Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1 Program for Strength Training
In December of last year, being a little bored from doing similar types of workouts, I decided to try a new lifting regimen. Despite some small changes and adjustments here or there, I was just burnt out from doing basically the same thing for a while. I’m sure many can relate to that feeling.
So I decided to work more on strength training rather than physical changes, which had been my focus for the past year. Up until the last couple years all I cared about was powerlifting, but I got away from it due to an injury that prevents me from doing heavy pressing movements any more (mainly bench pressing). That took a lot of fun out of lifting for me. Due to the ennui explained above, and simply missing powerlifting, I decided to get back to my roots.
A friend suggested checking out Jim Wendler’s“5-3-1 program.” I read it, decided to do it and have been following it for the past three months. I figured I have enough experience with it now that I could share my impressions and results.
The whole thing is online – www.jimwendler.com – so do some clicking around on your own for full details. I plan to summarize it at a high level and give my impressions, but this will still likely be long.
In a nutshell, it’s a powerlifting workout with the overall goal of increasing strength. It recommends lifting four days a week, dedicating each day to one of four main lifts: Shoulder Press, Bench Press, Squat and Deadlift. The program outlines a repeating four week schedule with instructions for what to do for each of the weeks, then how to adjust and repeat.
At the onset you figure out your “training max” (not your actual max but a slightly lower number for the purpose of training) and you gradually work up closer and closer to it in each of the lifts during the weeks, then adjust the weights and start over. Each set and each week you use slightly more weight than you did in the last. The number of repetitions decrease as weight goes up, but the last set for each of the primary exercises is an all-out set of as many reps as you can do, which is both fun and a lot of work. You keep working up like this until the third week when you’re on the last set using an amount that is very close to your training max for as many reps as you can manage. Again, it’s hard work. Week four is a “deload” week where you lift lightly to allow your body to recoup before starting over.
The amounts that you’re to lift are determined as percentages of the training max and the program breaks down exactly how much weight to use for each set. I’ve seen many programs that work off of percentages of maxes and I think this is the most effective one I’ve tried. After you complete four weeks you go back to week one again, raise the training max a bit, and start over. If you ever can’t do the designated number of reps, the program explains how to adjust and start again. By constantly working on increasing percentages/amounts, in theory you’ll gradually and consistently get stronger.
It does not tell you exactly what to do for assistance exercises, but does provide a number of different philosophies to choose from and he goes over and explains how to do his favorite exercises that he thinks are the most beneficial. I view this as another plus; you’re able to craft your workout depending on how much time you have, your preferences and abilities. For a beginner who might not know how to start there are examples to choose from and enough information to make informed decisions for assistance work. There are also some notes on conditioning (cardio), warming up, and diet.
I’m not going to go into any more detail, but do check out the website if you’re interested. I fear my explanation might be confusing, but it really is simple and straight forward.
MY RESULTS & IMPRESSIONS:
I can happily say that I got stronger in each of the lifts.
Even with shoulder press and benching, which are greatly hampered from the accident/injury a few years ago, I was able to rep out a time or two more than I could with the same weight at the beginning of the program. It was a very small gain, but I had been STUCK for longer than I can remember, so any gain is still a victory.
I had been stuck at a plateau with deadlifting for a while as well, but actually set a new PR when I maxed out last week, so it felt great to make some good progress.
Throughout the program I have yet to fail getting the number of reps I’m supposed to, so I haven’t had to adjust anything yet. According to the author this is fairly common; one could do it months on end without needing to adjust anything.
I like the freedom of choosing assistance exercises, though think I’m doing more than he recommends. I’m not concerned; I do not feel like I’m over training and I do make minor adjustments each month when starting over to keep things fresh.
I’ve also ignored all of his recommendations for conditioning. I like running, biking, playing basketball and the like, and continue to do so. It could be having a negative effect on my lifting, but I’ve still been making gains and am enjoying myself, so again, I’m not concerned.
The program recommends lifting four days a week, but I have only done three days per week. Instead of deadlifting and squatting on separate days I do them on the same day, deadlifting first then squatting. I don’t enjoy squatting as much as I do deadlifting, and I find I’m too sore for a couple days after heavy leg lifting to get good runs in, so I’m satisfied doing them together and freeing up cardio time. I’m sure my squat is not as good as it could be because of this, but I don’t mind. I’ve still seen improvements in both exercises and deadlifting is my priority.
A few negatives:
Some of the language used in the workout write up is PG-13. Nothing overly vulgar or offensive, just some mild swearing and slightly off color jokes. I wasn’t put off by it and questioned bringing it up here, but in case you’re sensitive to that type of thing it bears mentioning before you read. If you’ve spent any time in a weight room before I’m willing to bet you’ve heard worse.
I’m not crazy about are the deload week and the amount of assistance work recommended. For the deload week, it just doesn’t feel right going so light once every four weeks. That’s more often than I’ve ever done in any other program. BUT, I’ve been following it and it’s been working, so maybe I shouldn’t complain. Regarding assistance exercises, the program recommends (in my mind) a low amount. Depending on what you’re used to, the program as written might leave you wanting more. You’re free to adjust for your own needs though, so it isn’t a major concern.
Overall, I think this is a good program and recommend it. I don’t think it’s perfect, but all you really have to follow to the T is using the training max and following the percentages for the main lifts. Otherwise you can tailor it for your needs. I guess that in and of itself makes it about as good as one can hope for.
Jim Wendler doesn’t make any big claims about adding 50 pounds to your bench in only 6 weeks or other great physical transformations, which is a good thing. He is clear that the intent is for small continual increases over time. That isn’t as flashy as the big claims you’ll find littered on the covers of muscle magazines, but how often do those really work? If you’re consistently adding to your max, even just a little, isn’t that what you want – continuous positive results?
The workout itself is written in a very straight forward, easy to understand manner, but it isn’t overly “professional” (mentioned above). He doesn’t come off as an author, but he does a good job of explaining things and it’s easy to understand.
Finally, a plus of the program, to me, is that working out less has actually made me more excited about lifting. For quite some time I’ve lifted five or six days a week. I’ve found that now on off days I anticipate my time in the gym more. I don’t like sitting at home… lifting is fun! So I’ve found that I’m more excited to get in and lift and I think the quality of my workouts has increased because of it. This is obviously just a personal thing but it’s worth mentioning, maybe someone will relate.
I plan on doing this for a few more months and time will tell if it continues to be as effective. I’m optimistic. I’ll check in with my results after a while.
Thanks for reading and happy lifting!