Cycle Two, Week One, Day Two of 5/3/1: Main Lifts vs. Assistance Lifts


It’s Monday, the first day of the week when I have to drag my tired bones out of bed at a quarter of four in the morning to make sure I’m up and running and at the gym by 5 a.m.

Sleep was spotty again last night, but I know I got some because I remember dreaming. Anyway, I got my usual cup of coffee, glass of water, and a banana, read the comic strips online to slowly get my brain working again, and got myself together enough to be out the door and in the gym parking lot a few minutes before the place opened.

The usual early morning group, all people older than I am, were at the door waiting when the lights popped on and receptionist woman let us in. None of these people are free weight lifters, so I was assured first crack at the weight room and particularly the squat rack.

Lifting an empty bar first thing in the morning always feels heavier than I expect, and I was a tad concerned that the perception of heaviness was going to reflect on my performance in the overhead press.

I lifted the bar from its pins, braced it against my upper chest, screwed my feet into the floor, and prepared to lift.

Here’s how Monday morning began for me.


Main Lifts

Overhead Press in Squat Rack

8x 45lbs/20.4117kg (warm up)
5x 55lbs/24.9476kg
5x 60lbs/27.2155kg
6x 65lbs/29.4835kg (5+)
3x 70lbs/31.7515kg (joker)
3x 75lbs/34.0194kg (joker)
1x 80lbs/36.2874kg (joker)

Bent Leg Deadlifts

5x 135lbs/61.235kg (warm up)
5x 135lbs/61.235kg
5x 155lbs/70.3068kg
8x 175lbs/79.3787kg (5+)
5x 190lbs/86.1826kg (joker)
5x 205lbs/92.9864kg (joker)
5x 225lbs/102.058kg (joker)
3x 235lbs/106.594kg (joker) PR

Assistance Lifts

Rack Pull in Squat Rack (5×10)

10x 165lbs/74.8427kg
10x 165lbs/74.8427kg
10x 165lbs/74.8427kg
10x 165lbs/74.8427kg
10x 165lbs/74.8427kg

rack pulls

Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press (5×10)

10x 25lbs/11.3398kg
10x 25lbs/11.3398kg
10x 25lbs/11.3398kg
10x 25lbs/11.3398kg
10x 25lbs/11.3398kg

I was hoping for a a max weight of 85 pounds or even a new PR of 90 for my overhead press, but I was lucky to get 1 rep at 80. Even 60 and 65 pounds felt heavy and I was pleasantly surprised to be able to do 3 reps at 70 and 75. I had high hopes as I added another 5 pounds to the bar, but I barely muscled the thing up over my head.

I checked back in my log and on the last 5/3/1 day of lifts before deload week, I did a single for 85 pounds as my new PR. The difference might be that for my final working set nearly 2 weeks ago, I did 4 reps with a 65 pound barbell, and then singles for 75, 80, and then 85 pounds. Today, I did 6 reps at 65, and then 3 at 70 pounds and another 3 reps at 75.

Maybe I just got too tired.

I’ll try again on Thursday.

Deadlifts, on the other hand, were spectacular (for me, anyway).

Not counting deload week, the last time I did deadlifts as my main lift was about two weeks ago. My post-personal training PR then was 2 reps at 215 pounds. I knew I could have gone heavier, but not including my warm up set, I did my 3 working sets plus 4 jokers, and I figured I’d save something for next time.

This is next time.

Today, besides my warm up, I also did 3 working sets and 4 jokers, but my new PR was 3 reps with a 235 pound barbell.

Admittedly, I’ve lifted up to 250 pounds previously, but that was pre-personal training, and I vividly recall badly “tweaking” my back during that particular set.

I felt pretty confident with the weight up through 225 pounds and no pain in my back (although I’d be lying if I didn’t say there wasn’t some pressure). But 235 pounds convinced me that I wasn’t going to try anything heavier today. I was tired, breathing heavy, and sweating between sets, and I reached my limit on that last joker, at least for now.

I only do deadlifts as my main lift once a week, so I’ll have to wait until next Monday to see if I can do heavier deadlifts. I’d love to do 250 pounds or more this time without injuring myself. I think I can make it happen.

After that, it was rack pulls as an assistance lift. I bumped the weight up to 165 just for giggles, and although it was tiring, the weight felt fine. I did find out that repeatedly slamming a 165 pound barbell down onto the squat rack jiggles the weight plates stored on the rack, sometimes off their pins.


