Book Review: 5/3/1: The Simplest and Most Effective Training System for Raw Strength

Like most of you out there who have been training for more than a few years, I’ve tried dozens (and I mean dozens) of different programs and workout splits, all promising to “Add 50lbs to Your Squat in 7 Days!” or “Add 1 Inch to Your Arms in 12 Hours!” or whatever other ridiculous claim you can think of.  And, like most of you, I have nothing to show for it except for a bunch of training logs that hop around more than a rabbit on a pogo stick.

That was, until I began training for powerlifting.  When I first began, I discovered conjugate (or Westside) training.  Through Westside training I discovered Dave Tate.  Through Dave Tate I discovered Elite Fitness Ssytems.  And through Elite Fitness Systems I discovered Jim Wendler.

Wendler is a retired elite level powerlifter who also used to train with the Westside Barbell Club, and in the process squatted 1,000lbs, deadlifted 700lbs and benched over 600lbs.  He knows a lot about the system, and answered a lot of questions I had on the EliteFTS Q&A about it, including what he found didn’t work very well for him.  He found that a lot of the notable elements of Westside training don’t work very well for powerlifters who compete raw (that is, without the aid of bench shirts and squat/deadlift suits), including the box squat, bands, chains, and tons of accessory work.  When he retired from powerlifting he began working on a system of training that trimmed out much of what he deemed unnecessary and left in a foundation of a few very basic movements, with a focus on small, continuous improvement over many months and years.  Jim dubbed this system 5/3/1 (named as such because of the simple adjustment in rep ranges from week to week).

Jim Wendler deadlift

In the year or so that I was training using the Westside method, I was, indeed, a raw lifter.  And in that time, I began to notice that, just like Jim said, a lot of the things in the Westside method that work very well for equipped lifters don’t carry over as well to the raw lifter.  I saw many of the testimonials on the EliteFTS website talking about some amazing success stories with 5/3/1, and at the same time I had begun to stall in my own training and was looking for something simple to get me back on track.

I began my experiment with 5/3/1 at the end of September 2009 after having just strained my rotator cuff, so I started with some very conservative “maxes” for the big 4 lifts – military press, deadlift, bench press and squat.  Jim recommends taking 90% of what your best lift is and using that number to base all of your percentages on.  His logic is, it’s better to start too light than too heavy.

Having just tweaked my shoulder, I went even farther and dropped my military press and bench press down to about 75-80% of what I had done recently to give it some time to heal.  I began with the following “training maxes”:

  • Military press – 110lbs
  • Deadlift – 315lbs
  • Bench press – 175lbs
  • Squat – 210lbs

It didn’t take long before I began to see dramatic differences in my numbers.  One of the key points of 5/3/1 is that, on days you feel good, you try to go above and beyond the number of reps you need for your last set (5,3, or 1 depending on the week) and just go balls out.  You shouldn’t do it all the time, but when things are good, you should take advantage.

The numbers speak for themselves.  In 3 months on 5/3/1 I sawthe following changes:

  • Military press: 95×9 to 105×10
  • Deadlift: 270×8 to 315×10
  • Bench press: 150×8 to 175×9
  • Squat: 190×3 to 185×10 and 200×6

Granted, they’re not the huge numbers you see hyped by your average newsstand article, but they’re more substantial progress than I had made in probably the last 18 months leading up to starting the program.

I’m now on my 6th month of 5/3/1, and my numbers are still climbing.  I don’t push for rep maxes as often now as I did during the first few cycles, maybe 1 or 2 training sessions out of every month, but when I do, I’m still setting personal records.  I’ve also incorporated the program with a lot of my clients, and they’ve had similar success stories.

If you find that you’re stuck in a rut with your training, or just need to simplify things a little, give 5/3/1 a try.  But take Jim’s advice and commit to giving it a chance over the long haul.  Start too light, start too slow, and keep making progress long after the guy next to you has burned out on his “Gain 20lbs of Muscle in 18 Minutes!” routine.

Rating: 10/10
Retail: $19.95 (e-book), $24.95 (paperback) from Elite Fitness Systems

5/3/1 Assistance Work: Making Progress

If you haven’t read Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 Manual by now, you’re missing out. If you have, you know how effective it can be in improving stalled lifts very quickly and consistently. The program is incredibly simple and effective: follow your percentage work for the main lifts, do your accessory work, then go home. However, the manual doesn’t elaborate very much on the assistance work in the context of progressions, so I thought I’d show some of the ways that I’ve manipulated assistance work with different training clients and still managed to keep the overall simplicity of the program intact.

