“Once a woman has forgiven a man, she must not reheat his sins for breakfast.”

– Marlene Dietrich

Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs...
Signs, Signs, Everywhere Signs…

TMuscle.com recently posted an interesting article by former big-time power lifter and current strength and conditioning coach (and Elite Fitness staff member) Jim Wendler, discussing Jim’s 5/3/1 routine for strength.  There’s a great amount of, no-nonsense, straight-forward information here.

What’s refreshing about this piece is (1) the program’s simplicity and (2) Jim’s honesty.  I mean, really, getting big, strong and powerful is not rocket science, much as some of the hucksters out there would have you believe.  Intense effort, proper diet, adequate recovery — really, the rest is mere commentary, hair splitting, as it were; the stuff of interesting conversation, but really, nothing more than that.  Of course the further one progresses, or if an athlete needs to pin-point training, well, that’s a different story and a more nuanced approach is definitely called for.   But for the vast majority — myself included, at this stage in my life — the iron game can be simplified to this: short-duration, intermittent, hard-assed work; eat properly, get plenty of rest (nightly, and between workouts), repeat.  Now I’ve just let you in on the secret to muscle gain and fat loss — a secret that holds true for 99% of the population.  Now, if you want to compete athletically, we’ll need to talk a bit more.  Otherwise, you can use the Dalai Lama’s approach to religion — pick a pony (religion) saddle it up, and ride the thing — and apply that theory in the weight room.  As long as you’ve got some intense TUL (time under load) goin’ on, hell, you’re way ahead of the crowd.  Couple that with a good diet and sensible recovery and you’re light years ahead.

Anyway, back to Jim’s program.  What he’s served up here is a basic, nuts-and-bolts strength (or, if you work it right, power) template — a version of which I’ve used many times in the past — and, in fact, one that I’m currently following (interspersed with versions of my favorite — 25 for a Bigger Engine).  Jim has tweeked the lift percentages a bit here in this particular program (which forces a sensible weight selection), but the guts program remain founded in ages-old, proven methods.  Jim prescribes hitting the core lifts (always multi-joint, complex movements) hard and progressively over a three or four week period.  Take a deload week so as to give your body a chance to recoup.  If the three-week “ramp-up”, one week “idle” methodology seems all-pervasive within the strength and conditioning community, there’s a simple reason — it’s been proven empirically to work.  This is where the science “rubber” meets the real world “road”.  It may be physiological or psychological or some combination thereof, but it seems as though one can push hard for about 3 weeks before the wheels begin to come off.  Now, you can either be smart and anticipate this happening and program some “deload time” in your macrocycle planning, or you can keep pushing and suffer some form of injury-induced set-back; one way or the other, though, you will be taking that deload week.

One thing Jim really didn’t cover in the article was rep speed or tempo.  The nice thing about this program, or the 25 Reps program for that matter, is that you can really snap-off the early, lighter sets and emphasize the power aspect, then, in the final reps of the final set, use a slower, consistent tempo and go on to failure — even some negative failure or forced reps, if you like.  And a quick word about failure: pick your exercises wisely.  I’m good with going to failure on complex movements where momentum is not a key factor (and the skill/technique component is low).  Squats?  Yeah, go to failure.  Jump squats?  No.  Military press?  Sure, knock yourself out.  Push press or push jerk?  Nope, simply not effective.

Anyway, if you’re looking for some structure in your next strength block, you can do a hell of a lot worse than to follow Jim’s 5/3/1 program, as he has, in my opinion, put together a good, solid and sensible program here.  And a quick word about tweeking the prescribed (or any prescribed) program:  I agree with Jim that you can’t manipulate what he’s laid-out here, and then bitch about the 5/3/1 not working for you.  On the other hand, I don’t ever follow a prescribed program to the letter; I’ve to too many variables to juggle in my life and I have a narrowly defined and very clear set of goals I aim to achieve.  Couple that with the fact that I’ve been in the game for 30+ years, and so I have base knowledge to allow a sifting-through of a program for the gems that I want.  You gotta know the rules to know when to effectively break ’em, right?

Here’s a recent example of my utilization of Jim’s 5/3/1 routine.  This is week one, and the compound exercise of choice is reverse-grip pull-ups (or chin-ups, for you purists out there).  This picks up, of course, subsequent to a thorough warm-up.

Reverse Grip Pull-Ups

Set 1: 60# x 5 reps

Set 2: 67.5# x 5 reps

Set 3: 72.5# x 7 reps, failed midway through the 8th.

Lots of pop on the reps of the first two sets — more along the lines of classic power reps.  The reps of the last set, especially as I made my way toward failure, were ground-out — classic, heavy, “strength” reps.  I took about 2 minutes rest between sets.  Then:

Bodyweight dips, 5 sets of 15 reps.  About 1 minute rest between sets with the last few reps of the last two sets done in rest-pause fashion.

