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