Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 Program: The Ultimate Guide!


Jim Wendler 531

There are many great training programs that you can use to get stronger. However, one of the simplest and most effective strength training programs is Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program.

Introduction

  • Part 1: The 5/3/1 Training Split
  • Part 2: The 5/3/1 Training Cycle
  • Part 3: The 5/3/1 Training Percentages
  • Part 4: The 5/3/1 Training Max
  • Part 5: Slow But Steady Wins The Race
  • Part 6: Training 2, 3 Or 4 Days Per Week
  • Part 7: 5/3/1 Assistance Work

In this comprehensive guide I will teach you how to use Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 training program to break personal records and become the strongest person in your gym.

Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 is a simple strength training program that promises slow but steady gains on the squat, deadlift, bench press and overhead press. 5/3/1 doesn’t use any fancy training methods like bands, chains, max effort work or dynamic effort work. Instead your goal is to hit personal records on the “big 4” lifts in higher rep ranges.

Jim Wendler is a world-class powerlifter and strength coach. Jim trained for many years at the world-famous Westside Barbell powerlifting club with powerlifting legends like Louie Simmons, Chuck Vogelpohl and Kenny Patterson.

In 2005 Jim had the best powerlifting meet of his career: he squatted 1,000 pounds, bench pressed 675 pounds and deadlifted 700 pounds for an unbelievable 2,375 pound total.

After this meet Jim decided to retire from powerlifting and to reconfigure his goals. Jim just wanted a simple, basic program that he could use to get stronger over time. This was the starting point for Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program.

Here is what the 5/3/1 training split looks like:

The 5/3/1 Training Split

  • Monday: Bench Press
  • Wednesday: Squat
  • Friday: Overhead Press
  • Saturday: Deadlift

As you can see Jim has you dedicate one training day to the bench press, squat, overhead press and deadlift. Let’s take a look at Jim Wendler demonstrating these exercises before talking more about his 5/3/1 program.

Here is Jim Wendler bench pressing 370 pounds for 7 reps:

Here is Jim Wendler squatting 540 pounds for 7 reps:

Here is Jim Wendler overhead pressing 225 pounds for 11 reps:

And here is Jim Wendler deadlifting 600 pounds for 5 reps:

Talk about some impressive lifts! Jim uses a very simple form of linear periodization for the actual 5/3/1 workouts. You perform 3 “heavy” weeks in a row followed by a “deload” week on the 4th week. Check it out:

The 5/3/1 Training Cycle

  • Week 1: 3 x 5
  • Week 2: 3 x 3
  • Week 3: 3 x 5, 3, 1
  • Week 4: 3 x 5 (Deload)

For the first week you perform 3 sets of 5 reps. For the second week you perform 3 sets of 3 reps with a slightly heavier weight. On the third week you perform one set of 5 reps, one set of 3 reps and one set of 1 rep. Then on the 4th week you deload with 3 sets of 5 reps with a lighter weight.

All of these sets and reps are based on training percentages. Check it out:

Week #1 Training Percentages:

  • Set 1: 65% x 5
  • Set 2: 75% x 5
  • Set 3: 85% x 5+

Week #2 Training Percentages:

  • Set 1: 70% x 3
  • Set 2: 80% x 3
  • Set 3: 90% x 3+

Week #3 Training Percentages:

  • Set 1: 75% x 5
  • Set 2: 85% x 3
  • Set 3: 95% x 1+

Week #4 Training Percentages:

  • Set 1: 40% x 5
  • Set 2: 50% x 5
  • Set 3: 60% x 5

As you can see you have 3 heavy weeks followed by 1 easy deload week. For the first 3 heavy weeks you have the option of going for a rep PR on your last working set. For example on week 1 the last working set says “set 3: 85% x 5+.” That means you can go for MORE than 5 reps if you are feeling really good that day.

This is what the 5/3/1 training program is all about: slowly breaking rep PRs on the big 4 exercises over long periods of time.

The “Training Max”

One of the really interesting things about the 5/3/1 program is you don’t use your true 1-rep max. Instead you use a “training max” which is 90% of your 1-rep max.

Let’s say you can bench press 330 pounds for 1 rep. In that case you will use (90% x 330) = 300 pounds as your “training max” for the program. All of your calculations are based off of this training max.

Here is what your first 4 weeks of training would look like with a 300 pound training max:

Week #1 Training Percentages:

  • Set 1: (65% x 300) = 195 pounds x 5 reps
  • Set 2: (75% x 300) = 225 pounds x 5 reps
  • Set 3: (85% x 300) = 255 pounds x 5+ reps

Week #2 Training Percentages:

  • Set 1: (70% x 300) = 210 pounds x 3 reps
  • Set 2: (80% x 300) = 240 pounds x 3 reps
  • Set 3: (90% x 300) = 270 pounds x 3+ reps

Week #3 Training Percentages:

  • Set 1: (75% x 300) = 225 pounds x 5 reps
  • Set 2: (85% x 300) = 255 pounds x 3 reps
  • Set 3: (95% x 300) = 285 pounds x 1+ reps

Week #4 Training Percentages:

  • Set 1: (40% x 300) = 120 pounds x 5 reps
  • Set 2: (50% x 300) = 150 pounds x 5 reps
  • Set 3: (60% x 300) = 180 pounds x 5 reps

5/3/1 = Slow But Consistent Progress

This is where things get really interesting! At the end of your 4 weeks you are going to increase your training max. Jim wants you to increase your training max for upper body lifts by 5 pounds and lower body lifts by 10 pounds.

