Wendler 5/3/1 Continuous progression

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Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program—known as a (former) co-owner of Elite Fitness System—promises to be the “simplest and most effective pure strength training method.” Let’s see if we can explain this simple program in an equally simple way.

FOR WHOM?

Wendler 5/3/1 is suitable for the advanced and advanced strength athlete, man or woman. Beginners get better results on programs like Starting Strength from Mark Rippetoe and Bill Star 5×5.

THE PROGRAM

Components
Wendler 5/3/1 revolves around the four major exercises: the millitary/standing shoulder presssquatdeadlift and bench press. In an ideal scenario, you train four times a week and spend each of these training sessions on one of these four exercises. The program lasts three weeks plus one recovery week – so four weeks in total.

Parameters
The first week you do 3 sets of 5 repetitions for each exercise, the second 3 sets of 3 repetitions and the third week 3 sets of 5, 3 and 1 repetition(s) in succession. Every last set you do at least the prescribed number of repetitions. So in weeks 1, 2 and 3 at least, 5, 3 and 1 repetition(s) respectively.

In combination with the training intensity (% of your 1RM), Wendler 5/3/1 schematically looks like this:

Contrary to what you might think, the program does not take its name from the closing week, in which you do 5, 3 and 1 repetition(s) respectively. The 5, 3, and 1 refer to the minimum number of reps you should complete in each final set. These sets are the ‘highlights’ in the program.

Philosophy
You set a new record for repetitions with a certain weight every workout for every exercise. The entire program is based on that: continuous progress. So you set a new record repetitions every week for three weeks for the squat, deadlift, bench press and millitary / standing shoulder press.

Week 4 is, as we said, a recovery week. You train very lightly or even not at all. In week 5 you ‘just’ start again with the program, using +5 kg for the squat and deadlift and +2.5 kg for the bench/shoulder press as new starting points to apply the percentages.

The complete program:

A trio of remarks:

1. Can you train only three times a week – on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for example? Then you just move your squat training to the following Monday. Your program then lasts four instead of three and follows an ABC/DAB/etc. pattern instead of ABCD.

2. You can also train ‘only’ two days a week according to Wendler 5/3/1, by combining two training days. Keep the two pressure exercises, squat and deadlift respectively, separate here. For example, you can squat and bench press on Monday and deadlift and shoulder press on Thursday.

3. You can/may change the order of the exercises, as long as you make sure that the two pressure exercises respectively the squat and deadlift do not follow each other. For example, you can also squat on Monday, bench press on Tuesday, deadlift on Thursday and shoulder press on Friday.

COMPLETE THE PROGRAM PROGRAMMA

If you see a percentage, you know that we normally mean a percentage of your 1RM. However, Wendler recommends starting cautiously and calculating with a conservative 90% of your actual 1RM. If your 1RM on the bench press is 100 kg, you therefore use 90 kg (90% of 100 kg) as a starting point. (And so in the next cycle 90 plus 2.5 kg is 92.5 kg.)

Why calculate with 90% of your 1RM? Because most don’t even know their actual 1RM and estimates are usually on the optimistic side. But starting light also has another advantage. It’s taking one step back to take two forward. This prevents your progression from stopping somewhere in the middle of the program. In short, it is an investment in the future.

Let’s take your bench press workout on Wednesday in week 1 as an example. Your first set will consist of 5 repetitions with 60 kg (65% of 90 kg). Your second of 5 reps with 65 kg and your third and last set of more than 5 (read: as many) repetitions with 70 kg. If you calculate everything, you will see that we have consistently rounded up the weights – usually out of necessity. A third reason to approach your 1RM conservatively.

DANGERS AND PITFALLS

Wendler 5/3/1 is not a four-week program, but a constant progression system. Hence the conservative start and the conservative progression. In addition to getting stronger of course, the ‘program’ is aimed at not overloading your central nervous system and preventing injuries.

Despite the steady and, according to some, even slow progression, the program offers enough challenge. After all, you sharpen your record number of repetitions for an exercise every workout and every four-week cycle your estimated 1RM increases slowly. ‘Estimated’, because you never make a real maximum attempt. After all, the ‘>1’ stands for ‘more than 1’ and in practice that amounts to 2, maybe 3 repetitions – still close enough to your 1RM to realize an increase in strength.

