531 Manual Review
In today’s program review, we’re going to be tackling Jim Wendler’s iconic 5/3/1 system. Now, before I begin, it is extremely important to note that 5/3/1 is not a generic, cookie cutter “program” that you can easily analyze. Through his different book publications, including the original 5/3/1, 5/3/1 for Powerlifting, and Beyond 5/3/1, Jim Wendler has produced well over 500 pages of content regarding the 5/3/1 system.
In these books, Wendler offers, quite literally, several dozen different versions of 5/3/1 that address a variety of goals from improving conditioning, getting faster and jumping higher, improving general strength, and, yes, setting PRs on the big three for powerlifting purposes.
Please understand that it would be virtually impossible to offer a comprehensive review of every single variation of 5/3/1 in a single review. Unless you guys want to read a 100,000 word article, or watch a four hour video, I’m going to have to stick to the basic, popular versions of 5/3/1 that are floating around the internet.
Whenever possible, as I am addressing the original 5/3/1 program, I am going to make notations about revisions Jim has made in the more current book Beyond 5/3/1. Keep in mind that the original 5/3/1 was published five years ago in 2009. Wendler has made substantial changes and, in my opinion, improvements to that original template. Nonetheless, most people still use the original variation and our review is going to center upon that particular version of 5/3/1.
That said, I’d strongly recommend that you consider picking up a copy of Beyond 5/3/1 if you’re interested in doing ANY variation of the program. The book contains Wendler’s latest and greatest ideas with regards to 5/3/1. If you’re not familiar with “First Set Last” or “Joker Sets”, your knowledge base on 5/3/1 is out of date. Without understanding of these concepts, which are discussed in Beyond 5/3/1, you’re not actually doing Wendler’s current program.
If you’d rather watch than read:
5/3/1 History and Context
As always, we’re going to start with a bit of context about the origins of the 5/3/1 program. Ironically, given its popularity in the powerlifting community, 5/3/1 was the program Jim Wendler invented when he decided to move away from the sport. That’s right; Jim Wendler invented 5/3/1 when he quit powerlifting.
In his own words, more or less, Wendler was tired of being a “fatass” who wasn’t good for anything other than waddling up to a monolift and squatting. He claims he was so out of shape that he actually lost his breath just walking around the block. As such, he wanted to come up with a program that took a more holistic approach to strength; he wanted to incorporate conditioning and mobility into his overall plan of attack.
Wendler decided to strip away the complexities of the Westside style of training that he had been using and he reverted to a simple percentage based program. In all likelihood, 5/3/1 was probably influenced by the Bigger, Stronger, Faster lifting program that Wendler was almost certainly exposed to as a youth football player. This program, designed with the competitive athlete in mind, served as a fantastic frame work for someone looking to improve their overall condition rather than focus explicitly on powerlifting performance.
To make my point explicitly clear, Wendler’s original program was specifically designed as an alternative to powerlifting training. 5/3/1 was never intended to be a powerlifting-centric, powerlifting-specific program. You must keep that in mind.
5/3/1: The Actual Program
Let’s take a look at the bones of 5/3/1.
As you can see, 5/3/1 is a program with a monthly mesocycle. There are four distinct microcylces: 3×5+ week, 3×3+ week, 5/3/1+ week, and a deload. The key notation to make is that the “+” sets mean you do as many reps as possible (AMRAP). You’re not supposed to go to failure on the AMRAP sets, but you are supposed to come within a rep or so of failure.
The entire program centers around the concept of the “training max”. Essentially, using a rep max calculator, you estimate your true one rep max. You then multiply this number by 90% in order to find your training max. Using this training max, all of your work set weights are calculated based on the percentages shown above.
If you don’t want to do all that math, you can have your 5/3/1 workouts calculated here.
At the end of each month, you increase your training max weight on the lower-body movements, the squat and the deadlift, by 10lbs; you increase your training max on the upper-body movements, the bench and the press, by 5lbs. From there, you repeat the exact same workouts that you did the month before with slightly heavier weights.
In addition to the monthly incremental increases, the program also allows for “rep maxes”. So, even if the weight increases are only monthly, you can still theoretically make progress from week to week by adding reps.
Although the original 5/3/1 program was never intended for powerlifters, Wendler has since addressed this issue in both 5/3/1 for Powerlifting and Beyond 5/3/1. In Beyond 5/3/1, Wendler offers an 11-12 week meet peaking cycle.
