Whether you’ve just got in to the strength training game, or you’re a seasoned pro, you’re more likely to have come across the 5/3/1 methodology for compound lifts. The brain child of American powerlifter Jim Wendler, this very simple system is an excellent way of making steady and efficient progress in your training. In this article I’ll be explaining how it works, why it works and how to adapt it based on your goals or sport.
What is it?
The 5/3/1 programme is exactly what the name suggests; a rep scheme based on an incremental reduction in reps per week as bar weight increases. It is the personification of simplistic, yet text book strength programming. Intensity goes up and volume comes down. If you’re not aware of the programme and loading parameters, it looks like this.
3 x 5 @ 65%, 75%, 85%
3 x 3 @ 70%, 80%, 90%
3 x 5,3,1 @ 75%, 85%, 95%
3 x 5 @ 40%, 50%, 60%
The final set of each workout is for as many reps as possible, so if your weight selection is correct, you’ll either be hitting the targeted reps or one, possibly two reps more.
How does it work?
The theory is very simple. Whenever the body is exposed to higher intensity’s (heavier weight), volume needs to be reduced to compensate. Week one you perform a total of 15 reps at an average of 75% intensity, week two this drops to 9 reps at 80% and although the reps performed stays the same week three, this is counter balanced by the fact you are doing a single.
Why does it work?
One of the most important parts of this plan is the weight you select for your 1 rep max. Although it may be tempting to go for your true 1RM, you must start with 90% of your actual max? Why? Because all compound movements are a skill. Getting stronger isn’t always about more weight on the bar, it’s about bar speed, bar path and neurological efficiency. You cannot work on this properly by constantly lifting at a high intensity (+85%). In any programme, for a beginner or the elite, there must be some sort of preparation phase where technique is prioritised over anything else.
In essence, this programme is excellent as it teaches patience and the importance of proper form. In the initial stages, doing sets with 65% may seem very light, but these sets are just as important for optimising your technique and how to approach a lift.
A very simple premise of this workout is to add 5kg to lower body lifts and 2.5kg to upper body lifts every time you re-start the cycle. Regardless of how the weights feel, by continuously applying this methodology with good form will lead to progression.
As stated, this programme was designed by a guy who’s squatted over 450kg. When you are this strong, going over 85% of your max is an incredibly taxing experience. For those who haven’t been in the strength game as long, or who’s goal is strength/hypertrophy, there are ways you could adjust this training plan to make it more applicable for your goals.
1. Increase volume
Although rep ranges may seem to get the lime light for muscle growth, you cannot neglect both tempo and sets. These two components contribute to total time under tension for a workout and so also massively come in to play. I personally like doing sub-maximal weights with slower tempos for more sets, rather than having to do 8-12 reps. This is just my approach though, but it’s worked very well for me in the past.
Example: 10 sets of 5 reps @ 75%
In the traditional 5/3/1, the first week requires you to do 5 reps with an average intensity of 75%. Here I have massively ramped up the volume to a total of 50 reps in total. Now, you may be thinking, why not do 5 sets of 10 rep with the same intensity. Although this is technically the same, your quality of reps and work will reduce, especially if you’re adhering to a strict 4-0-1-0 tempo.
2. Increase intensity appropriately
It’s easy to get carried away when training. I do it ALL the time. However making smart increases in weight is an art form that takes a long time to master. If week one was 10 x 5 @ 75%, I would do the following:
Week 2: 8 x 3 @ 82.5%
Week 3: 6 x 1 @ 90%
Some weeks will be better than others, but sticking to a set (or average) intensity is highly advisable. Remember, if these are the average intensities, so it is possibly to go higher, if you start at a lower weight.
You may be thinking, “Can I grow from doing singles?”. This is a hotly debated topic in the strength and conditioning world and the answer is, as ever, “it depends”. In my opinion, it’s all down to your genetics and training history. Some people can grow from singles, others can’t, one thing single reps do do though, is indicate strength. Strength is a fundamental aspect of growing muscle. It heightens the ceiling at which you can overload a muscle.
So for example, if your max is 100kg, then 70% of your max is 70kg. If your max is 110kg, then 70% of your max is 77kg. If a programme requires you to do 70% of your max for 5 sets of 10, being stronger will mean you’ll be lifting 70kg more per set! That’s a hell of a lot more load to go through your muscles. Periodising phases of strength and then hypertrophy is an excellent way to see constant progression and longevity in lifting.
Example from week 1.
Set 1 & 2 = 5 reps @ 67.5%
Set 3 & 4 = 5 reps @ 72.5%
Set 5 & 6 = 5 reps @ 77.5%
Set 7 & 8 = 5 reps @ 82.5%
Average intensity = 75%
3. The deload doesn't have to be a deload
Deload’s are a very important part of training. However, by looking at the way the above programme is designed, you’ll go from doing 40 reps week 1 in comparison to 6 reps during week 3. This is a huge reduction in volume and so a deload by default. Instead, I would look to change your training phases from 4 weeks to 3, so once you’ve done week 3, start with the same parameters again and repeat.
4. Cycle your main lifts
This is a very simple way of manipulating intensity. By considering the exercise selection continuum, there will be certain exercise variations that will allow you lift more than others. So for example, you may start phase one doing a front squat day one, close grip bench day two and snatch grip deadlift day three. Come the next phase, you could change these to a back squat, shoulder width bench and clean grip deadlift. This is an excellent method for targeting different muscles, but also a way of ensuring progressive overload.
The easiest way to get big and strong is to find out how the best lifters in the world train and emulate their system. If you’re an aspiring powerlifter, Wendler’s original 5/3/1 model is a sound for constant progression. The modified version above is for intermediate or even advanced lifters who’s goal is a combination of both raw strength and hypertrophy.
Fancy a go? Click the link below to download your 12 week excel version of the programme. Type your 1 rep max in to the cell D2 and it’ll do the rest.