This Workout Plan Can Build Major Strength. Here's How.

IF YOU WANT to get strong and save time in the gym, there are three numbers to know: 5, 3, 1.

The 5/3/1 training split, where lifters wave through sets of five, three, and one rep over the course of weeks, has been helping lifters build strength in some of the heaviest movements in the gym—the squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press—for years.

“It is one of the most simple, direct, and effective ways to gain strength,” says Juan Guadarrama, C.S.C.S., a strength coach in Los Angeles. “The sets and reps are determined based on what we knows drives strength development: Low reps with heavy weight.”

One of the main benefits, says Shawn Arent, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., chair of the Department of Exercise Science at the University of South Carolina, isn’t just that the program uses heavy weights, but schedules the increase of those weights to help drive progress.

“It has a progression plan,” he says. Many guys in the gym know that increasing their sets, reps, or weights over time—an idea called progressive overload—is the key to making gains. But they don’t always do it systematically. With 5/3/1, that progression is built in more intentionally… and so they get results.

Want to get stronger on a schedule? Start here: Here’s the lowdown on 5/3/1 from Guadarrama and Arent. The two experts explain the program’s benefits, and how to use its principles even if you don’t opt for the exact program.

What Is the 5/3/1 Program, and Who Invented It?

The 5/3/1 program focuses on building strength by focusing on four core lifts:

Each workout features one or two of these lifts (depending on how many days per week you’re training), and the rep schemes change each week. In Week 1, you’ll perform sets of five reps of these big lifts. In Week 2, you’ll perform sets of three. And in Week 3, you’ll perform sets of five, three, and one rep of each move. After a deload week lifting lighter weights to recover, the process is repeated—hopefully with more weight on the bar for each move.

The program was devised by Jim Wendler, a strength coach, former football player at the University of Arizona, and powerlifter. According to Open Powerlifting, Wendler’s powerlifting exploits included a 1,000-pound squat, a 675-pound bench press, and a 700-pound deadlift.

Wendler says he created the 5/3/1 program in the early 2000s to bring back strength principles “that have been lost among the academics and pencil necks.”

How to Use the 5/3/1 Program

Calculate 90 Percent of Your One-Rep Max

First, you’ll need to know your one-rep maximum (1RM) for each of the four exercises listed above. Your one-rep max is the amount of weight you could do on a lift for only one repetition—essentially, the heaviest amount you can handle.

If you don’t know your one-rep max, and don’t want to spend a workout maxing out on all these lifts, you can get a rough estimate for each move using a few methods. One is by using the amount you know you can lift for five reps. Write those weights down, and plug into these two calculations from a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research:

• For lower body exercises: Multiply your 5-rep weight (in kg) by 1.0970. Then add 14.2546.

• For upper body exercises: Multiply your 5-rep weight (in kg) by 1.1307. Then add 0.6999.

These will be your estimated one-rep max for each lift in kilograms. To get your final numbers, do a little more math: Multiply each number by 2.2 to convert it from kilograms to pounds. Then multiply that number by 0.9.

That’s 90 percent of your one-rep max for each move. You’ll use percentages of that number to determine how much you’ll lift in each workout.

Perform Four Weekly Workouts in a Four-Week Cycle

Each of your four weekly workouts will star one of the four big barbell exercises: Bench press, squat, overhead press, and deadlift. After warming up, you’ll do just three sets of each move, resting three to five minutes between sets.

During the four-week cycle, you’ll do four bench press workouts, four squat workouts, four deadlift workouts, and four overhead press workouts. Each of these workouts changes over the course of each four-week cycle: You’ll lift different percentages of the number you calculated above—90 percent of your 1RM—for different numbers of reps after warming up.

  • Week 1: 5 reps at 65%, 5 reps at 75%, and 5 reps at 85%

  • Week 2: 3 reps at 70%, 3 reps at 80%, and 3 reps at 90%

  • Week 3: 5 reps at 75%, 3 reps at 85%, and 1 rep at 95%

  • Week 4: 5 reps at 40%, 5 reps at 50%, and 5 reps at 60%

The fourth week is a deload week, which lets your body recover after three hard weeks of training so you can hit the new “Week 1” at full force.

Add Weight Every Four Weeks—If You’ve Mastered the Current Loads

After each four-week cycle, the plan of 5/3/1 is to progress, adding five pounds to your one-rep max calculations for the upper body, and 10 pounds to the one-rep max math on the lower body exercises. If you’re not feeling strong in one lift or another, though, and you’re struggling to get the current weight you're working with up with clean form, don’t progress until the next cycle.

Add Assistance Work to Each Workout

After the main lifts, 5/3/1 suggests adding a few other exercises of your choosing. This section, Guadarrama says, is one of the reasons 5/3/1 is the basis of the training for many of his athletes: The 5/3/1 protocol lets them build the strength they need to perform, while the assistance (also referred to as accessory) section lets them do some exercises that build muscle size and that they enjoy.

Science has shown that low-rep, high-weight work—like in 5/3/1—builds the most strength, he says. But higher-rep work allows trainees to add muscle volume. By adding three or four assistance exercises after the main lift in slightly longer sets—eight to 12 reps, for example—the workout can provide both benefits.

This section also helps his clients with another thing they want: Variety. One reason some lifters may not stick to 5/3/1 is that there isn’t much variance to the workout. Guadarrama says it’s still worth sticking to, however. Changing assistance exercises periodically can scratch the itch for variety while keeping you progressing in the main lifts.

For beginners, Wendler suggests choosing a pushing move, a pulling move, and a single-leg or core move, and doing 50 to 100 total reps across as many sets as you like.

Benefits of the 5/3/1 Program

There’s a reason this program has helped so many lifters get strong, Arent says: It gets them used to lifting heavy weights regularly. Here are three other reasons 5/3/1 might be the right choice for your gains.

5/3/1 Can Save Time

One of the major appeals of 5/3/1, Arent says, is that it lets you build strength with short sessions.

“You’re focusing on the main, core stuff. So it’s fairly short, and doesn’t have a lot of exercises,” he says. Even if you’re doing two of the main lifts on one day, that’s only six sets, plus a few assistance exercises. If you’re crunched for time and want to lift big weights, this is a big advantage, he says.

Because the program isn’t every day and the workouts are short, you can also add an element to your routine the program lacks on the off days: Cardio and conditioning sessions.

You Train Heavy, But Not to Failure

Training all the way to failure can help you get strong, but it can also make you sore and put you at risk for injury. But since the 5/3/1 program only has you lift just shy of 90 percent of your one-rep max—and less in the 3- and 5-rep sets—you get close to failure, but shouldn’t quite reach it.

“That’s a good lesson for training for strength in this or other programming,” Arent says. “Not every set has to be, or should be, to failure.”

Progression is Planned

After each four-week cycle, 5/3/1 doesn’t just tell you to progress—it tells you how much to progress.

“It takes the guesswork out of programming,” Guadarrama says. “Instead of wasting time figuring out what to do, it gives you a roadmap of what you’re going to do for an extended period of time. And you’re going to gain strength without having to think about it.”

This, Arent says, is another lesson for lifters who aren’t using 5/3/1, too: Don’t just have a program. Have a plan for how it progresses over time too, so you keep getting better without making mistakes.

All You Need is a Barbell, a Bench, and a Rack

You don’t have to bounce all over the gym to do this program. You mostly need a barbell, a power rack, and a bench. Since you get to choose your own assistance exercises, these can also be done without adding a ton of equipment to the equation. This makes 5/3/1 doable for guys in crowded gyms, or perfect for if you set up a minimalist home gym for strength.

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