5/3/1 Method

I’ve been running this program for about 4 months now. Last week was my deload week and I’m about to start back up in the morning. I figured this would be a good time for me to introduce this method to those of you who are interested, explain the proper method to developing your program around it, and why I like it and think it works.

5/3/1 – The Basics

5/3/1 is based on the four core lifts: squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press. Each cycle of the 5/3/1 program lasts 4 weeks. I train four days a week with each day focused on one of these core lifts. The rudimentary schedule looks like this:

  • Week 1: 3 sets of 5
  • Week 2: 3 sets of 3
  • Week 3: 1 set of 5, 1 set of 3, 1 set of 1
  • Week 4: Deload week

The foundation for this method is using percentages of your 1RM (one rep max). Jim Wendler, the creator of 5/3/1, recommends taking 90% of your 1RM to calculate the amount you’ll be lifting for the core lifts instead of working directly off your 1RM. I have to agree with him for a couple reasons:

  1. People grossly overestimate how much their 1RM truly is;
  2. And you can get burnt-out on this program quickly if you run it for a long time based off your 1RM. You increase your 1RM for squats and deadlifts by 10 pounds and your bench and overhead press by 5 pounds after each cycle; within a couple cycles you’ll be training past your 1RM and will have the conditioning to support it.

Because the worksets are based off a 1RM, it’s helpful to already know what your 1RM is for each of the lifts. If you don’t, don’t sweat it – just head over to this training calculator and follow the instructions. Once you have your 1RM, multiply it by .9 to find your Training Max. From there, the rest of your percentages are taken from your Training Max and the program should look like this:

For example, my current 1RM for squat is 365lbs. My 5/3/1 cycle for that one lift would look like this:

On each day, you’re going to increase the amount of each set by 10%. Then, on the last set, “+” means you are to do as many reps as possible. At the end of the entire cycle, you add 10 pounds to your Training Max for squat and deadlift and 5 pounds to your Training Max for bench and overhead press – not your 1RM.


Many people often get confused about deload weeks in general; for 5/3/1 it’s fairly simple. You still complete the four core lifts and follow your percentages, but it’s also a time to recover and focus on muscle imbalances and weaknesses. For example, if you have poor shoulder mobility, then using light resistance bands for raises and stretching may be a part of your workout for your military press day. Or, if you struggle at lockout for your deadlift, it may be helpful to throw in some rack pulls. Deload weeks are not a time to hit PR’s, overload your CNS, or exhaust yourself with cardio. It’s a week of rolling out, isolation exercises, stretching, and making sure you’re ready to increase your weights next week.

Accessory Work

Another common issue for weightlifting and 5/3/1, specifically, is not knowing what accessory work to mix in with each day. My general rule of thumb is that the accompanying accessory work always supplements the core lift (i.e., don’t curl on a squat day). Accessory work is meant to be higher reps, lighter weights, and less rest time. If you enjoy circuits, complexes, and supersets, this is your chance to throw them into your workout. Accessory work is the part for you to get a little creative with your workouts. In the past, I have followed 5/3/1 and then implemented a bastardized version of the GZCL Method for my accessory work. My bastardized version looks something like this:

Note: “Tier 2” and “Tier 3” are terms found in the GZCL method; it’s enough just know that the higher the tier number the further into the workout you are and the exercises become more isolated for a specific muscle group.

Essentially, I take the rep range from the previous week and use that as my baseline rep scheme for my accessory work. It’s important to note that my accessory work changes week-to-week. I may do incline dumbell press right after I bench press during Week 1 but I may do heavy floor presses during Week 2 instead. Knowing what accessory work to incorporate into each training session requires you to pay attention to your body, realize where your weak points are, and adjusting to address them. My explosiveness while deadlifting became a problem during my last cycle of 5/3/1 so I incorporated heavy power cleans into my routine to address the issue. A flexible training program is necessary for making well-rounded strength and size gains and that’s the main reason I enjoy 5/3/1 and think it is one of the best programs available. I get to lift heavy with accessory work that helps my big lifts and physique.

I’ve posted my upcoming 5/3/1 Cycle over at My Workout Log. After each training session, I will update it with my accessory work and general notes.

If you’re interested in learning even more about this program, I suggest you check out Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 book and his other works.

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