Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 Strength Training Program, Explained

Sometimes your training just needs a good stiff kick in the butt. If you’re the type of chronic program-hopper that constantly wonders if your workout routine is adequately servicing your fitness goals, Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 strength training program provides a resounding and clear answer — if you want something, you have to work hard for it and be consistent.

The fanciest workouts backed with anecdotes and flash can help anyone under the right circumstances, but 5/3/1 has been tested and proven time and time again to help just about anyone get strong, thanks to its proven principles-based approach.

woman setting up for bench press Credit: UFABizPhoto / Shutterstock

If your goal is to build respectable strength, Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 can help you accomplish just that. Here’s how it works. 

  • Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 Program Overview
  • Why It Works
  • What You’ll Need For 5/3/1
  • Who Should Do 5/3/1
  • Who Shouldn’t Do 5/3/1
  • Who Is Jim Wendler?
Índice
  1. Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 Program Overview
    1. Day One
    2. Day Two
    3. Day Three
    4. How to Progress
    5. Deloads and Accessories
  2. Why It Works
    1. You Use Multi-Joint Movements
    2. You Have to Starting Light
    3. There Is Steady Progression
    4. Proper Periodization Is a Must 
    5. It Shows You Your Training Max
  3. What You’ll Need For 5/3/1
    1. Equipment
    2. Time
    3. Recovery
  4. Who Should Do 5/3/1
    1. Strength Enthusiasts
    2. Busy Lifters
    3. Minimalists
  5. Who Shouldn’t Do 5/3/1
    1. Diverse Goal-Seekers
    2. Impatient Lifters
    3. The No-Barbell Crowd
  6. Who Is Jim Wendler?
  7. 5, 3, 1, Go


Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 Program Overview

Wendler originally created and refined his 5/3/1 program to rebalance his own training life. After years of world-class powerlifting training under the tutelage of Louis Simmons of Westside Barbell fame, 5/3/1 was designed as an answer to the many nagging aches and pains Wendler had accumulated. After reflecting on his goals, he soon realized that beauty (and efficacy) was found in simplicity.

5/3/1 provides a balanced approach to resistance training, emphasizing barbell exercises, setting personal records, and just getting into solid shape. Below is a general outline of the shape of the beginner three-day training template. Note that there are many different flavors of 5/3/1 beyond what is demonstrated here, some of which have you in the gym four or even five days per week

For a detailed map of the program and its variations, you can refer to the man himself

Day One

Day Two

Day Three

5/3/1 is designed around methodically taking you through several training blocks of escalating intensity — training the big lifts with a singular focus of building up your tonnage. The hallmark feature after which the routine is named involves performing a set of five reps, then three, then one single rep on the main compound movements

How to Progress

If you’re running the beginner routine, Wendler advises adding 10 pounds every 3 weeks to your training maxes of the squat and deadlift, while you kick up your bench and overhead press weights by five pounds

Your training max is a "soft maximum" that is roughly 90% of your true 1-rep capabilities. 

Deloads and Accessories

5/3/1 also provides regular deloads every seventh week so you don’t overdo it when you’re pushing yourself through lots of heavy compound training. 

Notably, 5/3/1 was designed to allow more freedom than just being a geared powerlifting specialist, with considerations for general conditioning and overall muscle mass that are beneficial outside of a monolift. As such, you can mostly pick and choose what accessory exercises you enjoy the most.

Why It Works

While the program itself may look somewhat bare-boned, that’s precisely what makes it so effective. There are several principles at play that drive a program like 5/3/1. Specifically, it was designed to emphasize big, multi-joint movements, start light, progress slowly, utilize periodization principles, and rely on a training max to set your loading prescriptions.

You Use Multi-Joint Movements

Many of the best exercises to get your entire body strong will involve multi-joint movement patterns. The world of powerlifting inspired many of them with the squat, bench press, and deadlift serving as programming centerpieces.

However, the standing barbell press, pull-ups and chin-ups, dips, and calisthenics can be a large part of 5/3/1 programming. Mastering these movements have a great carryover from both muscle mass and skill development standpoints.

