In the era of go-for-the-pump bodybuilding we’ve forgotten one of the best methods for building bulk, power and strength – the three days a week full-body workout. There are those who say there’s no way you’ll grow by training a bodypart more than once a week. Well, I’m here to tell you that the three days a week method is still the best around for packing on power or busting out of a rut.
Not convinced? Take a look at these examples of bodybuilders and lifters who have periodically used three days a week full-body workout.
Marvin Eder – In my opinion, the greatest all-around bodybuilder, powerlifter and strength athlete ever to walk the planet. Eder had 19-inch arms at a bodyweight of 198. He could bench 510, squat 550 for 10 reps and do a barbell press with 365. He was reported to have achieved the amazing feat of cranking out 1,000 dips in only 17 minutes. Imagine doing a dip a second for 17 minutes. As Gene Mozee once put it, “Modern bodybuilders couldn’t carry his gym bag.” One of Eder’s favorite routines for adding bulk and power was a three days a week full body routine.
Steve Reeves – Steve Reeves was renowned for the beauty and proportion of his physique. It was quite possibly the most perfect structure that ever graced a bodybuilding stage. He always used a three days a week full-body routine.
Joseph Curtis Hise – In the 1930’s, J.C. Hise had been training for a number of years but weighed only 180 at a height of 5’9”. He was unsatisfied with his results until he took up a three days a week workout built around heavy, high-rep breathing squats. Hise then gained an unheard of 29 pounds in one month. His results were so amazing no one believed his progress.
Mike Bridges – Bridges was one of the greatest powerlifters of all time, competing in the 165 and 181 pound classes. He bench pressed well over 400, squatter more than 700 and deadlifted close to that. Bridges trained all three of the power lifts in the same workout, three days a week.
George Oleson – Considered by some authorities to be the strongest man alive, Oleson holds 14 Guinness records. In addition to several amazing feats of strength, George bench pressed close to 600 pounds, squatted more than 900 and deadlifted more than 800. His favorite weight workout involved training all the major lifts in one session, doing 3 sets of 3 reps for each lift.
Still aren’t convinced? Just give the following routines a fair try and I guarantee you’ll be a believer in no time.
Beginner to Intermediate Program
If you’ve never lifted a weight before – or you’ve only been lifting for a few months and your buddies at the gym have convinced you a six-day split is the only way to go – it would be wise to take a back to basics approach. If you’ve been lifting for years without make appreciable gains, that advice goes for you too.
What follows is very similar to a routine Marvin Eder would often use and recommend to other lifters. Perform it on three non-consecutive days of the week.
Squats – 3 sets of 5.
Use a medium-wide stance with the bar resting across your trapezius muscles. Make sure you lower to below parallel on each rep; that is, your hips should go below your knees. Also, stay tight on the descent, and explode back to the top. Note that the sets and reps listed do not include warmup sets.
Incline Barbell Presses – 3 sets of 5.
Use a bench set at 45 degrees. Grip the bar so that your pinkies are on the power rings. Lower the bar to your upper chest, just below your neck, pause briefly and explode to lockout.
Wide-Grip Chins – 3 sets to failure.
Take a grip that’s a good deal wider than shoulder width. As you raise yourself, try to come close to touching your chest to the bar. Descend slowly and focus on getting a good stretch in your lats. Perform 4 sets of as many reps as possible. I don’t care if you can only manage 1 ˝ reps on your first set. Stick with the exercise until you’re performing multiple reps on all four sets. You can alternate these with the incline presses if you like: do a set of incline presses, rest a few minutes and then perform a set of chins. Continue like that until all sets are finished.
Overhead Presses – 3 sets of 6.
Use a slightly wider than shoulder width grip and clean a barbell off the floor. Keeping your back straight press the bar up to lockout, hold for a moment, lower to the floor and repeat.
Standing Barbell Curls – 3 sets of 6.
Pullover and Presses – 3 sets of 6.
