Building Pure Strength? A Review Of Wendler's 5/3/1

Here’s another great guest post from Halevy Life’s Director of Programming & Education Nick Johnson:

Does Wendler’s 5/3/1 Work?

I recently completed an 8-week training cycle using Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program (check it out here). Here is a quick review & my take-away.

Philosophy behind 5/3/1

1. 5/3/1 revolves around 4 basic multi-joint lifts (bench press, squat, deadlift, and standing overhead press). Makes sense to me, hits the 4 major movement patterns that are typically the fundamental movements in any strong man’s repertoire.

2. Don’t beat yourself up: start light and progress slowly. This principle is naturally the toughest one to follow for the average lifter/any guy. The goal is to always be pressing the envelope, stacking just a little bit more weight on the bar from the previous workout, but this doesn’t always work. We know what progressive overload is (gradual increase of stress placed on the body during training), but sometimes you need to take 1 step back to move 2 steps forward.

Before I get in to how the program worked for me let me briefly recap what my training was prior to starting this program. I was training 3-4 days/week, relatively high volume with the bench press and deadlift, relatively low volume with the squat and the only overhead pressing I was doing was during my clean and jerks. I had been on this regimen for close to 12 weeks, constantly increasing weight/volume (here’s that progressive overload thing again) to my bench and deadlift and slowly increasing with my squat. I had been going for 3 months with little to no de-loading periods and needed a program that would allow me ample recovery time (I started to plateau).

3 Reasons I love 5/3/1

1. It is a scientifically backed program. The general principles behind the 5/3/1 program should allow you to make slow, but continual progress. A very often-overlooked aspect of programming is rest. Yes, rest is just as important as work when you are looking to grow (strength or size). There is a built in de-loading week where you simply drop the volume and work the pattern, or as Andy Bolton would say “grease the groove.” You will not over-train, you will not burn out, but you will see progress.

2. You get to lift heavy stuff. This ties in with #1, because there is rest and you are only doing 3 sets of the primary or core lift, you are capable of moving heavy weight. This is an ego thing for most lifters, and most likely the reason Wendler stresses sticking to the weight scheme and rest protocols for the program.


3. It is SIMPLE!!! All the numbers are there for you, the calculations are easy, hell there is even an iPhone app to make the calculations even less painless. Plug your numbers in and go, it’s that simple. As you move from one 4 week training cycle to the next, simply add 5 lbs. to upper body exercises and 10 lbs. to lower body exercises for calculations. The assistance work is very simple as well, pick whatever you want to work the movement pattern of that day and go with it. Thinking is very minimal, which is great!

As far my numbers:

My deadlift increased by 40lbs. in total, from 420 to 460, a 9.5% increase.
My squat increased by 30lbs. in total, 350 to 380, 8.6% increase.
My overhead press increased by 15lbs. in total, from 205 to 220, a 7.4% increase.
My bench press did not increase but stayed at 335lbs.

Overall I would absolutely use this program if you are looking to switch your training protocol for a period of time but want to continue gaining strength. As for the lack of increase in my bench, my volume dropped significantly when starting the 5/3/1 program, which probably means I, like 90% of guys out there, was overtraining my bench in the first place.

If you want to use this program and have any questions about programming for the 5/3/1 hit me up on twitter at HL_Nick.