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5/3/1 Program 101

posted on March 13, 2024

Hello everyone Hanson here,


Today’s blog is about one of the classic powerlifting programs developed by Jim Wendler. The core principle of the 5/3/1 program is starting light, progress slowly but steadily, and break personal records (that’s not your 1RM).


Starting Light:
While this might be counterintuitive for someone who wants to lift as much weight as possible, starting lighter provides more room for improvement and more practice volume without the crushing feeling of fatigue. It might be a tough pill to swallow for some, it is far better than pain from injuries and stalled progression.


Progress Slowly:
This goes hand in hand with starting light, it will help those who want to get bigger and stronger from self-sabotaging their own progress. Instead of aiming at an arbitrary number based on what people advertise on social media, every set’s weight is calculated based on your PERSONAL training max.


Break Personal Records:
5/3/1 is set up so you can break your personal records on your 5 rep and 3 rep sets on a weekly basis. To live or die by your 1RM pr every week is one quick way to discourage yourself from making progress. Instead, focus on hitting pr’s with reps with the same weight, if your squat goes from 225 x 3 to 225 x 5, you have definitely gotten stronger.


How to set up 5/3/1


You are expected to weight train 4 days a week for this program. Each day is centered around a core lift: bench, shoulder press, squat, and deadlift. Start your workout with 5 to 10 minutes of mobility and warmup, focusing on slowly moving through the warmup movement with full range of motion. After warmup, you will proceed to the main training block. Each training cycle lasts 4 weeks, with the following set-rep goals for each major lift.


Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
Set 1 65% x 5 70% x 3 75% x 5 40% x 5
Set 2 75% x 5 80% x 3 85% x 3 50% x 5
Set 3 85% x 5+ 90% x 3+ 95% x 1+ 60% x 5


For the weight calculations, we are basing it off your training max, which is 90% of your competition/max effort 1RM. For example, if your absolute 1RM for bench press is 315lbs your training max will be 315 x 0.9 = 285 lbs. So, for week one, your first set of bench press will be at 285 x 0.65 = 185 lbs. for 5 reps, and then 285 x 0.75 = 215 lbs. for 5 reps, and the last set 285 x 0.85 = 245 lbs. for 5 or more reps with all-out effort. The magic happens on that last set where you really push yourself to set that multi-rep PR! But don’t ignore the nice foundation you’re building with the first two set and assistance work you’ll do after.


Assistance Work:

Along with the bench press, squat, shoulder press, and deadlift, 5/3/1 includes assistance exercises to build muscle, prevent injury, and create a balanced physique. My favorites are strength-training staples like chin-ups, dips, lunges, rows, and back extensions. I like to do 4 to 5 sets of 15 reps for those assistance exercises. The goal is NOT to go as heavy as you can for those assistance exercises. The goal is to keep the tension in the muscle while maintaining good form as you go through sets of 15. For exercises such as chin-ups and dips, I just use my body weight, and for exercises like the lunge and rows, I have 30lb dumbbells in each hand.


5 Tips to a successful 5/3/1 program from Jim Wendler himself:
1. Start with a realistic idea of your one-rep max, and follow my instructions to base all training weights on 90% of that max. You can make it easy on yourself by spending a couple of workouts working up to a four-rep-max set of each of the four core lifts.

2. Your 3RM should be about 90% of your 1RM. Once you have that 3RM, you can skip a step in your calculations and just use it for all your subsequent percentages.

3. The final set of your core lift in each workout is the one that produces mass and strength, so give it everything you have, and get as many reps as you can with that weight.

4. The exceptions are the deloading workouts in Week 4. You’re giving your muscles a break, not trying to establish new PRs.

5. When you start a new four-week cycle, add 5 pounds to your 1RMs for bench and shoulder presses and 10 pounds for squats and deadlifts, and recalculate training weights using the new numbers.


I will be adding more content relating to 5/3/1 in the future as I am currently 1 cycle into this training myself! Feel free to ask me any questions about this training if you see me around the gym!


Keep on lifting!


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