Here is what it looks like:
As you can see, the peaking plan is relatively simple and effective. In the first month, the lifter increases specificity by adding some heavy singles using his training max weight after he does his AMRAP sets. In month two, the lifter starts using his training max weight as the AMRAP set. In month three, you cut out all AMRAP sets and add an additional super heavy single.
During the last month, by eliminating the AMRAP sets, you allow for an extended “recovery” period where fatigue dissipates. By still including the ultra heavy single, you prevent detraining and encourage further acclimation to heavy weights. In Week 11, where even all the assistance is cut out, you ensure full recovery going into Meet Week.
Overall, this is a solid peaking option for the lifter who is using 5/3/1.
In Beyond 5/3/1, Wendler offers 26-28 week training plans that include periodized focuses on hypertrophy, conditioning, and strength. However, the original 5/3/1 template is not what you would consider periodized.
Unlike the other programs we’ve looked at thus far, the 5/3/1 program does feature a monthly mesocycle with once monthly weight increases. In reality, this makes the program most suited for “advanced” intermediate athletes. Early intermediates can make progress much more quickly than once per month. And even though 5/3/1 allows for rep maxes, it is much harder to add one rep per week than it is to add ~2-5lbs/1-2kg per week.
One of the biggest criticisms of 5/3/1 is the lack of overall frequency for the powerlifts. You perform each lift only once per week. For the vast majority of trainees, this simply isn’t optimal in terms of technical development. You’re going to need more weekly exposures to the lift in order to master your technique. Now, there are a variety of 5/3/1 templates that function to increase frequency. For powerlifting purposes, where technique is paramount, I think it is necessary to choose one of them. You can find many such examples in Beyond 5/3/1.
In my opinion, getting your squat and bench frequency to at least twice per week is going to be the minimum acceptable level. I personally prefer to see benching happening at least three times a week and even twice weekly pulling, but many people do just fine with benching twice a week and pulling only once. If you’re going to do 5/3/1 for powerlifting, make sure to use a variation where the frequency is increased.
In terms of specificity, I think you know what I’m going to say. The program isn’t specific enough because it wasn’t designed explicitly for powerlifting. The entire idea behind 5/3/1 was to move away from powerlifting centric training and focus on a more holistic approach to strength. The entire program is designed to allow for more conditioning, more overall recovery, and a better general sense of well-being. These goals and aims are well and good, but many run contradictory to maximizing powerlifting performance.
Like many other programs we’ve seen, the emphasis on the 1:1 bench to press ratio is just unnecessary and sub-optimal for powerlifters. The majority of the upperbody training needs to be focused on the bench press.
The biggest failing of 5/3/1, in terms of specificity, is in the percentages used by the program. Let’s do some math. If we’re taking 90% of our true max as the base for our program, and then take 85% of that number in Week One, 90% of that number in Week Two, and 95% of that number in Week Three, our “actual” percentages are: 76.5%, 81%, and 85.5%. In other words, for the vast majority of months that you spend doing 5/3/1, you spend exactly one week above 85% of your true max.
For a powerlifter, this is an absolutely sub-optimal approach. Now I’m not saying that you won’t get any stronger from working at lighter percentages, but I am saying that spending so little time in the powerlifter’s money range, 80-90%, is a recipe for sub-optimal progress. The lighter percentages, while great for long-term, sustained progress, completely bias the program towards hypertrophy and away from strength. It isn’t that uncommon for people to get 5-8 reps on their 5/3/1+ week which is supposed to be the “heavy” week.
Look, if you want to lift heavy stuff, you have to lift heavy stuff. It is really that simple. In fact, if we’re being honest, even Wendler has recognized that this was a weakness of his program for powerlifters. He addresses this weakness in 5/3/1 for Powerlifting through the following adjustment to the program:
As you can see, Weeks One and Two are switched. The AMRAP set is removed from the 3×5 week and heavy singles at your training max are added to Weeks 1 and 3. Now, this is a good start towards improving specificity. But let’s be honest here, do you really think doing a couple of singles, which still represents a relatively small amount of volume, is enough to override the fact that the vast majority of work that you do on the program is below 85%? Well, it isn’t.
In Beyond 5/3/1, Wendler further addresses this deficiency with the addition of Joker sets. With Joker sets, you can keep working up to heavier and heavier work sets after your AMRAP. For example, after you go for your rep max on 3×3+ Week, you can keep doing heavier triples. You are supposed to “listen to your body” and stop before you go to a weight where you would fail. In other words, you’re supposed to incorporate autoregulation, but you’re given no real guidelines as to how to actually do that. Beyond that oversight, the Joker sets do at least allow for you to get some work done in that 85%+ range. This is a key addition for all powerlifters. You can read more about Joker sets in Beyond 5/3/1.
