After a LOT of consideration, I have decided to try Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 training program.
It took a lot of thinking because, after 4-5 months of Faleev’s 5×5 training (5 sets of 5: if you succeed, put the weight up 5kg next week), Wendler’s approach seems ludicrously light.
You see, traditionally you calculate how much weight to lift by using a percentage of the maximum weight you can possibly lift (your one-rep max). If your max is 100kg, for example, you might plan to do five sets at 75% of your max – which would be 75kg.
This is helpful for planning different types of work: strength work typically occurs above 85-90% of your max, endurance work below 70%, and hypertrophy (muscular growth) at around 75-80%.
However, Wendler’s 5/3/1 program demands that you calculate using a training max that is 90% of your one-rep max. So that 100kg max is now a 90% training max, and your 75kg sets become 67.5kg instead.
There are many reasons for this (including the fact that most people have no realistic idea of their one-rep max), but I’m in no position to critique Jim Wendler – so I’m simply going to give an account of my experience of starting the programme.
For the record, what eventually convinced me were these four things:
1. The monthly cycle just seems to make sense: Week 1: heavy (3×3), Week 2: volume (3×5), Week 3: heavy (1×5 , 1×3, 1×1), Week 4: light for deload and speed.
2. The last working set of each workout involves doing as many reps as you can, thereby allowing you to judge strength improvements by more than just a one-rep max
3. Every day includes a secondary strength exercise at a lightish weight (75%) so I get more experience with the lifts.
4. Every day has assistance work to help me balance my training (I don’t want to just be a powerlifter, after all).
Attempt Number One: FAIL
Despite all my consideration, I drove to the gym, took one look at my gym notes…and threw them away. I didn’t even recognise it as a workout – it looked like a warm-up. After all that work to get my squat up from 140 to 180, I was now being asked to faff around at 135 again.
Instead, I went for a workout of 5 x 5 at 110kg on the bench. I failed, as I have done every time since succeeding at 5 x 5 at 105kg, and was strongly advised by a fellow lifter than I should try lifting lighter to get stronger. Just like Wendler says.
As a side now, I have since concluded that Faleev’s “add 5kg every time you complete 5 x 5” works just fine to start with, but eventually becomes too big of a jump for bench pressing. If I go back to 5×5, I’ll use 2.5kg increments for bench instead.
Attempt Number Two: FAIL
I returned to the gym later in the week, determined to give Wendler another shot. It’s a long-term program so the sooner I could get started, the better.
Halfway through racking up my set of Wendler-approved deadlifts, however, I was invited to join in with a chap called Robin – who was being coached by Dave Beattie of Genesis Gym (462kg equipped and 380kg raw squat at 50 years old).
Robin (at my bodyweight) was performing singles at 230kg. Within a few minutes, Dave had me doing singles at 220kg as well – a weight I’d never shifted before, but one that confirmed my strength gains from the previous months following Falveev’s simplistic 5×5. (Back in early October I failed to do 5 x 5 at 165kg, which put my maximum somewhere around 195-200kg).
When we had completed our heavy work, we did light (120kg) deadlifts for speed, followed by Romanian deadlifts and kickback style back-extensions. All good, all fun and a very successive session – but a fail on the Wendler side of things.
Attempt Number Three: VICTORY!
Today, I actually succeeded in doing Wendler’s prescribed workout. That meant that the weight that Faleev had me lifting for 5 sets of 5 the week before, I didn’t even touch. Instead, I was working 5kg lighter for a single set of three, plus as many extra reps as I could force out.
Unfortunately I lost my belt over the weekend, which threw everything way out. I’ll be interested to see how many reps I manage with a proper belt on again.
Ironically, the only hard part of the workout was the ‘assistance work’. I used Wendler’s most popular assistance suggestion (called Big But Boring) which involved squatting 5 x 10 at 50% with 60 seconds rest between sets.
This kicked my ass…but only because I forgot to use the training max of 158kg and used my actual max of 175kg, so I wound up doing sets at 87.5kg instead of 79kg. In fact, the first set was at 90kg because I couldn’t find the right weight plates in time…
The other part of the strength work was bench pressing 5 x 5 at 85kg with 60 seconds rest, which worked out fairly straight-forward (because Wendler’s programming means it was 68% of my max).
Attempt Number Four: VICTORY…sort of
I came out of my first 5,3,1 session feeling fine. Fresh as a daisy. Obviously – I hadn’t really done any work, apart from my accidentally slightly-too-heavy assistance work. So instead of waiting until 48 hours for the next session, I cracked on the next day. (Wendler recommends a three day per week programme for powerlifting, but seems to say it’s OK to do a four day version as well – with Wednesday and weekends being rests).
This time it was deadlifts and I used Wendler’s suggested weights. After my session with Robin and Dave, it seemed wise to use 220kg as my one-rep-max (I can’t imagine lifting more). Based on that, Wendler’s training max for me was 198kg.
Today’s workout was meant to be a strength-based session. It called for three sets of three: at 70%, 80% and 90% of my training max. That worked out at 137kg, 158kg and 178kg – which I rounded up (against recommendation) to 140, 160 and 180.
Before starting, I performed some warm-up sets at the widely recommended intensity of 20%, 40% and 60% of my maximum. I probably should have calculated these using my new ‘training max’ as well, because my final warm up set of 132kg was just 8kg shy of my first ‘strength-based’ set of three. So that was an odd start…
Then it was onto my strength sets. Three sets of three reps at heavy weights. Except, of course, there were no heavy weights. My first two sets didn’t feel like anything, because they weren’t anything – they were 64% and 72% of my actual max.
Then it was onto the final set of three, marked in my training notes at 3(+). What that means is that it’s a set of three, but that I should then continue to do as many reps as possible. Week on week, the number of reps I can do should increase – showing strength gains.
So I set up with 180kg performed my set of three and carried on, as instructed, to perform as many reps as possible. I stopped after 13, feeling that pushing any further couldn’t possibly be good for me… That was it. That was my ‘strength’ workout for deadlifting… 3 reps at 64%, 3 at 72% and 13 at 81% of my actual maximum deadlift.
The rest of the strength work for the day was 5 x 5 push presses with 60 second rests, which I deliberately made into a challenge by using my actual max instead of a training max to work out the weight.
So I’m not sure how to feel. I mean 13 reps at 180kg is exciting…but it doesn’t seem like a good way of developing strength. Of great concern is that fact that next week is volume week, where I’m programmed to lift 160kg as many time as possible – which will probably be well in excess of 20!
This isn’t just a light intro, either. This isn’t an easy month to build me up for the real work to come: Wendler prescribes adding 5kg to my training max every 4-5 weeks. At that rate, it’ll take me 4-5 MONTHS before I’m anywhere close to lifting what Faleev has me doing now. Even then, I’ll be using the same weight I have been using for 5×5 for sets of three plus, once per month.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand the principle behind Wendler’s 5,3,1: you start super light, succeed at every set, make incremental small progress every week, add weight every month, month upon month, year upon year – and get stronger.
The idea is to be long-sighted: to appreciate that slower but regular achievable strength gains in the short term should lead to longer and larger consistent gains overall. However…any program that has me dropping heavy sets of 5×5 and doing sets of 15+ reps for months doesn’t SEEM like a strength programme… It seems like something that will BECOME a strength programme 6 months down the line.
Maybe that’s what lots of people need. Maybe that’s what I need, as well. Maybe the whole point is to perfect technique and not insist on lifting super heavy weights before you’ve got the foundations in place. It all makes sense…it just FEELS rotten.