5/3/1 Workout Guide: How To Build Pure Strength

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One of the more popular, time-tested strength training programs geared towards powerlifters looking to set new personal records (PRs) in their key lifts is the 5/3/1 workout program. 

If you’re putting in time at the gym and not making the gains you have in mind, keep reading to learn about the 5/3/1 workout program, how it works, and how to follow the 5/3/1 workout plan to set new 1RM PRs.

We will cover: 

  • What Is the 5/3/1 Workout Plan?
  • How to Do the 5/3/1 Workout Program
  • How Much Weight Should You Lift In 5/3/1 Workouts?

Let’s get started!

A person doing a back squat.

What Is the 5/3/1 Workout Plan?

The 5/3/1 workout program, also called the 5 3 1 workout or 5-3-1 workout program, is a specific powerlifting program designed by Jim Wendler. 

Jim Wendler is a strength coach with a background as a competitive powerlifter. According to Open Powerlifting, Wendler has a career-best of a total of 2,375 pounds in competition, with PRs of 1,000 pounds for the squat, 675 pounds for the bench press, and 700 pounds for the deadlift.

The primary goal of the 5 3 1 workout program, or the Wendler 531, is to increase muscular strength such that you can achieve a new one-repetition maximum (1RM) in one or multiple weightlifting exercises.

To achieve this goal, the 5/3/1 workout program involves performing four specific barbell exercises: the bench press, deadlift, squat, and standing shoulder press (overhead press/military press). 

Rather than being a single workout, the 5-3-1 method is a complete strength training program that involves four workouts per week performed in a particular sequence over the course of a four-week training cycle. There are also modified versions with fewer weekly workouts, but the 4-day workout plan is the most common.

A person doing a back squat.

How to Do the 5/3/1 Workout Program

As mentioned, the 5/3/1 strength training program involves a four-week cycle with four workouts per week. Each workout in the week focuses on one of the four core lifts in the 5/3/1 training method.

As with most safe and effective strength training programs, the 5/3/1 workout plan employs the principle of progressive overload, which essentially involves gradually increasing the volume and intensity of your workout to trigger positive physiological adaptations in muscular strength and size.

In the 5/3/1 program, the number of reps and sets that you do vary from week to week, gradually increasing the overall workload so that you get stronger.

Here is the reps and sets scheme for the 5/3/1 program by week:

A person doing an overhead press.

Week 1

In the first week of the 5-3–1 workout plan, perform three sets of five reps (3 x 5) of one of the barbell exercises per workout. 

Although you have the latitude to choose which exercise you do for each workout as long as you hit one core lift per workout per week, you might choose to do the following:

  • Monday: 3 sets of 5 reps of barbell squats 
  • Tuesday: 3 sets of 5 reps of barbell bench presses
  • Thursday: 3 sets of 5 reps of barbell deadlifts 
  • Saturday: 3 sets of 5 reps of barbell overhead presses

Week 2

In week two, perform three sets of three reps per exercise, again choosing one core lift per workout.

This might look like the following:

  • Monday: 3 sets of 3 reps of barbell squats 
  • Tuesday: 3 sets of 3 reps of barbell bench presses
  • Thursday: 3 sets of 3 reps of barbell deadlifts 
  • Saturday: 3 sets of 3 reps of barbell overhead presses
A person doing the bench press.

Week 3

The rep scheme changes significantly for week 3. Here, you will perform three different sets, each with a different number of reps.

The first set is five reps, the second set is three reps, and the final set is one rep, hence the name of the 5/3/1 routine.

Returning to our example, this training week could look like the following:

  • Monday: 1 set of 5 reps of barbell squats, 1 set of 3 reps of barbell squats, 1 set of 1 rep of barbell squats
  • Tuesday: 1 set of 5 reps of barbell bench presses, 1 set of 3 reps of barbell bench presses, 1 set of 1 rep of barbell bench presses
  • Thursday: 1 set of 5 reps of barbell deadlifts, 1 set of 3 reps of barbell deadlifts, 1 set of 1 rep of barbell deadlifts 
  • Saturday: 1 set of 5 reps of barbell overhead presses, 1 set of 3 reps of barbell overhead presses, 1 set of 1 rep of barbell overhead presses

Note that the rep numbers given for the final set of each workout are the minimum goal. While you should strictly follow the prescribed number of reps for sets 1 and 2 of each exercise, with set 3, if you can eke out additional reps with the right weight and perfect technique, push yourself to do them.

