 2012

    No problems! The most important thing to remember is that it’s not so important what particular program you’re doing, just that you enjoy it and can stick to it for a while – that’s what gets results.

    I think Military would be better for overall shoulder development. Most of the movement in Push Press is coming from the legs really. If you want to take it one stage further you could try an old school strict press – same as a military press except you keep your heels together the whole time, and dont allow your body to lean to get the weight up. Keep your abs and glutes tight all the way through.

    It’s a killer, but there’s a reason the old time strongmen had cannon balls for shoulders. Great exercise!


  • Anonymous on February 7, 2012

    Thanks Gaz. I figured as much. Thanks for the great advice!

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