The Beginner’s Guide to 5/3/1
For many people, weightlifting can seem like a complex thing. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, an effective program can be brutally simple. In my search for a simple and effective solution for gaining strength and mass through consistent progress, I have come to love 5/3/1. 5/3/1: The Simplest and Most Effective Training System to Increase Raw Strength is the masterpiece of Jim Wendler, one of the baddest dudes on the planet. At the peak of his powerlifting career, he had a 1,000-pound squat, 675-pound bench press, 700-pound deadlift, and a 2,375 total in the 275-pound weight class. Those numbers are insane. Want to understand the method behind one of the powerlifting greats? For your best gains ever, keep reading.
The core exercises of the 5/3/1 program are the squat, deadlift, bench press, and military press. The most basic organization of the program therefore involves working out 4 days per week, starting with one of these exercises each day. The numbers in 5/3/1 refer to the numbers of reps you will perform on the last set each day for each of these four major. These numbers are periodized by week following this structure, which composes one cycle: Week 1: 65%x5, 75%x5, 85%x5 or more Week 2: 70%x3, 80%x3, 90%x3 or more Week 3: 75%x5, 85%x3, 95%x1 or more Week 4: 40%x5, 50%x5, 60%x5 The percentages here refer to the percentage of your 1-rep max. When starting 5/3/1, it is recommended to start with an “adjusted max” and use this number for your percentages. For example, let’s say when you start the program you can bench 315 for one rep. You should start with an “adjusted max” of 315 x 0.9 = 284. This adjusted max is then used to calculate your weights for the cycle as follows, rounding your calculations to the nearest possible weight (a number ending in 0 or 5): Week 1: 284 x 65% = 185×5, 284 x 75% = 215×5, 284 x 85% = 240×5 or more Week 2: 284 x 70% = 200×3, 284 x 80% = 225×3, 284 x 90% = 255×3 or more Week 3: 284 x 75% = 215×5, 284 x 85% = 240×3, 284 x 95% = 270×1 or more Week 4 (deload week): 40%x5, 50%x5, 60%x5 As you may have noticed, the final set for each week says 5 (or 3 or 1) or more. This means that this last set should be an all-out set where you go for as many repetitions as you can (I have bolded this final set of each week in my example above to emphasize this last set). Jim Wendler does suggest, however, not to take this set to complete failure. You should not be doing forced or partial reps for this first exercise of each day.
After you complete this first cycle, you then add 5 pounds to your adjusted max for military press and bench press and 10 pounds to your adjusted max for squat and deadlift. Using our example above with an adjusted max of 284 pounds, our second cycle would use an adjusted max of 284 + 5 = 289. This would change the numbers in the cycle as such: Week 1: 289 x 65% = 190×5, 289 x 75% = 215×5, 289 x 85% = 245×5 or more You would then of course calculate out the numbers for weeks 2-4 as well using this new adjusted max. If you are still confused, I will have some more concrete examples below. In addition, there is a 5/3/1 spreadsheet that will calculate it all for you here.
The periodization discussed above makes up the core of the 5/3/1 program. At its most simple, this program could therefore be done with only one work set per day. This, of course, is not enough work to do on a regular basis and expect dramatic results in the gym. Assistance exercises make up the rest of your workout. These exercises should be specifically chosen to supplement the core exercise you are performing that day. There are three ways to structure assistance exercises as presented in the book:
Boring But Big
The boring but big method of assistance exercises is probably the most popular method as well as my favorite. For this, you will first perform the three sets detailed by 5/3/1 and then do 5 sets of 10 at 50-60% of your max on the same or a very similar movement. For example: Bench Press – 3 sets of 5/3/1 Bench Press – 5 sets of 10 reps It’s not exactly the most exciting way to workout, but it is very effective. Another point worth mentioning is that on this boring but big exercise, the main exercise could be swapped out for a very similar movement. Using this example, the bench press could be swapped with the floor press or a board press for 5 sets of 10.
With this assistance work style, you will limit your workout to 3 exercises, including your main 5/3/1 exercise of the day. This is an interesting challenge that makes you think about why you are choosing a particular exercise over another. For example: Military Press: 3 sets of 5/3/1 Dips: 5 sets of 15 reps Pull-ups: 5 sets of 10 reps In a way, this strategy is very similar to boring but big except with a bit more variation. The important take home point here though is that you really don’t need to do 10 different exercises to improve your strength. Narrow it down to just 3 exercises and focus, good things will happen.
I’m Not Doing Jack Shit
The final method should not be done often, but in a hurry or on a day you just really aren’t feeling it, it might be the best choice. Sometimes, you just need to get in the gym, get the bare minimum done and get out. For example: Squat: 3 sets of 5/3/1 That’s it. Clearly, this is not the best option for every workout, but it does help you focus on your main lift. This may be a good choice if you are trying to go for a PR and really want to be focused. Go onto the next page for a sample workout routine using the 5/3/1 methodology!
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