A Review of Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 Program

That’s a picture of Jim Wendler.  Guys that look like that probably know what they’re talking about when it comes to getting strong.  But my mom always told me that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.  So how strong is Wendler?  As a former competitive powerlifter he deadlifted 700 lbs., bench pressed 675 lbs., and squatted 1,000 lbs.  Yes, 1,000.  He works at Elite Fitness Training Systems and wrote the book 5/3/1: The Simplest and Most Effective Training System To Increase Raw Strength.  I’ve had some good success with the program and thought that I would share a review of the program with you all.  I won’t go into all the details about the program because I don’t want to keep people from buying the book.  Would you want that guy mad at you?

The program is based around four main compound lifts: the military press, the deadlift, the bench press, and the squat.  The beauty of the program is the ease with which you can customize the training to your schedule.  Most people stick with one main lift a day and add some assistance work.  Others just do the main lift.  Others that can only work out twice a week may want to do two main movements in one training session.  There are many options to play with.  I personally did one main lift per training session and trained four times a week.

One of my favorite things about the 5/3/1 program is that you know exactly what you need to do before you step foot in the gym (or the garage, in my case).  The program is based on four week cycles.  The first week you do three working sets of 5 reps with increasing percentages of your 1 rep max.  The second rep you do three working sets of 3 reps with increasing percentages of your 1 rep max.  The third week you do one working set with 5 reps, one working set with 3 reps, and a max effort 1 rep set.  The fourth week is a deload week in which you back off and recuperate.

The weights you use are all based on percentages of your one rep max so you know exactly what weight you need to use and exactly how many reps you should get on every set.  You always get the chance to set new personal bests on the last set of every training session.  If the program calls for 5 reps and you’re feeling strong, go ahead and get 6 or 7.  As long as you get the minimum, you are fine.

I mentioned the assistance work earlier.  There are several options Wendler lays out in his book.  One option is to do only the main lift.  If you’re pressed for time this may be an option that would work for you.  Another option is to do the main lift at a reduced percentage of your 1RM for five sets of 10 reps.  Another option is to follow the main lift with bodyweight work such as dips and chinups.  I get bored and like to change exercises more frequently, so I used a variety of assistance exercises and turned the program into an upper/lower split.  For example, on days I did the overhead press and bench press, I would do upper body assistance exercises such as rows, pullups, dips, pushups, presses, lat raises, shrugs, etc.  On days I did the deadlift and squat, I would do lower body assistance exercises such as glute-ham raises, stiff leg deadlifts, cable pullthroughs, leg presses, lunges, etc.  The options are really only limited by your imagination.

As for my own progress with the program, I made some impressive strides on my main lifts.  I added 20 lbs to my military press, 85 lbs. to my deadlift, 25 lbs. to my bench press, and 70 lbs. to my squat in about three months.  Some people prefer using Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe for absolute beginners because that program calls for adding weight to the bar each training session.  Both programs are good options, but I like the variety you get with the assistance work of the 5/3/1 program.  As long as you are adding weight to your main lifts and making progress then you are doing something right.

For more specific information about the 5/3/1 program and tons of other information regarding training, check out www.elitefts.com.