For a long time, I just went into the gym and worked hard for as long as I wanted, and then left. I didn’t keep track of how much weight I used each day or whether it was increasing or decreasing over the long term. I knew some general principles about how weight training works, so I started from the basics. Your body increases muscle size and strength to adapt to greater needs for size and strength. As you get bigger and stronger, you have to gradually increase the demands you put on your muscles to get them to continue to build and adapt. This concept is called progressive overload. It is the general principle on which all successful workout programs are designed. Simply: as you get fitter, you have to make sure you’re lifting more weight, or stretching deeper, or running farther to continue getting fitter.
Inspiration from Wendler 5/3/1
One of the most popular workout plans built on the premise of progressive overload, which has truly stood the test of time, is called Wendler 5/3/1. I like many of the fundamentals of this plan due to how customizable it is. It provides a core framework based on powerlifting around which you can design your own ‘assistance work.’ The foundations of Wendler 5/3/1 that I liked and decided to take inspiration from are:
- Periodization – Rather than a continuous, linear periodization in which weights or reps constantly and slowly increase, Jim Wendler opts for a fluctuation format. In this format, you work up from a smaller percentage of maximum effort on a cyclic basis. For example, you may be working from 80% of max at the beginning of each month up to 95% of your calculated maximum at the end of each month.
- 2. The ‘5/3/1 Philosophy’ – Jim Wendler constantly stresses three things that make his program so successful: start light, progress slowly, and emphasize big compound lifts. These make sense intuitively! Start light to let the body get used to the movement patterns, rep ranges, and work load. Progress slowly because fitness, health, and self-improvement are lifelong activities and sustainable practices fit them better than sporadically trying to play catch up. And finally, emphasizing big compound lifts such as bench, deadlift, and squat that utilize multiple joints and large muscle groups all at once. This increases the efficiency of time spent in the gym, tends to have great crossover to isolation exercises which use a single muscle group or joint, and gets your body working in concert.
- 3. AMRAP – These are basically opposites as far as the toll they take on your system! The 5/3/1 program calls for adherents to complete as many reps as possible on their final (and heaviest) set of each primary lift. This requires a certain amount of self-awareness and fortitude that many other workout programs don’t incorporate, and it also makes it more accommodating. It requires, and improves, your self-awareness and fortitude by making you push your body but also making you listen to what it’s telling you. You can really learn what your body and mind are capable of when you crank out a 12 rep set when your workout called for just 5. It also makes the program capable of adjusting to your best and worst workout days; whether you got a bad night of sleep, or you have a grudge to take out on the bar that day.
Making it Mine
There’s also a certain amount I wanted to figure out on my own. There’s a reason Wendler 5/3/1 isn’t the only workout program out there! Different people have different capabilities, goals, equipment, and just basic workout preferences. Here’s where I wanted to differ from his program, and why:
- Rep ranges – The rep ranges of Wendler’s program are its namesake, calling for sets of five, three, or just a heavy single depending on the week. But somebody may feel more comfortable doing sets of eight for deadlifts, or sets of ten or more for bench. Additionally, many argue that singles are only a good way to test strength, not to build it, and I believe there’s an increased risk of injury while doing low rep work at a high percentage of your one rep max.
- Functional Percentage of One Rep Max – Based on some reverse engineering of the program, I found that each block (as written by Wendler) is based on 86% of your maximum. After doing some research on other popular programs and studies, I decided to adjust that percentage to increase from about 87% to 94% for each block.
- Customization – I wanted to be able to adjust this for people who, like myself, know what exercises and rep ranges treat them best. I wanted this to be good guidance for the core of a program in which the rest of the workout could be adapted to any goals. And I wanted it to be intuitive and easy to use.
How to Use
The orange cells are the only cells you should edit! They will have cascading effect on the rest of the template. IF NEEDED: change the exercises, starting maxes, the number of reps you want to do for each exercise, and if you want to get technical, the functional percentages week-by-week.
Don’t know your max lifts? Use the handy dandy 1RM calculator below the template and base it on your recent workouts. Still not sure? Shoot low, stick with the program for 4 weeks, and then use the 1RM calculator at the end to determine where you should be.
Next screenshot, print, or write down your sets and VOILA you have the core workouts of your program for the next month.
