5/3/1 Workout Explained: How to Use Wendler's Program

Christiana Mikesch, CPT
Published by Christiana Mikesch, CPT | Senior Coach
Last updated: March 27, 2024
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As a personal trainer, I constantly seek out new workout programs in the fitness industry to assess their effectiveness.

With that in mind, I dedicated several weeks to researching the potential of renowned powerlifter Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 program in helping fitness enthusiasts achieve their goals.

After completing my research, I tested the program by trying it myself.

Quick Summary

  • The 5/3/1 workout, developed by Jim Wendler, is a structured strength training program focusing on four core lifts: overhead press, bench press, squat, and deadlift, designed to enhance core strength and muscle mass.
  • This workout routine is structured in four-week cycles, with each week dedicated to different rep and set schemes, allowing for progressive strength gains and muscle development.
  • A study published in Plos One found that multi-joint training, like the exercises in the 5/3/1 workout, led to significant improvements in dynamic strength across all exercises, with effect sizes ranging from 1.26 to 2.14, indicating substantial strength gains.
  • Drawing from a wealth of practical applications, it's evident that the 5/3/1 workout's emphasis on gradual progression and focus on core lifts makes it an effective program for both intermediate and advanced lifters seeking consistent strength gains.

The 5/3/1 Workout Routine Week 1

A person doing deadlifts in the gym

The core lifts used in the four-week training cycle are the bench press, squat, overhead press, and deadlift, which I've personally found to be among the best compound exercises.

In my experience, each workout session of the strength training program focusing on one core lift, spread across three to four training days per week, has proven to be highly effective.

Workout Splits:

When it comes to the appropriate weight to lift, first determine your one rep max (1RM), and from there, calculate ninety percent of your 1RM, which will serve as the foundation for your workout weights.

The rest period between core lift sets can vary from three to five minutes, while for assistance exercise sets, it is recommended to take sixty to ninety seconds of rest between each set.

Monday - Bench Presses

  • Do three sets of five reps of bench presses - During the final set of this exercise, aim to complete as many reps as possible. Apply the same approach to other core lifts during each workout session.
  • Optional: Add two assistance exercises in your workout, like dumbbell rows. Jim Wendler recommends incorporating chin-ups, dips, lunges, and back extensions for assistance work.

Wednesday - Squats

  • Do three sets of five reps of squats
  • Perform five sets of ten reps of two accessory exercises like leg presses, lunges, or leg curls

Friday - Shoulder Presses

  • Do three sets of five reps of shoulder presses
  • Perform five sets of ten reps of two accessory exercises like dips and chin-ups

Saturday - Deadlifts

  • Do three sets of five reps of deadlifts
  • Perform five sets of ten reps of two accessory exercises like good mornings and hanging leg raises

"While it may seem counterintuitive to take the weight off the bar when the goal is to add weight to it, starting lighter allows you more room to progress forward. This is a tough pill to swallow for most lifters. They want to start heavy, and they want to start now."

- Jim Wendler, Powerlifter

The 5/3/1 Workout Routine Week 2

A person doing bench presses

Jim Wendler suggests increasing your training max compared to the previous week.

For upper body lifts, it is advised to add five pounds to your 1RM, while for lower body lifts, you should add ten pounds.

Monday - Bench Presses

  • Do three sets of three reps of bench presses
  • Incorporate two supplemental exercises and perform five sets of ten reps for each exercise

Wednesday - Squats

  • Perform three sets of three reps of squats
  • Do five sets of ten reps of two accessory exercises

Friday - Shoulder Presses

  • Do three sets of three repetitions of shoulder presses
  • Perform five sets of ten reps of two accessory exercises

Saturday - Deadlifts

  • Do three sets of three repetitions of deadlifts
  • Add five sets of ten reps of two accessory exercises

The 5/3/1 Workout Routine Week 3

A person doing a squat for a 5/3/1 workout routine

Monday - Bench Presses

  • Perform one set of five reps, one set of three repetitions, and one set of one rep
  • Add five sets of ten reps of two accessory exercises

Wednesday - Squats

  • Do one set of five reps, one set of three repetitions, and one set of one repetition
  • Add five sets of ten reps of two accessory exercises

Friday - Shoulder Presses

  • Do one set of five reps, one set of three repetitions, and one set of one repetition
  • Add five sets of ten reps of two accessory exercises

Saturday - Deadlifts

  • Perform one set of five reps, one set of three repetitions, and one set of one rep
  • Add five sets of ten reps of two accessory exercises

The 5/3/1 Workout Routine Week 4 (Deloading Week)

A person doing a de-load set for a bench press

After completing this four-week cycle, begin the next one and adjust your training weights by recalculating them accordingly.

