Book Review: 5/3/1 by Jim Wendler

I read 5/3/1, a strength training book, for the first time back in January 2012 on the advice of a classmate and friend, and reread it this week with the intention of putting it into action. Taking into account that I’ve now set up my 5/3/1 training template and will provide an update on my progress with this plan in coming months, here is my review of the book itself.

Overview

5/3/1 is a strength training guide aimed at medium to advanced level weight lifters who have experienced a plateau in their lifting. It offers a somewhat unique approach to lifting, employing a ‘1 step backward and 2 steps forward’ approach by recalculating 90% of the 1RM to determine the weight to lift, rather than the actual 1RM, effectively lowering the true 1RM by 10%.

5/3/1 focusses on the fou531 Imager main lifts; barbell bench press, barbell deadlift, barbell squat, and barbell military press, and aims to increase the strength of the lifter through a 4 weekly cycle of strength training by methodically adding incremental amounts of weight, while lowering the reps, until a new 1RM is achieved (above and beyond both the recalculated and actual 1RM). This approach focuses on the last set of each exercise, with a maximal number of reps being pushed out on the third/last set, while the first two sets strictly adhere to the rep limit – being either 5, 3, or 1 reps depending on the week. The weekly breakdown for this plan is as follows for each main lift:

• Week1: 5 reps, 3 sets, (65%, 75%, 85%)
• Week2: 3 reps, 3 sets (70%, 80%, 90%)
• Week3: 5 reps in the first set, 3 reps in the second set, 1+ rep in the third set (75%, 85%, 95%)
• Week4: 5 reps, 3 sets (40%, 50%, 60%)

‘Assistance’ exercises are included, these being any exercises that can be considered to help improve the strength or technique for lifting of any of the main lifts. The fourth week is a deloading week, and is essentially providing a low level stimulus for the body while giving it a chance to recover from the previous weeks of lifting.

Strengths

The author includes plenty of anecdotes and success stories, and plenty of detail for his approach. He includes some basic weight lifting technique and advice along with a short warmup and stretching guide, as well as a description of what types of exercises to use as assistance exercises. He provides useful plans for slightly different preferences, includes plans for training 4, 3, 2 or even 1 day per week – so there’s really no excuse for destroying your entire workout schedule, which is incremental, due to a busy week. He also provides a quick guide on the useful and basic functions in Excel for using his plan, a fairly good FAQ (which answered most of my questions), as well as some training templates at the end of the book.

Weaknesses

This book, and indeed the authors method of approach, would have much more credibility if he actually had science or non-anecdotal evidence for support. Unfortunately he only provides anecdotes and stories as support, and various unveiled and ardent anti-intelluctal remarks by the author, including the memorable “You want science and studies? Fuck you. I’ve got scars and blood and vomit.”, hardly help his cause.
The author has a no-nonsense attitude which is refreshing at times but grating at others, and leaves large gaping holes in the text where he could provide more information for the readers (or at least references to other sources) but instead chooses to belittle them in classic meat-head style.

Summary

Overall, a reasonable book with a possibly great methodology. The author is at times entertaining with his quips and descriptions, for example “don’t be a Cheater McCheaterstein…or a Half Rep McGee” and such, though his oversimplifications or misunderstanding of basic anatomy leave something to be desired. For example “Before lifting the bar, fill your diaphragm (not your chest) with air”, which is a patently ridiculous statement, though he perhaps shouldn’t be taken too literally with his advice. Also, some of his dietary advice (“eat 4-6 meals per day”) may leave the reader simply scratching their head asking “why”, if the old myth about stoking the metabolic fire is not to be believed.

Unfortunately there’s a single question left on the readers lips: “will this approach actually increase my muscle mass?”. The author perhaps unintentionally avoided addressing this, with his focus being entirely on “strength”. Granted, the title of the book does reads “the simplest and most effective training system for raw strength”, which while correlated tightly with muscle mass, need not be indicative of girth improvements.

Stay tuned for my personal experience with 5/3/1 in the coming months, where I will put this methodology into action and record full body anthropometry (yes, including basic girth measurements and body fat % readings from both tanita scales and calipers!).

Have you read 5/3/1, and if so, what were your thoughts on Wendler’s program and exercise recommendations?

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