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, September 29, 2015

My 5/3/1 Experience

Over on gym-talk, there is an excellent look at Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 program.

I've reviewed it, I've done it (or pieces or it, or variations of it, as needed). I've posted many times on it. I've run clients through variations of it many times.

Back in 2010 I posted some reflections on it:

5/3/1 observations

Those points still stand. But here are a few more, or reinforcements of those.

Autoregulation is hard, AMRAP is easy. Autoregulation is pretty much changing your workout volume and intensity based on your physical condition the day you lift. It can be hard for people to do this - it's not easy to just know that today you have 80% in you but not 85%, or have 50 less pounds on your big lift, or need to dial back the cardio.

But it's easy to do AMRAP. Especially early in the cycles, it is quite easy to get your goal reps. How many extras you have? That's basically unknown. And as long as you hit your goal reps (the 5 in 5+, 3 in 3, 1 in 1+) you get to keep progressing. All the extra reps are bonus - valuable, gain-inducing, worth getting - but bonus.

As a coach, it's easy, too - you know the trainee will get the weight, and it's just a question of how many times. You or your client can cut it short as soon as they do a rep that isn't as good or better than the previous one. It's not pass/fail, it's a curve - how much can you win by rather than can you win?

It's Simple. The setup is quite simple. It's easy to grasp, it's easy to implement, and it puts the focus squarely on lifts you will gain strength on. You don't need to manipulate things.

It works. Plain and simple, a gradual approach with built-in progression, built-in recovery weeks, and built-in tweaks for when it slows down - all of which work for building strength.

There are some things you need to watch out for:

Rest-Pause. Remember that AMRAP is meant to leave a few reps in the tank. And it's one set. It's not "keep coming back to the bar and do reps until you can't get one more." I've seen people do 10 reps on their 5+ day followed by 10 singles done 30 seconds to a minute apart. It would have been better to stop at 10 in the first place.

Overreach. It's tempting to set your Training Max at your actual max. You can bench 225 for 1? Okay, Training Max is 225!

That just won't work. You aren't giving yourself enough time lifting weights that will make you stronger and going too hard after the ones that test your limits.

Impatience. This is also the "I need to reset my max" approach. Go out, do 10+ on your 1+ day and say, I need to raise my training max. This is often coupled with using a 1 Rep Max calculator to determine what 10 reps at X weight "is" for your 1-rep max. Then you go ahead and make that your training max.

This is another mistake. Again, like Overreach, you're attempting to jump ahead to the "test my limits" weights instead of the "make me stronger" reps. I never let people I'm training, in person or remotely, re-set their Training Max up. Too low? Enjoy the cruise weeks as you get stronger. Maybe you can up the training max by 10 pounds this month instead of 5. 15 if it's something crazy like getting 20+ easy reps on 1+ day. But even then . . . I err on the side of "don't recalculate up." Get perfect reps on those "easy" weights, get lots of them, and reap the benefits when you blow past your old limits. Don't try to jump ahead to the finish line. It won't work.

Major in the Minors. This is worrying more about the assistance lifts than the main lifts. Sometimes folks will focus on the accessories and not the main lifts. If your main lifts are going up, you are improving along the goal line of the program - you are getting stronger, and it's a program for getting stronger. If they're motoring along at the minimums or stalling, and your assistance lifts are going up - you're not really stronger.

It's a program that could function without the accessories (there is even a template called "I'm Not Doing Jack" which does just that), but the accessories can't function without the main lifts.


As long as you stick to the basic tenants of the program and watch out for those pitfalls.

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