5/3/1 employs a combination of basic progressive overload and attempting to add more reps. On the one hand, you increase your training max by a fixed linear increment every single month. This results in heavier poundages being used over time – also known as progressive overload. However, you also push yourself to new limits with the rep max sets. By going for new rep PRs, you introduce another element of progression. This unique combination is one of the more intelligent and useful aspects of 5/3/1 in my opinion.
While there are certainly programs out there that go way too far with how much volume and frequency they prescribe, the original 5/3/1 program actually goes too far in the opposite direction in my opinion. The original 5/3/1 contains too little overall volume and features unnecessarily frequent deloads.
In terms of volume, you’re only doing three work sets per week on each lift. The rest of the volume comes from assistance movements. Now, I can already hear many of you saying, “But I do the Boring But Big Template”! The Boring But Big 5/3/1 template features assistance work where you take 50% of your training max on one of the big movements and then perform 5 sets of 10 reps (5×10). This does, indeed, increase volume. For powerlifting purposes, how useful do you think doing 5×10 at less than 50% of your real training max is? It isn’t that useful at all. Remember, boring but big – the template is explicitly aimed at hypertrophy.
Even Wendler seems to agree with this idea. In Beyond 5/3/1, Wendler has introduced a new concept called “First Set Last” where you repeat your first work set of the day for another AMRAP set. Wendler now recommends this as a standard addition to the 5/3/1 program. I think that speaks for itself. Wendler himself has found that adding more volume to the original 5/3/1 program is a good idea. Even so, for powerlifting purposes, we’d like to see more of the volume come at 80-85%+ rather than doing additional sets at ~70-75%.
Similarly, deloading every fourth week means that you spend 25% of your training year not actually training. Unless you’re absolutely KILLING yourself in those three working weeks, deloading that frequently is completely unnecessary. And as we’ve already established that the original 5/3/1 program is light on volume if anything, the deloads are even more wasteful.
Again, Wendler seems to have come to this conclusion himself. In Beyond 5/3/1, he is now recommending that you do two full cycles before deloading. So, you now train for six straight weeks before deloading.
It looks like this:
As you can see, you simply run two 5/3/1 cycles before each deload. Training maxes are increased starting in Week 4 after your first full 5/3/1 cycle as per usual.
When combined with the Joker sets and “First Set Last” additions, this makes a ton of sense and dramatically improves the overall quality of the program. If you’re interested in 5/3/1, and you don’t consult Beyond 5/3/1 for ideas on how to improve your template, I just don’t personally believe you’re going to make the same level of gains that you otherwise would.
Compared to the other programs we’ve looked at thus far, Wendler is extremely progressive in his use of autoregulation. In the original program, the AMRAP sets allow you to make progress at your own pace. The AMRAP sets allow you to take advantage of good days and bad days. On good days, you’ll smash some rep PRs. On bad days, you won’t. It doesn’t matter either way because, as long as you get the minimum reps, you haven’t “stalled”. You can live on to fight again the next week.
Wendler takes this even further with the idea of Joker sets. Joker sets are essentially the same thing as setting an “initial” in RTS. Rather than predetermining your top set of the day, you simply work up to a top set. Again, this allows the lifter to autoregulate their heaviest training loads of the day.
Now, the original 5/3/1 program doesn’t autoregulate volume beyond the AMRAP set, which is a major fault considering that it is an advanced intermediate program. However, in Beyond 5/3/1, Wendler does provide a few templates where “advanced” lifters are encouraged to autoregulate assistance volume and given a few ideas of how to go about it.
Again, compared to other programs, Wendler is well ahead of the curve here. However, unlikeTuchscherer’s Reactive Training Systems, Wendler hasn’t yet figured out how to systematize autoregulation so that anyone can use it. Throughout Beyond 5/3/1, he simply mentions that he cannot teach you to “listen to your body”. You have to “learn it on your own”. Tuchscherer’s system proves this isn’t necessarily true; you can be taught to listen to your body.
Nonetheless, you can’t criticize Wendler’s newest versions of 5/3/1 for ignoring individual differences. If anything, I haven’t yet come across a resource that addresses so many different and varied goals and demographics. In Beyond 5/3/1, you’re very likely to find a program that is specifically tailored to your level of advancement and goals. The only issue is that there are soooo many templates and variations that the entire thing is somewhat of a jumbled mess that you’re going to have to sort out for yourself.
