Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Book Review: 5-3-1

by Jim Wendler
97 page eBook
Cost $19.95

This ebook by Jim Wendler covers the much-talked about 5-3-1 system of training for improving strength. The system is simple but effective.

Each day you do one of the military press, squat, deadlift, and bench press. You can swap in other compound exercises, but these are the ones it is built around. You do these for just three work sets. You also do some accessory work, but your main exercise each day is just those three sets.

First you determined your current 1-rep maximum (not your best ever, what you can do now), and cut it down a bit from there - down to 90%. Next you use that reduced number to calculate your loads for a four-week cycle of lifts.

Week one is 3 x 5 on your major lift, week two is 3 x 3, week three is 5/3/1, and week four is a deload with light weight for 3 x 5. Each set is done heavier than the set before but all lower than your maximum - even the single in week three is 95% of 90% of your 1-rep max, so it should be a little lighter than you can handle for one. The catch is, for each of the first three weeks, you do as many reps as possible for the final set. Since you started light, you should be able to get more than the target reps. You don't train to failure, but rather one or two reps short of failure...enough to require serious hard work.

For example, using an example from the book, the first week you might do 105 x 5, 120 x 5, and then 135 x 5 or more. The next week would be a little heavier but for 3, 3, and 3 or more. Third week, 5, 3, and then 1 or more. You're always pushing for "or more" on the final set for three weeks, then you deload for a week to recover.

After each cycle, you up the weight on your calculated maximum by 5-10 pounds (10 pounds at most!) and then re-calculate your lifts for the next four weeks. You don't plug your new 1RM back in, you just add a little and keep going. This gives you slow progress but steady progress and keeps you from stalling from raising the weights too high, too fast. You just keep moving on, setting rep records time in and time out. You track your accessory exercises too, but they're there to help with your main lifts. You push hard, but not so heavy or high-volume you'll burn out (especially with a deload week!).

Pretty simple, but the execution has some nuance to it - how to set the weights by percentage, how to re-start, selecting accessory work, and customizing the templates. His advice on what to look for in accessory lifts and how to choose them and organize them is outstanding as well.

He has five suggested accessory templates. These include:
Boring But Big - the main lift, plus the main lift again for 5x10 plus another accessory for 5 more. Great for folks who need more volume to gain!
The Triumvirate - the main lift, plus two assistance lifts for 5 sets apiece.
I'm Not Doing Jack Shit - the main lift, then go home. Great for a time crunched session!
Periodization Bible by Dave Tate - the main lift, plus 3 exercises for 5 sets of 10-20 apiece.
Bodyweight - the main lift, plus a pair of bodyweight exercises (such as chins, dips, situps, etc.)

You could conceivably do other templates afterwards as well, simply swapping in the 5/3/1 lift for your ME (maximum effort) work for the day.

The book includes suggested templates for 4, 3, 2, or even 1 day a week lifting. Which one depends on your schedule and your recovery. Not all lifting manuals do this - it's very often "x days a week or hit the highway."

You might read this review and think "Okay, now I know the system, why do I need this book? You've saved me $20!" You might. But although you can do this system with publicly available information and templates, the book is still worth checking out. Jim Wendler's writing is easy to understand and funny. Comments like "don't be Half-Rep McGee" and "Nobody ever got strong or got in shape by thinking about it." Check out this quote about lunges, one of his recommended accessory exercises:

"The lunge has gotten a bad rap in the strength training world for two reasons. First, it's used in the fitness world, and it's championed by women for toning and firming[...]you have an exercise that few people want to do.

These people are wrong."

He covers a lot of ground very efficiently, dealing with technique, methodology, and modifications to the program. Bad day at the gym? Covered. Variations? Covered. Nutrition? Even that's briefly but effectively covered. I personally have been using the 5/3/1 system for box squats under the eye of a coach who knows the system - and getting the book make it all so much more clear. It's a real winner. My own experience tells me you can finish your main lift for the day and feel like "...that's it?" Yep, that's it, but your strength just keeps going up. It's a pretty easy system for beginners or more advanced lifters. Linear progress for the beginners, with enough load variation to allow more experienced lifters to benefit. It only seems complicated to use a percentage-based system, and Jim Wendler simplifies it without dumbing it down at all.

The book ends out with sheets to photocopy (well, print out) with templates for each week, advice on how to use Excel to do them automatically, and a weight-to-percentage chart if Excel and your rep calculator fail you.


Content: 5 out of 5. Everything you need for the program is here, from technique to lifting guides. Lots of detail on how to judge your progress and change the workout to fit your needs are here, too.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. The text is easy to read, tables easy to follow, and sample workout sheets easily to read. It's not fancy but it's effective.

Overall: If you're looking for an easy progressive system for training, this is it. It only seems pricey at $20 for under 100 pages, but it's pure gold, no wasted words.


  1. Hi, nice review you've got there. I have some questions regarding the system, though.

    1) is it for beginners? I feel that intermediate to advanced trainees fit this the best as the first few sets are really low in weight and the progressions are too slow for beginner litters with their beanie huge gains.

    2) how if I'm doing something like 1x13 on week 3 for my main lift? Is the weight too light, then?

  2. Clement, the best person to ask is Jim Wendler over on Elite FTS -

    But I'll give it a go as well.

    1) I personally think beginners should try something like Starting Strength or Stronglifts 5 x 5 and just go up linearly in weight. But once the weights start stalling out, 5/3/1 is a really great move. The gains in max weight come more slowly but they keep coming steadily. I've got someone on his 11th cycle and he's still showing no signs of slowing down, at a steady +5 pounds to the training max each cycle.

    2) It might be too light, but enjoy it. If you add 5-10 pounds a cycle to your training max it'll slow down quickly enough. Personally I liked to milk the easy weeks as much as I can and increase the weight very slowly. I have a tendency to stall quickly if I go even a little too heavy, so even 13 reps on week 3 wouldn't bother me if it's an early cycle. If you're still hitting 13 reps 6-7 cycles down the line, it could be too small of an increase cycle to cycle.

    I hope that helps!

  3. Excellent review! So pleased to read this, and its much of the same impression I had after reading and trying it out for the first time.
    Thanks a buch!


    - Pain is weakness leaving the body

  4. This is a great program. I've been using it for several months now and it works.


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