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The 5/3/1 Method

Never plateau again with this new workout method

When I was a competitive powerlifter, I squatted 1,000 pounds, deadlifted 700, and bench-pressed 675 in competition. Several years later, I can honestly say I am stronger, though I am about 50 pounds lighter. I also haven't plateaued in six months. Most guys into serious training never reach their size and strength goals because they plateau. They hit a wall and can't boost the numbers on their main lifts. Not me. My secret? The 5/3/1 training method. See how it works below, then apply it to our workout to follow.

HOW IT WORKS

1) Find your 1RM (one-repetition maximum, the most weight you can lift for one perfect rep on an exercise) on the barbell shoulder press, bench press, squat, and deadlift. Now subtract 10% of that number.

2) Each week, you'll build your workouts around those main lifts. You'll perform three sets for each using a weight that's a specific percentage of the adjusted 1RM number. The weight will go up each set. For instance, the first time you do each workout, you'll complete your first set using 65% of the number you calculated above. For the second set, you'll use 75%. The third, 85%. The next time you do that workout, you'll use 70%, 80%, and 90%, respectively. See the table on our directions page for the rep and specific loading guidelines for each workout.

3) The first time you go through the workouts, you'll do five reps per set for your main lifts. The second time, three reps. The third time through, your first set will use five reps, your second three, and your third one rep. For the fourth and final rotation, you'll go back to five reps.

4) Do only the number of reps prescribed on every set, except for the third (final) set of each main lift. In that case, the prescribed number of reps is a minimum. Go for as many reps as you can, trying to set a new personal record for that exercise.

At first, you might be worried that you're lifting too light. After all, strength is built by training with heavy weights, and the percentages you use will make many of the sets feel easy. But by progressing very slowly, you'll keep making progress indefinitely. That means you can train your favorite lifts longer without having to change them up. Our program focuses on the shoulder press, bench press, squat, and deadlift—probably the four best exercises for overall muscle and strength—ensuring that you raise your numbers on them significantly. How much? Just to give you an idea, I put my girlfriend on the program and she increased her bench press from 115 pounds for six reps to 125 for 11 reps in just four months (now imagine what it can do for you). So the 5/3/1 program doesn't just increase your maximal strength, but also your ability to do maximum repetitions, which makes for more useful gains and awesome muscle growth.

More Reasons to Try It:
Why the 5/3/1 method works for everybody

  • The program is great for relative beginners, as it gives you a long-term plan to follow and prevents you from taking too many sets to failure, which would endanger your recovery.
  • It's great for advanced guys. Adding 10-15 pounds to your 1RM in six months is doable, and tremendous if you're already quite strong and have been stuck on the same numbers for years.
  • It makes for quick workouts. Your main focus is to hit your last set hard, setting a new record for your maximum number of reps with a certain weight. After that, you'll do two assistance lifts and you're done. This means quick workouts and maximum productivity.

DIRECTIONS

FREQUENCY: Perform three workouts per week, resting at least a day between each session. So you'll do Workouts A, B, and C the first week, and then pick up the next week with Workout D (followed by A and B). Continue the cycle for five weeks, or until you've completed each workout four times. Notice that the last time you do Workout D will carry over to a sixth week (if you keep to the three-workouts-per-week cycle).

You can perform it on Week 6, or, if you'd rather have that entire week to begin a new phase in your training, you can add the squat (Workout D's main lift) to your last Workout C. Simply perform the squat right after your deadlift in Workout C, following the same deload parameters (explained below). In other words, combine Workouts C and D so that the training period ends in your last workout of Week 5.

HOW TO DO IT: Do three exercises per workout. The first (your main lift) will follow the 5/3/1 method. The remaining two exercises (assistance lifts) are up to you. (See the exercise recommendations in each workout.) Take as much rest time as you need between sets of your main exercise, and try to keep the rest periods for your assistance lifts shorter—approximately 60-90 seconds.

The 5/3/1 method builds on your 1RM (one-repetition maximum)—the heaviest weight you can lift for one perfect rep on an exercise. You can test your 1RM before beginning this program or just estimate it, but be conservative. Now, subtract 10% from your 1RM, and base all the percentages you use on your main lifts on that new number.

This means that if you can deadlift 300 pounds for one rep, use 270 as your 1RM. So, as you'll see below, your first deadlift workout would have you using 65% of 270 for one set of five reps, then 75% of 270 for five, and finally 85% for five. If the exact percentage comes out to be an amount that you can't load onto the bar due to the increments of the plates you have available (such as 25-, 10-, and 5-pound plates), round up or down as needed.

Remember, however, that it's better to go too light than it is to accidentally go too heavy and not be able to complete your reps. You must perform all the prescribed reps. See the table on the next page for a complete guide on how to perform your main lifts in each workout throughout the five-week period. The first time you perform one of the workouts (A, B, C, or D) is Wave 1. The second time is Wave 2, and so on.

Wave 1 Wave 2 Wave 3 Wave 4
3 x 5 3 x 3 3 x 5/3/1 Deload
Sets: 3 Reps: 65% x 5, 75% x 5, 85% x 5 Sets: 3 Reps: 70% x 3, 80% x 3, 90% x 3 Sets: 3 Reps: 75% x 5, 85% x 3, 95% x 1 Sets: 3 Reps: 40% x 5, 50% x 5, 60% x 5

With the exception of the deload workouts (Wave 4), perform as many reps as you can on the last set of each main lift, no matter how many reps are prescribed. For example, even though the last set of your workout in Wave 2 calls for 90% of your 1RM for a set of three reps, try to do more than three. If you can only get three, that's fine, but your goal should be to get more reps with good form. For the deload workouts, stick to the recommended rep range; do not push yourself that week. For the first two sets you perform, complete only the prescribed number of reps, regardless of the fact that the weight will feel light and you can do more.

After five weeks (after you've completed all the deload workouts in Wave 4), add poundage to the 1RM you started working with. For the shoulder press and bench press, add five pounds. For the squat and deadlift, add 10. Calculate the new poundages you'll be using according to each wave, and repeat the entire cycle again. For instance, if your adjusted deadlift 1RM was 270 pounds before, increase it to 280. You'll now complete your first deadlift workout using percentages based on that figure.

TIP: To save even more time, perform exercises 2 and 3 as alternating sets. That means you can do one set of exercise 2, rest, then one set of exercise 3, rest again, and repeat for all the prescribed sets.

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