Without further ado, here is my self-developed, highly customizable training template!
The First Thing Many People Need to Hear & Change
Fitness goals are more dependent on what you do in the kitchen than what you do in the gym. Every change that you make in the right direction is progress! Don’t short yourself on your potential by focusing too much on your workouts and not enough on your diet.
Choosing Primary, Programmed Exercises
The Wendler 5/3/1 program calls for squats, deadlifts, bench, and overhead press as the four big lifts. For lower body exercises, I like to alternate squats with front squats and I definitely prefer sumo deadlift over conventional. I always opt for incline or decline bench over flat bench. I like to do a lateral pulldown movement instead of military press in an effort to keep a balance among pulling and pushing motions for my shoulders.
There’s no wrong answer! Many people have physical, flexibility or mobility restrictions that rule out certain exercises. I personally prefer doing exercises with free weights and a full (but comfortable) range of motion. Some exercise options include:
- Squat: front squat, high bar squat, low bar squat, pause squats
- Deadlift: sumo deadlift, conventional deadlift, Romanian deadlift, trap bar deadlift, rack pulls, dumbbell deadlifts
- Bench: pushups (weighted), incline bench, decline bench, flat bench, dumbbell bench
- Military: standing military press, seated military press, push press, dumbbell seated shoulder press, dumbbell standing shoulder press, Arnold press
- Lat Pulldowns: neutral grip pulldowns, underhand grip pulldowns, overhand grip pulldowns, wide grip pulldowns, narrow grip pulldowns
Choosing Rep Ranges
Find what works for you through trial and error! It takes a long time in the gym to get to know your body. For me, the 2-6 rep range for squat and deadlift variations leave me feeling like I got the best workout. The 10-12 rep range on bench variations leave me feeling the most pumped with the least toll on my shoulders and elbows. I like the 8-10 range for back exercises because I can really feel the contraction and muscle activation. Experiment, keep your goals in mind, and track your success! Conventionally, the rep ranges associated with different goals are:
- Strength: 1-6 reps per set
- Size: 8-12 reps per set
- Endurance: 15-20 reps per set (not optimized with this plan)
The truth isn’t quite as cut and dry as this, but it’s a good general guideline. You activate different neural connections and muscle fibers and make different demands on your body when you exercise at different intensities and speeds. Are you trying to get heavier with your bench? Do double or triples some weeks. Are you better off with 5s for squats? Put in 5s. Do you want to get different types of muscle fiber recruited throughout the program? Vary rep range from 2-10.
The Rest of your Workout
Rest periods: Listen to your body. Let your muscles recover between sets so that your next set is quality. Try not to wait any longer than five minutes, as this will let your body cool down too much. If your cardio and conditioning are decent, you should rarely need to wait longer than three minutes between sets for good performance. I take 3ish minutes before my AMRAP set, more afterwards, and less between all other sets.
Warmup: Do one! Many advocate for some amount of stretching, some advocate foam rolling, and some call for light cardio to get the blood pumping. Whatever you prefer is great. I like a little cardio to get my temperature up and my blood flowing before getting started.
I also strongly recommend doing warmup sets of your primary exercise. Gradually increase weight until you get to your 3 working sets for the day. Make sure to step up the weight in reasonable amounts. Keep the reps low enough that you don’t limit your ability to complete your workout at the working sets.
Core work: Abs, obliques, lower back. I see these overlooked in many workout programs that emphasize strength, yet I’ve always found my main lifts increase more readily when I put in the time to train my core.
Assistance work: This is a huge topic to cover. The purpose of this work is to fill in the gaps left by the rest of your programming. It can be there to balance your physique, prevent injury, or strengthen relative weaknesses. I try to do 3ish sets of 10ish reps of 1-3 exercises after I do my main lift of the day. Sometimes I’ll do a little circuit training. For upper body days, I like pairing complementary muscle groups. Here are some exercises I like to do with my main lifts:
Squat: Front squats if my main lift was back squats (or vice versa), Romanian deadlifts, calf raises, abs
Deadlifts: Hyperextensions, walking lunges (db or bb), calves, abs
Bench: Face pulls, pushups, cable crossovers, rear delt flys, barbell rows, pullovers, tricep pushdowns
Military: Pullups, bicep curls (of all sorts), lateral raises, lateral pulldowns, arnold presses, skullcrushers
Lat pulldowns: db shoulder press, lateral raises, curls, pushdowns, rear delt flys
Lift form: It’s hard to decide when you’ve done ‘as many reps as possible’ if you could do more with bad form. For the most part, I advocate doing all lifts with good form without bouncing weight. However, if I can get in an extra rep or two by bouncing weight or letting my form break down a little, I will do so. It’s very difficult for you to know your actual form and safety with just proprioception! If you want to know how much your form is breaking down and whether you want to risk it, take a video of yourself. When in doubt, be conservative and do less with good form. Doing slightly less in any single workout and avoiding injury is a recipe for greater long-term success.