A person doing the bench press.

Week 4

The final week of the Wendler 531 powerlifting program is designed to be a deloading week, which means that you will give your muscles a relative break by reducing the weight that you use.

Although you do a greater number of reps (three sets of 5 reps), the load is supposed to be lighter.

Your final training week might look like the following:

  • Monday: 3 sets of 5 reps of barbell squats 
  • Tuesday: 3 sets of 5 reps of barbell bench presses
  • Thursday: 3 sets of 5 reps of barbell deadlifts 
  • Saturday: 3 sets of 5 reps of barbell overhead presses

Additionally, the entire workout doesn’t need to involve only the one single exercise. You should also perform several supportive accessory lifts to support gains in strength, hypertrophy, and to prevent injury.

There aren’t specific hard-and-fast rules about which accessory exercises you should perform or how many sets and reps to do for each workout, but a good guideline is to perform the following: 

A person doing a barbell deadlift.
  • Squat Workouts: Perform five sets of 10 reps of leg curls and five sets of 15 reps of leg press.
  • Bench Press Workouts: perform five sets of 15 reps of dumbbell chest flies and five sets of 10 reps of dumbbell rows.
  • Standing Shoulder Press Workouts: Perform five sets of 15 reps of dips and five sets of 10 reps of chin-ups or pull-ups.
  • Deadlift Workouts: perform five sets of 12 reps of good mornings, and five sets of 15 reps of hanging leg raises.

Between the sets of each core lift, take 3-5 minutes of rest, and between the sets of the accessory lifts, take 1 to 2 minutes of rest.

The 5/3/1 workout plan doesn’t just begin and end with a single four-week strength training plan, although some people do just choose to try it once. Rather, the same structure is intended to be performed over and over in four-week training cycles.

With each new training cycle, you are supposed to increase the weight that you use for each exercise. Ultimately, the general goal is to be able to add at least 10 pounds to your 1RM for any lower-body lifts and 5 pounds to your 1RM for any upper-body lifts for every complete four-week cycle of the 5/3/1 workout.

A person preparing for a barbell deadlift, an exercise in the 5/3/1 workout.

How Much Weight Should You Lift In 5/3/1 Workouts?

Although many typical weightlifting programs involve lifting the same weight for each set of the exercise in the workout, the approach to determining the loads you should use is a little different with the 5/3/1 method of strength training.

To calculate how much weight you should be lifting in your 5/3/1 workouts, you first need to determine your one-repetition maximum (1RM) for each of the four basic lifts in the training plan.

Then, calculate 90% of your 1RM for each exercise. The result will serve as your base weight for helping you determine the appropriate weight to lift for each training cycle of the 5/3/1 workout plan.

For example, consider someone who has a 1RM of 200 pounds for the barbell bench press. Taking 90% of this yields a result of 180 pounds, so this number will be used as the base weight to calculate the amount of weight to lift for all of the bench press workouts.

The following table shows the percentages of this base weight that you should use for each set in each 5/3/1 workout:

Week 1Week 2Week 3Week 4
Set 165% x 5 reps70% x 3 reps75% x 5 reps40% x 5 reps
Set 275% x 5 reps80% x 3 reps85% x 3 reps50% x 5 reps
Set 385% x 5 reps90% x 3 reps95% x 1 rep60% x 5 reps

You will notice that week 1 has you starting with very light loads, likely lower than those you are accustomed to when trying to build strength, but this is deliberate, as the goal is to gradually and progressively—and safely—increase strength.

Interested in other weight training methods? Check out our articles on drop sets and supersets!

A person lifting a barbell.
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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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