I recently completed my first cycle of Jim Wendler‘s 5/3/1 program, after not having any steady programming since picking up a patellar tendon injury. My main motivations for trying 5/3/1 were general curiosity about the program, having seen very positive things written about it elsewhere, and its flexibility – it made it possible for me to program in front squats and nicely it around my Olympic weightlifting work.
Going into 5/3/1 I was slightly concerned about the relatively slow progress (roughly half the rate of stuff like Texas Method or Madcow) but figured that being able to sustain it for a greater period of time and improving at handling volume was worthwhile trade-offs. Similarly, the initial training max the program used seemed on the low side compared to actual or theoretical 1RMs but it soon became apparent that they were an ideal working range for me.
- Squatting 137.5kg for 6 reps on 1s week – a new rep PR – having not touched that weight in two months following
- Hitting 5 reps on 1s week for Deadlift despite my hands being in shreds from Olympic lifting
- PR on Front Squat. I haven’t done too much of it before now but hitting bodyweight was nice.
- Gaining noticeable shoulder, arm and chest mass from Boring But Big assistance work on the Bench Press
- Combined with some clean eating (I really cracked down on sugar sneaking), managing to add lean mass while losing body fat
What I Liked
- 1s week felt like a substantial challenge when pushing for max reps. The spreadsheet I use opts for 95% of training max rather than 90% for 1s which meant that I was up around the 5RMs I input to set the program.
- Deload week is really an excellent way to recharge. At first it feels odd to be doing non-significant in the gym but by the mid-point of the week, I really noticed the absence of accumulated fatigue.
- The flexibility 5/3/1 offers. On a bad day, you can just do what you need to do and go home, without feeling as though you’ve failed, while on good days you can really push reps for a challenge
- Continuing on the flexibility theme, the ability to customise the assistance work. Throwing in extra bench volume via BBB really seemed to help. That said, it’s also easy to go wrong here and choose the wrong weights, exercises or reps.
What I Didn’t Like
- 5s week feels a little frustrating; you know you can lift much heavier and when starting out, have to have faith in the program. Transitioning from linear progress, from weekly progression, it can almost feel a little disheartening unless you’re wise enough to adopt the correct perspective.
- BBB assistance on the squat is absolutely brutal the first week, especially if you’ve spent the last few months just doing sets of 5. Even below half your max, your legs hurt like hell the next day.
- Running the program on two days a week can make for some very long gym sessions if you do all assistance work. I suppose that’s the sacrifice for cutting back on number of days but it takes some getting used to.
I really enjoyed my first cycle of 5/3/1 and was especially glad to be able to compress it into two days so that I could attend an Olympic weightlifting workshop on my other two training days. This worked out pretty well, although I did feel a little beat up in 1s week so I will have to see how sustainable this is once I finish the workshop and start using LP on my Olympic lifts. I’m looking at using something like Justin Laseck’s Transitioning to Olympic Weightlifting template, with 5/3/1 programming used on the strength days via a two day split.
Deload week was a bit of a revelation and proved a good way to recharge both my body and my life, by giving me a little more time to attend to domestic matters. By the end of the first cycle, I felt that I had successfully got right back to where I was before my injury and even pushed ahead on a couple of lifts and was really looking forward to pushing my numbers up in the second cycle.