Sometime during all this, I realized I wasn’t alone in the weight room anymore. Shaved head guy (minus his daughter) and another regular guy had come in. Since it’s Monday, it was Chest Day for shaved head guy, so he spent a lot of time benching, and then using some of the other weight plate machines for his pecs. The other guy did mainly dumbbell work for his biceps and delts.

dumbbell shoulder press

My workout took a long time. When I was ready for shoulder presses, it was already 10 until 6. I settled on a pair of 25 pound dumbbells shooting for doing all 5 sets with them. That worked, but only just.

My left triceps head is still the limiting factor, and between the fourth and fifth set, I let myself rest for just a second or 2 over 2 minutes. Otherwise, I’m not sure I’d have made it through all 10 reps.

As it turns out, I shouldn’t be impressed with myself. The Thursday before deload week, I did the first 3 sets with two 25 pound dumbbells and the last 2 with a pair of 30s. Guess my delts weren’t feeling strong today.

Anyone familiar with Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 strength training program knows that it is basically made up of Main Lifts and Assistance Lifts.

The main lifts consist of 3 or 4 exercises, all done with barbells and all compound lifts involving multiple joints and muscle groups.

Assistance lifts, according to an article Wendler wrote that was published at, are:

Along with the bench press, squat, shoulder press, and deadlift, 5/3/1 includes assistance exercises to build muscle, prevent injury, and create a balanced physique. My favorites are strength-training staples like chin-ups, dips, lunges, and back extensions.


But don’t go ape-shit with supplemental exercises. They should complement the training, not detract from it. You must have a very strong reason for doing an exercise. If you don’t, scrap it and move on.

While Wendler considers some form of assistance work to always be a part of 5/3/1 strength training, Mark Rippetoe disagrees:

The former structure their training around primary exercises and program them, the primary exercises, for long-term progress, using assistance exercises only when progress has slowed on the primary exercises.

back squat position
Mark Rippetoe, Credit:

In other words, from Rip’s perspective, assistance work should only be included when you hit a plateau on your main lifts and need a way to push past it.

However, Rip may be giving assistance work a bad rap and classifying it with what he considers “random” exercises, the sort of work most people do when they go to the gym.

First, “Training” and “Exercise” are different things entirely. Training is the process of directed physical stress which results in an adaptation that satisfies a performance goal. Since different performances require different physical abilities, and different tasks produce different types of stress, and since stress causes an adaptation (if you can recover from it), therefore different physical abilities are acquired by doing different physical tasks, and the training stresses that facilitate these different adaptations must be specific to the performance goal being trained for. Duh, right?

Exercise ignores this fact. Exercise is what happens when you go to the gym and do exactly the same thing you did last time you went to the gym, or when you do P90X, CrossFit, or any other randomized program. These activities are performed for one reason: the effect they produce for you today, right now. Fucking around in the gym is merely punching the ticket – you showed up, moved some stuff around, got sweaty, tired, and maybe out of breath, but you did the same thing Friday as you did Wednesday, and now that you think of it, the same thing you did Monday.

OK, he’s got a point as far as it goes. Doing the same thing each and every time you go to the gym and never challenging yourself will produce limited or no positive results. That’s why I changed up my routine at the gym several times and finally settled on strength training. I do want to get stronger over the coming weeks and months.

However, I don’t think assistance lifts have to always fall into the category of “exercise” (as opposed to training or a training adjunct). I’ve monitored my progress on my assistance lifts as well, and while modest in most cases, there’s been an improvement.

I think Wendler and Rippetoe have at least somewhat different philosophies around strength training. For Wendler, actually growing muscle by using moderate weights and higher sets and reps isn’t off the table for a strength trainer. I think it is for Rippetoe. For Rip, if I’m reading him right, It’s all about the barbells and you only resort to other options if that isn’t working for you anymore.

Lifters, bodybuilders, and strength athletes often lose sight of the fact that they are really in the same situation. For us, heavy work on squats, deadlifts, bench presses, presses, power cleans and snatches, and leg presses and maybe barbell rows for bodybuilders, will comprise the vast majority of the productive effort we will expend throughout our training careers. Basic barbell training will be the foundation of our progress for the entirety of our gym lives, and all the other work we do – the assistance work – must be kept in the proper perspective.

Jim Wendler

Both Wendler and Rippetoe seem to agree that the barbell main lifts are to be your focus and assistance work is secondary. But for Rip, it’s a lot more secondary than it seems to be for Wendler. I think if I was following a program designed by Rippetoe or a Starting Strength trainer, I probably wouldn’t be doing assistance work very often, at least as I progressed in getting stronger.