Monday - Bench Presses

  • Do three sets of five reps of bench presses at a lighter weight than the previous week (between 30-60% of your bench press 1RM) to allow for recovery (the same applies to core other core lifts during this week)
  • Add five sets of ten reps of two accessory exercises

"The most common method of de-loading is just to reduce your poundages. As a guide, all your sets should be performed at around 40-60% of your 1RM."

- Mike Samuels, Personal Trainer

Wednesday - Squats

  • Do three sets of five reps of squats
  • Perform five sets of ten reps of two accessory exercises

Friday - Shoulder Presses

  • Do three sets of five repetitions of shoulder presses
  • Add five sets of ten reps of two accessory exercises

Saturday - Deadlifts

  • Do three sets of five reps of deadlifts
  • Perform five sets of ten reps of two accessory exercises
  • Do use as reference your deadlift 1RM

What Are the Benefits of the 5/3/1 Workout?

A person doing a bench press for a 5/3/1 workout routine

The benefits of the 5/3/1 workout are improved core lifts, enhanced athletic performance, and increased strength and muscle gains.

  • Improved core lifts - The 5/3/1 workout program prioritizes the main core lifts (the bench press, squats, overhead press, and deadlifts), which leads to notable improvements in these critical exercises.
  • Increased muscle mass - According to the Physio Pedia website, performing weighted Multi-Joint (MJ) exercises stimulates testosterone and growth hormone release, enhancing muscle protein synthesis [1].
  • Improved athletic performance - According to the study from the Journals Plos One website, integrating MJ exercises into your fitness routine can enhance athletic performance, particularly in sports that require dynamic movement across multiple joints [2].
  • Increased strength - The 5/3/1 program allows you to work multiple muscles and build serious strength within a relatively short time frame. It is possible to effectively train your entire body with three to five MJ exercises.
  • User-friendly - Once you have determined your 1RM for the four core lifts, implementing the program becomes straightforward. The prescribed sets and reps are clearly outlined, allowing you to easily track weekly progress.
  • Enhanced recovery - Jim Wendler incorporated a de-loading week in the fourth week of each four-week cycle to prioritize faster and more effective recovery. This period is intended to prepare you for the upcoming cycle with progressively heavier weights.

"With intensities ranging from 65 to 95% and an average training block intensity of 80%, 5/3/1 is exactly where you would expect an effective strength development program to be. Plus, the addition of joker sets allow for heavier work when needed, and the assistance templates offer a big enough dose of training volume to keep most intermediates progressing."

- Alex Parry, Fitness Editor

What Are the Disadvantages of the 5/3/1 Workout?

A person lifting weights for a 5/3/1 workout routine

The disadvantages of the 5/3/1 workout are limited exercise selection, slow progress, frequency, potential plateauing, individual variability, and complexity for beginners.

Slow progress

While the 5/3/1 program helps gym-goers build massive muscle gains and progress slowly, some individuals may prefer other programs that promise faster results.

Additionally, beginners may find other alternative programs more suitable because their bodies tend to exhibit more significant responses to new stimuli during resistance training.

Frequency

While the 5/3/1 workout can deliver significant results by using the main lifts once a week, gym enthusiasts who prefer more emphasis on particular lifts should explore other training programs that align with their specific needs.

Limited Exercise Selection

A coach helping out a person in the gym

While the four core lifts (bench press, squats, overhead press, and deadlifts) used on the 5/3/1 program are proven to increase strength and hypertrophy.

Gym-goers seeking a more comprehensive range of exercises or the inclusion of single-joint exercises might find the program restricted in terms of exercise selection [3].

Complexity for Beginners

The 5/3/1 workout program may be too overwhelming for gym newbies as it requires calculations for determining training weights and tracking progression.