Let’s say that you can overhead press 150 pounds, bench press 300 pounds, squat 400 pounds and deadlift 500 pounds. Here is what your progress would look like over time:

Month #1 Training Maxes

  • Overhead Press: 150
  • Bench Press: 300
  • Squat: 400
  • Deadlift: 500

Month #2 Training Maxes

  • Overhead Press: 155
  • Bench Press: 305
  • Squat: 410
  • Deadlift: 510

Month #3 Training Maxes

  • Overhead Press: 160
  • Bench Press: 310
  • Squat: 420
  • Deadlift: 520

And so on. Every month you increase your training maxes by 5-10 pounds. If you do this correctly then you can add up to 60 pounds to your upper body lifts and 120 pounds to your lower body lifts in less than 1 year. Now THAT is some serious progress!

Every month it is critical that you go for records on your AMRAP sets for each lift. You don’t have to go for an AMRAP set every single workout but it is critical that you do them at least once a month for each lift.

These AMRAP sets give you the chance to set PR’s in higher rep ranges and continue to build your strength foundation. If you perform the 5/3/1 program correctly you will slowly become the strongest person in your gym.

Before we look at some sample 5/3/1 workouts I want to talk about some different training splits that you can use. Jim Wendler’s original 5/3/1 program uses 4 workouts per week. For example:

The 4 Days Per Week Training Split

  • Monday: Bench Press
  • Wednesday: Squat
  • Friday: Overhead Press
  • Saturday: Deadlift

This split works great for people with average to above average recovery ability. Unfortunately not everyone can recover from 4 heavy workouts per week. If this describes you then you may want to try a 3-day or 2-day routine.

Here is what the 3 day 5/3/1 program looks like:

The 3 Days Per Week Training Split

Week 1

  • Monday: Bench Press
  • Wednesday: Squat
  • Friday: Overhead Press

Week 2

  • Monday: Deadlift
  • Wednesday: Bench Press
  • Friday: Squat

And so on. You just keep rotating your 4 different workouts using your 3 workout days. With this split every body part is trained about once every 5 days. This is an AWESOME training frequency for a lot of people. If you are using the 3-day split then you would deload every 4th workout for each major exercise.

Another great option is the 2-day 5/3/1 program. For example:

The 2 Days Per Week Training Split

Week 1

  • Monday: Bench Press
  • Friday: Squat

Week 2

  • Monday: Overhead Press
  • Friday: Deadlift

Don’t laugh at this training split! Jim Wendler says that he got some of his best results using this simple 2 days per week training split. In fact Jim hit an all-time PR of 710 pounds on the deadlift using this exact training split. This was more than he did in his powerlifting days while training at the Westside Barbell powerlifting club!

If you are using the 2 day 5/3/1 program then you can actually skip the deload weeks altogether. You have so much rest built in during the week that you really don’t need it.

Here is what your training cycle would look like:

  • Weeks 1-2: Sets of 5
  • Weeks 3-4: Sets of 3
  • Weeks 5-6: Sets of 5/3/1

On weeks 7-8 you would increase your training maxes by 5-10 pounds and start the cycle all over again. Jim Wendler says the 2 day 5/3/1 program is great for anyone who is dealing with more stress in their lives and just needs a simple program to make progress without beating themselves up too much.

5/3/1 Assistance Work

Jim Wendler wants you to do some assistance work after your heavy sets on the squat, bench press, deadlift or overhead press. You can do as much or as little assistance work as you want. Just remember that the assistance work is there to support your main lift for the day, NOT replace it.

Here are 4 assistance work templates that Jim Wendler really likes:

  • Boring But Big
  • The Triumvirate
  • Westside Style
  • I’m Not Doing Jack Shit

Let’s take a closer look at each of this options.

Assistance Work Option #1: Boring But Big

The boring but big program is very simple. First you are going to perform your 3 heavy sets on the bench press, overhead press, squat or deadlift. Then you are going to lower the weight and perform 5 sets of 10 reps on the same exercise.

