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Programming for Strength Training – Jim Wendler’s 5.3.1 Methodology

Guineapig lifting barbellStrength training using Olympic-style weightlifting was something I avoided until just a few months ago. For the last 30 years, I have primarily done bodyweight training (e.g., push-ups) and some lighter lifting with dumbbells (e.g., bicep curls). That’s about it. But, when I joined my CrossFit gym a little over 5 months ago, weightlifting was a core component of the training. I dreaded it at first. But, now I have come to realize how much the increases in strength have improved my overall fitness, my cardio performance (e.g., long trail runs), and the muscle tone of my body. It is worth the investment of your time and energy.

But, weightlifting is also something that is simply performed poorly by so many people. The unfortunate thing is that most gyms don’t really help train you correctly and usually you are on your own (or getting bad advice). That’s why many people either get mediocre results or, worse, they get injured. I’ve seen lots of guys with back and shoulder injuries that usually happen because of poor form, trying to lift too much too fast, or overtraining. That’s why I like the program my CrossFit trainer uses for us. It’s called the Jim Wendler’s 5.3.1 program and it works.

My CrossFit Gym’s General Schedule:

  Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
Warmup Light cardio & stretching Light cardio & stretching Rest & Recovery day Light cardio & stretching Light cardio & stretching
Strength Training Dead Lift Military Press Rest & Recovery day Front Squat Bench Press
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) Conditioning workout of the day (WOD) Conditioning WOD Rest & Recovery day Conditioning WOD Conditioning WOD
Assistance Exercises Balances dead lift Balances military press lift Rest & Recovery day Balances squat Balances bench press

The training session is exactly 1 hour, start to finish. So, it isn’t like we’re lifting weights for hours and hours. The average time for the weight lifting part of session is about 20 minutes. The warm up lifts before the working set are fast, about 5 minutes max. Then the working set should have some recovery time between the 3 lifts, 3 to 5 minutes max. You don’t want to cool down too much between lifts and you don’t want to go so fast that you don’t recover between lifts.

One of the first things that you have to do is establish your 1-rep Max for the four lifts; Dead lift, Military press, Front squat, Bench press. Your 1-rep max is the heaviest weight you can lift for a single rep in that exercise. There are formulas for predicting your 1-rep max based on how many reps you are able to currently perform at a specific weight. But, you can also just do the actual lift to establish it for each.

It’s a four week cycle (with the fourth week being a deload week)…then the next cycle adds some weight and begins again. The first week does 5 reps of the lift, the second week does 3 reps, and the third week does 5/3/1 reps (all of the above at various percentages of 1RM). The unique thing is that on your last set you do as many reps as possible. But don’t kill yourself. Leave a little in the tank.

Weight x Reps x .0333 (the only constant) + Weight = Estimated 1 RM
For example, 225 x 5 x .0333 + 225 = 262.46 (we deduct another 10% to be safe)
262.46 is now 236.22 (“work” with 235#)

Warm ups before each working set:
1×5 @ 40%…1×5 @ 50%…1×3 @ 60%

The 4-Week Cycle

Week 1 of the cycle:
Set #1 is 5 reps @ 65% of your “working” one rep max.
Set #2 is 5 reps @ 75%
Set #3 is 5 reps (or more) @ 85%

Week 2 of the cycle:
Set #1 is 3 reps @ 70% of your “working” one rep max.
Set #2 is 3 reps @ 80%
Set #3 is 3 reps (or more) @ 90%

Week 3 of the cycle:
Set #1 is 5 reps at 75% of your “working” one rep max
Set #2 is 3 reps at 85%
Set #3 is 1 rep (or more) @ 95%

Week 4 of the cycle is called “Deloading”:
Set #1 is 5 reps at 40% of your “working” one rep max
Set #2 is 5 reps at 50%
Set #3 is 5 reps at 60%

Assistance Exercises

For the assistance work, you want to use exercises that address your weaknesses and make your main lifts better (Squat, Bench, Press, and Deadlift). For example, you may use assistance to simply make your working muscles bigger. Bigger muscles = Bigger lifts. Or, you may need to work on some specific muscles to correct an imbalance issue that is holding you back on a lift (e.g., your quads are much stronger than your hamstrings). Doing the assistance work with lighters weights (e.g., 50% of your one rep max) allows you to focus on your lifting technique, form and skill. It is easier to work on perfecting your technique when you’re not lifting heavy. You can read more about this in an article written by Jim Wendler himself. Some examples of Assistance Exercises from Jim’s book:

Squat Assistance Exercises
Squat: 5 x 10 x 50%
Leg Curl: 5 x 10

Bench Press Assistance Exercises
Bench Press: 5 x 10 x 50%
One Arm Dumbbell Row: 5 x 10

Deadlift Assistance Exercises
Deadlift: 5 x 8 x 50%
Hanging Leg Raises: 5 x 12

Military Press Assistance Exercises
Military Press: 5 x 10 x 50%
Chin Up: 5 sets to failure

Strength Training Tips

Some key tips to help your strength training:

  • Make sure you are getting enough protein and calories to support muscle growth
  • Make sure you get your recovery protein and carbs within a 1/2 hour window after training
  • You have to take rest and recovery days to allow the muscles to repair
  • Make sure you get enough sleep every night
  • Switch to free weights and also start some “core” strength training. Your core actually has a lot to do with your overall strength and shows up in other lifts.
  • You do need a “deload” recovery week in your training cycle

Some of this sounds counterintuitive, but it works. For example, taking in more calories and protein when you are trying to lose weight sounds crazy. But, I’m eating a lot more now for the past month, have had better strength improvements, and haven’t gained a single pound! Now I am actually struggling to put more muscle weight on. You really do need a lot of healthy protein and fats plus complex carbs for growth.

I hit a plateau a few weeks ago too and it was because I simply wasn’t getting enough protein to support muscle growth and I wasn’t eating soon enough after finishing the workout. Your body is ready to take in protein and carbs within the hour after you finish the training (preferably in the first 30 mins). If you are working hard and breaking down muscle, but not getting enough calories and protein, you can’t really rebuild the muscle and get growth. That’s what was happening to me.

So, check out Jim Wendler’s 5.3.1 program and learn more about it. A lot of folks swear by it and it is a rational method for building strength, putting on muscle, and avoiding injuries. Good luck!

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11 Responses to “Programming for Strength Training – Jim Wendler’s 5.3.1 Methodology”

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  3. Adrian March 18, 2014 at 1:32 PM #

    Sweet info. Whoever is telling you that you need to eat within 30 minutes of finishing training though has no idea what they are talking about. Timing is one of the least important things when it comes to strength training. This has been proved a number of times by a number of people.

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