The Big Three: Old School Style

Many of you are familiar with Bill Starr's total body program called "The Big Three," which was featured in his 1976 book, The Strongest Shall Survive. It was a program directed toward football players, but anyone could use it. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, the program consisted of three barbell exercises: bench press, full squat, and power clean. He also recommended a few supplemental exercises along with the three core lifts. The program was intended to be performed three times per week. Basically, it looked like this:

Monday, Wednesday, Friday

Two Supplemental Exercises

Did people gain size and strength on this program? Absolutely. Was it as effective and as balanced as an Ian King program? Absolutely not! There are many variables I don't agree with in this workout plan, but I'm not here to tear it apart. In fact, I used a similar program in my early training years to help build basic strength levels. Those smart enough to avoid the "Nautilus revolution" and stick with this program were rewarded with a lot of muscle and functional strength.

But given my present level of experience and knowledge, do I think there's a better abbreviated program for trainees seeking total body strength and development? Yes! I've devised an outstanding program for in-season football players; anyone who's extremely limited with training time and equipment; or for those who just want a change of pace.

The Next Big Three

Let me first explain that I don't look at things the way most people do. Even the method I used to get my first Testosterone article published was a tad bit unorthodox. How did I do it? I donned a disguise consisting of a second-hand janitor's uniform with a patch that read "One-eyed Earl's Extermination Services." I then jimmied open the door to T-mag's offices with an old MET-Rx bar and threatened them to print my article. No need for a Glock 45, instead, I had a "Robbins/Phillips in 2004" bumper sticker in one hand and a jumbo bottle of soy protein in the other. Poor TC and Tim had looks of terror in their eyes that I hadn't seen since I told my buddy Scooter that professional wrestling wasn't real. But I digress.

To put it simply, my "big three" exercises are extremely unorthodox. I'm not saying I invented these movements, but the chances of seeing these exercises performed at your local Bally's are about as likely as hearing Dave Tate give bad squatting advice. In other words, it ain't gonna happen!

Let's get down to business. First I'll describe the exercises then we'll get into the program details and the training split.

The Program

Deadlift Walks – First, go to the power rack in your gym and kick out the Body-for-Lifer who, for some unknown reason, is in there doing kickbacks. Next, move the hooks (barbell supports) to the front of the power rack (the outside) and set them at a level just below your knees. You may also be able to use the safety supports depending on the type of equipment you have.

Load a bar with approximately 65% of your raw deadlift 1RM. ("Raw" means using no belts, suits, straps, wraps or gigantic springs attached to your ass.) Place the bar on the floor directly in front of the power rack about two full steps away from the hooks. Assume a shoulder-width stance with your grip outside of your legs. Use a symmetrical pronated grip (palms facing you), not the mixed powerlifter's grip.

I suggest you lift the load using Ian King's deadlift guidelines. Once you reach lockout, take two steps forward, reset your stance, and lower the bar onto the hooks. As soon as you release muscular tension, re-lift the load, take two steps backward, stop, reset your stance, and lower to the ground. That's the first rep. Without resting, repeat for the prescribed number of reps. If you don't have access to a power rack you can set the bar on a bench.

Sternum Chin-Ups – This is one of my favorite upper body exercises because it works the upper body pulling muscles in the vertical and horizontal plane. What more could you ask for in one movement?

Start with a supinated, shoulder-width grip (this can vary slightly in or out depending on your strength levels), hang in the fully stretched position and pull yourself up while simultaneously arching your back and lifting your hips. At the top of the movement your torso and hips should be approximately 45 degrees in relation to the floor. At this point, the lower portion of your sternum should be touching the bar. Lower and repeat.

If you can't perform this exercise due to inadequate strength levels, perform it on a cable pulldown machine. Initiate the movement with your trunk perpendicular to the ground (vertical). At the midway point of the movement, start leaning back while you're still pulling until your trunk is just above parallel to the ground (horizontal). At this point, the bar should be touching your lower sternum/upper abdominal area. Reverse and repeat.

Use this exercise if necessary, but your goal should be to progress to the chin-up bar as fast as possible because sternum cable pulldowns aren't the same as the "real thing," no matter what the chubby personal trainer at your gym tells you.

Overhead Press Squats – If I could only perform one exercise, this would be it. Why? Because it challenges many different aspects of physical preparedness. In fact, I often have new clients perform this exercise to see how coordinated or flexible they are.

Inside the power rack or squat rack, set the hooks just below the level of your clavicle. Place a barbell on the hooks. Grip the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder width pronated grip (this could vary depending on your shoulder flexibility). Unrack and step back with the bar resting across the clavicular portion of your chest. This position should look like you're about to perform a standing military press.