Lift speed: Some programs come with lifting cadences which dictate the time of the eccentric, paused, and concentric portions of the range of motion. Instead for this program the user’s preference is fine. The intention of this program is for a controlled eccentric phase, a minimal pause, and an explosive concentric.
Cardio: Regardless of workout goals, you should include some! Increases work capacity and therefore improves workouts. It also improves oxygen transport and increases recovery between sets. HIIT is a quicker, more effective, but not necessarily easier way of getting a good cardio workout as compared to steady state cardio.
Frequency: If you work out less than four times per week, it’s totally ok to double up on big lifts for a workout. If you eat and sleep enough to recover from your workouts, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with working out every day. You should do something active every day, even if it’s just walking. I try to avoid going for big lifts more than two days in a row, and I try to alternate upper body focused and lower body focused workouts to give those muscle groups a reasonable amount of time to recover.
Stretching & mobility: Stretching is pretty well proven to NOT reduce soreness. Stretching before a workout has been found to not improve performance. I haven’t seen scientific evidence that stretching prevents injury. Having said that, my body feels so much better and I feel so much more comfortable when I stretch, foam roll, and practice movements to increase mobility in major joints such as the hips and shoulder.
Mixing it up: Enjoy your experience in the gym! Include exercises or other practices just because you enjoy them. The best workout is the one that you actually do! It’s my theory that the success of many popular workout programs is due to having a variety of exercises that change regularly. This also allows you to engage muscles in different ways that can help maintain a more balanced and functional physique.
Equipment substitutions: Barbells, dumbbells, cambered bar, trap bar, machines, and bodyweight exercises
Exercise options: Speed work (10 sets of 2 at 60-65%, explosive), band or chain work, circuit training, Zumba
Track your progress: Write it down! Write down what you do, how much you do, how hard it is, and how it affects you. Do you have a lot more difficulty doing sets of five, but the same results towards your goals? Do sets of eight leave you so sore that it negatively impacts your next workout? These are things that are hard to notice unless you have it written down. It’s impossible to know how well something is working unless you know if and how much it’s working, then comparing it to an alternative.
Continuing your progress: After completing a four week block, here’s what you should do:
- Congratulate yourself! You’re stronger now.
- If you hit at least minimum reps on all sets in week four: Go to the template, increase your starting max by five pounds for each lift, print it out, and do it again. If this was your first time and you didn’t properly estimate your starting maxes, enter your top set of each lift from week four into this calculator, then set those as your starting maxes in the template.
- If you didn’t hit your minimum reps, and this might sound counterintuitive, take a break. Set your maxes back by ten pounds each, then for this week do three sets of ten reps at 60% of max for each lift while doing limited assistance work. Then, next week, start the program back up again! This will give your body a chance to rest, recover, and adapt that it might have been needing.
Adapt to your goals and lifestyle: This core program can be used to make progress towards any goals you might have by adapting it to your goals and lifestyle. It can be used on a bulk, on a cut, to get bigger, to get stronger. It can be used if you work out for 25 minutes twice a week.
Diet and supplementation: WAY beyond the scope of this.
All calculated lift numbers are based on Brzycki’s formula for one rep maxes. Your sets for the day increase by 10% of your one rep max at a time.
If you are thinking about starting this program, let me know! I’d love to go on the journey with you. Tell me what your starting numbers are, and in a couple months (or years), you’ll look back at those stats and see how far you’ve come.
Let me know what you think. Tell me what I got right and, more importantly, what I got wrong! If you have any questions or feedback, you can contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by filling out the contact form online.