In our survey of programs you most wanted us to write up, Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 came in second. This was a bit of a surprise to me because this program has been around forever! Of course, being old doesn’t make it any less effective. Anyway, this is what you want to learn more about, so we’ll dig into it.

Let’s start with the basics. Why is it called 5/3/1? It describes the rep scheme, which we’ll get into in more detail in just a minute. The program is typically done on 4 days each week, it’s a percentage based program – meaning you work off percentages of your maxes on the major lifts and it covers both upper- and lower body (something you all very much want too).

5/3/1 is built on 4-week cycles. I’m going to cover the standard 4-day per week version, but if you’re interested in a 3-day version a little googling will show you the way.

So, each training day is based on one of the primary lifts: military press (aka shoulder press), deadlift, bench press and back squat.

  • Day1: Warm-up / Military Press / Accessory Work
  • Day 2: Warm-up / Deadlift / Accessory Work
  • Day 3: Warm-up / Bench Press / Accessory Work
  • Day 4: Warm-up / Back Squat / Accessory Work

As I mentioned, the 5/3/1 name describes the rep scheme throughout the 4-week cycle, which looks like this:

  • Week 1: 3 sets x 5 reps
  • Week 2: 3 sets x 3 reps
  • Week 3: 1 set x 5 reps, 1 set x 3 reps and 1 set x 1 rep
  • Week 4: 3 sets x 5 reps (at lower, deload weights)

The percentages differ from set to set and week to week to, they look like this:

  • Week 1: 5 reps @ 65%, 5 reps @ 75%, 5+ reps @ 85%
  • Week 2: 3 reps @ 70%, 3 reps @ 80%, 3+ reps @ 90%
  • Week 3: 5 reps @ 75%, 3 reps @ 85%, 1+ reps @ 95%
  • Week 4: 5 reps @ 40%, 5 reps @ 50%, 5reps @ 60%

The thing that might stand out to you above is the ‘+’ on the last set in weeks 1-3. In this program, the number of reps for the last set is really meant to be a minimum. The plus sign designates this last set is an all out effort of as many reps as you can do without going to failure and while maintaining solid form.

If you’re confused, here’s a quick example of how this all comes together:

On week 1, day 1… let’s call this Monday, you’re going to warm up and then perform the military press.You’ll do 1 set @ 65% of 5 reps, 1 set @ 75% of 5 reps and then a final set at 85% of your 1RM for max reps.

At this point you can call it quits for the day if you’re looking for something simple & quick OR you can move on to some upper body accessory work. The program is pretty flexible on recommendations for what you should do for accessory work. If you have upper body weaknesses, go ahead and target them. But, if you’re not sure what to do, the most popular approach is referred to as “Boring But Big” which has you do the same main lift, but at a lighter weight for 5 sets of 10 reps.

Pretty obvious how it got its name :). The weight you choose should be challenging for the last couple of sets, but you should be able to hit the 10 reps for every set.

And that’s it for Day 1. Day 2, maybe that’s Tuesday, you’ll move on and do the same thing, but with deadlift instead of military press. Pretty straightforward.

A few notes on the program. You should make sure to take at least one rest day between Day 2 and Day 3. A typical training week might look like this:

  • Day 1: Monday
  • Day 2: Tuesday
  • Day 3: Thursday
  • Day 4: Friday

But, you can juggle things around as your schedule demands. It’s just advisable not to do all four days in a row.

Another important point is that the weights are going to feel very light on week 4. THIS IS ON PURPOSE. Don’t make the ego-driven mistake that you should be beating the hell out of your body every training session. Do the program as prescribed and then after the deload week you can start a new 5/3/1 cycle refreshed with heavier weights and continue to get stronger and stronger. Otherwise you’ll die a miserable death… weak and all alone.

And that’s pretty much it for 5/3/1.

One final point though, if you’re looking for all the nitty gritty details about this program and you’d like to see a bunch of options for accessory work, check out Jim Wendler’s book on the program. It’s cheap and a great read.

5/3/1: The Simplest and Most Effective Training System for Raw Strength

If you haven’t tried 5/3/1, give it a shot and before you know it, you’ll be lifting heavier shit.