Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program is one of the most popular and effective strength training routines out there. He designed it to eliminate all the stupid crap and help people focus on the fundamentals that have stood the test of time.
There’s nothing novel or magic about 5/3/1, it’s just easy to follow. In it’s basic form, you lift 4 days a week, and you perform one major lift along with a couple assistance exercises on each day.
If you want something complicated, you should look elsewhere. If you want a strength program that works, keep reading.
Wendler 5/3/1 Basics
Strength training doesn’t have to be complicated. Like most things in life, success is usually the result of following a few basic principles. Wendler’s 5/3/1 program is no different. It’s simple, but it’s grounded in proven methodologies, and if you follow it consistently, you’ll get stronger and build muscle.
You will get the best results by following the program as outlined and adhering to the core philosophy. Ignore these principles to your own detriment.
Focus on Multi-Joint Movements
5/3/1 is centered around the four primary lifts: bench press, back squat, deadlift and shoulder press. These lifts are the focus because they carry over to most other athletic endeavors. They require strength and stability across a wide range of motion, which means that many muscle groups are involved. Performing these lifts at moderate to heavy weight is the best way to build strength and size.
If you train at or near your max capacity all the time, you’re going to plateau and stall out. You can’t get ahead of yourself. You need to start light, then progressively and incrementally improve. If your ego is too big to handle this fact, then you should probably stick to what you’re doing and continue going nowhere.
Measure Progress and Move Slow
It takes time to build strength. Unless you’re an untrained novice with outrageous genetic potential, you’re not going to add ridiculous amounts of weight to your lifts in just a few weeks, or even a few months. 5/3/1 has you adding 5-10 pounds to your baseline every 4 weeks.
That might seem slow, but those gains add up over time. Chances are that you don’t even know how much weight you’ve added to your lifts in the last year with any degree of accuracy. If you do, good for you. Either way, accept the fact that progress happens in a logical, linear fashion over time.
Break PR’s (And Not Just 1 Rep Maxes)
Some people focus solely on their 1 rep maxes (1RMs), but this is stupid. In the 5/3/1 program, 1RMs are merely benchmarks used to calculate the progression throughout the cycle. They are not the focus.
A 1 rep max is a performance or a demonstration of ability. This single performance should not drive the design of a training program. The program should be designed to increase your abilities. In other words, you should “train based on your training.”
The point is that if you progress from lifting 175×3 to 175×7, you’ve gained strength. You’re not going to increase your 1RM by lifting at your 1RM. You will increase your 1RM by doing heavy sets of 3-5 reps a piece, and progressively increasing the weight of those sets over time.
The 5/3/1 program also includes “assistance” exercises. These exercises merely supplement the core focus of the program and contribute to overall stability and balance. They assist you in the performance of the basic four lifts. Don’t go crazy on them, otherwise they will detract from your performance and recovery on the main lifts.
The 5/3/1 Routine
The program is pretty straightforward. The table below shows the basic outline.
|Set 1||Set 2||Set 3|
|Mon – Bench Press||5 @ 65% Max||5 @ 75% Max||5+ @ 85% Max|
|Tue – Back Squat||5 @ 65% Max||5 @ 75% Max||5+ @ 85% Max|
|Wed – Shoulder Press||5 @ 65% Max||5 @ 75% Max||5+ @ 85% Max|
|Thur – Deadlift||5 @ 65% Max||5 @ 75% Max||5+ @ 85% Max|
|Set 1||Set 2||Set 3|
|Mon – Bench Press||3 @ 70% Max||3 @ 80% Max||3+ @ 90% Max|
|Tue – Back Squat||3 @ 70% Max||3 @ 80% Max||3+ @ 90% Max|
|Wed – Shoulder Press||3 @ 70% Max||3 @ 80% Max||3+ @ 90% Max|
|Thur – Deadlift||3 @ 70% Max||3 @ 80% Max||3+ @ 90% Max|
|Set 1||Set 2||Set 3|
|Mon – Bench Press||5 @ 75% Max||3 @ 85% Max||1+ @ 95% Max|
|Tue – Back Squat||5 @ 75% Max||3 @ 85% Max||1+ @ 95% Max|
|Wed – Shoulder Press||5 @ 75% Max||3 @ 85% Max||1+ @ 95% Max|
|Thur – Deadlift||5 @ 75% Max||3 @ 85% Max||1+ @ 95% Max|
|Week 4 (Deload)|
|Set 1||Set 2||Set 3|
|Mon – Bench Press||5 @ 40% Max||5 @ 50% Max||5 @ 60% Max|
|Tue – Back Squat||5 @ 40% Max||5 @ 50% Max||5 @ 60% Max|
|Wed – Shoulder Press||5 @ 40% Max||5 @ 50% Max||5 @ 60% Max|
|Thur – Deadlift||5 @ 40% Max||5 @ 50% Max||5 @ 60% Max|
There’s a couple things to note about this table.
1 Rep Maxes
First, the “Max” is actually what Jim refers to as a “training max,” which is simply 90% of your true 1 rep max (1RM). You may wonder about the logic behind this, but it’s based on the rationale discussed above – that 1RMs should not dictate your training weights.
Jim argues that most people inflate their 1RMs anyway. So by using 90% of your 1RM, you’re more likely to work with weights that will be the most effective. (If you follow the Wendler 5/3/1 program on Fytt, we do all the math for you, so you just enter in your 1RMs.)
Second, for weeks 1-3, you’ll notice that the rep count for the last set has a “+” sign. This simply indicates that you should do as many reps as possible for that set.
Repeating the Cycle
Wendler’s 5/3/1 program isn’t a 4-week one-and-done routine. The idea is to repeat the cycle over and over while incrementally adding weight at the beginning of each cycle. The instructions are to add 5 pounds to your the bench and shoulder press 1RMs, and to add 10 pounds for back squats and deadlift 1RMs.
For example, your progression from one cycle to the next might look like this:
|First Cycle 1RMs||Second Cycle 1RMs|
|Bench Press – 200||Bench Press – 205|
|Back Squat – 300||Back Squat – 310|
|Shoulder Press – 150||Shoulder Press – 155|
|Deadlift – 325||Deadlift – 335|
This progressive, incremental approach is how you increase strength and build muscle. It takes time, but over the course of 6-12 months, you will notice an upward linear trend in the amount of weight you can lift. Before you know it, you’ll have added 20+ pounds to all your 1RMs.
Calculating 1 Rep Maxes
What if you don’t know your 1 rep max for one or all of the lifts? No problem. Jim has a simple formula that he uses to calculate an estimated 1RM that you can use as the basis for the program.
Weight × Reps × 0.0333 + Weight = Estimated 1 Rep Max
At the end of the day, you want to use weights that will allow you to maintain proper form throughout the entirety of your working sets. So if nothing else, just be conservative. You will build strength as you cycle through the program even if you start too low.
As you can see, the Wendler 5/3/1 program isn’t complicated. And that’s the point. But remembering which week you’re on and calculating all the weight percentages can be a bit tedious and distracting. That’s why we created a 5/3/1 template on Fytt. We’ve taken the program and made it dead simple.
You can check out Jim’s article if you want to read a bit more about 5/3/1 and his philosophy. If want to get started and have your program entirely built out in 2 minutes, sign up and start training.
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