- 5/3/1 is one of the most popular strength programmes around and is often seen as the next step after starting strength or stronglifts. This complete 5/3/1 review is going to cover everything you need to know to decide if it’s right for you. We’ll look at:
- Background on 5/3/1 Jim Wendler and the Program
- 5/3/1 Program
- 5/3/1 Workout Explanation
- 5/3/1 Workout Days and Frequency
- 5/3/1 Boring But Big
- 5/3/1 First Set Last
- 5/3/1 Template
- 5/3/1 Program Review – Pros
- 5/3/1 Program Review – Cons
- 5/3/1 Review: Does 5/3/1 work? Is It Good?
- 5/3/1 Frequently Asked Questions
- Next Steps
Let’s jump straight in.
Background on 5/3/1 Jim Wendler and the Program
5/3/1 is a program designed and published by competitive powerlifter Jim Wendler in his book ‘5/3/1: The Simplest and Most Effective Training System to Increase Raw Strength.’
Pretty bold claims – and we’ll see how they stack up later.
Since the initial release, Wendler has also written ‘Beyond 5/3/1′ and ‘5/3/1 Forever‘ which build on the original programme.
It’s actually quite tricky to describe THE 5/3/1 program, mainly because there are numerous variations. It’s also worth noting that there’s the original 5/3/1 programme as described by Jim Wendler, as well as the updated version described in the book Beyond 5/3/1, and some of the newest variations described in the book Forever 5/3/1.
To keep things simple here, I’m going to list the Beyond 5/3/1 version, as I feel these are the versions and workouts that most people will be doing, as well as the versions most commonly found around the internet. Moreover, this is the BASE programme, we’ll discuss some common variations and assistance templates down below.
5/3/1 Workout Explanation
You can think of each workout as having an A, B and C section.
The programme above is the prescribed progression for main lifts (section A) So if you were squatting in week 1, your workout would have you doing 65% for set 1, 75% for set 2, and then 85% for set 3.
You would then follow this up with what Wendler calls ‘Joker’ sets (Section B) which are essentially additional heavy sets designed to let lifters hit some heavier loads on the days they feel good. So if your 3rd working set felt great and moved fast, you might add on 1 or 2 extra sets at 5-10% above your top set weight.
After that, you’d go on to finish off your 5/3/1 workout with an assistance template (Section C) such as Boring But Big or First Set Last (I’ll explain those in a minute)
5/3/1 works on a 3-week cycle. Each week, you lift a heavier weight for fewer reps in your main lifts. So in week 1, you use sets of 5 reps, in week 2 you lift sets of 3 reps, and in week 3 you use 5’s and 3’s to build towards a heavy single. All of which combined give the programme its name – 5/3/1.
At the end of that 3-week cycle, you can then start a new cycle with 5-10lb higher training maxes, or take a deload, which is highly recommended after 2 consecutive cycles.
5/3/1 Workout Days and Frequency
In most cases, the ideal 5/3/1 workout format is going to be 4 days per week, so that each day can have a main lift focus. For example:
- Day 1: Squat
- Day 2: Bench
- Day 3: Deadlift
- Day 4: Overhead Press
If you don’t have 4 days per week, then a 3 day per week program for 5/3/1 would look like this:
- Day 1: Squat and Bench
- Day 2: Press and Squat variation
- Day 3: Deadlift
To be fair, though, there are plenty of ways to arrange this, so don’t worry too much about the exact order.
5/3/1 Boring But Big
With 5/3/1, after you’ve performed your main lift and joker sets, you perform an assistance template.
In Wendler’s own words…
“boring but big is the most popular assistance template.”
All you do is pick a close assistance lift, and perform 5 sets of 10 reps with it. Typically in the region of 50-60% of your training max. (You might also start a little lighter if you’re newer to volume work)
5/3/1 Boring But Big review:
Not an exciting assistance template (boring) but will definitely help you pack on some size (Big) I’ve run the template myself a couple of times. It will certainly grow muscle, but the fatigue cost can be pretty high too, so keep that in mind.
5/3/1 First Set Last
Probably the second most popular assistance template for 5/3/1. With First Set Last (FSL) you complete your normal 5/3/1 sets, and then drop the weight back down to complete the Set 1 weight again. You can either perform a single AMRAP (As Many Reps As Possible) set, or you can perform 3-4 sets of 5-8 reps.
Fundamentally, 5/3/1 is less of a specific program of sets and reps, and more of a template that you can use and adapt to your own specific training needs. The general template pattern is this:
And as long as you’re sticking to something resembling this, I think it’s fair to say that you’re following a 5/3/1 programme.
For example, variations on the template that I have used for my athletes include…
5/3/1 for Powerlifting
In which I take out the overhead press and add in another bench press session. I also add in some lighter technical squat practice on the deadlift day, and some lighter technical deadlift practice on the squat day.
5/3/1 for Olympic Weightlifting
In which I start with either snatches or clean and jerks, then perform the 5/3/1 sets and reps for the main lift, and then choose an assistance program with stripped back volume. For example, Big But Boring might be done with 2-3 sets of 10 instead of 5 sets. Or we’ll just focus on multiple speedy single reps at a decent weight.
