Preparing for 5/3/1 Powerlifting

buff smurfThis fellow suggested to me in a comment on one of my recent blog posts that I try doing a 5/3/1 Powerlifting Program as my next step in strength training. If you take a look at his blog posts, you’ll see that’s exactly how he works out.

But when I checked out the link he sent me, I couldn’t figure out how to actually build such a program for myself.

So I turned to Google once again and came up with an article by Jim Wendler called “5/3/1: How to Build Pure Strength”. He seems to have invented the thing.

But there were a few details I couldn’t figure out relative to which lifts you do on what days at what percentages of your 90% 1RM (that’s right, 90%, not “balls to the wall” … this is to avoid the male ego, of which I’ve been [my own] victim more than once).

In order to finish off my plotting and scheming just for week one, (this coming week), I had to turn to a number of different links, most of them leading to other Wendler articles.

Part of the 5/3/1 program involves assistance lifts, which ideally support the main muscle groups of your primary lift(s) for the day. You can use resistance bands, bodyweight exercises, and free weights, but I wanted something simple.

Wendler suggests Boring But Big. Here are the basics:

The Boring But Big assistance program is simple. After completing the strength work with the basic exercise (squat, press, bench press or deadlift), you perform 5 sets of 10 reps with a lighter weight. This might not seem like much work, but it’ll lead to new gains in strength and hypertrophy.

The problem that most lifters have with the Boring But Big program is that they don’t know what weight to use with the five sets. I’ve always recommended using 50% of your training max – and for the first cycle of the program that’s exactly the prescription.

jim wendler
Jim Wendler

The second and third months of the program, however, should push the envelope, leading to some bigger and better gains.

Boring though it may be, its also appeals to me, because it is simple. I just do what I’ve already been doing but at 50% of 90% of my 1RM, doing 5 sets at 10 reps per set.

But that still leaves me with the problem of exactly how to create a starting program for myself. Do I do bench presses on the first day or each day for the first week. So far, the diagrams and narratives haven’t made that very clear.

But then, I found Beyond 5/3/1 Program 1.1. Sounds like what I’m looking for.

Yes it was, and although it got me farther along the path, I was still missing a list of percentages that made any sort of sense.

Enter ExRx.net’s 5/3/1 Powerlifting Program which offered exactly the required percentages and progressions for each week in the four week circuit.

I made good use of their One Rep Max Calculator but had to tweak the numbers to get 90% of my theoretical 1RM to show up as if it were my 1RM, so I could get the true weight values for the correct percentages.

With all that in mind, here’s what I came up with:

Monday and Friday

Reps for week one: 5/5/5+, 90% of 65/75/85

Back Squat

5x 120lbs/54.4311kg
5x 140lbs/63.5029kg
5x 160lbs/72.5748kg (5+)

Back Squat Assistance Lifts 5×10

95lbs/43.0913kg

Bench Press
Bench Press

Bench Press

5x 115lbs/52.1631kg
5x 130lbs/58.967kg
5x 150lbs/90.7185kg (5+)

Bench Press Assistance Lifts 5×10

85lbs/38.5554kg

Wednesday

Reps for week one: 5/5/5+, 90% of 65/75/85

Deadlift

5x 150lbs/68.0389kg
5x 175lbs/79.3787kg
5x 200lbs/86.1826kg (5+)

Deadlift Assistance Lifts 5×10

120lbs/54.4311kg

Overhead Press

5x 50lbs/22.6796kg
5x 60lbs/27.2155kg
5x 65lbs/29.4835kg (5+)

Overhead Press Assistance Lifts 5×10

40lbs/18.1437kg

Yes, that  all  seems pretty puny. And yes, I’m returning to a true deadlift and overhead barbell presses again. Since, at least to start, the weights are relatively light (which is part of the program…start light), I should be OK.

overhead press
Photo credit: leanitup.com

Of course, I’ll need to do a lot more work to plot out the first 4 weeks, but this is enough to get me started. Tomorrow, I help my wife once again with her new weight training program. Then on Monday, I start out new again myself.

I bet you can teach me how to stand on a stability ball and wave a wand in a few hours. How long do you think it is going to take me to teach you how to squat over 900lbs? You know why no one likes to hear this? Because getting stronger takes hard work and effort.

Jim Wendler

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4 thoughts on “Preparing for 5/3/1 Powerlifting

  1. sounds like you did your homework. I may have missed it in your post, but I humbly suggest that you perform each main lift twice per week to keep the frequency up. for instance, if your main lift for the day is squat, then you do another movement as assistance (deadlift, good mornings etc.) and on the day when deadlift is your main lift, you perform the assistance squats.

    by sticking to the loads calculated above, but doing each lift on two separate days each week, I have come to believe you will notice greater results. I got the above pointed out to me by more experienced lifters, of course.

    I am excited to see how you will feel about the 5/3/1 approach!

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    1. I may have to make an adjustment or two as I go along. Incidentally, my wife and I went to the gym today and she suggested I hire a personal trainer for six sessions to work on my form. This may change my immediate plans depending on how things work out when I meet him.

      Doing each main lift twice a week seems like I’d have to be lifting four days a week instead of three. Is that what you do?

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      1. yes, I lift four days per week.

        if you feel that four days is not realistic for whatever reason, there are several ideas for this already suggested by wendler (I have the e-book called “beyond 5/3/1, buy this for better input, http://www.jimwendler.com/2013/06/beyond-531-ebook-has-arrived/).

        suggestion 1: monday is squat+bench press, wednesday is deadlift, friday is squat+bench press. here you have to decide which day will be heavy and which day will lighter. one way to do it is monday is heavy squat and BBB bench press while wednesday is deadlift and back assistance. friday then consists of heavy bench and BBB squat.

        suggestion 2: monday is light squat (5 reps at 65%, 75% and 85%, no joker sets), heavy bench press (5/3/1 sets and jokers) and back assistance (e.g. dumbbell row). wednesday is heavy squat (5/3/1, jokers), bench assistance (such as dumbbell bench press 5×10) and back assistance. friday then consists of light squats (5 reps at 65%, 75% and 85%, no joker sets), heavy military press (5/3/1, jokers) and heavy deadlift (5/3/1).

        there are indeed many ways to skin this cat, and I do definitely not possess the best answers. 🙂

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      2. Thanks for the suggestions. In addition to this set of changes, today, my wife suggested that I hire a private trainer for 6 sessions to work on my form for squats, deadlifts, overhead press, and bench press. I’ll probably give this guy a call tomorrow to see what we can work out. That might mean altering or even postponing 5/3/1 while I get my stuff together, so to speak. I feel like my limitations so far are caused by poor form rather than hitting my hard limits as far as raw strength are concerned.

        I had planned again today to help the missus out on her free weight lifts, but she chose to do machine work instead. So having time on my hands I did a little practicing so see how Wendler’s version of “Boring but Big” assistance lifts would be like, plus through in some heavy (for me) rack pulls just for giggles.

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