Don’t be tempted to adjust the program, for example by adding sets or, worse, messing around in the percentages. The strength of the program lies in its simplicity; don’t make it harder.

IS THAT ALL?

A question has probably been on your lips for some time: ‘Am I really only doing one exercise per workout?’ In principle, yes. We are talking about a strength program here. The success of a program like this depends on what you don’t do rather than what you do, if you know what we mean.

However, you can ‘beat up’ the program. In his 156-page e-book, Wendler pays ample attention to assistance exercises for both strength athletes and bodybuilders. For copyright reasons we cannot disclose them in detail. Maybe Google can help you further?

You can also ‘make up’ some auxiliary exercises yourself. Some extra work for your ‘core’ (abs, lower back) can of course never hurt. In any case, use as a guideline that two or three auxiliary exercises are more than sufficient. Keep the intensity low (about 50%). After all, the hard work is already behind us. And remember as a general rule: a workout should never last longer than one hour, preferably 45 minutes.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

The simpler the program, the more questions it raises. We have listed some frequently asked questions about Wendler 5/3/1 below.

And who might Jim Wendler be?
Jim Wendler is, or rather was, a renowned powerlifter. No, he’s not dead, he’s just retired. Wendler trained at Westside Barbell under the renowned Louie Simmons and set a number of powerlifting records. His heaviest squat was over 1000 pounds, or more than 450 kg. Probably more than double, if not triple, your maximum squat. Today, over 40 and retired, Jim still squats more than you do.

Can I also do other exercises as a main exercise?
Even if Wendler would say no, we say ‘yes’ with reservation. But don’t switch exercises within one training cycle. That would be silly. You can consistently do different exercises during one cycle, as long as you swap the exercise for another compound exercise. A list of more or less interchangeable exercises:
– Squat – front squat, box squat
– Bench press – dumbbell bench press, incline bench press, floor press
– Deadlift – sumo deadlift, rack pulls, barbell rows
– Shoulder press – push-press, power cleans, clean & press

Is 95% of my 1RM really enough?
Yes, 95% is close enough to your 1RM for strength gain. 95% is according to your 2RM or 3RM; as you increase this month in month out, you have become stronger. Point. The whole point of the program is a constant progression in reps and weight, as we mentioned earlier.

And those three (work) sets/training: is that really enough?
Yes, that’s really enough. Until now you also did 3 sets of 8-12 reps? Okay, the reps are now lower, but that’s because we’re in the strength spectrum and the workout intensity is higher (and thus the volume is lower). Also, don’t forget that your last set is a maximum attempt. So respectively more than 5, 3 and 1 repetition(s). That cuts in quite a bit. Strength training is all about getting the most out of the set that matters – your last set. The rest is, in short, just the prelude to this set.

You write that you can adjust Wendler 5/3/1 so that you train 2x/week. Isn’t that a very low training frequency?
What is low? For people with a busy private life (busy job, children, busy social life, etc.), 2x/week training is even the optimal training frequency. Do you remember when you used to play football or judo? How often did you train (maximum) per week? And did you get better constantly and almost limitlessly? Right.

Can I repeat Wendler 3/2/1 ‘forever’?
In principle yes. The program offers enough variety to keep making progress. Provided you ensure sufficient variation in training volume and training intensity with regard to auxiliary exercises. If you follow the ‘basic’ program, so without auxiliary exercises, it is wise to train on another program for 6-8 weeks after a few cycles (6-10 repetitions).

FINALLY

We would like to urge you once again to leave the reps/sets/intensity parameters of Wendler 5/3/1 intact. This is the success of the program. There are programs that promise more results in four or eight weeks than Wendler 5/3/1 (and deliver on that promise), but their authors usually forget to follow up on their program. Something that Wendler emphatically does with his sustainable regime. Wendler 5/3/1 is therefore the ideal program for someone who understands that strength gains do not happen overnight and realizes that a conservative approach yields the most and sustainable results in the long term.

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