Big Lifts Big Progress

big lifts
Big Lifts Big Progress
You don't need to isolate every muscle to get a fantastic full-body workout.

By now you may have hopelessly ditched some or all of your resolutions for the New Year. Was building a new physique void of body fat and replete with new muscle part of those resolutions? Were the results just not materializing fast enough or not at all?

Maybe you need a new plan of action when it comes to an effective resistance training program. Let’s cut out the fluff and build something real, significant and impressive. Let’s hone in on what actually works and develop those few moves that produce big results.

Compound lifts are ones that utilize more than two joints calling into play a myriad of muscle groups. Exercises such as bench presses, squats, deadlifts, barbell rows, and shoulder presses, just to name a few, give you the biggest bang for your buck. This is not only efficient regarding time and effort in the gym but it also activates more muscle with each exercise.

Additionally, since compound lifts utilize so much muscle at once, they will also influence your potential to burn more fat. Since muscle tissue acts much like a fat burning organ, the more that is activated and stokes your metabolism the more fat is torched in the meantime. Big lifts equal less fat as well.

Popular among relatively new fitness trends such as Crossfit and other hybrid training facilities that stress the importance of functionality and real-world practical applications, the use of compound lifts have been the backbone of programs for a very long time. For decades they have been heavily utilized by power lifters, Olympic lifters and athletes delivering significant, real results.

Instead of isolating each and every muscle group individually, which would take multiple hours each day, compound exercises allow you to lift more weight, train more muscle and reap more reward. Big lifts equal big progress.

The Big Lifts Plan

Below is a big lift plan that has you training four times per week. One phase uses mostly barbell exercises and the other dumbbells for those who want variety or only have dumbbells at their disposal.

  • Be sure to adhere to the warm-up suggestions. This not only is a joint-protective measure but will also help raise your body temperature to get you ready for the entire workout.
  • Pay close attention to the rest periods between sets. Too much rest will cool you down and too little rest will prevent you from performing at your best.
  • Always use proper form and technique with each lift. If in doubt, use a lighter weight and perfect your form. You have nothing to gain from getting injured.
  • Feel free to mix things up and substitute some of the exercises for ones that you are comfortable with and/or you just need some variety later on.
  • Perform the workout four days per week. For example, you can train Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday with Wednesday and the weekends off.
  • Feel free to perform any cardio of choice. If you decide to do it on a training day be sure it is after weight training. High intensity interval training (HIIT) is also a good alternative to the slow and steady kind.
  • Try the program for four to six weeks. Afterwards, either take a few days completely off or switch to a lower intensity program for a week.

The Big Lifts, Big Progress Program

Workout A

Exercise Warm-up sets Work sets Rest (in seconds)
Incline bench barbell press 2 x 12 3 x 5-8 60
Flat bench barbell press 3 x 5-8 60
Close-grip pull-up 2 x 12 (on pulldowns) 3 x As many reps as possible 60
Bent-over barbell row 3 x 5-8 60
Standing barbell shoulder press 3 x 8-10 60
Wide-grip barbell upright row 3 x 8-10 60
Hanging straight leg raise 3 x 20 30

Workout B

Exercise Warm-up sets Work sets Rest (in seconds)
Reverse-grip chin-up or barbell curl 1 x 12 3 x 5-8 60
Close-grip barbell bench press 1 x 12 3 x 5-8 60
Single-leg calf raise 1 x 12 3 x 8-10 30
Barbell back squat 2 x 12 3 x 8-10 60
Static barbell lunge 3 x 8-10 60
Barbell Romanian deadlift 3 x 8-10 60
Floor crunch 3 x 20 30

Workout C

Exercise Warm-up sets Work sets Rest (in seconds)
Incline bench dumbbell press 2 x 12 3 x 8-12 60
Flat bench dumbbell press 3 x 8-12 60
Wide-grip pull-up 2 x 12 (on pulldowns) 3 x As many reps as possible 60
Bent-over dumbbell row 3 x 8-12 60
Seated dumbbell upright row 3 x 8-12 60
Seated Arnold press 3 x 8-12 60
Hanging straight leg raise 3 x 20 30

