Sometimes your training just needs a good stiff kick in the butt. If you’re the type of chronic program-hopper that constantly wonders if your workout routine is adequately servicing your fitness goals, Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 strength training program provides a resounding and clear answer — if you want something, you have to work hard for it and be consistent.
The fanciest workouts backed with anecdotes and flash can help anyone under the right circumstances, but 5/3/1 has been tested and proven time and time again to help just about anyone get strong, thanks to its proven principles-based approach.
If your goal is to build respectable strength, Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 can help you accomplish just that. Here’s how it works.
Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 Program Overview
Wendler originally created and refined his 5/3/1 program to rebalance his own training life. After years of world-class powerlifting training under the tutelage of Louis Simmons of Westside Barbell fame, 5/3/1 was designed as an answer to the many nagging aches and pains Wendler had accumulated. After reflecting on his goals, he soon realized that beauty (and efficacy) was found in simplicity.
5/3/1 provides a balanced approach to resistance training, emphasizing barbell exercises, setting personal records, and just getting into solid shape. Below is a general outline of the shape of the beginner three-day training template. Note that there are many different flavors of 5/3/1 beyond what is demonstrated here, some of which have you in the gym four or even five days per week.
For a detailed map of the program and its variations, you can refer to the man himself.
5/3/1 is designed around methodically taking you through several training blocks of escalating intensity — training the big lifts with a singular focus of building up your tonnage. The hallmark feature after which the routine is named involves performing a set of five reps, then three, then one single rep on the main compound movements.
How to Progress
If you’re running the beginner routine, Wendler advises adding 10 pounds every 3 weeks to your training maxes of the squat and deadlift, while you kick up your bench and overhead press weights by five pounds.
Your training max is a “soft maximum” that is roughly 90% of your true 1-rep capabilities.
Deloads and Accessories
5/3/1 also provides regular deloads every seventh week so you don’t overdo it when you’re pushing yourself through lots of heavy compound training.
Notably, 5/3/1 was designed to allow more freedom than just being a geared powerlifting specialist, with considerations for general conditioning and overall muscle mass that are beneficial outside of a monolift. As such, you can mostly pick and choose what accessory exercises you enjoy the most.
Why It Works
While the program itself may look somewhat bare-boned, that’s precisely what makes it so effective. There are several principles at play that drive a program like 5/3/1. Specifically, it was designed to emphasize big, multi-joint movements, start light, progress slowly, utilize periodization principles, and rely on a training max to set your loading prescriptions.
You Use Multi-Joint Movements
Many of the best exercises to get your entire body strong will involve multi-joint movement patterns. The world of powerlifting inspired many of them with the squat, bench press, and deadlift serving as programming centerpieces.
However, the standing barbell press, pull-ups and chin-ups, dips, and calisthenics can be a large part of 5/3/1 programming. Mastering these movements have a great carryover from both muscle mass and skill development standpoints.
You Have to Starting Light
One of the biggest assets of a plan like 5/3/1 is that it has you start light — much lighter than you’re likely used to. Stubborn gym bros may balk at the idea of training outside of 1-repetition maximum (1RM) territory, but the strongest of the strong know that won’t help you make the most progress long-term.
Starting light and allowing for your accessory exercises and recovery from each training session to do their job in building up your strength is an often overlooked aspect of getting strong.
There Is Steady Progression
Taking aggressive or abrupt jumps with your weights in the gym can be like sprinting into a brick wall. Plateaus occur for many reasons, but one of the most common is not allowing the body an appropriate time to adapt to what you’re throwing at it.
Adaptations may take more than one training cycle to take optimal effect, Slow progression allows for your muscles to grow, provides time to refine your technique, and allows for more upward mobility in terms of your strength potential. 5/3/1 serves you better as you yourself get better at performing it.
Proper Periodization Is a Must
Periodization is one of the most powerful tools in the strength training toolbox. 5/3/1 employs a weekly undulating periodization style, where week-over-week changes to your program involve fewer reps and heavier weights.
It also stresses the importance of challenging yourself with all-out AMRAP sets once in a while. This added intensity and personal challenge helps keep you honest and also guarantees you’re less likely to be sandbagging your training, ensuring you don’t leave gains on the table.
It Shows You Your Training Max
Perhaps one of the most valuable principles behind the success of 5/3/1 is the “training max”. The training max is the value that all of your loads will be calculated off of. A fatal error in many strength training programs is that they will use your true 1RM to perform these calculations.
Conversely, you can think of your training max as your “any day of the week” max. It’s a number that you could squat, pull, or press whether you’ve been preparing for it or not.
For example, a training max might be 90% of your true 1RM, and in doing so, guarantees that the accumulation of fatigue throughout life and the program will never take you into waters you cannot traverse.
True 1RM performances are often tied to “peaked” programming and a ton of physiological factors which likely aren’t present during the average training session. The training max accommodates for the realistic nature of training and keeps you operating consistently.
However, some of Wendler’s variations of 5/3/1 do operate based off your true 1RM and not a modulated max.