Bodyweight GHR, 5 sets of 10.  1 minute between sets.  A lot tougher than it sounds.

Now, my next time in the gym, I may hit a 5/3/1 routine with front squats as the primary exercise, or I my opt for a 25 FBE routine; it all depends on how I feel and what kind of time I have.  But for this particular primary exercise, though (the reverse grip pull-up), I’ll follow the 5/3/1 schedule (3 weeks ramping, 1 deload week) on through.

This was a fantastic workout.  Nothing fancy — but then again, it doesn’t have to be fancy to be effective.

In health,

Keith

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Keith Norris is a former standout athlete, a military vet, and an elite strength and conditioning expert with over 35 years of in-the-trenches experience. As a serial entrepreneur in the health and wellness space, he is an owner, co-founder and Chief Development Officer of the largest Paleo conference in the world, Paleo f(x) . As well, Keith is a partner in one of the most innovative lines of boutique training studios in the nation, Efficient Exercise. He’s also a partner in ARXFit training equipment, and a founding member of ID Life. In his spare time, he authors one of the top fitness blogs in the health and wellness sphere, Theory To Practice.

28 COMMENTS

  1. Just got done reading that interview with Jim on T-Muscle. Have to appreciate his no-nonsense attitude. Also I’ve definitely noticed that crossfit tends to cycle through the compound lifts in a 5/3/1 fashion, with more spacing though.

    I’ve been having a lot of success recently with some focused rest pause training, and I wonder if you’ve ever trained this way. I’m taking it easy on my left hip flexor, which means minimal power training right now, so I figured I might as well take the opportunity to work on strength.

    About every 10 days, I’ll do one workout of rest pause pullups and rest pause presses, and one workout of rest pause deadlifts and rest pause dips (or some close variant). So each lift gets trained once in 10 days, and I train the lift by picking a fairly heavy weight (85%1RM) and doing singles every 30 seconds. I keep the weight constant between workouts until I can keep it up for more than 15 singles, then I up the weight.

    I got the idea for this because I’ve trained rest pause in the past (in the style of Mike Mahler from his article on T-nation), and because, after reading BBS, I was keen to develop a program that allowed infrequent training (due to my busier schedule now). I like much of the BBS theories, but I was willing to accept the increased risk of using compound movements and heavy singles.

    I’d be interested to know if you had any qualms/suggestions about my applications of rest-pause here. I’m realizing some pretty steady gains, and if you like I’ll keep you posted.

    • Some manner of rest-pause training forms the basis of most all of my strength training blocks. The most basic manipulation of this is a form of 25 For a Bigger Engine, where I’ll shoot for some combination of sets/reps (doesn’t matter) so long as the weight chosen (1) forces me to do singles in the last few reps. Very little rest between the last few low-rep sets. The first 2 sets or so might require a traditional 2 minute or so rest period, as here we’re simply looking for “inroad”. So a front squat workout (which I’m doing today) might look something like this: 7, 6, 4, 2, 2, 2, 1, 1. Weight stays constant, of course. Another way of doing this would be to do 25 singles with 5 or so secs. b/t reps.

      • Thanks Keith,

        I suppose my brand of rest-pause training (heavy singles on a timer) is similar to your last recommendation there. Mike Mahler’s article recommended doing 10 singles, one every minute, and reducing the interval down to 1 every 5-15 seconds before increasing weight. I simply used this as a suggestion in tailoring my own program to me. I probably could try for more reps (25 instead of 15, but I think that would emphasize hypertrophy over strength, which might be better for a hypertrophy cycle down the road).

        The thing I like about doing it my way is that, similar to the BBS protocols, progress can be measured with a high degree of specificity. Since the weight and rest between reps remain exactly constant, more reps = progress.

        Skyler, I look forward to hearing about your progress with 5/3/1.

  2. This is why I asked about it on twitter: I’ve got the next 6 months set up on this for my Military Press and Chinup. It’s good stuff; a nice wavey way yo add ~1lb/week.

    Best,
    Skyler

  3. FYI,

    Wendler on tempo from the T-Nation Q&A:

    Don’t worry about tempo – just so we all know….tempo is so overblown and more of a gimmick that anything else.

    Just lift the weight; control on the way down, explode on the way up.

    • Note that Jim is looking through the power lifting prism, here. There is a huge difference in affect and application (and carryover as well) between lighter explosive concentric reps (power emphasis) and heavy, slower concentric reps (strength emphasis).