Example #1: Bodyweight Exercises
Bodyweight exercises play an important role in 5/3/1 – hell, Wendler has an entire assistance template devoted to them. However, figuring out how and when to progress them can be a little tricky. Here’s how I’ve gone about it with one of my older clients.

Client #1
Let’s use the 45-Degree Back Raise as our sample exercise. When we first started, he could do a single, full-effort set with his own bodyweight that had his form break down at about 14 reps in. We progressed it like this:

Cycle 1
Week 1 – 5×10
Week 2 – 5×11
Week 3 – 5×12
Week 4 – 5×5 (deload)

Cycle 2
Week 1 – 5×12
Week 2 – 5×13
Week 3 – 5×14
Week 4 – 5×5 (deload)

On occasion we would only add one extra rep each cycle, starting at 5×11 instead of 5×12 and working through. We repeated this scheme until he was hitting 5×20, then added a 5-lb plate behind his head and began back at 5×10. I know you’re basically only adding a rep or two per set per cycle, but in the long run, that’s probably better gains than 90% of gym members have made in the last 12 months.

Client #2
In another case, I had a client that could only get about 7 reps at a time on the 45-Degree Back Raise. We used a progression like this:

Cycle 1
Week 1 – 3×5
Week 2 – 4×5
Week 3 – 5×5
Week 4 – 2×5 (deload)

Cycle 2
Week 1 – 3×6
Week 2 – 4×6
Week 3 – 5×6
Week 4 – 2×6 (deload)

Once he was up to 5×10, I progressed him like Client #1.

I would not use a progression like this if somebody was unable to get at least 5 reps of a given exercise. However, with the exception of GHR’s and pullups, I’ve never encountered a scenario where somebody couldn’t get at least a single set of 10. In those cases, we used JumpStretch bands to provide assistance (rather than resistance) and progressively worked down in band tension until 5 reps could be performed with bodyweight only. I do this with band-assisted pull-ups since I suck at them:

Band-Assisted Pullup w/ average band
Cycle 1
Week 1 – 5×10
Week 2 – 5×11
Week 3 – 5×12
Week 4 – 5×5

Cycle 2
Week 1 – 5×11
Week 2 – 5×12
Week 3 – 5×13
Week 4 – 5×5

You can try going up more than a rep per cycle, but I’ve never had any success with it with band-assisted exercises. Once you get up to 5×20, drop band tension down to a light band, then a monster mini, then a mini, then bodyweight only. Some may feel they can progress quicker than this; I would suggest against it to prevent stalling in the long run.

Example 2: Externally-loaded Exercises
Externally-loaded is a fancy way of saying “anything more than bodyweight” – i.e. everything else. I use 2 methods here, one for the Boring But Big template, and one for everything else.

Boring But Big
After performing the appropriate 5/3/1 progression for whatever week you’re using, repeat the same lift for 5×10 at 50-60% in this manner:

Week 1 – 5×10 @50%
Week 2 – 5×10 @55%
Week 3 – 5×10 @60%
Week 4 – 5×5 @50% (deload)

If your training maxes go up the next cycle on your 5/3/1 lifts, recalculate your percents using the new max. If it doesn’t, then repeat the cycle with the same weights.

Everything Else
I use this with things like rows, side bends, extensions, etc. Pretty straightforward:

DB Side Bend
Cycle 1
Week 1 – 5x55x10
Week 2 – 5x55x12
Week 3 – 5x55x15
Week 4 – 5x55x5 (deload)

Cycle 2
Week 1 – 5x60x10
Week 2 – 5x60x12
Week 3 – 5x60x15
Week 4 – 5x60x5 (deload)

How you jump your reps is up to you – I’ve used 5-8-10 as well as 15-18-20 depending on the exercise and who I’m dealing with. Bottom line is to make as small of a jump as possible and progress as consistently as you can.

There are plenty of ways to do this, you just have to be a little creative and think simple. Keep your goal simple and small, just like you would on your main lifts. Increasing your lifts by one rep or by five pounds is still progress. Have that happen 10 times over and suddenly what started as a little extra won’t seem so little anymore, and neither will you.