Today I started my second week of Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 strength program. This is the first time in nine months I’m not following a program designed by myself, so I’m enjoying the mental break.
Since I started training seriously I’ve been following a bodybuilding-style split program, but over the past six months or so I’ve been hitting a lower rep range for certain exercises. Although I’ve seen great progress overall throughout the past year in the numbers I’m hitting for the major lifts, my numbers have been stalled over the past couple of months.
I wanted to try working at lower rep ranges to see if I could break that plateau, so I decided to begin the very well known 5/3/1 program. You can find a detailed description of the program here – which also contains a link to purchase the full ebook – but I will do my best to describe it in very basic terms below.
It is a four day a week program, where one of the major lifts (bench press, squat, overhead press and deadlift) is targeted per day. The program is based on four week cycles, where the first week is based on five rep sets and the second week is all three rep sets. The third week is the hardest week, where you work up to 95 per cent of your one rep max. The fourth week is a deload week, where you drop back to five reps at only 40 to 60 per cent of your one rep max.
During each workout, you complete three sets of your major lift (after performing a thorough warm up, of course!). Each lift is a different percentage of your one rep max. The confusing part is the calculations are actually based off 90 per cent of your one rep max. You will definitely need a calculator!
For example, this is the formula for the third week of the program:
5 x 75% of 1RM
3 x 85% of 1RM
1+ x 95% of 1RM
The ‘+’ in the third set means you are shooting for as many reps as possible, but without reaching failure. All three working weeks include the same feature for the final set.
At the end of the four weeks, you add 10 pounds to your squat and deadlift one rep max and 5 pounds to your bench and overhead press, and repeat the cycle again. You can repeat the program as many times as you like.
The hardest part is not going beyond what is stated. It’s great knowing in advance exactly how much weight you will be lifting for an exact number of reps. However, I didn’t really struggle at all during the first week except for the final set.
It is crucial you don’t add more weight prematurely as the program is set up for you to max out during the third week. The reason you will achieve so many PRs is because you have not burnt yourself out in the preceding sets! When I did deadlifts last week, a guy actually stood there watching me and commented on how impressed he was by the weight I was lifting. I was still working at almost 20 kilograms below my max, so I had to shoot down my ego and not add more weight to the bar!
There are several ways you can program around the main lift. Some people simply get in and out of the gym with this one exercise, but most seem to add two accessory movements for five sets of 10 to 20 reps. I am following the bodybuilding protocol, where I keep a traditional body part split (deadlifts are on back day, bench is on chest day, etc) and add three or four other exercises for three sets of 10 repetitions.
I will report back when I’ve completed my first full cycle, but so far I’m absolutely loving this program. I love that my workouts are done in less than 30 minutes! I’m also much hungrier than usual, so I must be doing something right. I found this interesting article about a figure competitor who prepared for a show following the 5/3/1 program.
I’ve always shied away from training at a lower rep range, mostly out of fear of hurting myself, so this program is really pushing me out of my comfort zone. I have never squatted for less than six reps, for example, because I’m terrified of falling on my butt. Looking ahead at the numbers, I don’t think I will need a spotter until the second cycle, but it really is only for that one maximal set per month for bench presses and squats.
Deadlifts are the only exercise I have always performed at a low rep range (less than five) but I was trying to lift heavier week after week without any kind of patience or real structure. This program is better preparing my body to hit regular PRs naturally.
Have you ever tried the 5/3/1 program or a strength-focused program?