The Origin of 5/3/1
In the summer of 2005, I was burned out from competitive powerlifting. I was tired of bench shirts, box squats, bands and being fat. Two years earlier, I’d written down three goals I wanted to accomplish. In my last meet, I’d done all three. Satisfied with reaching my goals, and dissatisfied with how I felt, I needed a change – but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted or how I was going to get there. My first order of business was losing weight. I was about 280 pounds, and I wanted to be able to tie my shoes without turning red. I wanted to be able to walk down the street without losing my breath. Like many people, I played football in high school and college. I was in shape then, and could do just about anything. Fast forward five years, and I was at the bottom of the food chain. That feeling of being a fat-ass was awful. I was exactly what I despised. I remember once watching a young woman walk for exercise when I was in college. She wasn’t overweight, and she didn’t look like she was suffering from any kind of physical ailment. I was mystified as to why this seemingly fit woman was simply walking. Why wasn’t she running? Why wasn’t she running with a sled? Why wasn’t she pushing a car, or pushing an SUV up and down the street? Walking? I remember thinking to myself that if I ever reached a point in my life where I had to walk to get exercise, it might be time to clean out my ears with a gun. Fortunately, I didn’t follow through with my plans. The point, however, is this: I was fat and out of shape. And even though I’d recently squatted 1000 pounds, I really wasn’t strong. I couldn’t move, and I couldn’t use this strength for anything other than waddling up to a monolift and squatting. A few months later, I’d managed to lose about 25 pounds. Simply walking and not eating as much helped me out immensely. I was able to move again. I could run, sprint, jog, jump rope or do just about anything. But damn was I weak. 7 I knew where I wanted to go. I simply wanted to deadlift and squat over 600 pounds again, and I wanted to bench press 405. That was it. And I wanted to do it without the aid of powerlifting gear like bench shirts and squat suits. I also wanted an easy plan to get there. I didn’t want to have to do a million different exercises. The bench press, parallel squat, deadlift and standing press have always been staples of any strong person’s repertoire, so I knew what exercises I wanted to do. I needed a plan for all of this. I needed something very simple, and I didn’t want to have to think about it. I had recently become a father, and my priorities had changed. I still wanted to be strong, but I didn’t want to have to spend all my time thinking about it. I wanted to go in the weight room, have my work planned for me, and get out. No bullshit, no problem. I’d started playing around with the concept of 5/3/1 months earlier, so I knew I was on to something, but I wasn’t sure how it would work. Because my bench, squat and deadlift goals were so straightforward, I gave myself 12 months to accomplish them. I worked backward from these numbers and ended up with beginning weights that were really light. I mean ridiculously light. I had a plan, though, and I followed through. I figured once I finished each month of training, I’d be ready to move on to the next – and the next, and the next, until I finally reached my goal. Of course, this was wishful thinking – it doesn’t always work like this – but I needed a simple plan, and this was the best one I could come up with. Or the simplest, at least. Sometimes, however, the simplest is the best. In my case, this proved to be true. I was breezing through my workouts, putting on some muscle, and having fun again. I began pushing my last set for as many reps as I could, setting personal records in the process. Training was fun again. Gone were the three hour marathons of bench shirt training and sweating my ass off wearing tight polyester gear. I was in and out of the weight room in 30-45 minutes, and I was still getting stronger. After about three months of training, I got a wild hair up my ass and tried to pull a max deadlift. After my sets were over, I loaded up the bar and pulled for 3 reps what I thought I might be able to pull once. 610 x 3. Now, this isn’t any kind of world – or even personal – record, but it was really, really good for me at the time, especially when you consider the fact that I was used to wearing a deadlift suit and briefs and had lost so much weight. Plus, the deadlift was always my worst lift. I can blame this 8 on any number of things, but the bottom line is that I just wasn’t strong. Now, with this program, I could feel myself inching toward “strong” without having to be a blob of disgusting lard. I began playing more and more with this program. I switched things up, experimented on friends and training partners and read some old books on training, and this is what I came up with. Hell, it may change even more with time, but the basics will always remain the same.
The 5/3/1 Philosophy
The 5/3/1 philosophy is more important than the sets and reps. Whenever I feel like I’m getting sidetracked or want to try something different, I revisit these rules to make sure I’m doing things the right way. Even if you decide this program isn’t for you, these basic tenets have stood the test of time. Take these things to heart, and you’ll be greatly rewarded.
Emphasize Big, Multi-Joint Movements
This really isn’t any secret. Beginners have been told to do this for years, and advanced lifters swear by these movements. Multi-joint lifts are lifts that involve more than one muscle – i.e., not an isolation exercise like leg extensions – and allow you to build the most muscle. These lifts are the most efficient for building muscle and strength. Examples are the squat, deadlift, bench press and power clean.