Potential Plateauing

A coach helping a person in the gym workout

In my time using the 5/3/1 training routine, I've noticed that the body can adapt, leading to plateaus in progress.

As a trainer, I've had to innovate with adaptations and new strategies to help clients continue achieving strength and muscular gains.

Individual Variability

Although the 5/3/1 workout program is designed to train the entire body, many gym enthusiasts prefer the freedom of customizing their workouts to achieve specific goals and address individual weaknesses.

FAQs

What is The 5/3/1 Workout?

The 5/3/1 workout is a powerlifting program designed by Jim Wendler to help individuals increase strength, improve core lifts, and promote muscle gains through four weightlifting movements: the squat, bench press, shoulder press, and deadlift.

Who is The 5/3/1 Program Good for?

The 5/3/1 program is good for individuals of any level seeking to increase their strength through short training sessions progressively.

While it is particularly recommended for intermediate and advanced lifters, the program can be beneficial for overcoming strength plateaus and achieving incremental strength gains.

Is The 5/3/1 Workout Effective for Muscle Gains?

Yes, the 5/3/1 Workout Program is effective for muscle gains. By gradually increasing the weights of your core lifts, you can improve your strength levels and contribute to muscle mass growth.

How Can the 5-3-1 Workout Be Integrated with Other Training Disciplines?

The 5-3-1 workout can be integrated with other training disciplines by modifying its structure to complement specific goals, such as incorporating CrossFit elements for endurance or bodybuilding techniques for hypertrophy. This flexibility allows individuals to tailor the program to their unique fitness objectives while maintaining the core principles of strength development.

What Are Long-Term Progression Strategies for the 5-3-1 Workout?

Long-term progression strategies for the 5-3-1 workout involve implementing advanced variations and periodization techniques to overcome plateaus and continuously challenge the muscles. These strategies ensure sustained progress and adaptation, preventing stagnation in strength gains.

What Nutritional Guidelines Support Optimal Results in the 5-3-1 Workout?

Nutritional guidelines that support optimal results in the 5-3-1 workout emphasize a balanced intake of proteins for muscle repair, complex carbohydrates for energy, and essential micronutrients for overall muscle function. Adequate hydration and nutrient timing play crucial roles in maximizing the effectiveness of the workout.

Why Is Recovery Important in the 5-3-1 Workout Program?

Recovery is important in the 5-3-1 workout program as it allows muscles to heal and grow stronger, incorporating techniques like adequate sleep, active recovery, and mobility work to enhance overall performance. Effective recovery strategies are essential to prevent overtraining and ensure consistent progress in strength training.

What Do Case Studies Reveal About the Effectiveness of the 5-3-1 Workout?

Case studies reveal that individuals following the 5-3-1 workout consistently see improvements in strength and muscle development, demonstrating the program's effectiveness through real-world examples. These success stories highlight the program's ability to deliver tangible results over time, reinforcing its credibility and effectiveness.


References:

  1. https://www.physio-pedia.com/Compound_Exercises
  2. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0233540
  3. https://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/fulltext/2022/10000/understanding_bench_press_biomechanics_the.3.aspx
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About The Author

Christiana Mikesch, CPT
Senior Coach
Christiana Mikesch, CPT is a personal trainer and author with contributions to publications like the Chicago Tribune and Yahoo. She emphasizes a holistic approach to weight loss, combining an energy-fueling diet, goal-oriented workouts, and daily habits. Her approach avoids short-term goals and fosters a lifelong commitment to health and well-being.
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Lisa Lorraine Taylor, BSc, CPT
Staff Writer
Lisa Lorraine Taylor, BSc, CPT holds a BSc degree in Holistic Nutrition from Clayton College of Natural Health and is the owner of Taylor Made Fitness. Her philosophy centers on cutting through the hype and misinformation surrounding dietary supplements, focusing instead on practical, science-backed strategies for health and weight loss.
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Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD is a published peer-reviewed author and renowned physician from India with over a decade of experience. With her MBBS from Bharati Vidyapeeth and an MD from Rajiv Gandhi University, she actively ensures the accuracy of online dietary supplement and medical information by reviewing and fact-checking health publications.
Learn more about our editorial policy

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