My God, 531. I swear I nearly gave up on life itself whilst reading up on 531. The sheer about of “debate” that exists online concerning the program must be crushing to anybody trying to work out whether or not it is for them. Every possible question has been asked and answered, and every answer has been refuted sixty times and amended and blah blah blah blah. Choosing to do the program or not feels like choosing sides in a war.
Yet through it all, standing like an ancient tree amidst a raging river, stands Jim Wendler saying: “It works, don’t fuck with it.” Thank the Gods for that, because without his unswerving conviction I wouldn’t have even tried it out, and I’m glad I did.
What I Liked About 531
The 531 Philosophy
I love the core principle behind 531: a week of lifting around your five rep max, a week lifting around your three rep max, and a week of building up to your max. On the final set of each workout, you do as many reps as possible – aiming to break your personal record for reps that weight. Every month, you stick the weight up a little bit and start over.
It’s just…clean. It’s straight forward and it guarantees small increments of safe progress over long periods of time. It also means you truly master the loads: you don’t just heft a weight once then never consider it again– you work up to and around your various maxes, and revisit them to set new records.
On the last set of your first week of 3s, for example, you might find yourself benching 100kg for a many reps as possible – and you might manage 8. A few cycles down the line, you’ll be on the last set of a week of 5s and find yourself aiming for as many reps as possible at 100kg again – and this time you’ll probably manage 12!
What used to be your 8 rep max is now your 12 rep max, and you haven’t had to risk injuring yourself to get there. That’s every bit as exciting as adding a few kilos onto your max.
Simple Assistance Work
Wendler is insistent that assistance training is just that: it’s there to assist. He doesn’t want you getting stressed out about it or worrying too much about the numbers. To help make it as easy as possible, he provides countless assistance work templates – ranging from extra heavy work for powerlifters to body-torching high volume work for bodybuilders. He even has an I Ain’t Doing Jack Shit assistance template, for those who just can’t be arsed. His point is clear: assistance work is there to support your training – it isn’t the same thing as the training itself.
I liked that. It focused my mind on the work sets, made programming and hitting important numbers much easier, and meant I didn’t feel bad about cutting and running if I needed a short session. Personal favourites were Big But Boring (doing a further 10 sets of 10 of your main lift, with just 60 seconds rest is an ass-kicker) and the Trimuverate, which involves doing just three big compound exercises per session.
What I Didn’t Like About 531
It Feels Too Light
Working too light is the most common whining point about 531. Wendler insists that you use 90% of your actual max to calculate your working weights. He does that for many very good reasons, but it means that your first week involves doing sets of 5 at 54%, 63% and 72% of your actual max. It’s over in no time and feels kind of ridiculous. A fortnight later and you’re onto the heaviest week of the month, and you’re still doing five reps at 67.5%, three at 76.5% and a single set of 85.5% of your true max.
In an entire month, you experience only three tough sets of an exercise – and only one of them is above 85% of your true maximum. Before long, you’ve made yourself a spreadsheet and realised with horror that you won’t be working heavy (compared to current actual max) for something like six months. Wendler is fine with this, because lifting is about long-term training and gradual improvements. He thinks doing as many reps as possible at lighter loads is a safer way to develop strength in the long run, and he is probably right. However, for advanced trainers and those who enjoy lifting heavy, it’s annoying.
Wendler addresses this concern in Advanced 531. Here he suggests that more advanced athletes should stop doing sets of as many reps as possible, and instead use the same weight for all three sets during the 5 and 3 weeks. This involves spending more time lifting heavier weight, which a) feels more like strength training, b) avoids the burnout that advanced athletes may suffer from doing as many reps as possible and c) brings 531 better in line with Preplin’s strength training guidelines, which I’ll ramble about at some other point.
Not Enough Volume
I understand Wendler’s approach of starting light and making steady progress. It makes loads of sense. However, once you remove your heavy sessions, maximum exertions, dynamic movements, speed work and gruelling endurance sets, and replace them with just three sets of 5, 3 or 1…there’s hole in your workout, dear reader, dear reader.
You never do high volume (the last set of session is the only one that might go above 5 reps). You never do high intensity (you almost never exceed 85% of your true max). You never do dedicated speed work (you’ve only got three sets and the last one is as many reps as possible so it’s gonna get slow).
Each exercise gets just two low-intensity, mid-speed, low-volume sets per week, plus a single mid-intensity max volume set. That totals three tough sets and 40 – 50 reps in an entire month. It just doesn’t seem like enough to me. True, there is assistance work to bring up volume if you want it – but I approached 531 thinking that assistance work was a bonus, rather than an integral part of the success of the programme.
Anyway, this issue of volume is addressed nicely in Wendler’s adaption called Beyond 531, which takes the Westside-like approach of building up to 100% of your training max (which Wendler sets at 85% of your actual max). You do as many reps as you possibly can, then drop the weight down to 70-75% of your max and do 3-5 sets of 8-10. This gives you a maximal exertion set, followed by higher volume repetition work. For me, that’s more like it – the lack of high intensity work is compensated by some extra volume of training.
I enjoyed Beyond 531 more than the traditional version, but quickly found myself wondering why I wouldn’t just do Westside, but based off a lower training max…
Overall I found 531 confusing and unconvincing. The general approach is dead simple and the assistance work templates are there for you, but there are so many additions, amendments and variations that I never found myself convinced that I was doing the right thing.
I knew something wasn’t right when it took me four sessions to even get started properly and leaped at the option to do anything else. When I eventually did get cracking with 531 I had some concerns, so did some research. Instead of putting my mind to rest, the 531 literature suggested I change my approach to Advanced 531. So I did…and I still wasn’t convinced and the literature suggested I change my approach to Beyond 531, which Wendler says is his best work to date yet looks nothing like 531 and seems to contradict all the training principles I had just learned.
I believe that I’d get strong by doing 531 for years, but I can’t see myself managing to stay committed to it for long enough to ever find out. With so many variations and improvements flying around, I’d be in a constant state of updating and tweaking – rather than the focused fury I found through Faleev.
To conclude: Beyond 531 is supposedly the best version of 531, yet it’s nothing like 531 and a lot like the Westside Method… So I decided to try Westside.