In this article we take an in depth look at the method known as 5/3/1. What is it? Why does it work? How do you do it?
The 5/3/1 workout was the brain child of iron god Jim Wendler. Wendler had his career as a powerlifter, managing the following numbers:
• Squat – 1000lbs
• Deadlift – 700lbs
• Bench – 675lbs
• Weight class: 275lbs
Those numbers are impressive no matter who you are. So let’s listen to what the mighty Jim Wendler has set out for us in a program.
The 5/3/1 Workout
The program is simple. It is based around the 4 main compound lifts essential to strength training. The Back Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press and Overhead Press. Three of these movements are the competitive movements in Powerlifting, but are also the key components in building an impressive physique.
The emphasis on these compound exercises makes for any good program, and how you progress with these movements is the interesting part. The weights and reps to use are calculated from the 90% of your 1RM. So this becomes the bench mark for all other percentages calculated afterwards. For example:
If your Deadlift 1 rep max was 100kg you would take 90% of that (90kg) and calculate everything from there. So 60% of your 1RM would actually be 60% of 90kg which is 54kg. Wendler recommends starting lighter than you think you are capable of. Progression will still come.
This is important as it makes sure that you are able to lift the weights. According to Wendler, the figure most people will give for their one rep max, is a little exaggerated. The 90% figure helps to shave it to a realistic number.
The rep scheme is simple. It is shown below:
Week 1 3 x 5
Week 2 3 x 3
Week 3 3 x 5, 3, 1
Week 4 Deload
This all applies to the main four lifts in the program. The last set in every session is the session where you really put yourself to the test. Wendler suggests that you can either just shoot for the prescribed number of reps, or you can go balls out. He hints that going balls out is the smarter option. This last set is a great time to test your mettle, and push your boundaries. Your strength, muscle and mental power will all increase with this strong finish.
The other exercises in this program are simple accessories. Wendler has stressed many times that the word accessory is important to remember. Don’t fixate too much on these. The main movements with the 5/3/1 progression ARE THE PROGRAM.
Do not get hung up on the exact set and rep schemes you need for the accessories. Depending on your goals, pick accessories that will help you achieve them. If you are primarily looking for muscle, then pick some higher rep big movements to get significant hypertrophy. If you are looking for pure strength, then pick moves that will directly compliment your main lifts. Whatever your goals, by making the main lifts your priority, you will reach them quicker.
For accessories, Wendler likes the simple ones. Chin ups, Dips, Back extensions, Lunges etc. He is also a big advocate of the Kroc Row, which is a great movement to throw in for grip and upper back strength and size.
Why does it work?
All progress made in the gym is based on the principle of progressive overload. All this means is that you are slowly lifting more weights for more reps. 5/3/1 gives you a rigid principle to follow to make sure that you keep adding weight and reps.
There has been discussion about whether starting so light is a good thing. But Wendler has a typically brilliant response:
“The pursuit of strength is not a six-month or one-year pursuit. It’s a 30-year pursuit for me. You’ve got to be smart about it. But everyone wants everything right now.”
Essentially, it is important to remember that building an impressive physique is not something that can happen overnight, it is something that can take years. So stop rushing around panicking that you don’t have 22″ biceps within three months. Follow a sensible program, and the physique will inevitably arrive.
Another reason that this program is so successful is the simplicity. No matter what your goals are, following a simple program that ensures you will get stronger is always going to help. There can be no confusion about what you need to do in the gym. There is a calculator you can use to figure out your exact weights and reps for each training session. Follow a simple program, make the best results.
How do I do the 5/3/1 Workout?
OK, enough faff. Let’s get down to brass tax. What exactly does a program look like? There are several different variations of the program, we will show three of them here. The important thing to remember is that no matter how you twist or chew this template up, the most important thing is the primary lifts.
Let’s look at the weekly template for the 4 big lifts.
Week 1 3 x 5
Week 2 3 x 3
Week 3 3 x 5, 3, 1
Week 4 Deload
After your deload you are going to recalculate your 1RM. For your bench and overhead press, you are going to add 5lbs or 2.5kg. For your squat and your deadlift you are going to add 10lbs, or 5kg.
These are small increases, but over a year it can add 120lbs or 60kg onto your squat and deadlift, and 60lbs or 30kg to your bench and overhead press. These numbers are nothing to sniff at, and if you keep with this program for a few years. You are headed to become a heavy hitter. Let’s now look at some variations.
1) 4 day per week, “The Triumvirate”
Overhead Press – 5/3/1 rep scheme
Dip – 5×15
Chin up -5×10
DeadLift – 5/3/1 rep scheme
Good morning – 5×12
Hanging Leg Raise – 5×15
Bench Press – 5/3/1 rep scheme
Dumbbell chest press – 5×15
Dumbbell Row – 5×10
Back Squat – 5/3/1
Leg press – 5×15
Leg curl – 5×10
2) “Boring But Big”
This is similar to the routine mentioned above however, it is aimed at people looking to put on some serious mass, and put their bodies through unspeakable hell. This essentially involves doing your regular 5/3/1 sets, but you aren’t finished with your main exercise just yet. Let’s say it is overhead press day, you finish your 5/3/1 sets, you then strip the weights back to around 50% of your 1RM and bang out 5 sets of 10. Sounds grim? It is, but you will get huge. To read this in more depth, check out Lord Wendler’s write up of it here.
3) Bodyweight and “I’m not doing Jack s**t”.
Bodyweight just has bodyweight exercises as the accessory work, and the “I’m not doing Jack shit” basically means just that. You walk in, do your primary exercise, and leave. So to sum up. The 5/3/1 workout is amazing. Do it. Keep making progress. Keep getting stronger. And with all that said, if you do it and stick to it you’ll be well on your way to Gainsville. Simple