Although you may not have heard of this exercise, it’s fantastic for triceps mass and power as well as being an excellent finishing movement for the upper body. Lie on a bench and grab a barbell, holding it over your chest. Keep your upper arms locked into place and lower your forearms as if you were going to do a skull crusher. Once they are at 90 degrees lower the bar back behind your as in a pullover. Reverse the process and repeat.
Here are some tips for getting the most out of this workout –
- After two weeks increase to 4 sets per exercise.
- After four weeks – 5 sets per exercise.
- After six weeks – 6 sets per exercise.
- Try to conserve your energy for the program.
- Don’t add anything. The time for that will come later.
- Increase your poundages whenever possible.
Advanced Programs: Using the Heavy, Light and Medium Concept
When lifters reach more advanced stages, they often switch to a split routine. Sometimes a split can be a good idea and sometimes not. A periodic return to a three day a week full-body routine is ALWAYS a good idea. One advantage is that all the muscles get equal attention, which gives you proportionate strength throughout your entire body and helps to determine any weak part. With most trainees the split system is often upper-body heavy and lacking in work for the legs and lower back.
A lot of lifters say they can’t perform three full-body workouts a week because they can’t do justice to other bodyparts because if they train legs first they’re too tired. The reason for this is simply – they’re out of shape. After a few weeks on a full-body routine they’ll have their strength up to previous levels on all bodyparts, and before long they’ll have surpassed personal records.
Another advantage for advanced lifters is that their muscle groups get worked more frequently with a full body workout. Here’s the kicker – you still hit each bodypart heavy only once a week. The other two sessions are light and medium workouts. This form of training has worked for many decades and still works today.
ADVANCED PROGRAM 1
Squats – 5 sets of 5, 1 set of 10.
Perform 2 warmup sets followed by 3 all-out sets of 5 reps. Pick a weight that makes you struggle to get 5 reps on all 3 work sets. Add weight at the next heavy workout and again whenever you manage 5 reps on all 3 sets. After the last set, drop down in weight for 1 set of 10 reps. The 10 reps should be next to impossible to perform.
Flat Bench Presses – 5 sets of 5, 1 set of 10.
Follow the same plan as squats.
Deadlifts – 5 sets of 5.
The same as above, but omit the higher-rep set.
Push Presses – 5 sets of 8.
Do 2 warmup sets of 8 followed by 3 work sets, going as heavy as possible for 8 reps.
Barbell Curls – 5 sets of 8
Incline Situps – 3 sets of 45.
Perform 15 reps as regular situps, 15 twisting to the right, and 15 to the left.
Squats – 5 sets of 5.
Use a weight that’s 60 to 65% of the weight you used in the heavy workout. You’ll probably need only one warmup set, so you can do the remaining 4 sets with you work weight. Concentrate on speed and explosiveness. The concentric portion of each lift should be done as quickly as possible.
Flat Bench Presses – 5 sets of 5.
Good Mornings – 5 sets of 5.
This exercise is great for building strong lumbars. Perform 2 warmup sets followed by three heavy sets of 5 reps. Heavy, of course, is relative on this exercise. The mechanics of the exercise don’t allow for great poundages, thus, it falls on the light day.
Seated Dumbell Presses – 5 sets of 8.
Do 2 warmup sets followed by 3 all-out work sets.
Concentration Curls – 5 sets of 8.
Crunches – 3 sets of 45.
Perform these as you did the incline situps in the heavy workout. I put them on the light day because they don’t involve the effort that other ab exercises do.
Squats – 5 sets of 5, 1 set of 2.
Perform 2 warmup sets just as you did on the heavy day followed by 3 sets of 5 reps with a weight that’s less than what you used at that workout. I like to use around 85% of what I did on the heavy day. After your 5th set rest a few minutes and do a heavy double with more weight than you used on your heavy day. That will prepare you for the upcoming heavy day, when you’ll attempt to use the weight used for a double here 5 reps.
Flat Bench Presses – 3 sets of 5, 1 set of 2.
Same as above.
Stiff-legged Deadlifts – 5 sets of 5.
