A Review of the 5|3|1 Method for Powerlifting
The 5|3|1 method is a tried and tested program for strength training. It’s designed to improve the four core lifts (Deadlift, Bench Press, Squat and Military Press) in the long-term. It’s core concept is that it is simple and sustainable – starting in week 1 at anywhere between 40-50% of 90% of your 1RM.
This does seem too low for me and it’s not something I would ever preach, but I admire the long-term approach taken to some extent. However we know that weights below 55% of your 1RM are very sub-optimal when driving strength or hypertrophy gains, so it feels like wasted effort.
5|3|1’s creator Jim Wendler has built everything off 90% of your 1RM, which for overall strength training makes almost perfect sense to me, as it will allow an athlete to gain more than adequate volume without overreaching, whilst preventing the risk of injury.
I think it’s important to take in a little history about Jim Wendler at this point so we can understand the program and it’s evolution from Jim’s point of view – this should also help you understand if it’s right for you. An elite level Powerlifter in the 275 lb weight class, Jim’s big 3 lifts where as follows:
Squat: 1,000 lbs
Bench Press: 675 lbs
Deadlift: 700 lbs
So Jim is a strong dude and with 20+ years of training under his belt he’s certainly someone worth paying attention to. However when Jim created this program, it wasn’t directly based on how he could improve his powerlifting totals.
When walking to a platform made him incredibly out of breath, he realised this type of training was slowly killing him. So the original 5|3|1 method isn’t necessarily based on powerlifting strength, but by improving your overall strength and fitness, whilst slowly improving your strength across the major lifts.
From this point of view it’s brilliant- you start slowly, you don’t overreach, there’s sufficient hypertrophy to grow and you hit all the multi-joint movements once a week. Jim also advocates doing some sprints once or twice a week- just not the day before you squat.
However as I will come onto later, this really isn’t a suitable program for powerlifters at all. If you were to amend it, then it’s not a true 5|3|1 and there are some fundamental errors within the program from a powerlifting and muscular growth point of view. But let’s review the basics of the program first*.
If we we take Jim’s 2009 article on T-Nation as a starting point, the core concepts of 5|3|1 are as follows:
- Core Lifts: Jim is an elite level powerlifter, so clearly the program will primarily focus around the big 4. In his words, ‘improving the core lifts will have huge carryover into everything else – start light, progress slowly and leave out the ego.’
- Frequency: You’ll be training 3-4 days a week, but each workout will only focus around one of the core lifts. So day 1 will focus on the bench press, day 2 the deadlift and so on.
- 1RM %: You’ll base each session off 90% of your 1RM, initially lifting 5 reps, then 3, then 1.
- Assistance work: Your training is complemented with hypertrophy work for injury prevention and to build a balanced physique. Primarily Jim suggests plyometric work like pull-ups and dips, lunges and back extensions
On the original program, your mesocycle would look something like the below, as per the same T-Nation article:
Week 1: Warmup | Primary Lift (3×5) | Assistance work
Week 2: Warmup | Primary Lift (3×5) | Assistance work
Week 3: Warmup | Primary Lift (3×5, 3×1) | Assistance work
Week 4: Deload*
When you see 5+, 3+, or 1+, that means you do the max reps you can manage with that weight, with the goal of setting a rep record in each workout.
*You would deload every fourth week if you can train 4 times a week, every fifth week if only 3 and so on
Now it’s important to note that this program has been improved upon as:
- There’s no need to deload after this amount of work
- Jim has broken it down into more specific rep schemes that are more suited to an intermediate lifter.
If you’re working with sub 50% of your 1RM for 3×5 for a substantial amount of time, I think you’re wasting your time in the gym as an intermediate lifter.
Benefits of the 5|3|1 Method
Simplicity: You go into the gym, run three working sets of your main lifts within each session, take 3-5 minutes rest between each set and then run 10-15 sets of basic hypertrophy training. There’s no time wasted thinking about how to approach the day’s session and as long as you’re picking assistance work tailored to your needs, there’s almost 0% chance of injury or overreaching given the low weights.
Jim describes strength as ‘a lifetimes work,’ so you would expect any program he wrote to be based off years worth of effort. Basing your main lifts off 90% of your 1RM and conceivably starting with 50-60% of this means there’s a huge amount of room left to grow and an incredibly low risk of reach the exhaustion phase on Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome.
Specificity: This isn’t Westside; you run the primary lifts weekly. From an overall strength perspective you will be running upper body push movements twice a week, whilst regulation squatting and deadlifting weekly. You’ll be working hamstrings on deadlift days (Jim recommends pulling conventional), quads on squat days and upper body specific lifts and hypertrophy on the other two days.
Cons of the 5|3|1 Method
It’s main weaknesses are also its main strengths in my opinion. There are bonuses to starting with such a low % of your 1RM, but as an intermediate program, there is almost no point in working with 50% of your 1RM as sets of 5 as that volume is totally insignificant in stressing the muscle and providing progress.
Working off the principles defined by Hans Selye’s GAS – General Adaptation Syndrome (which you can read more about in my weightlifting basics article), the body needs a stressor to drive positive adaptation The body will then enter an alarm phase, a resistance phase and an exhaustion phase if the athlete pushes them self too far.
This lack of progressive overload and training variety as cited in ‘current concepts in periodisation and strength and conditioning for sports physical therapists‘ coupled with the underwhelming volume and intensity above the recommended 80% of 1RM shines 5|3|1 in an underwhelming light.
From a powerlifting point of view, this level of volume is unacceptable, as is only drilling the main lifts once a week. To reach an elite level, training the lifts only once every 7 days isn’t enough to improve technique and become more comfortable under the bar.
From a protein synthesis standpoint higher level lifts will gain almost 0 marginal gains as there’s too much wasted recovery time. Specific muscle groups will recover every 48 hours and need to be trained at least twice a week from a muscle growth and hypertrophy perspective.
So if you run this method, there isn’t enough volume to drive muscle growth when the fundamentals of protein synthesis are taken into account. There also isn’t enough work in the 90% + range, so there’s also a lack of powerlifter specificity.
So should I run the 5 | 3 | 1?
Oddly I actually think this powerlifting methodology is best suited to beginner powerlifters who have no intention of competing anytime soon.
As a beginner you need a base level of volume and hypertrophy, alongside GPP (General Physical Preparation) and you don’t have the capacity to frequently squat and deadlift heavy. You need to build up your overall strength with a simple to understand and follow program, don’t solely focus on the big 3 lifts.
If you want to get stronger and improve your all round conditioning and body composition, I think this method is a good starting point. If you are at least an intermediate lifter, I don’t see how 5 | 3 | 1 could improve your overall powerlifting numbers- but as a generic strength program, I like it!
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