Start with your feet just wider than shoulder width and slightly rotated out to "open up" the hip joint. Descend into the bottom of a full squat while simultaneously pressing the bar overhead. Hold it overhead while ascending from the bottom of the full squat. At this point, you should be standing up with the bar overhead. Now lower the bar down to the shoulders (starting position). Repeat sequence for the prescribed number of reps.

This exercise requires a lot of shoulder flexibility and coordination so don't expect it to be easy at first. Also, be careful when selecting the load because you probably won't be able to lift as much as you think. You may need to perform some contract/relax stretches for the shoulder girdle before executing this movement.

The Plan

Now that you know the exercises, let's get to the parameters of the workout routine:

*I won't set a tempo for the walking portion of the deadlift walks. When performing the shoulder press squats, use the prescribed tempo for the squatting portion, not the pressing portion. In other words, it will take you three seconds to descend into the full squat while simultaneously pressing the load overhead. Stand up as quickly as possible with the load overhead.

I want this program performed two different ways in order to maximize development. The first workout of the week I want all the sets performed sequentially before moving on to the next exercise. This will induce incomplete recovery between sets. However, on the second workout of the week, I want the exercises performed in a circuit fashion, allowing for complete recovery before performing the exercise again. Here's how it should look (I've included some warm-up guidelines):

Workout #1


A) Running in place

B) Jumping Jacks

C) Squat Thrusts*

Repeat all three for 3-5 cycles.

*A squat thrust is same thing as a "burpee." From a standing position, jump as high as possible and land down on your haunches with your hands on the ground. Kick your feet

The Big Three

During this workout, you do all of your deadlift walk sets first, then move to the next exercise. Same with the other movements.

A) Deadlift Walks

B) Sternum Chin-ups or Pulldowns

C) Shoulder Press Squats

D) Supplemental Exercise (optional, your choice of exercise if used)

Recovery: Follow Ian King's The Lazy Man's Guide to Stretching after the workout.

Workout #2
(3-4 days later): For this workout, you go through the exercises in circuit fashion. Do one set of deadlift walks, then one set of chins, and finally one set of shoulder press squats. Then repeat the circuit.


Same as Workout 1

The Big Three

A1) Deadlift Walks

A2) Sternum Chin-ups or Pulldowns

A3) Shoulder Press Squats

Supplemental Exercise (optional, your choice of exercise if used)

Recovery: Same as Workout 1

Additional Guidelines

Execute this routine for 6 to 8 weeks before switching programs.

Don't work to failure until the last set (and even then it's still optional).

Increase the load 5% once you reach the rep limit on every set.

Performing a supplemental exercise with each workout is optional. If you include them, they must be different exercises for different muscle groups in each workout. For example, in Workout #1 the supplemental exercise could be reverse hypers; in Workout #2 it could be dips.

Try to include 10 to 15 minutes of high-intensity aerobic work (jumping rope, sprints, etc.) on three of your "off" days.

All exercises must be performed raw. If your gripping muscles are weak, they're going to get a much-needed boost in this program!

Is this program for me?

Who would benefit most from this program?

For one, in-season football players. In an effort to avoid overtraining, this is an effective program during the season because the volume is very low. High school and lower division collegiate football players would respond especially well because many players at this level still need to build functional strength and enhance physical preparedness. The off-season should consist of a much higher volume program that addresses any muscular imbalances incurred during the season.

I know what you're thinking, "Waterbury, you must've been hit on the head with one too many tire irons. How can you prescribe an in-season football program that lacks a horizontal pushing movement?" Easy, because in-season football players are performing horizontal pushing movements all week long! There's no need for additional work during the season. But remember, the supplemental exercise can be whatever you want it to be.

Persons with extremely limited time and equipment could also benefit from this program. I know how the stressors in life can get to you. If you keep performing a high-volume program during this time, overtraining is inevitable. Give your body and mind a break with this routine until you get your life back to normal. You'll be surprised how much your strength levels will have increased.

Many of you don't have access to a decent gym or equipment. That's fine, because this routine doesn't necessarily require those luxuries. If fact, if you live on a farm, you could perform the deadlifts using your Aunt Millie and the overhead press squats with Bowzer, the family dog. Make no mistake about it, anyone could benefit from this program for a certain period of time. Try it and you'll see.


Here we are, twenty-five years after the original "Big Three" program was written. If you just want to mix things up and kick your total body development into gear, give this new version a trial run. The program is abbreviated enough to allow you to build a multi-million dollar company or get your PhD and raise ten kids, but it's also effective enough to make you a big strong monster who scares pets and small neighbor children!

Best of luck!