Following a Strength-Based Training Program

Are you having trouble getting started with a strength program and don’t know where to start?  Well have no fear – this strength program, Wendler 5-3-1, can get you to where you need to be!  I’ve been through several cycles of this program in the past and did some experimenting this past fall on how long one should keep doing the program and how to switch up your numbers after each 4-week cycle.  Check it out!

Team CrossFit Pineville Ladies (#teammarbledelt)

What is Wendler 5-3-1?

Developed by power lifter, Jim Wendler, this program primarily consists of the four (4) main lifts:  bench press, shoulder press, back squat, and deadlift.  It is a 4-week cycle that utilizes a certain percentage of each of these lifts.  The program is very easy to follow and does not require a significant amount of time in the gym to perform.

How is it set up?

When setting up your Wendler 5-3-1 program, you must establish a one (1) repetition max (1RM) if you don’t have a history of recording this.  Then from your 1RM, you will use the 90% of that established lift; from there, each week is performed at certain percentages of the 90% lift respectively.  During weeks 1-3, you will perform your last working set as an AMRAP (as many reps as possible) – this is known as a “plus set”.  Then going into week four, you will perform “deload sets” – meaning you will significantly decrease the percentage of weight lifted to give your body an active rest period.  Here’s a typical  set up listed below:

  • WEEK 1 – perform 3 sets of 5 reps (3×5+) @ 65%-75%-85% of your established 90% 1RM lifts. Last working set is an AMRAP.
  • WEEK 2 – perform 3 sets of 3 reps (3×3+) @ 70%-80%-90% of your established 90% 1RM lifts.  Last working set is an AMRAP.
  • WEEK 3 – perform 1 set of 5 reps, 1 set of 3 reps, and 1 set of 1+ AMRAP @ 75%-85%-95% respectively.
  • WEEK 4 – “Deload week”; perform 3 sets of 5 reps (3×5) @ 40%-50%-60% of your established 90% 1RM lifts.  NOTE – there is no AMRAP performed during this week.

Here’s an example of a 4-week set up from my programming for deadlifts:

  • New 1RM deadlift = 220#
  • New 90% deadlift [from new 1RM] = 200#
  Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
Set 1 65% x 5 (130#) 70% x 3 (140#) 75% x 5 (150#) 40% x 5 (80#)
Set 2 75% x 5 (150#) 80% x 3 (160#) 85% x 3 (170#) 50% x 5 (100#)
Set 3 85% x 5+ (170#) 90% x 3+ (180#) 95% x 1+(190#) 60% x 5 (120#)

What happens after I complete my first 4-week cycle?

After the first 4-week cycle is complete, you will add 5# to your established 1RM upper body lifts and add 10# to your established 1RM lower body lifts.  From there, you will calculate a NEW 90% of the 1RM lifts respectively.  Then you will repeat the same cycle again but with your new 90% 1RM for each lift.

What’s the purpose of the AMRAP set?

The AMRAP set is primarily there to aid in endurance and strength tolerance gains when lifting heavy weights.  It also puts our nervous system into an overload to learn how to lift heavy weights while fatigued and maintaining good body mechanics.  As you progress through your Wendler 5-3-1 program, you should see a significant increased in your AMRAP sets during each cycle – this signifies that your foundational strength is improving!

How long should I keep repeating the 4-week cycles?

From my training program experiment in 2016, I noticed that this Wendler 5-3-1 program should only be perform for about 8-12 weeks at max.  One thing that I noticed, since there was an increase in weight of the upper and lower body lifts each 4-week period, I became very fatigue around the 14 week mark – knowing that I took this program too far along without giving my body a break.  Also, since going past 14 weeks, my lifts were failing – I couldn’t hit my AMRAP sets because the weight was too heavy and I was tired.

But on the flip side – I retested my 1RMs and ended up improving my lower body lifts a lot!  Upper body…not so good (but didn’t lose strength so that’s a plus).

  • Deadlift:  started at 210# –> new personal record (PR) at 235#
  • Bench press:  remained the same at 145#
  • Back squat:  started at 170# –> new PR at 185#
  • Shoulder press:  remained the same at 110#

Do I have to use only these main four lifts?  Can I use different lifts for this program?

Sure!  But I will warn you (coming from my physical therapy background), if you choose to utilize a clean & jerk and snatch, I would stay on the side of caution with the AMRAP sets…especially if you are new to those weightlifting movements.  If you’re a pro at these lifts, then you should know what to do and how to handle your fatigue levels.  You can certainly utilize a bent over row, front squat, push press, etc.  That’s one reason I love this basic strength program!  You can change it up to tailor your goals!  Remember, when in doubt with your lifts, ALWAYS lean more to the side of safety and maintaining correct positioning/body awareness – DO NOT SACRIFICE THIS!

Disclaimer:  I am not your personal trainer; I am providing you with my input on a basic training program and it’s outcomes I have personally experienced.  Please consult a professional trainer or  a physical therapist when beginning a strength program under proper supervision, especially if you have NO experience with weight lifting/power lifting.



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