Simple Strength Routine: Wendler 5/3/1 review

This is a part of the Carnival of Gains post series.


There are a hell of a lot different programs for strength training out there. Almost everyone of them has been covered from head to tow in more than one instance so I’m not going to do yet another inside Wendler 5/3/1 post that explains it in the detail. Instead I will reflect my own experiences regarding the program and address it from the bigger picture of balancing training and life in general.  I’m however going to do a brief overview even though Jim Wendler  himself does it the best here for example.


Jim Wendler created a program for strength training based around basic compound movements: bench press, deadlift, squat and overhead press. The lifter is to do these basic movements with a day split that suits him the best. Assistance lifts and other complimentary work can be added depending on what goals one has. There are many variations regarding the assistance work and the core lifts can also be modified to a point.


Wendler uses the concept of training max from which the percentages for each lift are calculated. The basic program and the percentages are described in the following table.


Training max = 90% of the true max

5/5/5+ 3/3/3+ 5/3/1+ Deload (5/5/5)
Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
1. Set 65% 70% 75% 40%
2. Set 75% 80% 85% 50%
3. Set 85% 90% 95% 60%


Wendler has developed the program over time and there are different variations to core lift programming taking into account different life situations and goals. There’s a variation better suited for powerlifters for example to which I won’t go into much detail here. I myself quickly gravitated towards the Beyond 5/3/1  which I strongly recommend looking into. Beyond 5/3/1 is basically a more refined version of the original program and it has a great set of tools that make it very useful for strength training and different aspects of it


All strength training programs that work have the basic things in common: certain form of periodization and progressive overload over time. Different programs are just different ways of accomplishing those basic principles.


But the true beauty of the Wendler 5/3/1 system lies in the aspect that it is very well designed to balance training with life.


And the balance is the  key.


I’m not a competing powerlifter so I can’t say much about whether it’s optimal for that kind of goals. But from an everyday goal oriented and serious strength training point of view it’s damn near perfect on the long term. I have done Beyond Wendler 5/3/1 for a little over a year now and can say that it adapts very well to every day ups and downs of life. All this with my lifts going up as well.



How to ecome stronger with Wendler 5/3/1

Me doing a set of 5/3/1-style benching at our old school garage home gym.

I only do bench, deadlift and overhead press with assistance work to keep the balance with my other training (mainly boxing) and life activities. At this point I’m actually thinking about changing things a bit and try a 12 week competition program which the many-time bench press world champion Sami Huhtala (actor of Ray Coleman in Carnival Of Gangs) urged me to do. Even so I’m thinking I’ll return to 5/3/1 after that since it’s a great program to do on the long run. And is supposed to be done like that. You can basically do it forever, you just need to reset if you stall.


And that’s the point. First of all the program is very simple and is supposed to be done for the long run. Wendler himself uses the metaphor “marathon” to describe lifting as in he likes to plan a year ahead instead of few weeks or months. I disagree with the marathon thinking because I think life is a series of sprints and the recovery in between. But that’s just nitpicking even though that is exactly how Wendler 5/3/1 works. You plan the sprints far ahead, do your sprints, recover and adapt to the situation. Any program that takes into account this kind of auto-regulation and maintains being simple and effective makes a good program from the balancing point of view.



Wendlre 5/3/1 review overhead press

No mirrors or asses to stare at in this gym.


The adaptation is the important thing here. I have come to view that Wendler Beyond 5/3/1 serves as a good basis for weight lifting programming and you can tweak it to your own benefit as you learn along the way. I remember the great Ed Coan saying that he programmed his cycles so that he knew very specifically in advance what sets and weights he would do on the long run. Ed Coan also said that this kind of approach is a good way of increasing confidence since you rarely miss a lift. With Wendler it’s basically the same since you start low enough with weights you can actually handle and learn along the way. With Beyond 5/3/1 you can also plan the lifts very far ahead and similarly “know” what you are going to do even months ahead.


Ed Coan was more strict with his programs regarding tailoring on the run but we have to remember that he was a passionate and an elite level professional with very spesific goals in mind. Ed Coan also said he didn’t use percentages but again he had learned to know himself so well during the years of studying the game of powerlifting so that he didn’t have to. For an everyday goal oriented lifter, Beyond 5/3/1 offers an easy framework to base your training on and learn what works for you. Start by doing the basic things and add/don’t add things based on your experiences and life situation.


Wendler offers very useful tools for finding the balance via tailoring the basic program on a weekly/daily basis:

  • joker sets
  • first set last (FSL)
  • doing six weeks in a row and deloading after that
  • keeping to a minimum reps or going all out in the last set
  • resetting
  • assistance variations etc.


We all have shitty days and other things that stress our body too much to train hard every time. Then do the mimimum sets required. Want more volume after the basic sets? Do the first set last and go all out on it. You’re on a winning streak with the biggest balls in the world and don’t feel like deloading? Skip the first deload and do it after six weeks. Everything feels so light and you can bench through the roof after hitting a personal record on the last set? Go do some heavy singles as joker sets. Or don’t. It’s relatively easy to fray of the course when there’s variations to be made but Wendler has made the basic guidelines so simple that when understood, balancing is easy.


Wendler Beyond 5/3/1 is optimal for balancing training with life and the balance is the key.


You get the point. Now go try it for yourself and see how it suits you. I recommend doing it for at least six months, preferably a year, to make a valid judgement.


I strongly recommend reading the complete book Beyond 5/3/1: Simple Training for Extraordinary Results by Jim Wendler himself and you can buy it here.