  4. I like Christian Thibaudeau’s approach to ramping:

    My belief is that it is the intensity (load) of your best set that triggers the most growth. From my olympic lifting background, ramping up the weight allows me to reach a higher top weight as the CNS gets primed a bit more with every set.

    Furthermore, ramping up allows you to work different part of the force spectrum.

    For example the first two sets will be done with more acceleration (always try to lift as hard as possible… so lighter weights will go up faster) while the later ones will emphasize the ‘mass’ factor more (force = mass x acceleration).

    If you try to lift the weight as hard as you can, anything above 70% of your maximum will lead to a near maximal force production.

  5. If you don’t know who Jim Wendler is, you’re probably not very strong.

    Awesome. I literally laughed out loud. I didn’t know he was and relative to this guy, I am certainly not very strong at all.

    • Which of course makes no sense without context; basically, he tries to cover all bases for “raw” strength, powerlifter training at only 3 days/week, and even 1 day/week variations (really). Good ebook and “better,” or at least fuller than the 5/3/1 book.

  6. Great article on keeping workouts simple. I agree that the complexity is way overblown. The area I struggle with the most is simply getting enough sleep. I find it hard to squeeze a full 8 hours most nights.

    Love the quote by the way.

  7. Keith,

    Since I bet you’ve seen this referenced on Tmuscle recently, and I imagine you’ve run across it before, I was wondering what your thoughts are on the Glute Bridge. (It’s in the video about half way down the site.

    Have you used this movement for power, and if so, what are your thoughts?
    Thanks,
    Bryce

    • I think it’s a fine exercise, if one doesn’t have access to a GHR bench. I prefer the range of motion a weighted GHR provides vs. the rather limited motion of the bridge. Another disadvantage of the bridge is that I find it to be pretty painful on the hip bone structure once the weight is increased to the point needed for an effective 6 or less rep range. That may just be the way I’m put together, though. BTW, about half the time I do BB floor presses, I incorporate the “bridge” — the iso work on the glutes in this position is an added plus.

      • Thanks for your perspective, Keith. My gym doesn’t have a GHR bench sadly, but I just acquired a power rack and barbell set (for 75 bucks!) so I’m exploring my options.

        Good to know, regarding the bridge floor press. I hadn’t considered this variant before.

          • I was shocked at the price, but the owners had moved in to a new home, found it in the garage, and wanted it gone.

            I pounced on the opportunity, despite the groans of my very sensible wife, without whom I’d have a fully outfitted home gym and be too poor to keep the lights on.

  8. GHR is the king of exercises leaving people looking in awe…I found that using the lateral pull down arrangement by putting the heels and having the Achilles tendons resting on the foam rolls while kneeling on the seat is a very good subsitute.

    On another thing, I would like to ask the following question: when one completes the cycle, how much would you increase on the next one?

    awesome site!

    • This gets into the whole linear periodization vs Conjugate method debate. Personally, I lean toward the Conjugate side of the argument — constantly rotating exercises, and continually striving for max effort performance in each exercise. For a number of reasons, pinpointing a proper linear periodization load increase is nearly impossible; another reason why I follow (and suggest others follow) the Conjugate methodology. The 5-3-1 can be performed under the Conjugate methodology quite easily.

      • “the 5-3-1 can be performed under the conjugate methodology quite easily.” Care to elaborate? I have had some ideas on this but would love to hear yours!

        • Essentially by keeping the 5/3/1 rep scheme as the ME portion of the program, and rotating through exercise hand positions and depths — 5/3/1 with an autoregulatory slant. Off days would then become “dynamic” days, though with less volume than the traditional Westside dynamic day.

  9. With you on TUL; I know a 50-something kung-fu teacher who went through a period of a few weeks of SuperSlow: he said that afterwards he could outlast his young adonis students on all of their exercises. There does seem to be some endurance-property in muscles that can be specifically trained, and I don’t think it’s about increasing the proportion of slow-twitch fibres.

    • There are many, many intangibles surrounding training that we just haven’t been able to firmly grasp, and/or fully explain. Sometimes we just “know”, from experience, what works. Sometimes we just have to trust our intuition, even though there might not be available (or credible) science to back this notion or that. This is the essence of n=1 experimentation.

  10. Been Doing 5/3/1 2 day a week template with an extra O-lift day and Muay Thai with good results. Low volume, heavier weights. Took some getting used to though, since I’ve been used to higher volume fly by the seat of your pants crossfit workouts. Paleo 95% of the time (its summer, if I can’t have ice cream then come on…), some IF, some refeed days and voila, feel great. Who knew it was simple?

    Really like the blog, Keith

    Best,

    Roelant

    • Sounds like you’ve figured out the key, brother. If you ever get a chance, grab some raw milk ice cream. Wow.

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