5/3/1 Program Review – Pros
Alright so now that we’ve covered the 5/3/1 base program, how to use it, as well as the most popular assistance options, here’s what I like about it:
- 5/3/1 is a versatile template
The versatility of 5/3/1 let’s you adapt it to suit your specific needs, making it a great choice for most true intermediate and even early advanced lifters.
- 5/3/1 is tried and tested
As a popular programme 5/3/1 has been used by thousands of people, which has allowed it to be tweaked and adjusted over the years in order to ensure it’s effectiveness. All you need to do is head to google and pop something in like…
– 5/3/1 reddit
– 5/3/1 results
And you’ll get plenty of reviews showing solid progress (like this or this) There are also a few 5/3/1 app’s that you can use to calculate your working weights and log your training, which might be useful to some people.
- Great blend of intensity and volume
With intensities ranging from 65 to 95% and an average training block intensity of 80%, 5/3/1 is exactly where you would expect an effective strength development program to be. Plus the addition of joker sets allow for heavier work when needed, and the assistance templates offer a big enough dose of training volume to keep most intermediates progressing.
5/3/1 Program Review – Cons
- 5/3/1 can be a bit confusing at the start
Wender loves giving things cool names: Triumvirate, joker sets, Widowmaker, you get the idea. This does however make it a little hard for people new to the world of 5/3/1 to get started, because there’s a bunch of new language to learn, and that language doesn’t always match up with the regular established language used within sports science. It’s an easily solved problem, but still something worth considering.
- 5/3/1 may have too much variation in intensity for some intermediates
Look, you might disagree, but most intermediates, especially early intermediates, don’t really need 3-week cycling waves of intensity. Intermediates, by definition, are people who can no longer progress each session, but can still progress each week or every other week. In many cases, a simpler approach such as the Texas Method may yield better results.
- Lifts aren’t practised that often
Training each main lift only once per week isn’t ideal from a technical proficiency standpoint.
In fact, many powerlifters benefit from 2 to 3 exposures to the squat each week, and even 3 or 4 exposures to the bench. With that said, this can easily be worked around by performing the squat assistance work on deadlift days and vice versa, and by subbing out the overhead press for another bench session.
5/3/1 Review: Does 5/3/1 work? Is It Good?
Absolutely. 5/3/1 is a solid strength programme that is well-suited to any intermediate lifter. Its major strength is that it serves as a flexible and versatile template for lifters to build on. it may have a couple of drawbacks, but these can be worked around fairly easily with a bit of reading and smart programming choices.
Personally, as a coach, I would recommend that once a lifter has completed starting strength or stronglifts, they try the texas method for a few months, and then move onto 5/3/1 once they have a more complete sense of their own strengths and weaknesses.
To be fair, though, either programme would be perfectly fine for an early intermediate, and a lot of it may just come down to personal preference.
5/3/1 Frequently Asked Questions
Is 5/3/1 good for beginners?
Not really. 5/3/1 isn’t great for beginners as the progress is too slow, the programming is too complex, and they have no idea what their training maxes are in order to make percentages work. So 5/3/1 for beginners is a pretty poor idea. Instead, beginners should choose a program like starting strength or stronglifts. That will allow easier, simpler and faster progress.
How is Beyond 5/3/1 different to the original?
Beyond 5/3/1 is essentially better in every way. It offers more intensity, more volume and more programming options. It also allows for 2 consecutive cycles of training before a deload, making it more time-efficient.
Best 5/3/1 program?
There’s no such thing as the ‘best’ 5/3/1 program. There are loads of ways to set up your training week, and dozens of different assistance templates, so it really comes down to which ones work for you. That means which ones work for your training schedule, goals, strengths and weaknesses, and honestly which ones sound like fun to you.
Are Joker sets necessary?
The joker sets aren’t strictly necessary, but I would argue that they are important for optimising and maximising your results. Generally speaking, more work performed at heavier weights equals better results, so long as you can recover.
Is 5/3/1 good for cutting?
Weight loss or cutting is mainly about your diet and not any particular program. With that said, if you are going to run 5/3/1 in a cutting/diet phase, then make sure to reduce your total training volume, as recovery will be harder.
Is 5/3/1 good for muscle building?
Both yes and no. The base version of 5/3/1 doesn’t offer enough volume for much muscle growth, and the reps are too low. However, when you add on something like the ‘Big But Boring’ assistance template and start doing 5 sets of 10 to finish off each workout, you will absolutely start to see some serious muscle growth. The fatigue will also be higher though, so keep that in mind.
Alright, that’s enough reading for today, time to lift some stuff.
1) If 5/3/1 sounds like a good programme for you, get in the gym and start working through it. If not, pick something else that suits you better.
2) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.
‘Til Next Time
Alex Parry, MSc, BA
Alex is the Head content writer and Coach at Character Strength & Conditioning, as well as an Assistant Lecturer and PhD Researcher at the University of Hull.
His experience includes 7+ years within professional strength and conditioning, as well as working as a tutor & educator for British Weightlifting.