Fitness Series: Strength Training with Wendler's 531 Programming

Date: 2019-06-27

Time to Read: 13 Minutes

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Photo By: unsplash-logoDanielle Cerullo

One of the critical components of one’s life is the ability to stay active and exercise.

No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable. - Socrates to Epigenes

For this reason, I’ve decided to share the fitness regimen that I’m currently undergoing; and you might find it appealing, helpful, or at the very least an inspiration to form your own.

There are three primary areas that I will cover in this series:

  • Physical Training
  • Diet/Nutrition
  • Progression Documentation

For physical training, there are two distinct phases: the bulking phase and the cutting phase. From a strength training perspective, the two phases differ in the amount of volume that each workout consists of.

My weekly routine follows the Wendler 5/3/1 workout routine closely. To summarize this routine, you’re concentrating on adding strength to your four primary lifts (Overhead Press, Flat Barbell Bench Press, Squat, and Deadlift).

Your starting point begins by taking your maximum weight lifted for one rep for each exercise (Calculated or Achieved) and then taking 90% of that number to get your Training Max, rounded to the nearest 5lbs.

For example:

Lift One Rep Max Training Max
Overhead Press 225lbs 205lbs
Bench Press 315lbs 285lbs
Squat 405lbs 365lbs
Deadlift 500lbs 450lbs

Once you have your training max calculated for each of your primary lifts, this will serve as your starting point and each of your sets for that lift is calculated based off of this number.

After each cycle, where a cycle is defined as a full completion of the 5/3/1 series of weeks (i.e., typically three weeks). You increment your training max number by 5lbs for Overhead Press, and Flat Barbell Bench Press, and 10lbs for Squat and Deadlift before beginning a new cycle.

After a cycle has been completed and before a new cycle has began, you can take a week off effectively as a Deload Week or do 50% of your Week 1 weight.

So what do these weeks consist of?

There are three weeks of physical weight training in this routine and each consist of four workout days with a rest day positioned after the first two days so that no more than two consecutive days of heavy weight training is performed.

Day of the Week Workout Day
Sunday Overhead Press Day
Monday Squat Day
Tuesday Rest
Wednesday Flat Barbell Press Day
Thursday Deadlift Day
Friday Rest
Saturday Rest

You can move around this weekly layout as necessary, I just try to avoid breaking any of the following rules:

  • No more than two consecutive days of weight training.
  • Never have your Deadlift Day and Squat Day adjacent to each other. (Same with your Overhead Press Day and Bench Press Day)

I generally like to keep Friday and Saturday as rest days.

The three weeks of weight training are laid out in the following manner.

Week Rep Scheme
Week 1 5-Rep Scheme
Week 2 3-Rep Scheme
Week 3 5/3/1-Rep Scheme

What does rep scheme mean?

It is the number of reps to perform in each working set and the minimum amount of reps that you want to achieve on your last working set: the AMRAP set (i.e., As Many Reps As Possible).

How does this look?

Each lift shares the same set rules for that specific week, so the sets below are applicable to each lift; only differing by the weight lifted based on that lift’s training max calculated above.

5-Rep Week based on a Training Max of 205lbs

Set Rep Count Percentage of Training Max Weight
Warm Up 1 5 Reps 40% 85lbs
Warm Up 2 5 Reps 50% 105lbs
Warm Up 3 3 Reps 60% 125lbs
Working Set 1 5 Reps 65% 135lbs
Working Set 2 5 Reps 75% 155lbs
AMRAP Set 5 or More Reps 85% 175lbs

3-Rep Week based on a Training Max of 205lbs

Set Rep Count Percentage of Training Max Weight
Warm Up 1 5 Reps 40% 85lbs
Warm Up 2 5 Reps 50% 105lbs
Warm Up 3 3 Reps 60% 125lbs
Working Set 1 3 Reps 70% 145lbs
Working Set 2 3 Reps 80% 165lbs
AMRAP Set 3 or More Reps 90% 185lbs

5/3/1-Rep Week based on a Training Max of 205lbs

Set Rep Count Percentage of Training Max Weight
Warm Up 1 5 Reps 40% 85lbs
Warm Up 2 5 Reps 50% 105lbs
Warm Up 3 3 Reps 60% 125lbs
Working Set 1 5 Reps 75% 155lbs
Working Set 2 3 Reps 85% 175lbs
AMRAP Set 1 or More Reps 95% 195lbs

The primary concern of this training is to add weight to those primary lifts (e.g., Overhead Press, Flat Barbell Bench Press, Squat, Deadlift).