Admittedly, I am not a fan of the original 5/3/1 program. I don’t think it contains enough frequency, enough volume, I don’t think it has you handling heavy enough weights often enough, I think it calls for deloads too frequently, and it just generally isn’t specific to powerlifting. However, with Beyond 5/3/1, Wendler does a good job of giving the lifter a variety of tools to address virtually all of these deficiencies.
The main criticisms that remain, at least for me, is that he doesn’t provide a way to systematize the autoregulation provided by Joker sets and the overall volume done on assistance work. If you want the ideal 5/3/1 program for powerlifting, you’re going to have to do a lot of thinking for yourself. You’ll have to bring together all of his principles and create something coherent.
Now, while I still don’t consider the following template optimal, because I prefer at least three upperbody sessions per week, and because the volume still isn’t autoregulated, I do want to give you guys a starting point for making a 5/3/1 for Powerlifting template. I would combine the new Beyond 5/3/1 method and the heavier Boring But Big Variations.
Here’s what it looks like:
Let’s note the key points here. First of all, you’re doing two cycles before every deload. This means you get in a solid six weeks of training before taking that off week. You’re also using joker sets which means your top sets of the day are going to be autoregulated and they’ll be much heavier than the original 5/3/1 top sets. This increases specificity to powerlifting.
Additionally, the 5+ week and 3+ week are swapped. This means you never have two heavy weeks in a row. In Weeks One and Three, you use the Boring But Big Variation where you do 5×3 at 90% of your training max. This allows for more volume at heavier weights and thus makes the program more specific to powerlifting. On the 3×5 Week, you don’t do AMRAPs and you use the 5×5 Boring But Big variation. This week serves as a break from heavy loads, a bit of periodization, and a great way to keep the volume high without resorting to the extremely light, and practically pointless, 5×10 Boring But Big Variation.
Again, I don’t think this is an optimal routine or necessarily 100% the best way to use for 5/3/1 for Powerlifting. I just wanted to give you all a starting point for designing a more specific 5/3/1 template if you are just really enamored with 5/3/1 for whatever reason.
Overall, 5/3/1 is a solid choice for those of you out there who can no longer make progress on the simpler intermediate programs such as the Texas Method. By making some of the modifications we’ve talked about in this article, you’ll be well on your way to a 5/3/1 variant that is more specific to powerlifting and thus more conducive to improving your maximal strength.
Next up in the program cue is going to be Brandon Lilly’s The Cube Method. I am excited to take a deeper look into this one and analyze it for PowerliftingToWin.
If you’re seriously considering using 5/3/1, I honestly believe that you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t pick up a copy of Beyond 5/3/1. The material in Beyond 5/3/1 will help you to improve the original 5/3/1 program by leaps and bounds. Wendler’s current version is just so much better than the original! While I don’t consider Beyond 5/3/1 must read material for the average powerlifter, if 5/3/1 really appeals to you personally, you need to grab a copy and give it a read.
Leave a Reply
- leikefitness Deluxe Multi-Function Deep Sissy Squat Bench Home Gym Workout Station Leg Exercise Machine $130.42
- Everyday Essentials Color Coded Olympic Bumper Plate Weight Plate W Steel Hub $22.88 – $186.15
- Tera's Whey Organic Protein, Bourbon Vanilla, 24 oz $49.99
- Cellucor Glutamine Powder, Post Workout Recovery Supplement, Cor-Performance Series, Unflavored, 72 Servings, 12.69 Oz $23.74
- Ascent Native Fuel Whey Protein Powder - Vanilla Bean - 2 lbs $39.99 – $69.99
- Wall Mount Dip Station with Vertical Knee Raise $266.95
- Maxler 100% Golden Whey Protein - 25g of Premium Whey Protein Powder per Serving - Pre Post Intra Workout - Fast-Absorbing Whey Hydrolysate, Isolate & Concentrate Blend - Milk Chocolate Protein 5 lbs $25.99 – $50.99
- Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Pre-Workout, Vitamin D for Immune Support, with Creatine, Beta-Alanine, and Caffeine for Energy, Keto Friendly, Blueberry Lemonade, 30 Servings (Packaging May Vary) $17.99 – $34.49
- Genius Protein Powder - Natural Whole Food Egg White & Whey Protein Isolate Lean Muscle Building Blend for Women & Men Grass Fed Post Workout Meal Replacement Shake for Recovery, Chocolate $39.99
Spot on with this write-up, I actually think this web site needs a great deal more attention. I’ll probably be returning to read more, thanks for the info!View Comment
Thanks on your marvelous posting! I truly enjoyed reading it, you happen to be a great author.View Comment
I will always bookmark your blog and will eventually come back someday.