You Have to Starting Light

One of the biggest assets of a plan like 5/3/1 is that it has you start light — much lighter than you’re likely used to. Stubborn gym bros may balk at the idea of training outside of 1-repetition maximum (1RM) territory, but the strongest of the strong know that won’t help you make the most progress long-term.

Starting light and allowing for your accessory exercises and recovery from each training session to do their job in building up your strength is an often overlooked aspect of getting strong.

There Is Steady Progression

Taking aggressive or abrupt jumps with your weights in the gym can be like sprinting into a brick wall. Plateaus occur for many reasons, but one of the most common is not allowing the body an appropriate time to adapt to what you’re throwing at it.

Adaptations may take more than one training cycle to take optimal effect, Slow progression allows for your muscles to grow, provides time to refine your technique, and allows for more upward mobility in terms of your strength potential. 5/3/1 serves you better as you yourself get better at performing it.

Proper Periodization Is a Must 

Periodization is one of the most powerful tools in the strength training toolbox. 5/3/1 employs a weekly undulating periodization style, where week-over-week changes to your program involve fewer reps and heavier weights.

It also stresses the importance of challenging yourself with all-out AMRAP sets once in a while. This added intensity and personal challenge helps keep you honest and also guarantees you’re less likely to be sandbagging your training, ensuring you don’t leave gains on the table.

It Shows You Your Training Max

Perhaps one of the most valuable principles behind the success of 5/3/1 is the "training max". The training max is the value that all of your  loads will be calculated off of. A fatal error in many strength training programs is that they will use your true 1RM to perform these calculations.

Conversely, you can think of your training max as your "any day of the week" max. It’s a number that you could squat, pull, or press whether you’ve been preparing for it or not.

For example, a training max might be 90% of your true 1RM, and in doing so, guarantees that the accumulation of fatigue throughout life and the program will never take you into waters you cannot traverse.

True 1RM performances are often tied to "peaked" programming and a ton of physiological factors which likely aren’t present during the average training session. The training max accommodates for the realistic nature of training and keeps you operating consistently.

However, some of Wendler’s variations of 5/3/1 do operate based off your true 1RM and not a modulated max. 

What You’ll Need For 5/3/1

While 5/3/1 is designed to be as straightforward as possible, you’ll still need a few key pieces of equipment. As you get stronger, accounting for the time it takes to train and also recovery should be top of mind.

Equipment

The backbone of 5/3/1 will be the squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press, all of which will require a barbell and enough weight plates to account for your long-term strength goals. While a huge chunk of the program can be accomplished with these things alone, having access to a good chin-up bar and some dumbbells will go a long way in adding some variability to your accessory lifts.

Finally, to truly round out the potential of 5/3/1, having a weighted vest, prowler sled, or any potential loaded carry implement (from dumbbells to household items) can help you get a good conditioning session in as well.

As this is a program geared toward top-level strength, you should probably get your hands on some chalk and a weightlifting belt for good measure.

Time

5/3/1 is a program that ramps up over time. Executing the full daily program with appropriate rest periods may only take 45 minutes to an hour at first. However, as your strength increases, so too does your preparation time, rest periods, and the intensity of your accessory exercises.

You should be aware that, regardless of how streamlined your first few workouts may feel, eventually they do become a hard strength workout and may take upwards of an hour and a half.

Recovery

Recovering from strength training is a different beast than recovering from bodybuilding workouts. 5/3/1 does cross-pollinate similar training styles to induce a bit of hypertrophy, but soreness might not be the best metric of tracking how you recover between workouts.

Some 5/3/1 templates are scalable from 2 to 4 workouts per week to allow for adequate recovery from the heavy lifting. make sure you are prioritizing sleep and adequate nutrition to get the most out of your workouts.

Who Should Do 5/3/1

There are a few groups of people that are best suited to make progress using the 5/3/1 program — those with a strength focus, busy lifters, and those with a minimalist training set up.

Strength Enthusiasts

While 5/3/1 will help many lifters with improving their athleticism and general conditioning, make no mistake that 5/3/1 is a strength program through and through.