Now to add accessories, I use a variation of Wendler’s Boring But Big Accessory Plan.

Which means that after the primary lift, I will perform the opposite movement for 5 sets of 10.

Primary Lift Accessory Lift
Overhead Press Flat Barbell Bench Press
Squat Deadlift
Flat Barbell Bench Press Overhead Press
Deadlift Squat

So that the pairing looks like this (Based on the 5-Rep Week):

Set Reps Exercise
Warm-Up 1 5 Overhead Press
Warm-Up 2 5 Overhead Press
Warm-Up 3 3 Overhead Press
Working Set 1 5 Overhead Press
Working Set 2 5 Overhead Press
AMRAP Set 5 or More Overhead Press
Rest Rest Rest
Set 1 10 Flat Barbell Bench Press
Set 2 10 Flat Barbell Bench Press
Set 3 10 Flat Barbell Bench Press
Set 4 10 Flat Barbell Bench Press
Set 5 10 Flat Barbell Bench Press

How much weight do I use for these 10 rep accessory sets?

There are many ways to approach this. Generally, you use a percentage of your training max for that lift.

For example:

Set Percentage
Set 1 50%
Set 2 50%
Set 3 50%
Set 4 50%
Set 5 50%

You can play with this number by decreasing it to 40% or increasing it to 70% (I wouldn’t recommend going over 70%). Or you could even pyramid the percentages in the following manner (this is what I do).

Set Percentage
Set 1 40%
Set 2 50%
Set 3 60%
Set 4 50%
Set 5 40%

To keep things mostly interesting, I add exercise variations to these accessory sets that differ by week in the following manner.

Primary Lift Week 1 Accessory Lift Week 2 Accessory Lift Week 3 Accessory Lift
Overhead Press Inclined Dumbbell Bench Press Flat Dumbbell Bench Press Flat Barbell Bench Press
Squat Stiff-Legged Deadlift Romanian Deadlift Deadlift
Flat Barbell Bench Press Dumbbell Shoulder Press Arnold Press Overhead Press
Deadlift Front Squat Leg Press Squat

For these exercise variations, I simply use my experience to determine the weight to be lifted for each of the 5 sets of 10 in a pyramid-fashion.

Where are your arm and back accessory exercises?

Many would argue that the volume described above would be enough for your arms to not require direct work.

However, I have added additional accessory work to cover these bases since I’m not the type of person who can develop my biceps from back squats.

On the Upper Body days (e.g., Flat Barbell Bench Press Day, Overhead Press Day), I perform an additional back-focused movement, either a vertical pulling movement (e.g., Pull-Up, Pull-Down) or a horizontal pulling movement (e.g., T-Bar Rows, Dumbbell Rows, Barbell Rows, Cable Rows), the movement differs by the week. The rep scheme for these accessory lifts is 8-10 reps.

Day Week 1 Back Accessory Week 2 Back Accessory Week 3 Back Accessory
Overhead Press Day Neutral Grip Pull-Ups Wide Grip Pull-Ups Lat. Bar Pull-Downs or Pull-Ups
Flat Barbell Bench Press T-Bar Rows Barbell Rows Seated Cable Rows or Dumbbell Rows

On the lower body days (e.g., Squat Day and Deadlift Day), I will usually throw in some exercises focused on my core (Abs, Obliques, Lower Back) or Grip/Forearm (Wrist Curls, Static Hangs, Farmer Walks).

Next is the arms-focused exercises, Biceps and Triceps are worked out directly twice a week. The first time is a more heavy barbell-centric lift focused on strength (6-8 Reps), the second time is a lighter dumbbell or machine-centric lift focused on hypertrophy (10-12 Reps).

Bicep exercises are added to the lower body days whereas tricep exercises are added to the upper body days.

