5/3/1 for Beginners

The original article by Jim Wendler is found here. This page is intended to serve as a companion to this article, not a complete replacement for it, so please make sure to read the original in full as well as this page.

A spreadsheet for this program can be found here. It’s a good idea to have a look at it if you are confused about how the program works. Download it or Make a Copy to your own Google Drive if you want to make use of it.

If you are considering starting this program, please note…

All 5/3/1 variations (this is just one of many) use percentages of a Training Max to set the weights you use in training for the Squat, Deadlift, Overhead Press, and Bench Press. If you have never run 5/3/1 before, you will initially set your Training Max as a percentage of your Estimated 1 Rep Max. This is discussed in more detail below.

While there is technically no minimum strength requirement for this program, if your Estimated 1 Rep Maxes for the Squat, Overhead Press, and Bench Press are not at least 75lbs, you may find it logistically difficult to follow, because some days will take some of your training sets below 45lbs – the weight of an unloaded barbell. The best way to adapt to this is to use dumbbell variations of these three lifts.

In addition, if your Estimated 1 Rep Max for the Deadlift is below 230lbs, be sure you have a way to simulate the same bar height as if it were loaded with standard 45lb plates for some days, when some sets will be below 135lbs. This is most commonly done using bumper plates or blocks.

The Training Max

The main work for 5/3/1 programs is done as percentages of a Training Max (TM). Progression to higher weights is also via the Training Max, which is explained in further detail below.

To set your initial Training Max when starting this program:

  1. For each of the main lifts (squat, bench press, overhead press, deadlift), work up to a weight that you can only complete 3-5 reps of with good bar speed.
  2. Take this weight and the number of reps and calculate your estimated One Rep Max (1RM) using a calculator such as this one.
  3. Take 90% of the estimated 1RM and use this as your starting Training Max.

Important Note: This will be the only time that your TM is so directly connected to your 1RM. A core philosophy of 5/3/1 is to train sub-maximally and drive steady progress over time. As you go through the program your strength will be increasing above what your TM is set at, and this is intended. Always remember that the purpose of the Training Max is to inform your workout – it is not a measure of your progress or your strength. With 5/3/1, your workouts are almost never about testing your strength – they are about building it.

Sets and Reps

This section outlines the sets and reps used for the main lifts in the 5/3/1 for Beginners program. Sets, reps, and percentages in this program change every week on a repeating three week cycle.

The notation here is Sets x Reps. The percentages are of your current Training Max. The “+” at the end denotes that the last set is AMRAP – As Many Reps As Possible. The last set should not be to absolute failure, though. A good way to gauge when to stop is when your form breaks down or the speed of the bar slows significantly compared to the previous reps. You want these to be crisp, quality reps.

5/3/1 Core Sets

  • Week 1
    • 1×5 @ 65%
    • 1×5 @ 75%
    • 1×5+ @ 85%
  • Week 2
    • 1×3 @ 70%
    • 1×3 @ 80%
    • 1×3+ @ 90%
  • Week 3
    • 1×5 @ 75%
    • 1×3 @ 85%
    • 1×1+ @ 95%

FSL

FSL stands for “First Set Last”. This is used as short-hand to indicate that you use the same percentage as you used in your first set for that day. For example, on Week 1, your FSL weight will be at 65% of your Training Max.

Warm Up

Before you do any lifting, choose one of the following and perform 10-15 total reps over 2-3 sets:

  • Box Jumps
  • Broad Jumps
  • Medicine Ball Throws

For the main lifts, you can warm up with the following protocol:

  • 1×5 @ 40%
  • 1×5 @ 50%
  • 1×3 @ 60%

The Program

Day 1 (Monday)

  • Squats – 5/3/1 core sets, followed by 5×5 FSL
  • Bench Press – 5/3/1 core sets, followed by 5×5 FSL
  • Assistance Work

Day 2 (Wednesday)

