Lift Big To Get Big! A Look Into Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 Training Protocol
For someone looking from the outside in, in search of the next “all star” training program with all the bells and whistles attached, 5/3/1 isn’t for you. As quoted straight from the mastermind behind the program, power lifter and strongman legend Jim Wendler, 5/3/1 is “the basic tenets of strength training that have stood the test of time.” You won’t see any outrageous rep schemes here or encounter numerous exercises. Wendler’s 5/3/1 program takes it back to basics and builds you from the ground up.
5/3/1 revolves around the 4 biggest compound lifts. These lifts being the bench press, back squat, deadlift, and stranding overhead press or standing military press. In Wendlers mind, “Those who ignore these lifts are generally the people who suck at them. If you get good at those, you’ll get good at other stuff, as they have such a huge carryover.” This concept makes great sense in laymen’s terms. By revolving your entire program around 4 major compound lifts, you incorporate much more muscle fibers and create more efficiency in your workouts. Rather than focus on a single muscle group and isolated movements.
5/3/1 is best done over a 4 day training split. The days can be scheduled any way you’d like. Each workout revolves around your one core compound lift of the day. So maybe you want to bench on Monday, squat on Tuesday, rest Wednesday, overhead press on Thursday, and deadlift on Friday. The days are completely up to you. Once your schedule is established, here is where things get fun. First, start by addressing your 1 rep-max on all your core lifts. So for example, say your 1RM for the back squat is 315 pounds. Now take 90% of that 315 and base your training-numbers around that 90%(285). This will all make sense soon.
5/3/1 works in 4 week cycles. This 4 week cycle looks like such:
• Week 1 3 Sets of 5 Reps
• Week 2 3 Sets of 3 Reps
• Week 3 1 Set of 5 Reps, 1 Set of 3 Reps, 1 Set of 1 Rep
• Week 4 Deload 3 Sets of 5 Reps (light)
Now of course you don’t just randomly pick a weight to lift for 3 sets of 5. You base all your lifts for those 4 weeks around your 90% weight. To make things a little clearer, let’s take a look at this chart below.
Week 1 Week2 Week3 Week4
Set 1 65%x5 70%x3 75%x5 40%x5
Set 2 75%X5 80%x3 85%x3 50%x5
Set 3 85%x5+ 90%x3 95%x1+ 60%x5
So you’re squatting and it’s week 1. You already know that 90% of your 1RM is 285. So for set 1, you use 65% of 285…185 for 5 reps. Next set, 75% of 285…215 for 5 reps. Finally, you use 85% of 285…245 for 5 OR MORE reps. Don’t kill yourself on this last rep. The “Or More” part means hit your 5 reps, and then some if you have more in the tank. These extra few reps will help you progress a bit faster.This formula applies for all 4 weeks.
After you finish the 4 weeks, you then start a new cycle. With this new cycle though, you recalculate you current 1RM by adding 5 pounds to the two upper-body lifts (Bench/Overhead Press) and 10 pounds to your squat and deadlift. In other words, in your second cycle of 5/3/1, you would use 295 to calculate your squat percentages. Simple as that! The best part, you can continue to cycle for as long as you’d like.
As Wendler states, “When I see a program that says three sets of eight reps? That’s the stupidest F****** thing ever. If it doesn’t have a specific percentage based on a specific max, it’s useless….With 5/3/1, you accomplish a goal every workout. Some programs have no F****** progression from one day to the other.” The writings on the wall, if you’re progressing every workout, you’re going nowhere but forward! From a long term stance, you consider adding 5 pounds to your bench press consistently for even just 5 months, that 25 pounds added to your bench 1RM. The beauty of progression!
Another great factor with 5/3/1 is its pliability. Once you finish your percentage numbers, you can realistically perform any assistance work you want. Following your 5/3/1 bench for example, you can incline dumbbell press, cable flye, even perform your standard pushups. The choice is yours. Just don’t go overboard on the assistance work as it is just that, assistance. The assistance work is there to assist the growth of your one compound core lift.
On one final note, Wendler advises all users of this program to start slow and low. Now what does that mean? Well simply put and referring back again to what I said earlier, do not start exactly with your 1RM on your first week of the program. Rather than that, start light, this allows you more room to progress forward. As Wendler puts it, “This is a very hard pill for most lifters…They want to start heavy and they want to start now. This is nothing more than ego, and nothing will destroy a lifter faster, or for longer, than ego.” If you tax yourself to full capacity on week 1, you’re going to have a tough time mentally and physically sticking with this program. If you start a bit lighter and build comfort with the weights, rep ranges, and program as a whole, you will build that confidence and rip through the weights from cycle to cycle.