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

Learning to Squat

Here’s the bottom line: you need to learn how to squat. Period. No machine or fancy device is going to reproduce the physical benefits of a full free-standing squat, and there is no greater test of one’s physical prowess. So squat, and squat well.

Now, you might be saying, “I want to squat, I just can’t do it right.” Well, after reading the rest of this article you can just throw that excuse right out the window, because what follows is a series of 4 videos designed to take a rank beginner through some essential tips and tricks to make you a better squatter before you even try to climb under a barbell for the first time.

The goal here is to make sure that you’re capable of performing each step before moving on to the next. Until you’re proficient at step 1, there’s no need to work on step 2, as it’s probably just going to result in you practicing wrong and developing bad habits. So don’t do that.

Step 1: Face-the-Wall Squats

A note: I’ve seen many people who thought they knew how to squat and seen them fail miserably at the face-the-wall squat. It’s not to be underestimated.

Step 2: The Box Squat

Another note: I like to use box squats as a teaching aid, but for the most part I no longer condone using them as a replacement for the traditional squat for the general population due to the lack of carryover to the squat and due to a lesser degree of muscle hypertrophy. They’re useful for competitive powerlifters and maybe for those with extensive knee injuries, but other than that, don’t ditch free squats for box squats entirely.

Step 3: The Bodyweight Squat

There’s no point in trying to add weight to your squat until you can do it well without weight. I’d suggest being able to do 10-12 clean bodyweight squats to parallel or lower before introducing a barbell.

Step 4: The Barbell Squat

A final note: don’t be a bitch and do half-squats. Go all the way down or the weight is too heavy. Period.

Strength Training 101: Training Economy

For somebody who is new at strength training, the first few months hold a significant amount of opportunity to see radical changes in the body, including increased lean mass, reduced bodyfat, increased strength, and improved cardiovascular conditioning. However, it is critical that these first few months, where the body reacts rapidly to change, are handled correctly, because once this opportunity is gone, it is gone for good.

There are many components to a sound fitness program, including resistance training, cardiovascular exercise, nutrition, flexibility, recovery, and supplementation. Because most people do not have multiple hours in a given day to devote to these components it is my job to teach someone how to get the most out of their program in the least amount of time. This is especially true for resistance training.

In my experience, the average gymgoer (this excludes gym rats who essentially live at the gym for multiple hours each day) has roughly 1-1 1/2 hours a day, 2-4 days a week to spend at the gym without it creating difficulty in other areas of their life. This means that the big in-gym activities (resistance training, cardio and flexibility) have to all be addressed in this short window. In other words, making the right choices on what to do is crucial to get the most out of your time.

In short, training economy simply means selecting movements that provide the most benefit in the shortest amount of time. A movement that recruits twenty muscles in various proportions is more economical than one that isolates a single muscle. Focus should be on compound exercises (movements that require moving more than one joint) over isolation exercises (movement at only one joint). Let me provide a few examples.

Compound Exercises vs. Isolation Exercises

Let’s look at a common target area for a female – the legs. Usually the goal is to shape and define the legs while at the same time reducing their size. Now, we know that in general to make your body smaller you have to lose bodyfat, which means cardio and nutrition are vital to getting the results you want. However, let’s put those aside and focus solely on using the workout floor. The legs are composed of several areas – the quadriceps (front of the leg), the hamstrings (back of the leg), the glutes, the hips, and the calves.

Now let’s look at some leg exercises and compare them in terms of training economy.

Comparison #1: Leg Extension vs. Leg Press

Leg Extension – beginners, for whatever reason, tend to gravitate toward this machine for the bulk of their leg training. From an economical standpoint, however, it only targets the quadriceps. Beyond that, the majority of the stress is only on a very small portion of the quadriceps in general – the vastus lateralus, which is basically the small section of muscle just above and to the inside of the knee that looks like a big teardrop when it’s fully developed. Let’s day you do 3 sets of 15 and rest for a minute in between sets. On average, you’ll spend a minimum of five minutes to have targeted maybe what, 5% of the entire leg? This makes little sense for someone who is pressed for time.

Leg Press – this is another machine that a lot of beginners, especially guys, tend to spend a lot of time on, in this case because it allows you to pile on the plates and boost the ego by moving a weight that’s 2-3 times that of your bodyweight. In terms of training economy, this is a good choice – the entire quadriceps is active, and if you move through a full range of motion by striving to lower the weight down so that the knee is bent at less than 90 degrees, the glutes and hamstrings also become heavily recruited. The calves, hips and abdominals are also involved as stabilizers. So far so good, right? Right, as long as the movement is performed properly, through a full range of motion. The problem is that, as I stated earlier, most guys use this machine to pump their ego and not their legs, so they’ll slap 800lbs on the sled and move through a 3 inch range of motion, at best. This is useless. Full range of motion is vital in almost every instance, with few exceptions.

Comparison #2: Lying Leg Curl vs. Stiff-Leg Deadlift

Lying Leg Curl – just like the leg extension, this is a very popular piece of equipment with beginners. However, again, in terms of bang for your buck, it falls short. For starters, it works only the hamstrings with little to no support from any other muscles. Secondly, the hamstring is a muscle that requires movement at both the hip and the knee to be worked completely, and the leg curl only has movement at the knee.

Stiff-Leg Deadlift – stiff-leg deadlifts not only hit the hamstrings with hip movement, which is not possible with any leg curling variation, but it also involves the glutes and lower back as major movers, and the lats and upper back as supporting muscles. Heavier weights can also be used, which, when coupled with the need to stand when performing this movement, equals more calories burned.

Chuck Vogelpohl deadlifting

Now, there are certain instances where more isolation movements are needed: when working around an injury or rehabilitating an injury, and when there is a muscular imbalance present, either in stength or size. However, 90% of beginning trainees do not have either of these issues and should focus on compound movements done from a standing position.

Here are some of the most economical movements for the beginner and the muscles targeted (in order from most to least involvement):

  • Bench Press (chest/shoulders/triceps)
  • Pushup (chest/shoulders/triceps/core)
  • Standing Military Press (shoulders/triceps/core)
  • Deadlift (lower back/glutes/hamstrings/lats/upper back/core)
  • Squat (quadriceps/hamstrings/glutes/lower back/calves/core)
  • Lunge (quadriceps/hamstrings/glutes/hips/core)
  • Pullup/Chinup (upper back/lats/biceps/core)
  • Row (upper back/lats/biceps/core)

Weight is less important than proper technique on these movements – in fact, many can and should be done with bodyweight only until proper form is learned.

You’ll notice there are no direct movements for the biceps and triceps. This is because these movements are by nature isolation movements – all the movement is at the elbow joint only. Most beginners do not need direct arm work if the focus is on presses, rows and pullups for the upper body.

If you are struggling to get the results you are looking for, I encourage you to take a look at your own program and evaluate its training economy. I promise you’ll notice an immediate difference and spend less time in the gym to boot. And as we all know, time is money. And that’s economical.