Start Too Light
My coaches emphasized this to me when I was in high school, but unfortunately, I didn’t listen. Hopefully you will. Starting too light allows for more time for you to progress forward. It’s easy for anyone – beginner or advanced – to want to get ahead of themselves. Your lifts will go up for a few months, but then they’ll stall – and stall, and stall some more. Lifters get frustrated and don’t understand that the way around this is to prolong the time it takes to get to the goal. You have to keep inching forward. This is a very hard pill to swallow for most lifters. They want to start heavy, and they want to start now. This is nothing more than ego, and nothing will destroy a lifter faster, or for longer, than ego.
This goes hand in hand with starting light. Slow progress might not get you the best rewards today, but it will tomorrow. The longer you can progress, even if it’s by one rep or 2.5 pounds, 9 the more it means that you’re actually making progress. People always scoff when I want their bench to go up by 20-25 pounds their first year. They want the program that will put 40 pounds on their bench in 8 weeks. When they say this, I ask them how much their bench went up in the last year, and they hang their heads in shame. I can’t understand why someone wouldn’t want progress – even it’s just 5 pounds. It’s better than nothing. It’s progress. The game of lifting isn’t an 8-week pursuit. It doesn’t last as long as your latest program does. Rather, it’s a lifetime pursuit. If you understand this, then progressing slowly isn’t a big deal. In fact, this can be a huge weight lifted off your back. Now you can focus on getting those 5 extra pounds rather than 50. It’s always been one of my goals to standing press 300 pounds. In the summer of 2008, I did just that. When someone asked me what my next goal was, my response was simple: “305 pounds.” If you bench press 225 pounds and want to get 275, you have to bench 230 first.
Break Personal Records (PR’s)
This is where the fun of this – and any – program begins and ends. This program allows you to break a wide variety of rep records throughout the entire year. Most people live and die by their 1-rep max. To me, this is foolish and shortsighted. If your squat goes from 225x6 to 225x9, you’ve gotten stronger. If you keep setting and breaking rep records, you’ll get stronger. Don’t get stuck just trying to increase your one rep max. If you keep breaking your rep records, it’ll go up. There’s also a simple way of comparing rep maxes that I’ll explain later. Breaking personal records is a great motivator, and it’s also a great way to add some excitement into your training. When you do this, the sets and reps carry much more meaning. There’s something on the line. You’ll have greater focus and purpose in your training. You’ll no longer have to just do a set of 5 reps. You’ll focus on beating the number and beating the weight. All of the above concerns are addressed in this program. Even if you don’t follow this particular program, I believe these things should be emphasized no matter what you’re doing or why you’re training.
The 5/3/1 Program
This is a very easy program to work with. The following is a general outline of the training I suggest. I’ll go into detail on each point in the chapters to follow.
- You will train 3-4 days per week (this will be up to you).
- One day will be devoted to the standing military press, one day to the parallel squat, one day to the deadlift and one day to the bench press.
- Each training cycle lasts 4 weeks.
- The first week you will do 3 sets of 5 reps (3x5).
- The second week you will do 3 sets of 3 reps (3x3).
- The third week you will do 1 set of 5 reps, 1 set of 3 reps and 1 set of 1 rep (5/3/1).
- The fourth week you will do 3 sets of 5 reps (3x5). This is an easy deload week.
- After the fourth week, you begin again with 3 sets of 5 reps.
- Each week and each set has a percentage to follow, so you won’t be guessing what to do anymore.
This is my favorite. I don’t recommend it, but it’s useful for non-beginners who have limited time to train. The I’m Not Doing Jack Shit program entails walking into the weight room, doing the big lift for the day (bench, squat, military or deadlift), and then walking out. I’ve done this plenty of times, especially when I’ve trained in commercial gyms. There are some advantages to this. You’ll be supremely focused on one thing: getting your sets done and breaking a PR. You won’t be worried about your assistance work, whether a machine is going to be available, or how much good mornings suck. I’ve made this deal with myself many times before I’ve trained: If I do X weight for X amount of reps, I’m leaving. I do this fairly often, and I’m sure it seems odd. I recently went to a commercial gym, warmed up, did my working sets and set a huge PR. I sat there for a little while, then decided to leave. As I was walking out, I looked around at the other people training, and I wondered whether anyone else had set a personal record that day. For my part, I know I walked out of there better than I did when I walked in.
The disadvantages here are obviously the lack of both volume and balance, but it can work for a while. If I had very little time to train, I’d do this. Sometimes, when you’re struggling to find time to train, you think you can’t make progress. With this type of training, you will.
Can a beginner do a 531 workout split?
Absolutely. The 531 workout split is effective for lifters of all experience levels, especially if they've never tried it before.
How do you do the 5 3 1 method?
The 5/3/1 method focuses on four main lifts: the bench press, the squat, the military press, and the deadlift. The goal is to increase the strength of each lift. In this plan, you'll executing a specific rep and set range each week. The plan lasts for 4 weeks, with the last week being a de-load week, after which you can repeat the plan to continue to progress in your strength.
What kind of program is 5/3 1 for?
5/31 is a program that's designed for both beginner and experienced lifters to build up their base of strength and train efficiently, so they can focus on other goals in the future.