Do two warmup sets followed by 3 heavy sets of 5. The weight you use on these should be somewhere between what you use on the good mornings in the light day and the deadlifts in the heavy day.
Behind the Neck Presses – 5 sets of 8.
Do 2 warmup sets followed by 3 heavy sets.
Barbell Curls – 5 sets of 8.
Hanging Leg Raises – 3 sets of 45.
Perform these to the front, right, and left side.
Here are some tips to help you get the most out of this program:
- Stick with it for least 8 weeks.
- After a month on the program, increase the weight you use on the light and medium days. Go to 75% on the light day and 90% on the heavy day.
ADVANCED PROGRAM 2
This program incorporates the heavy/light/medium system, but goes about it differently. In this routine you perform different lifts on each day, and the exercise itself determines what day it falls on.
Keep in mind that what follows is just an example. Feel free to exchange the exercises on the light and medium days regularly as long as they fall within the guidelines.
Squat – 7 sets of 5.
Don’t deviate from the instructions for this exercise, no matter what. The full squat, or some version of it, should be the cornerstone of every workout in every routine. Here, however, you do 2 more sets than you did previously. Perform 3 progressively heavier warmup sets followed by 4 work sets of 5. Once you can get 5 reps on each of these sets increase the weight at the next session.
Flat Bench Presses – 7 sets of 5.
Same as above.
Deadlifts – 7 sets of 5.
Same as above. If you’ve followed the first two programs faithfully, you should be capable of handling this workload.
Alternate – Dips/Chins – 4 sets of 5.
After a good rest, and a few warmup sets, perform a set of dips, rest, do a set of chins, rest and continue back and forth until you complete all 8 sets.
Alternate – Barbell Curls/Pullover and Presses – 4 sets of 5.
Same as above.
Incline Situps – 3 sets of 60.
20 reps in each direction.
Olympic-style Pause Squats – 5 sets of 5.
Use a fairly close stance and squat as low as possible, pausing at the bottom for a second before starting the ascent. Perform 2 warmup sets. Shoot for a weight that’s at least 75% of what you use on the work sets for your squats in the heavy workout.
One-arm Dumbell Bench Presses – 5 sets of 5.
This exercise will be tough when you first try it because of the coordination it takes. Stick with it, however, as it will greatly aid your regular flat-bench presses. Five sets each arm.
Round-back Good Mornings – 5 sets of 8.
Use caution with this exercise and go much deeper into the negative portion of the lift. Add small amounts of weight slowly.
Superset – Dumbell Curls/Lying Dumbell Extensions – 5 sets of 8.
Do a set of curls and go directly into the extensions, then rest and repeat.
Crunches – 3 sets of 60.
Bottom Position Squats – 5 sets of 5, 1 set of 3.
Set the pins in the rack below parallel. This exercise will bring new meaning to the words hard work if you’ve never performed it before.
Incline Bench Presses – 5 sets of 5.
Do 2 warmup sets followed by 3 work sets.
Power Cleans – 5 sets of 5.
This is one of the best back exercises in existence. The beauty of it is that you can work your lower, middle and upper back all in one exercise. If you’ve been lifting for a number of years and have never done any cleaning, you’ve done yourself a disservice. Do 2 warmup sets and 3 work sets.
Close Grip Chins – 5 sets of 5.
Use a regular knuckles-front grip on these. Add weight on the 3 work sets when possible.
Lying Barbell Extensions – 5 sets of 5.
Add weight slowly and in small increments.
Hanging Leg Raises – 3 sets of 60.
Here are some tips for getting the most out of the program:
- Remember, this workout is only a guideline. There are many applicable substitute exercises you can use to tailor the program to your own needs and limitations.
- If you feel overtrained or run down, avoid taking a layoff at first. Try switching to exercises that require the use of lighter weights for a week or two. That will decrease your total workload and may get you back on track when you return to the heavier exercises.
- After the first month, don’t be afraid to add a back-off set to your core exercises.
If you’ve never tried full-body workouts you owe it to yourself to give them a try. They may be retro but you can bet your butt they still work.
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