  • Deadlift – 5/3/1 core sets, followed by 5×5 FSL
  • Overhead Press – 5/3/1 core sets, followed by 5×5 FSL
  • Assistance Work

Day 3 (Friday)

  • Bench Press – 5/3/1 core sets, followed by 5×5 FSL
  • Squats – 5/3/1 core sets, followed by 5×5 FSL
  • Assistance Work

Assistance Work

Each day, choose one exercise for each of the three categories below, and perform 50 – 100 reps of it. The number of sets you use to accomplish this is not important. You can do all of your reps for each category one at a time, or to finish your workout faster, you can cycle through a set from each category in a circuit.

If you chose a bodyweight exercise and cannot complete at least 50 reps, you can choose a second exercise to finish the total out. If you chose a weighted exercise and cannot complete at least 50 reps, you chose a weight that was too high.

Push Pull Single Leg/Core
Dips Chinups Any Ab / Core Exercise
Pushups Pullups Back Raises
Flat DB Bench Inverted Rows Reverse Hypers
Incline DB Bench DB Rows Lunges
DB OHP Cable Rows Step Ups
Tricep Extension Machine Rows Bulgarian Split Squats
Tricep Pushdown Face Pulls KB Snatches
Band Pull-Aparts KB Swings
Lat Pulldowns
Curls

Rest Between Sets

Jim Wendler does not provide any guidelines for rest between sets, so you can tailor this to your recovery and scheduling needs. Most commonly, rest times are kept between 1.5-3 minutes between sets. Some additional considerations:

  • You can generally use shorter rest times between your FSL sets, as well as your accessory work.
  • Longer rest times will generally allow for greater performance in future sets.
  • Longer rest times will allow you to superset more of your accessory work between main lifts.
  • Shorter rest times will help build work capacity.

Progression

At the end of each three week cycle, add weight to the Training Max of your lifts:

  • Add 5lbs to the TM of upper body lifts (Bench Press and Overhead Press)
  • Add 10lbs to the TM lower body lifts (Squat and Deadlift)

You add the same amount of weight to your Training Max no matter how many reps you hit on your AMRAP sets. Never more. Remember always that your Training Max is not a measure of your progress or strength. 

FAQ – Why is the progression so slow? Wouldn’t faster progression be better?

Trainees who are new to programs like 5/3/1 often get concerned about the “slower progression” of the Training Max when compared to some other novice programs that have you add weight to the bar every training day (“Linear Progression”). This is understandable, but it comes from a fundamental misunderstanding – that progression of the loading of the barbell in training is the same as the progression of the strength of the lifter. While these two things are definitely connected, they are far from being one-to-one.

5/3/1, like the majority of lifting programs by reputable coaches, is a training methodology that operates in multiple dimensions – it manages intensity, volume, and fatigue, exposes you to different rep ranges and movements, and measures progress as more than just training weights – all very important factors for long term success in your training. A traditional LP program does not manage any of these things, and only works in a single dimension – weight on the bar – which is not only suboptimal but actively detrimental to your long term training.

Most programs like 5/3/1 will have moments of testing built in to them for you to use to measure progress over time. If you want to succeed in the long term, you will need to learn to trust the process and use the periodic AMRAP sets and test weeks to check on your progress – not look to be testing your progress in every set of every training session.

See also this comment

Assistance Templates

Here are some example setups for your Push/Pull/Single Leg or Core assistance work.

Bodyweight

Progression:
– Last set is always AMRAP. Push it.
– Start at a minimum of 10×5. If you can’t do this, do assisted reps using bands or a machine.
– Work up to 10×10.
– After you can comfortably do 10×10, start doing fewer sets with more reps. Work up to 5×20.

Day 1
– Pushups
– Chinups
– Leg Raises

Day 2
– Dips
– Inverted Rows
Single Leg Split Squats

Day 3:
– Pushups
– Pullups
– Leg Raises

Mirror Bro

Progression:
– Do 8×8-12.
– When you can do 8×12, add some weight.
– If you can’t do at least 8×8 with the new weight, you added too much.
– Do planks at 8×20-60s.