What You’ll Need For 5/3/1
While 5/3/1 is designed to be as straightforward as possible, you’ll still need a few key pieces of equipment. As you get stronger, accounting for the time it takes to train and also recovery should be top of mind.
The backbone of 5/3/1 will be the squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press, all of which will require a barbell and enough weight plates to account for your long-term strength goals. While a huge chunk of the program can be accomplished with these things alone, having access to a good chin-up bar and some dumbbells will go a long way in adding some variability to your accessory lifts.
Finally, to truly round out the potential of 5/3/1, having a weighted vest, prowler sled, or any potential loaded carry implement (from dumbbells to household items) can help you get a good conditioning session in as well.
5/3/1 is a program that ramps up over time. Executing the full daily program with appropriate rest periods may only take 45 minutes to an hour at first. However, as your strength increases, so too does your preparation time, rest periods, and the intensity of your accessory exercises.
You should be aware that, regardless of how streamlined your first few workouts may feel, eventually they do become a hard strength workout and may take upwards of an hour and a half.
Recovering from strength training is a different beast than recovering from bodybuilding workouts. 5/3/1 does cross-pollinate similar training styles to induce a bit of hypertrophy, but soreness might not be the best metric of tracking how you recover between workouts.
Some 5/3/1 templates are scalable from 2 to 4 workouts per week to allow for adequate recovery from the heavy lifting. make sure you are prioritizing sleep and adequate nutrition to get the most out of your workouts.
Who Should Do 5/3/1
There are a few groups of people that are best suited to make progress using the 5/3/1 program — those with a strength focus, busy lifters, and those with a minimalist training set up.
While 5/3/1 will help many lifters with improving their athleticism and general conditioning, make no mistake that 5/3/1 is a strength program through and through.
If your aim is to take your strength to the next level, 5/3/1 is an excellent launching point for beginners and intermediate lifters to really break into high-level strength training.
Making time for high-frequency training programs can be the bane of busy lifters. Jim Wendler has crafted numerous variations of the core 5/3/1 program to account for training frequencies as low as twice per week, and accessory protocols from doing literally zero additional lifting to near bodybuilder level training. Depending on your time and availability to train, there is something in this program for everybody.
The core of the 5/3/1 program is an emphasis on the big barbell lifts and full-body movement patterns. As such, if you have access to a barbell you can complete the 5/3/1 program in many of its iterations. Having as little equipment as a barbell and your own bodyweight are enough to get you on the track to making monster strength gains.
Who Shouldn’t Do 5/3/1
While 5/3/1 is a potent training program for anyone looking to increase their strength, it certainly isn’t the best for everybody. Given its emphasis on full body strength, those with broad or diverse goals may struggle with the program. Impatient or fickle lifters may find the program a bit repetitive, and if you don’t have a barbell it will likely be pretty hard to complete 5/3/1.
Once you’ve decided getting strong is your main priority, 5/3/1 becomes one of the best choices out there. However, if you have a ton of different goals that pull you in different directions, 5/3/1 (and strength training in general) might need to take a back seat.
If you’re looking for strength as an adjunct to other aspects of your training, a more generalized program might be better until such a time where pursuing new maxes is at the forefront of your mind.
5/3/1 is infamous for its brutal, plodding, and simplistic approach to strength. What makes it effective however may also cause it to be a deterrent for lifters who cannot adhere to the same framework for long. Strength training can be a bit of a drag if you don’t get a ton of enjoyment out of high-intensity lifting — 5/3/1 might therefore turn off those seeking a bit more diversity or thrills from their training.
The No-Barbell Crowd
One of the most obvious pitfalls that might deter someone from starting 5/3/1 is the program’s reliance on the barbell. 5/3/1 outright states that the main focus will be on big, multi-joint barbell exercises, but not everyone views their strength goals through a barbell-based lens.
If you do not have access to a bar, or prefer a more general approach to strength, 5/3/1 might not be an appropriate choice for you. Luckily, you can still build a respectable body or get generally stronger with kettlebells or even calisthenics.
Who Is Jim Wendler?
Wendler is a lifelong athlete and strength coach. As a powerlifter, he accumulated a best Total of 2,375 pounds in competition, according to Open Powerlifting. Wendler has also successfully accomplished a 1,000 pound squat in competition before branching out to become a prolific fitness writer, speaker, and strength coach for athletes of all levels. He currently serves as a high school strength coach.
Wendler has successfully translated lifelong training experiences into his simple (but effective) and easy-to-employ 5/3/1 program. Without a doubt, Wendler is best known for his no-nonsense approach to building athletes, with his mantra “discipline over motivation” highlighting his training philosophy.
5, 3, 1, Go
5/3/1 serves as a simple, effective, and easy to understand training program for anyone looking to get stronger. With the multitude of potential programs circulating the training sphere these days, 5/3/1 has stood the test of time thanks to its straightforward approach to strength training.
Regardless of your skill level, if you have access to a barbell, the principles at work behind 5/3/1 will get you stronger. Where other programs may have more flash in the pan, the bare bones approach to Wendler’s 5/3/1 arguably instills even greater potential benefits — building the discipline and consistency required for truly reaching your potential.
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