Jim Wendler recommends you perform these back off sets with around 50-60% of your 1-rep max. You can also perform 5 sets of 10 reps on another key assistance exercise. For example here is what a boring but big bench press day looks like:

Bench Press Day: Boring But Big

  • A1: Bench press, 3 sets of 1-5 reps
  • B1: Bench press, 5 sets of 10 reps
  • B2: Lat pulldown (wide / overhand grip), 5 sets of 10 reps

Jim Wendler says that you can also perform the 5 sets of 10 reps with the overhead press on your bench press day or your bench press on your overhead press day. For example:

Bench Press Day: Boring But Big Version 2.0

  • A1: Bench press, 3 sets of 1-5 reps
  • B1: Overhead press, 5 sets of 10 reps
  • B2: Lat pulldown (wide / overhand grip), 5 sets of 10 reps

Both options work well. In fact Jim Wendler says that the boring but big program is his most popular version of the 5/3/1 program.

Assistance Work Option #2: The Triumvirate

The triumvirate is another one of Jim Wendler’s favorite assistance work templates. In fact this is the variation that Jim Wendler uses most often in his own programming. The basic idea is to pick 2 key supplementary exercises after your main lift. Your goal is to lift moderately heavy on these supplementary exercises to help drive up your main lift.

Here is what an overhead press workout might look like using the triumvirate template:

Triumvirate Overhead Press Day

  • A1: Overhead press, 3 sets of 1-5 reps
  • B1: V-bar dips, 3-5 sets of 6-8 reps
  • B2: Pull ups (narrow / neutral grip), 3-5 sets of 6-8 reps

And here is what a deadlift day might look like using the triumvirate template:

Triumvirate Deadlift Day

  • A1: Deadlift, 3 sets of 1-5 reps
  • B1: 45 degree leg press, 3-5 sets of 8-10 reps
  • B2: Glute-ham raise, 3-5 sets of 8-10 reps

The Triumverate assistance work template is incredibly simple. You just go to town on 2 key supplementary exercises and call it a day. If you want to get super strong then this is a great choice.

Assistance Work Option #3: Westside Style

Jim Wendler trained at the world-famous Westside Barbell powerlifting club for several years. During that time Jim learned how the Westside athletes structured their assistance work to boost their squat, bench press and deadlift.

Jim sometimes has his clients use a Westside-style assistance work template to drive up their “big 4” lifts. Here is a basic template that you can use:

5/3/1 Bench Press Day: Westside Style

  • Bench press: 3 sets of 3-5 reps
  • Triceps: 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps
  • Lats: 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps
  • Delts: 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps

5/3/1 Squat Day: Westside Style

  • Squat: 3 sets of 3-5 reps
  • Hamstrings: 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps
  • Lower back: 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps
  • Abs: 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps

5/3/1 Overhead Press Day: Westside Style

  • Bench press: 3 sets of 3-5 reps
  • Triceps: 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps
  • Lats: 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps
  • Delts: 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps

5/3/1 Deadlift Day: Westside Style

  • Deadlift: 3 sets of 3-5 reps
  • Lower back: 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps
  • hamstrings: 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps
  • Abs: 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps

You can pick and choose which exercises you use on each training day. The important part is to make sure you are targeting the key powerlifting muscles like the triceps, upper back, hamstrings and lower back.

Some of Louie Simmons’ favorite Westside accessory exercises include lying triceps extensions, high-rep dumbbell presses, glute-ham raises and reverse hyperextensions.

Assistance Work Option #4: I’m not Doing Jack Shit

There are going to be days where you just don’t want to be in the gym. Maybe you just slept poorly the night before. Maybe you got into an argument with your girlfriend. Or maybe you just feel worse than Ron Burgundy after drinking milk straight out of the carton on a warm summer day. We’ve all been there.

On days like this you can perform the “I’m not doing jack shit” assistance template. It’s really simple actually: you don’t do any assistance work that day! This was Jim Wendler’s favorite way to do assistance work during his powerlifting career. There were many days where he showed up to the gym, hit his main lift and called it a day.

Don’t underestimate the “I’m not doing jack shit” assistance work template. Jim practically made a powerlifting career out of it!

Conclusion

Jim Wendler 531

Jim Wendler calls his 5/3/1 training program the simplest and most effective way to train for raw strength. That is a bold claim to make but I have to agree that Jim’s 5/3/1 program is a very simple and effective way to train.

Many trainees have increased their squat and deadlift by 100+ pounds in under a year by using this program. If you are stuck in a long-term training plateau then the 5/3/1 training program may be just what you need to start making progress again.

So what are you waiting for? Go design your own 5/3/1 training program and see for yourself how effective Jim’s program can be!

“The game of lifting isn’t an 8-week pursuit. It doesn’t last as long as your latest program does. Rather, it’s a lifetime pursuit. If you understand this, then progressing slowly isn’t a big deal. In fact, this can be a huge weight lifted off your back. Now you can focus on getting those 5 extra pounds rather than 50.”

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!

Dr. Mike Jansen, PT, DPT

Thanks for checking out my site! My name is Dr. Mike Jansen and I'm the founder of Revolutionary Program Design. If you want to reach your size and strength goals faster then you've come to the right place. My goal is to make RPD the #1 strength training resource available anywhere in the world. So grab a seat, kick back and relax. There's never been a better time to lift weights or to learn the art and science of strength training program design.

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