Day 1:
– Lateral Raises
– Curls
– Leg Raises

Day 2:
– Incline DB Press
– Shrugs
– Cable Crunches

Day 3:
– Tricep Pushdowns
– Neutral Grip Chinups
– Planks

Time Saver
– Meant to be doable in circuit / superset in a potentially crowded public gym.
– Progress the DB lifts like Mirror Bro, BW movements like Bodyweight
– Do a set of your main lift, a set of both accessories, then rest 90s. Repeat.

Day 1:
– Superset Bench with: DB Row, Planks
– Superset Squat with: DB OHP, BW Bulgarian Split Squat

Day 2:
– Supserset OHP with: DB Curls, Paloff Press with Band
– Superset DL with: Pushups, DB Lunges

Day 3:
– Superset Squat with: DB Rows, DB Swings
– Superset Bench with: DB Lateral Raises, Leg Raises (on bench)

Regular Training Max Testing / Deloading

Jim Wendler’s most current guidelines for running 5/3/1 programs in 5/3/1 Forever are to periodically perform a Training Max Test Week to ensure your TM is not too high, and deload if necessary. While the 5/3/1 for Beginners article pre-dates this recommendation and they don’t fit together perfectly, it is still a good idea to make use of it.

Applying this practice as closely as possible to 5/3/1 for Beginners, every 10th week (or after three 3-week cycles) would be used as a TM Test Week. For this test week, you will increase your TM as normal and test the new TM. For example, if you ended your third cycle with a TM of 300 for your Deadlift, your TM for the test week will be 310.

The percentage protocol for the week is:

  • 1×5 @ 70%
  • 1×5 @ 80%
  • 1×5 @ 90%
  • 1×3-5 @ 100%

Your reps on the 100% set determine if you should deload or not:

  • If you get 3 or more reps, your TM is good, and you can continue as normal using the same TM as the test week for the next cycle. Never add extra weight to your TM based on this set.
  • If you get fewer than 3 reps, use that number to estimate your 1 Rep Max, and set your TM at 90% of that for your next 3 week cycle.

For this week, the layout of your Main Lifts will be slightly different:

  • Day 1 (Monday): OHP TM Test first, then Squat TM Test
  • Day 2 (Wednesday): Bench TM Test
  • Day 3 (Friday): Deadlift TM Test

Assistance work is unchanged.

Stalling / Missing Reps

At some point as you’re running this program, you may reach a point where you are unable to complete the sets and reps for your main lifts, either at all or with clean, fast reps. When this happens, it is important to remember:

  • You may have just had a bad day, so don’t worry if it happens once or twice.
  • It is an expected event in the process of training and getting stronger.
  • It is not necessarily a reason to question, re-evaluate, or significantly change your training.

If you find that you are consistently not hitting the sets and reps for a lift over a period of at least one full three week cycle, it is time to lower your Training Max for that lift. The general guideline for this is to reduce it by three cycle increments (15lbs / 30lbs). If you find yourself feeling discouraged by this, again, remember – Your Training Max is not a measure of your progress or your strength. You will continue to make progress and set rep PRs on the AMRAP sets after you deload.

Reducing Workout Time

If you find your workouts running longer than you’d like, besides manipulating rest times, here are some other strategies you can use to complete the workout faster:

  • Use the rest periods between sets of your main lifts to complete accessory work. This has the added benefit of helping to build your work capacity by increasing training density. If you do, you should choose an accessory that will not interfere with the main lift you are currently performing. (Ex: Squats + Face Pulls, Bench + Ab Wheels, Deadlifts + Curls, etc)
  • Do your Push, Pull, and Single Leg / Core exercises in a circuit. Perform one set of each exercise, rest briefly, then repeat until you’re done.