How I 5/3/1

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Strength training can be really confusing or pretty simple: I’d say keep it simple and get strong. And nothing can take you to the promise land of strength like the 5/3/1 program.

I wish I could claim ownership of 5/3/1 but that’s not the case. It was the brain child of Jim Wendler about 15 years ago and has been used by gym rats and high level athletes alike. I’ve even seen copycat versions like 7/5/3 and 8/6/4, but nothing seems to hit the sweet spot like Mr. Wendler’s version. You don’t really need to re-invent the wheel.

Again, just for the record, I’m not taking any credit here. Just consider me a cheerleader of the program because, well, it works. A lot of people like to brag about what they do in the gym, but very few talk about their results. 5/3/1 requires dedication and patience; combine that with hard work and you can expect to add 50 pounds to your bench press in six months.

Here’s a quick breakdown of 5/3/1: everything you do is based on a training max. This should be something you can do for one rep any day of the week: that 405 deadlift of yours that nearly broke your spleen and took 8 seconds to complete doesn’t count. You should have a training max for the back squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press.  

With that number, you then take 90% of the total and use that number to dictate your training. Over the course of three weeks, you’ll either do 5, or 3 reps with the occasional single mixed in. I’m not here to claim credit so I’ll let Jim Wendler explain his 5/3/1 program.

But I will talk about how I use the routine.

A knock against Jim is that 5/3/1 doesn’t have enough volume. Doing more sets doesn’t automatically mean you’ll get stronger. But people who say this just haven’t read his work; as Jim has a ton of variations that you can customize to yourself.

When all I’m concerned about is pure strength gains, I use the 5/3/1 pyramid.

The bare bones of the program requires three working sets. But the pyramid requires you to work up and then back down, giving yourself five working sets for each lift (again, the deadlift, squat, bench press, and overhead press). A workout would look like this:

                Set 1- 5 reps @ 65%

                Set 2 – 5 reps @75%

                Set 3 – 5+ reps @85% (get as many as you can)

                Set 4- 5 reps @75%

                Set 5- 5+ reps @65% (again, get as many as you can). After this, I then lay on the floor and question my insanity.

It’s very simple but extremely brutal. I end up taking 6-8 minutes of rest between sets because they’re so taxing. I do this version with very minimal accessory lifts (if any).

When I want to build muscle, I use the very bare bones of 5/3/1 with a little twist.

 The body can only handle so much stress, so I ditch the pyramid and stick with three working sets. I also eliminate the extra reps on the last set. If I was doing the second week of Jim’s workout, it would look like this:

                Set 1 – 3 reps @70%

                Set 2- 3 reps @80%

                Set 3- 3 reps @90% (no extra reps)

After that, I attack the body with different techniques to add muscle size: like 5 sets of 10, strip sets, or using the 50% approach. The next day, I walk around complaining about how sore I am.  

In Summary…

You don’t have to use my exact approach. Just understand:

If all you care about is strength, it’s okay to do more than the 3 sets assuming those sets are done with a purpose.

If you want size, then scale back on the main lift and avoid doing extra reps.

Regardless of your goal, 5/3/1 is an excellent program that you can use year round.

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