I've been using Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 template for one of my three lifting days a week. I've also been training another MMA practitioner on a two-lift template using 5/3/1 as the base.
Keep those sentences in mind when you read this. This isn't a review of straight-up 5/3/1. I don't consider it a bastardization of the program, either. The percentages and main idea fuel these workouts. It's just that getting strong and using 5/3/1 to do it had to fit into the specific needs of my training and that of my client.
The final set in 5/3/1 is what has occupied most of my thoughts about the program.
My top 6 lessons from doing 5/3/1 and that final set：
1) You really need to pick your battles. The last set of each of your three work weeks (but not the deload week) are "AMRAP" - as many reps as possible. You lift until near-failure, leaving only a couple reps in the tank. When you start the program, you won't have much problem going week after week, plowing through the final sets and leaving the required 5, 3, and 1 reps in the dust. But as your cycles go on, it gets harder to do that 3 weeks out of 4 and recover fully on the deload. Yes, even doing only one lift a week, this will happen.
Jim Wendler has said as much in a number of forums. This isn't special insight by me. But it's beneficial to choose which days you can push the final set, and which days you can just hit your minimum reps and that's all.
Take-home point: Choose when to apply your reserves. You don't have to go 100% every day, nor should you.
2) Some people need to plan their battles, some need to react to them. I've read a lot of people's logs and forum posts about 5/3/1, and observed how I and my client both are doing these. I'm a "react" person. On a given day, I'll know pretty quickly if I have AMRAP in me or just my goal reps. 3 x 270 might be heavy today, but the next week 1 x 285 feels light. I do it by feel - I pull whatever I can that day, and if it's not there I don't push it.
But some folks do better by planning those days. They'll schedule out 5/3/1 as 5/5/5+, 3/3/3, 5/3/1+, deload. Or swap it around and do 3/3/3+, 5/5/5, 5/3/1+, deload. They can't just walk in and decide that day. This isn't a knock - some people respond very well to planning of this sort, and they have strength increases to prove it's their optimal method. They've learned to listen to their body cycle to cycle, while the "react" approach is listening day-to-day.
Take-home point: Try both and see which works for you. Record your results and analyze them.
3) Consistency and hard work are key. Pretty simple. 5/3/1 is a cyclical system. You do the work this cycle to get you to the next one, and the next one. It's about putting in steady work to build up to a new level of strength. Just working isn't sufficient, though, you need to stick with the plan. You probably don't need to change your entire accessory structure cycle to cycle, nevermind workout to workout. Give consistently working the same approach a chance.
But you can't just do enough to get by. You need to train hard every time. At least half the time you need to push it as hard as you can to see where your limits are.
Take-home point: Work hard, work steadily, and don't mess with stuff until you've given it a chance to succeed or fail.
4) AMRAP is self-adjusting volume. This is pretty obvious, but it's been driven home into me. The AMRAP set shows you what you can handle. The weights aren't especially heavy for the goal reps, so you'll usually get your goal reps and then a few more.
For example, maybe today you can do 10 x 225 on a given exercise. Tomorrow it might have been 15 x 225, but today isn't tomorrow. You aren't locked in to a given rep goal, where you'd quit at 10 even though you had 15 in you, or have to lift 15 even though rep 10 was all you had.
Take-home point: You program doesn't have to lock you in to a specific number of reps.
5) Know when to call a set a set. AMRAP means AMRAP, but not "as many reps as you can do, no matter how long it takes." It's tempting to set the bar down, re-rack the weight, etc. and take a short break and knock out a few more. And then do it again. And again.
But that's rest-pause, an intensity technique. You can use it, but I've learned that when 2-3 breaths won't be enough to get another rep, or a quick stand-and-re-grip won't break the bar off the floor, the set is over. Sure, getting 10 and then 5 singles looks nice when you write 15 down, but it also sets the bar higher for next time. My lesson was "just get the reps you can in one go, and get more next cycle." You don't need to kill yourself on maximizing the set.
Take-home point: Leave a few in the tank, don't extend the set for as long as you can to get every rep in you. You only make it harder for the next cycle.
6) It's not lifting your max, it's lifting at your maximum. What gets me most about 5/3/1 is psychological. I know 1 x 285 isn't my one-rep max. I can easily get that up once, I've gotten 15 pounds more up for multiple singles. So there is no "fear" of the weight. But I still get to push hard that day and maximize my benefits. I use the weight to get stronger, I don't use my strength to move the heaviest weight I could that day. Sounds sort-of bodybuilderish (use the weights to build muscle, not muscle to move weights) but that's not a bad thing here. You use sub-maximal weights with maximal efforts and get stronger. There is never a worry you won't get that weight, you've been building up your strength for it long before you got there. And thanks to #4, you know you'll only have to do it as many times as your body has in you that day.
Take-home point: Lifting less than your 1RM is psychologically freeing; it becomes a challenge of will to see how many times you can lift it, without being a challenge to see if you can lift it.
So those are my lessons. I love the program, and I've gotten great results even on a once-a-week approach with one lift. My client has been steadily improving, too. I hope these lessons on AMRAP and 5/3/1 are useful for you. They're meant as food for thought for you folks doing 5/3/1 or any other program. I hope they help!