Rip further states:

Assistance exercises use less muscle mass, a short kinetic chain, or are some variant of the parent exercise that is less efficient at allowing as much weight to be lifted.

That’s true for my dumbbell shoulder press, but I also use both rack pulls and deadlifts as assistance work, alternating between the two. Today, my main lift was deadlifts, but on Thursday, my main lift will be rack pulls and my assistance lift will be deadlifts.

Except for going lighter and doing more reps per set, a deadlift still requires a barbell and is still a compound lift. Here, I use it to improve my form. I’m not straining against a heavy weight and I’m able to do a lot more reps to improve my spinal mechanics and overall movement pattern.

I learned about rack pulls from one of Rip’s videos and here’s what he has to say about partial movements:

Partial movements, like rack pulls, partial benches, and presses that use heavier weights through a shorter portion of the ROM of the parent exercise, can be improved right alongside their parent exercises, and can be used to drive progress for as long as they are trained. But they do not constitute a replacement for the parent exercise; rather, they are used to drive continued progress on the primary lifts for more advanced trainees. My comments in this article refer to exercises that are designed to train a muscle group, not a movement pattern.

So there’s the essential difference in how Rip sees assistance work. Rack pulls are about training a movement pattern while seated dumbbell shoulder presses are about training a muscle group.

Or is even that entirely true?

Whether I’m standing in the squat rack, pressing a 70 or 80 pound barbell over my head or I’m seated on a bench pushing two 25 pound dumbbells over my head, in addition to training the same primary muscle groups, I’m performing substantially similar movements.

I don’t know if Rip would see it that way, but for me, one way to gauge improvement in my delts and related muscles from the overhead press is to see how much weight I can manage for my assistance lift.

dumbbellsRip makes a lot of good points in his rather lengthy article and I don’t mean to suggest that he’s not right. I do think however that it really depends on what you use for an assistance lift and what you plan to get out of it that makes it effective or not.

Maybe at some point, I’ll lighten up on assistance work and do more sets of main lifts, but for right now, I don’t plan to change anything. I want to give the current program a chance and see how it affects me. So far, I’m pleased, but not enough time has passed to really show me how far this can be taken and how much stronger I can get.

Rip said that beginning and even intermediate strength trainers are resetting their 1RM every time they workout because they/we are getting stronger each time. I guess that means a really advanced strength trainer finally encounters the law of diminishing returns when he/she hits the wall of just how strong their particular human body can get.

Rippetoe also said:

Assistance exercises are merely the things these men do in the gym after they have Trained, while they are resting. Quit wasting time and start training the basic lifts, and save the assistance exercises for later. If there’s time.

I did spend more than half my time in the gym this morning doing main lifts, but I’ll admit that doing two assistance lifts at 5 sets each performing 10 reps per set does take a lot of ticks on the clock. I guess if I finished my main lifts and ran out of time for assistance work, I could treat it as optional, but I don’t think I’m strong enough to perform a full hour of main lifts like squats and deadlifts.

But as I said, I’m still in the early stages of my program, just starting my second three-week 5/3/1 cycle. There’s still time ahead (hopefully) for me to explore other options and make adjustments as needed.

Obstacles can’t stop you. Problems can’t stop you. Most important of all, other people can’t stop you. Only you can stop you.

Jeffrey Gitomer


2 thoughts on “Cycle Two, Week One, Day Two of 5/3/1: Main Lifts vs. Assistance Lifts

  1. There sure are many ways to skin a cat. I have many books and articles that concern strength training. Before ever hearing of Ripp or Wendler we had Dr.Ken and Arthur Jones who favored high intensity training,often using machines of their design. Along came Louie Simmons with his Westside Conjugate training methods, lest we forget Bradley Stiener and Randall Stosen. Crossfit came next and even Ripp was into it, then for what I would guess are financial reasons came out against it. It seems they all would like to form some type of cult lie following . I have meet and conversed with some of the Starting Strength Certified coaches and they seem to just know what they learned in studying for there certification and have no real practice experience in getting people strong. As Dr.Ken has told me in person genetics is the main factor in becoming stong or looking like you even lift.


    1. Well I’d hate to be at the mercy of my genetics as if effort meant little to nothing.

      It’s true that each strength training pundit has his or her own wares to sell, so we can’t expect totally objective information. On the other hand, after gathering all of the available information, or at least all that we care to, we can still make a decision about how to lift based on what suits our own needs and goals.

      So many people out there, most of whom I’ve never heard of. I’m not really into “complicated”. It’s interesting to get various perspectives, but I just want to do what works for me and what doesn’t clutter up my brain too much.


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