Day Week 1 Week 2 Week 3
Overhead Press Day Lying Tricep Extensions (6-8 Reps) Weighted Dips (6-8 Reps) Close-Grip Bench Press (6-8 Reps)
Squat Day Barbell Curls (6-8 Reps) Preacher Curls (6-8 Reps) Heavy Hammer Curls (6-8 Reps)
Flat Barbell Bench Press Day Rope Pushdowns (10-12 Reps) Dumbbell Extensions (10-12 Reps) V-Bar Pushdowns (10-12 Reps)
Deadlift Day Hammer Curls (10-12 Reps) Dumbbell Curls (10-12 Reps) Inclined Bench Dumbbell Curls (10-12 Reps)

How many sets do I perform?

It depends on the volume necessitated by the phase (bulking or cutting). It could be 5 sets or 3 sets, respectively and often I will super-set movements with the main Boring But Big accessory lift.

Generally, the workout should last no more than an hour and 15 minutes with a rest time of 1:00 - 2:30 between the sets of the primary lift.

Additional Volume For Primary Lifts

There are three different concepts that I like to include after the last AMRAP set based upon performance during that set and the rep scheme for that week. These concepts include:

  • Joker Sets - (Performed on the 3-Rep Week)
  • FSLS (First Set Last Set) - (Performed on the 1-Rep Week)
  • SSLS (Second Set Last Set) - (Performed on the 5-Rep Week)
  • Volume Sets - (Performed on any week)

The conditions of these concepts are described as following:

Joker Sets (Only to be done on the 3-Rep week)

If 5+ reps were performed on the last AMRAP set then up-to 3 Joker Sets may be performed. A Joker Set is described as a set where the weight is 105% of the previous set’s weight and the number of reps are the reps for that week (3 reps in this case).

Example:

Set Weight
AMRAP Set 165
Joker Set 1 175
Joker Set 2 185
Joker Set 3 195

If you are unable to perform three reps with the weight for that Joker Set, you’re finished. If you are able to perform the three reps, you continue until three Joker Sets have been accomplished.

FSLS - First Set Last Set (Only to be done on the 1-Rep week)

If 3+ reps were performed, perform one more AMRAP set but with the first working set’s weight.

SSLS - Second Set Last Set (Only to be done on the 5-Rep week)

If 7+ reps were performed, perform one more AMRAP set but with the second working set’s weight.

Volume Sets (Can be done on any week)

Think of this as punishment for failing to push past the prescribed AMRAP rep number on your last set. This is simply 5 additional sets of your first set’s weight. Depending on how you feel afterwards, you may need to reduce your accessory sets to three rather than five after performing these.

Help. My lifts stalled for reason x.

Let’s say that you failed to even reach the prescribed reps on the AMRAP sets. This can occur for any of the following reasons:

  • You’re sick or recovering from a sickness. Depending on the severity, I would rest that week and proceed from the beginning of the cycle on the following week. I would reduce the volume (only perform the prescribed reps for the AMRAP set for that week) on the next week back to allow your body to re-adjust and ramp back up to your pre-illness strength levels in full the following week.
  • If you have an injury. Once again, depending on the severity of the injury, I would rest that week and do the same as above.
  • You simply meet a temporary physical strength wall.

Sometimes you may fail to meet the required reps on one specific week but perform adequately on the other weeks. I would wait until you fail to meet the required reps on two or more weeks before taking the following approach. However, if you do fail to meet the required reps on two or more weeks, it is suggested to do the following:

  • Take the weak lift’s current calculated max (calculated from the average of your previous cycle’s AMRAP sets) as your current 1RM and then calculate 90% of that weight as your new training max to be used going forward. This will lower the required reps’ weight. You can imagine progress as a jagged slope that increases gradually over time and this is simply a new local minimum.

The above details the weight training regimen performed during the bulk phase where I am eating at a caloric surplus to gain weight and thus I am able to recover quicker and better from the increased volume. This is how the routine differs during the cutting phase where I am eating at a caloric deficit to lose weight. The next post will cover how this routine changes in the cutting phase.

There are many different templates and approaches to Wendler’s progression-based workout program. For more resources for Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 progression routine can be found at this website and in his book at: Jim Wendler.com

Fitness Series

03 February, 2020
A short series detailing my current workout regimen and how I document and track my progression toward fitness goals.
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About

Blake Adams is a writer, software developer, technical consultant, and financial independence enthusiast living in Oxford, MS.

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