Today marked the end of my first Wendler 5/3/1 cycle. 4 weeks working on 4 different lifts: back squats, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press.
The main idea is that (following the programming) you perform each lift at a specific percentage of your max for a specified number of reps. One cycle lasts for 16 workouts and takes about a month to complete. The entire goal here is pure strength without worrying about anything else. (Other work you do is on your own, and is not covered by the 5/3/1 system. I do a lot of other fitness work.)
There’s no magic here. Jim Wendler isn’t saying that you’ll add 100lbs to your squat in five months. He’s saying you can do that in about a year. As long as you stick with it and continue to put in the hard work you should see results. In an interview with T-Nation Wendler had the following to say about the program: ” the reason I came up with 5/3/1 was that I wanted a program that eliminated stupid thoughts from my head and just let me go into the weight room and get shit done.”
I will pause here to say that I already had a solid lifting and strength base before starting. Until January of this year I’d worked with a trainer doing strength and conditioning work so my form is pretty good, I have strong body awareness, and I’ve had solid experience observing how to properly program workouts around a strength session. If you are less familiar with things working with a coach is invaluable (even if it’s just a more experienced friend) and Wendler’s book has recommendations for assistance work and how to do the lifts properly.
So far it’s been doing just that for me. I don’t get excited about programming strength work. I’m far more interested in putting my energy into circuit training, skills work, and metabolic conditioning workouts. I like getting strength results and I have strength goals, but the process doesn’t interest me. 5/3/1 has been perfect for that so far because it allows me to just get some heavy lifting in without agonizing over which lifts, for how many reps, at what percentage.
Beyond the simplicity I really like that at the end of each workout the last set is essentially listed as max reps. So in the first week the workout would be:
5 reps at 65%
5 reps at 75%
5+ reps at 85%
That little + at the end of the third set is the real winner. That’s when you push yourself to go beyond what’s comfortable and find out what you can really lift. In the third week the last set is 1+ reps at 95%. That’s 95% of your single rep max lift. I was seriously excited when I busted out 9 bench press reps at 160lbs a couple weeks ago. The last set of the workout is where you hit your goals and where you find your new max. It’s not about increasing your single rep max, though that will happen, but it’s about increasing your overall strength which includes reps and weight.
Tomorrow marks the first day of the second round. I’m adding 10 pounds to the training weight for squats and deadlifts, and 5 pounds to bench and overhead press. That’s the standard. (Wendler has a big focus on keeping ego in check when it comes to adding weight.) So, in theory I should hit my deadlift goal of 340lbs (~2x bodyweight) somewhere in July as long as I stick with the system.
For now I’m sticking to the four main lifts, but the theory can be easily applied to any lifts. The Olympic lifts come to mind first since I want to improve my snatch, clean, and overhead squat. I can definitely see a cycle in the future where I sub out the overhead press for a clean and jerk for example. Weighted dips or weighted pull-ups could make an appearance as well. The four main lifts are primary because they have significant carryover benefit to other lifts, but they are not exhaustive.
There are lifting programs that advertise faster results, but I really appreciate the ability to just turn my brain off and just lift. Strength is a goal, but not my primary goal so I’m very satisfied with steady progress.