I want to encourage you to continue your great job, have a nice
Hi, i feel that i noticed you visited my blog thus i came to go back the desire?.I’m trying to in finding issuesView Comment
to improve my site!I assume its good enough to use
a few of your ideas!!
When someone writes an paragraph he/she maintains the thoughtView Comment
of a user in his/her mind that how a user can understand it.
Thus that’s why this article is amazing. Thanks!
I think this is one of the most significant information for me.View Comment
And i am glad reading your article. But should remark on some general things,
The web site style is wonderful, the articles is really excellent
: D. Good job, cheers
I am really inspired with your writing abilities and also with the structure to your blog.View Comment
Is this a paid topic or did you modify it your self? Anyway stay up the nice quality writing, it
is rare to look a great blog like this one
In fact no matter if someone doesn’t understand afterward its up to other visitors that theyView Comment
will assist, so here it takes place.
Do you mind if I quote a couple of your posts as longView Comment
as I provide credit and sources back to your website?
My website is in the exact same niche as yours and my users would
definitely benefit from a lot of the information you provide here.
Please let me know if this ok with you. Thanks a lot!
Magnificent items from you, man. I have take into account your stuff prior to and you’re simply extremely excellent.
I really like what you’ve bought right here, really like what you are saying and the
way in which wherein you assert it. You make it enjoyable and you still take care of to stay it smart.
I can’t wait to read far more from you. That is really a tremendous website.View Comment
Wonderful article! That is the type of information that are supposed to be shared aroundView Comment
the web. Disgrace on the seek engines for not positioning this put up higher!
Come on over and consult with my website . Thanks =)
Your style is unique compared to other people I’ve read stuff from.View Comment
Many thanks for posting when you’ve got the opportunity, Guess I will just bookmark this blog.
Today, I went to the beach front with my kids. I found aView Comment
sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She put the shell to her ear and screamed.
There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear.
She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is totally off topic
but I had to tell someone!
Hi, its nice paragraph on the topic of media print, we all beView Comment
familiar with media is a impressive source of information.
Excellent way of telling, and fastidious article to obtain facts regarding myView Comment
presentation topic, which i am going to deliver in college.
What’s up friends, how is all, and what you would like to say on the topic of this paragraph, in my view its genuinely remarkable designedView Comment
It’s the best time to make some plans for the future and it’s time to be happy.
I have read this post and if I could I want to suggest you some interesting things
or advice. Maybe you could write next articles referring to this article.
I wish to read more things about it! plenty of fish natalieliseView Comment
I am extremely inspired along with your writing talents and also with the structure for your weblog.View Comment
Is this a paid subject or did you customize it yourself?
Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, it is
rare to see a great blog like this one these days..
Wonderful post but I was wondering if you could write a litte more on thisView Comment
subject? I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little
bit more. Kudos!
If some one wishes to be updated with hottest technologies therefore he must be visit this web page and be up to date allView Comment
Your means of describing everything in this article is actually good, all be capable of without difficulty know it, Thanks a lot.View Comment
naturally like your web site however you need to test theView Comment
spelling on quite a few of your posts. Many of
them are rife with spelling problems and I to find it very
bothersome to inform the reality on the other hand I will certainly come again again.
Hey There. I found your blog using msn. ThisView Comment
is a really well written article. I will be sure to bookmark it and come back
to read more of your useful info. Thanks for the post.
I’ll definitely return.
What’s up, I check your blog daily. Your humoristic style is awesome, keep up the goodView Comment
Hey there! I’ve been reading your site for some time nowView Comment
and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from
New Caney Texas! Just wanted to say keep up the excellent job!
Hi, i feel that i saw you visited my web site thus i came to go backView Comment
the choose?.I am attempting to find issues to improve my site!I
assume its ok to use a few of your ideas!!
Fantastic goods from you, man. I have be aware your stuff prior to andView Comment
you’re simply extremely wonderful. I actually like what you’ve bought here, certainly like what you’re stating and the best way through which you assert it.
You make it enjoyable and you still care for
to stay it sensible. I can’t wait to learn much more from you.
That is really a great website.
Thanks for the marvelous posting! I quite enjoyed reading it, you could be a great author.View Comment
I will be sure to bookmark your blog and will eventually come back later in life.
I want to encourage you to definitely continue your great job, have
a nice evening!
Hey! This post couldn’t be written any better!View Comment
Reading this post reminds me of my good old room mate!
He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this article to him.
Fairly certain he will have a good read. Thanks for sharing!