*Apologies for the quality: this video was made before I discovered my Yeti mic and whiteboard cleaner.
I’ve done a lot of program reviews and will probably dedicate time to more in the future. My goal with these reviews isn’t to give them a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, as if I can place each program on a linear scale of how magically they work to slap pounds on the bar and inches on your arms. The reviews are mainly to deconstruct the patterns of progression so that you can see what qualities are required for an effective program. Once you are aware of those qualities, it’s helpful to see which of those are shared among all programs and which qualities are completely arbitrary.
Wendler’s 5/3/1 was my first program review for two reasons; it’s been one of the most commonly used programs for the last decade and it’s the most appropriate and easy to follow for the type of lifter who finds themselves looking for such a program. The reason for the popularity is easy to identify; it was one of the first ebook programs with a catchy title to take advantage of the age of the internet, it came from a reputable and well-known source and it was quickly discovered to be effective and easy to follow. It’s the second part, the fact that it is appropriate for most lifters in need of a program like this, that is of special interest to us and that’s what I wanted to get into in this review.
What makes it appropriate? Firstly, the catchy title contains within it the rep scheme that gets followed over each 3-week wave. Each lift week one starts with a top set of 5 at 85% then moves to a top set of 3 at 90% before ending up at week 3 with a top single at 95%. Those 3 weeks repeat with a small increase in weight for as long as the lifter can maintain it. This is what we call a ‘forever program’; it’s essentially a linear progression, which advances a lifter by continuously adding a small amount of weight each workout at a rate that they can adapt to and grow from.
With a typical movie linear progression like Starting Strength, these jumps happen every few days. That’s simply not sustainable for most lifters because, as they get stronger, they can’t recover from such frequent increases in weight. The program at the beginning will start too light (which won’t allow for a significant stress that might increase strength) and, by the time the range of weight becomes useful, the frequent weight jumps won’t permit enough recovery. For an intermediate lifter, there is a narrow band of useful work with the beginning being too easy and the ending much, much too hard.
5/3/1 is appropriate for more intermediate lifters because the change in work over the 3 weeks represents a sustainable split. The rate of increase is every 3 week wave, which provides enough time to recover and grow as a lifter works through those varied percentage ranges. It can also work for novice lifters; just because they can do a linear progression that increases the weight every few days doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to. Any beginning lifter that starts with this progression, takes seriously all of the accessory work and progresses consistently and faithfully will inevitably find themselves stronger after several cycles. This program casts a wide net which is necessary in an ebook that gets sold to a wide audience.
Now when it comes to orever programs like this, I’m a fan of ones that utilize plus sets. A plus set gives a rep prescription that serves as a ‘minimum’, which the lifter tries to beat by doing as many as possible. The base of the program is doing minimum sets of five, sets of three and sets of one, but there will rarely be a workout where the lifter stops at those reps. It is only when you fail to meet those minimum rep requirements that you reset the program. This adds an extra dimension of stress to the equation. Starting with a baseline of work and steadily adding weight over a given amount of time is already enough to create an adaptive response. But having weekly sets that require greater effort and lead you to chase old rep PRs adds effort and intensity to the mix, which is a powerful tool for growth if enough recovery is built into the program around it. Many lifters find that working harder is a simple and effective way of getting stronger early on but they often run into a wall because they don’t know how to maintain enough recovery to make those repeated hard efforts sustainable. 5/3/1, which features one lift trained each week, has that built into it.
Aside from the short, sustainable and easy to follow progression, Wendler also gives solid advice when it comes to secondary movements for rounding out your physical development. Wendler gives a lot of different templates and, while he doesn’t flesh them out with the why and when as much as I would like, they still feature enough of what works that any decision the reader makes will likely lead to continued growth. He leans heavily on getting more bang for your buck, which means accessory work is designated as compound movements that can provide substantial growth with less time and effort.
‘The Triumvirate’ is my recommended ‘go-to’ for the minimalist who is looking to get the most out of their time at the gym. Essentially you do the main lifts for the 5/3/1 progression and then you follow it up with 2 compound exercises that target muscle groups relevant to that lift. An upper body workout might feature bench-pressing, dips and rowing. A lower body workout might feature squats, leg press and lunges. In this way the lifter gets enough touches with the main list to develop the type of skill that is required to compete while also getting enough variety to develop a well-rounded physique that will be free of weaknesses in the future.
Technical practice is very important for newer and intermediate lifters but over specializing is a common problem. Just like youth athletes need to play a wide variety of sports to develop a white athletic base, newer lifters need to be exposed to a lot of different movements to avoid the common pitfalls that come with doing the same developmental movement over and over and not reinforcing potential weak areas early on.
Long story short, when I’m talking to a new lifter who’s looking for a solid program to run indefinitely and I only have a cocktail napkin to write it on in a few minutes to explain it, 531 is my go-to recommendation. For any lifter who has outgrown simple linear progressions like Starting Strength or the Greyskull LP but who isn’t quite ready to jump into more focused and competitive forms of periodization, this arrangement of training is simple enough to follow, consistent enough to provide growth and spaced out far enough to prevent overtraining. For a program targeted to a wide audience, you can’t ask for much more than that.