Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 ebook and programme is one of those systems/programmes that has achieved a critical mass on strength forums and bodybuilding websites in general. It has received a lot of attention for a good reason it’s a good programme based on simple progression method’s that work.
What do strength athletes actually do?
One of the method’s for increasing top end strength that has been known since people have started to lift weight’s is that of repetition method. A lot of research and general writing has been devoted to finding the “optimal” ranges for increasing top end strength, hypertrophy you name it someone has looked into it. But when you get down to brass tacs what’s “optimal” doesn’t pan out through out the life of a lifter’s training.
Sure 5 reps might give you theoretically the best trade off between volume and intensity over three sets but you eventually stall if that’s all you use.
Outside of doing peaking programmes or templates that provide a percentage approach over blocks what you will see the majority of strength athletes doing is a combination of intensity (for example working up to a top set of 3 and trying to make it heavier week on week) and volume (drop sets, dumbbells etc). What you probably will not see for the majority of people who work like that is a definite structure.
The lack of structure however doesn’t stop them getting strong, far from it outside of strength sports that are funded and have good coaches the vast majoirty of truly strong people are self taught or have taken hints and tips off other people who are self taught.
The weight of anecdotal experience does not support perodisation approaches that involve “your going to do x weight on y date for z amount of reps and sets” unless it’s in the format of a well known programme or method (smolov, sheiko etc.) that do the rounds on fourms, word of mouth etc.
5/3/1 hows it work?
5/3/1 follows a “summated microcycle approach” where over a 3 week period you are ramping from lower intensity and higher reps to higher intensity and lower reps. This is followed by a week of a low workload to allow for rest and recovery so you can engage in another 3 week period of training and hopefully hit more personal bests. Below you can see a graphic depiction of how this idea pans out over 3 blocks or a 12 week period.
This approach is very common in programming for athletes and is nothing new as far as the strength and conditioning community is concerned. However the clever bit about 5/3/1 is that it allows for the athlete to put in “Maximal” effort every session with in a context and not to be hampered by arbitrary load x reps based of a percentile of a predicted 1RM.
By putting in a maximal effort you are sure to push your strength up week on week, 5/3/1 just allows for this kind of effort to be applied to a context where you are developing your strength over a wide variety of rep ranges (75% – 85% – 95%) which will help to prevent stagnation since it provides a varied loading stimulus. It also allows maximal effort to be placed into a context where you are highly unlikely to burn out since it is placed in 1 set and provided in mini blocks with tapers so recovery should not be an issue.
To ensure a prolonged experience on the programme Wendler asks you to gimp your 1RM deliberately by starting with 90%. By doing this you will start with loads that you can do for far more reps than the 5/3/1 being suggested, these rep out sets will allow you to keep pushing your 1RM by developing your repping ability in a wide variety of percentages. Below is 3 weeks on the programme for someone with a starting 1RM of 200.
The training 1RM is set to 180kg (90%) so by the time you get to block 3 your top working set on week 3 will be 181kg and by the time you get to this it should hopefully be a 4+ rep weight if the previous blocks have went well. Over time these rep PBs you will accumulate over the weeks will add up to a sustainable increase in your 1RM strength.
Does it Work for the experienced lifter?
I know some coaches who have used 5/3/1 with their athletes and loved it since it instills into new lifters what an all out set feels like and shows them what real working sets are like. Something that can be a problem using sets x reps set at levels. However beginners are notoriously easy to work with so as an experienced lifter myself I am always wary of programmes of the interwebs since I don’t really want to invest 4+ weeks of my training life on something that isn’t going to see a return.
So I will use my case study of Ali, Ali has been training for the age of 14 and has attained pretty good levels of strength (300 kg squat, 180 kg bench press, 300 kg deadlift at 125 kg body weight at 19 years of age) he has historically struggled with pressing however.
He used the pressing template I layed out in a previous article to take his raw bench from 165kg to 180kg in 2-3 months. However he stalled out using that approach so he was trying different approaches to try and get past where he was stuck (5×5, 3×5) but wasn’t seeing any return on his efforts.
I wrote out a modified 5/3/1 for his pressing and after 4 weeks on the programme he has seen his bench press go from 180kg to 185kg (with a miss @ 190) and his standing strict press went from 110kg to 115kg for what I was assured was a very easy rep.
He is currently using different approaches for his squat and deadlift which are working well but this template has seemed to do the trick for now.
In the next article in this series we will look at how you can modify 5/3/1 to make an already very good programme even better.