Lessons from 5/3/1

If you’re a Powerlifter, or simply in the strength scene, you have probably heard of a training program known as 5/3/1. I first learnt of Wendler’s 5/3/1 program from a T-Nation article I read back in 2009. I then bought the book, and followed the program for a significant length of time.

Throwback to 2010 – 220kg on a Second Attempt During My 5/3/1 Training Days

It was the first strength training program I followed and one I stuck to for a significant period of time. It taught me a few valuable lessons about training.

Lets get into it…

Long Term Mindset

So often in training circles, people are talking about “[magic program name] that helped them add [large number] on their [major exercise] in only [short time frame]”. I am not a fan of our industry’s obsession with “quick fixes”.

When we focus too much on the change in a short time frame, we forget that the best of the best do this for years. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good jump up in 1RM after a training block. Whether for my athletes or myself – we are in strength sports, these are driven by numbers. I’ve chased these short term gains too.

However, consistent progress over a long time frame will trump short term jumps that are followed by lulls. This is a major lesson from 5/3/1 – Patience.

In this program, after each three week block, you have a deload week, then add only a small amount to your estimated 1RM. Specifically, 2.5kg to your e1RM for Bench Press and Strict Press, and 5kg for your e1RM on Squat and Deadlift. You don’t test and reset the numbers. You add the small amount and get back to work.

As a newbie to training for Powerlifting in 2009, learning this lesson early was powerful. It meant I formed a better mindset. I didn’t feel pressured to only think about results in terms of weeks or months, rather, where would I be in a year or two?

Spencer Arnold said in his blog: “So simply put: play the long game. Safe consistent measured workouts will speak for themselves over a long period of time. Don’t look at program results through a five month microscope but a multi-year broad spectrum lens.

This mindset allows you to avoid getting too bogged down by outcomes of individual sessions. A random bad session can be more easily moved on from when you’re playing the long game. Likewise, one good session doesn’t end up with you resetting all your maxes and making the rest of the program impossible to complete.

5/3/1 taught me to focus on consistent long-term progress.

Leave Something in the Tank

Nowadays more people are familiar with this concept. But back in 2009, RPE-based training wasn’t as popular as it is now. In fact, at this time, Mike Tuchsherer’s RTS Manual had only recently been published. So people weren’t often “working to an X RPE” and leaving a rep or two in the tank.

Within the 5/3/1 program, your three sets are at ascending weights. For example, in Week One – the 5’s Week – you hit 5 reps at 65%, 5 reps at 75% and then 5+ reps at 85%. Furthermore, these percentages are actually based off 1RM set at 90% of your best.

So the first two working sets are pretty light. There are clearly reps left in the tank. This allows you to hit solid sets of five. Your technique can stay on point. If needed you are able to adjust the movement from rep to rep to improve efficiency, as well as maximise intent and move with good speed on all reps.

Then the final work set provides the athlete an opportunity to push, or to simply hit the prescribed reps and carry on. Essentially, it provides a form of auto-regulation. To take what is there on the day.

Interestingly, a 2016 meta-analysis showed that training to failure results in similar strength gains to non-failure training. As training to failure likely results in greater levels of fatigue, it makes sense that a non-failure approach has merit and should be commonly utilised.

5/3/1 taught me that pushing to max effort isn’t always required.

Structured Individualisation

Individualisation is a major training principle. 5/3/1 provides a very specific structure for the main lifts, but leaves plenty of room for including individualised accessory movements.

Four training sessions is the typical split during 5/3/1, these are a squat day, a bench day, a deadlift day and a strict press day. Essentially, two upper body days and two lower body days per week.

Each of the major compound movements follow the specific percentages of the 5/3/1 program. Week One is 5’s, Week Two is 3’s and Week Three is the 5/3/1+ Week, these are followed by a deload week. The details can be seen in the T-nation article, or automatically calculated via a Google Sheet I created). This is the set weekly structure; percentages prescribed, on each of the major lifts. Outside of the auto-regulated “rep max” set each week, the individualisation is applied in what happens after the main lifts.

After you complete the main lift for the day, you then do accessory work. The accessory work should be focused on a lifters goals.

If they need to strengthen their triceps to help build up the bench, maybe some relatively heavy close grip bench work is added after the main benching. Perhaps muscle growth is desired the chest and shoulders, so some higher volume incline bench work is added after strict press. The potential for targeting an athletes weaknesses or goals is endless (but don’t do too many additional exercises each day eh…).

5/3/1 taught me to target weaknesses, but keep training structured.

Concluding Remarks

As a popular program, 5/3/1 was able to teach me some valuable lessons. Lessons that have developed me as a coach and athlete.

Learning from your training is important. Take the time to reflect on the things you’ve learned by following various programs or coaches. Take away the principles. These can benefit you long after you’ve finished using any specific program or method.

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See you next time.

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