5/3/1 – Simple Strength Building for All Experience Levels

Posted: December 27, 2011 in 5/3/1, Guides
Tags: , , , , , ,

To start with, let’s talk about how I know about this workout program.  I started at this link from T-Nation.  I suggest you read it too (after this of course).  After I was so impressed with what I read, I acquired the eBook from the creator, Jim Wendler.  I’m now going on my third month with the program and I am very pleased.  I’ll stay on it for the foreseeable future.


This workout plan is based on primary movements.  The primary movements, as prescribed by Wendler are bench press, squat, deadlift, and military press.  There is some flexibility here, you can substitute a little bit, but these are by far the best movements to use.  For instance, though, I hurt my back deadlifting and I’m taking a couple cycles off from that while it gets fully healed.   Especially for beginners, though, just stick with those four movements.  Wendler and I agree that if they are new to you, just be conservative with the max weight – it’s not a program to push your maxes up 40-50 pounds a month. That’s not a realistic goal and definitely not sustainable.  5/3/1 pushes your maxes up at a rate that is sustainable for very long stretches of time – years.


You will do four workouts per week.  Each single workout goes with one of the primary movements.  I’ll get into rep amounts, etc in the next section.  I tend to alternate the upper/lower workouts to allow for better rest.  Usually, I’ll workout two days in a row, rest, two days in a row, rest two days.  The rule of thumb that Wendler provides is that if you aren’t ready to perform your best that day, then you need more rest.  This is assuming a reasonable amount of toughness on your part – we don’t always feel great when we get in the gym.


5/3/1 is done in monthly cycles.  Each week, you will progress to lower, heavier reppages before the final week, known as the deload week.  On deload week, you’ll do sets of 5 at a low weight as a means for recovery.  You can read my article on deloading here.

You need to know your 1 rep max; it’s fair to estimate though, especially based on a 5 rep max or something similar.  You’re going to take those maxes, and use a training max.  Your training max, quite simply, is 90% of your real/estimated max.  This allows for some error in the estimated of max and keeps weights from being too heavy to start with.  You’ll know if it’s correct based on how you perform on those last sets.

The last set of each workout will be marked here with a “+” for weeks 1-3.  What this means is on this set, you will try to exceed the prescribed reps.  You should be able to do this if you are indeed getting stronger. However, this set is not necessarily to failure.  You should normally leave a rep or two in the tank.  However, Wendler will tell you that if you feel like a monster one day in there, feel free to blow it all out.  Doing so on a consistent basis, though, will lead to overtraining.  Needless to say, this is the part of the workout where the biggest work is done.

Here’s a breakdown of your weekly reps/sets on primary movements:

Week 1: 5 x 65%, 5 x 75%, 5+ x 85%

Week 2: 3 x 70%, 3 x 80%, 3+ x 90%

Week 3: 5 x 75%, 3 x 85%, 1+ x 95%

Week 4: 5 x 40%, 5 x 50%, 5 x 60%

And then start your next cycle.  The difference with the next cycle is that you will up your training maxes 5 or 10 pounds.  Usually 5 pounds for upper body lifts and 10 pounds for lower body.   If you are really blowing away those last sets, you may consider raising it a little quicker that month.  Just remember, like everything in fitness, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.  Don’t try to jump to your strength goal in one month – just keep making steady, real progress.


There are several options for exercises other than your primary movements.  The key thing to keep in mind when you choose and do these exercises is that they are meant to improve your primary lifts and balance your physique.  They shouldn’t be the most difficult part of your workout and they should be related to the day’s primary movement.  One thing to keep in mind is to balance pushing/pulling movements.  Too much push or too much pull will lead to an unbalanced physique – this is why you’ll see me add in pull ups/chin ups on upper body days, for instance.

Wendler offers some suggestions for assistance work: The Triumvirate, Boring But Big, Not Doing Jack Shit.  There’s another, but we won’t cover that here.  Let’s go one at a time:

The Triumvirate: As the name suggests, you will do three exercises (including the primary lift).  One should be the opposite pull/push and the other is your choice.  Choose based on your goals/needs.  When I did the Triumvirate, I would do DB Bench on Bench day along with bent-over rows for my pull.  Do about five sets of ten for the assistance exercises.

Boring But Big: For your assistance work, you’ll do the primary movement.  You’ll just do it at about 50-60% and 10 reps, for 3-5 sets (don’t overdo it).  I modify this by adding a push/pull balance, like pull ups or chin ups on upper body days, hamstring curls on squat day, and ab work on deadlift day.

Not Doing Jack Shit: This is not for beginners and not to be done on a consistent basis.  Basically, you go in and do the primary lift and leave.  If you have an unexpected time crunch or something, this is what you do instead of skipping the workout altogether.


This is really a pretty simple workout.  Just reading this once or twice over should leave you with a competent enough understanding of what to do – but I do suggest doing more research, buying the eBook, and asking questions.  Speaking of questions, feel free to post questions here and I’ll answer them from my own experience or the eBook.  No matter what your goal is, this workout program should be able to help you reach those strength goals as well as aesthetic goals.   It’s great for building mass and even better for maintaining strength/mass while on a cut.  The last thing I have to offer you is this spreadsheet, which does all the calculating of weights for you and even adds on weight for the next cycle, etc.  It’s very cool to look and see where you will be strength-wise in a year.  You may consult this article or this thread for more Q and A.

  1. I’m not that much of a online reader to be honest but your blogs
    really nice, keep it up! I’ll go ahead and bookmark your site
    to come back later. Cheers

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