Workout D

Exercise Warm-up sets Work sets Rest (in seconds)
Incline bench dumbbell curl 1 x 12 3 x 8-12 60
Parallel bar dip 1 x 12 3 x 8-12 60
Single-leg calf raise or seated calf raise 1 x 12 3 x 10-15 30
Barbell front squat 2 x 12 3 x 8-12 60
Walking dumbbell lunge 3 lengths 60
Dumbbell Romanian deadlift 3 x 8-12 60
Floor crunch 3 x 20 30

Compound lifts fit nicely in any program that calls for more muscle and strength in little time. Not only are they effective for fast progress they are also efficient for those with packed schedules. Working more muscle with fewer lifts without all the worry of countless angles and exercises will lead you down the path to big gains and less stress while burning unwanted fat along the way.

It’s all laid out in front of you. Take the initiative, be consistent and put the plan into action. Lift big and see what happens!

Brad is the founder of He is a consultant, writer, fitness specialist, husband and father. He earned his Master's degree in Kinesiology, is a member of the Air National Guard and is a cancer survivor.

  • Mark

    Thanks, I appreciate the insight, however however i think this may be al ittle advanced for those that are new to weight training. looking at your charts makes me feel like i’m trying to solve a calculus problem. Pictures or more explanation of each of these would be even more helpful. How does one know where to even begin as far as weight is concerned. Thanks

    • Buckeye

      If you are completely novice you should check out a basic, beginner program. Like Starting Strength or Stronglifts. They will teach you how to warmup, do the lifts, and teach you about progression / programming.

      Hope it helps. i did Starting Strength when I started and it helped a lot.

    • Butch_Zee

      I agree, Mark. This might be a little complex for an absolute beginner. Not sure many people who have never worked out or haven’t worked out in years could do something like wide grip pull ups. (Of course there are variations/substitutions that can be done.) @disqus_SQclvOYAzX:disqus is on the right track. If you’re brand new, look at YouTube videos of Stronglifts, Starting Strength and the like. (The book “Starting Strength” may be a bit overwhelming — 50 pages of proper directions on how to squat/deadlift might scare anyone away!)
      Also, your question about what weight to begin with? That’s best answered with a session with a *qualified, reputable* personal trainer that won’t let you hurt yourself. Yes it costs money for a session, but so will going to the doctor if you hurt your back.

      Can’t afford a gym membership or want to get in shape without weights? Look into books like “Never Gymless” or [the horribly titled] “Convict Conditioning.”
      Hardest part of fitness is just getting started.

  • Butch_Zee

    Sorry, got sidetracked. This is a good post, Brad. After all, wearing clothes look so much better when you’re in better shape. Also, you’ll look better when you’re not wearing any clothes.

    • bradborland


  • jeff

    Silly question, but should one do all of the warm up sets together, then do all of the work sets. Or, should you do the warm up set for one exercise, then the work set for that exercise, then move on to the next exercise?

    • Matt

      The latter, and for some of these exercises you should probably being doing more warmups, i.e. back squats.

      • jeff


      • Ike

        I think you actually mean the former here. This appears to be a straight set workout. Do one exercise at a time. Start with a warmup set with light to moderate weight, then perform the next warmup set (if applicable) with slightly more weight, then move on to the work sets at the desired weight, or pyramid. All with the right amount of rest between each set. Once you have completed the exercise, move on to the next exercise and do all those sets.
        Essentially, you should be working your way left to right, top to bottom, one box in the table at a time.

        • Ike

          My mistake, the latter is correct. I misread the question. Hopefully the rest of the above comment clears up any additional confusion.

  • Mark David

    Good stuff here. I’d also welcome a similar post which outlines a machine-based workout.

    • SKnezevic

      Machines are not really that good of an idea, mainly because it leaves those stabilizing muscles weak and under developed. Really, the only machines you’d want to use are the rowing machines. Besides cardio machines that is.

  • Michael

    Here’s two words for folks who want to get strong: “Starting Strength.” Read it and start a simple, but effective, 5×5 workout program and you will get strong. Very, very strong

  • iAmGeup

    So, do you do A-D in one day? Or is it Day 1 A Day 2 B etc.?

    • Greg

      This^^^. Are you suggesting to do all 4 workout sets every day, or one workout each day? Confusing…

    • Andrew

      Each letter is a different day, sorry for the confusion!

  • j

    How do you decide how much weight to be lifting for these exercises?

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