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*.