Why 5/3/1 Sucks

“The author has mocked one of the greatest training programs of all time. Should we allow him to live?”  A paraphrase of one of the worst quotes ever to grace a T-nation article.

Note 1: The title of this post is an example of what is known in the business as “sensationalism”.  If I had titled the post: “Why 5/3/1 is a decent beginner/intermediate program that is probably better that what you were doing before – you idiot – but vastly overrated by the majority of the morons, noobs, wimps and closet cases on the internet, and the book is also a fucking ripoff,” it would be more accurate.  But also too long.  And would not attract as much attention.

Note 2: This is not a personal attack on Jim Wendler.  He is stronger and larger than me, a powerful businessman, an excellent writer (read his article about being a college football walk-on), and seems witty and cool.  I don’t need ad hominem attacks to make my case.  In fact, when you are reading this, assume that I bench 135, have a 2 inch penis, and live in my parent’s basement.  Judge my argument on its own merit.

Note 3: I am not going to show here that Wendler’s program “doesn’t work” or that “5/3/1 will not make you stronger”.  I can just see the internet tough-guy brigade getting ready to defend their guru and his magical program.

What is Bigger-Faster-Stronger?

In the early 2000s, I worked at a gym (and by worked, I don’t mean that I was any kind of trainer or expert – I folded towels and cleaned the bathrooms, got paid minimum wage, and basically just wanted a place to lift weights for free).  I saw three moderately strong HS football players lifting there one day.  Between sets, they were diligently filling out these BFS worksheets.  

For the BFS offseason program you did 2 main exercises a day.  I think (look it up yourself) it was  Mon – Towel Bench (kind of like a foam press), Box Squat; Wed – Power Clean/Deadlift (usually Trap Bar or Stiff Leg); Fri – Bench/Squat,  Week one you did 3×3, 1×10.  Week Two was 5×5.  Week 3 was 5,4,3,2,1.  Week 4 was 10/8/6 (except for exercises where only crossfitters would do that rep range, in which case you did 4,4,2 and dropped the set of 10 from week 1).   After the main work you did assistance work… 2 sets of 8-12 of chinups or leg curls or whatever. You kept track of all your set & rep records, tried to beat your PRs.  And on the last set you did as many reps as you could.  Does this sound familiar, 5/3/1 acolytes?

Note: i am not saying (like some Internet commentators have suggested)  that Wendler “stole” or “copied” BFS. Yes, there are similarities.  Like a Ford Focus and a Honda Accord.  Honda is not suing Ford for copying their groundbreaking 4-wheeled design.  And both are adequate cars that would never be confused with a Lamborghini.

After seeing the system, I decided to give it a try.  I photocopied their worksheets and started lifting.  I think I replaced towel bench with overhead press or something.  And I got results.  After a few months, I ran into those guys again (they usually trained at the high school weight room) and I ranted and raved about how great BFS was.  

They looked at me like I was a yokel who had just discovered soap and was telling them how great it was to shower five times a day.  I still remember the response of the largest, a lineman (who IIRC had about a 315 power clean @ bw of 275).  His response:

“Dude, do it for three years like we have and then see how much you like it.  You think you are going to keep going up every week?  5-4-3-2-1, fuck that.  I hate those fucking weeks.  You know what else sucks?  5×5.  Fuck that too!  If I go to college and they have us still doing BFS, I think I’m gonna shoot myself.” 

What is the 5/3/1 program?

In my blog in 2009, I posted that I was going to do a program where you focused on 1 big exercise a day and trained 4x a week.  The exercises were Squat, Deadlift, Bench and Military Press, the same exercises in 5/3/1.  You can believe me or not, but I had never heard of 5/3/1 and was not referring to that program. 

Those are good choices for main exercises.  The program worked for me.  For a time.  Then I stopped making progress. 

What is the 5/3/1 book?

It is 97 pages long.

Page 1-5: title, dedication, contents, etc.
Page 6-7: Wendler used to be a high-BP, gear wearing, 1000 lb squatter.  Now he is too busy and wants to just lift raw – and with 5/3/1, he is strong again.  Very important takeaway: The author of 5/3/1 says that it is best for people who are too busy and need something simple.
Page 8-10: The 5-3-1 philosophy.  Basically, 3×5, 3×3, 1×5,3,1, 3×5 (light).  Add 5 lbs to upper body maxes and 10 lbs to lower body maxes and repeat.
Page 11: A list of days of the week that you can train on.  Seriously.  And a picture of Wendler squatting.
Page 12-18: How to do the main exercises.
Page 19-20: About chalk, belt, wraps, shoes, etc.
Page 20-22: The percentage scheme that you should use.  Not getting into it here.  Wendler says to start light, using 90% of your max as your max.  Which is good advice, especially for morons, who figure that they once sort of benched 315 with 3 guys helping but that was a year ago, so their max is about 350, which is the weight they want to bench at a meet in 4 months.
Page 23: On your last set, do as many reps as you can.
Page 24-31: A sample of how to plug in numbers into a template in case you failed math.
Page 31-45: Acceptable Assistance Exercises and how to do them:
dips, chins, pushups, rows, shrugs, db bench, db mil, db incline, bb incline, lunges, step-ups, leg press, back raise, good morning, gh raise, situps, db side bends, hanging leg raises, ab wheel
Page 45-51: How much assistance exercises you should do.  Various choices with catchy names.
Page 52-54: Well-written exhortation not to be a pussy.
Page 55-58: How to warm up.
Page 59-60: Do conditioning.  Push a prowler or run hills.
Page 61: 3 day a week version for pussies
Page 62-63: 2 day a week version for busy pussies.
Page 64: 1 day a week version for people who should kill themselves.
Page 65-66: How to use excel
Page 67-76: FAQ, not too bad, except where he says that 5/3/1 is for beginner – or advanced lifters
Page 77-84: Success stories.  Yeah, i’m pretty sure “Bill Smith went from 340×1 on bench to 315×5!!” and its ilk should go on the cover of the book, or at least not take up 9% of its contents.
Page 85-87: Percentage charts for the calculator-challenged
Page 88-96: Photocopy these charts for your use.
Page 97: Picture of Wendler and his son.

So please, unless you want to get hustled, do not spend $25 on this glorified pamphlet.  Do the program if you want, but if you must spend money, buy “Dinosaur Training”.  It is 10x more entertaining, has 5x as much content, and provides actual suggestions for 1) writing your own program and 2) not doing the same thing in 4 week cycles for the rest of your life.

Who is 5/3/1 good for?

If your previous workout was bench press, curls and leg extensions, you will make gains and likely start posting on internet forums and reviewing the book on Amazon.

It is also good for:

  • Beginners (defined by the ability to perform the exercises correctly – those who cannot should pick up a copy of starting strength instead)  up to Intermediates (defined by the cessation of 5/3/1 gains and the ability to write one’s own program like a big boy)
  • Guys who are too busy to learn about training but still want to be moderately strong
  • People who are stupid and/or lazy
  • Athletes who need a decent training program and could care less about learning anything; also, busy/disinterested coaches
  • T-nation dick-riders and Wendler ball-garglers

What is your point?

Here are my main objections to 5/3/1 and the summary of all this rambling:

1. Do not expect 5/3/1 to work long-term.  You will eventually plateau.  If you add 10 lbs to your squat every month and 5 lbs to your bench, and start with a 225 bench and 315 squat, in five years of 5/3/1, you will be squatting 915 and benching 525.  Raw.  Do not expect 5/3/1 to take you to the upper reaches of powerlifting unless you think there  is something magical about the number sequence 3,3,3,5,5,5,5,3,1,5,5,5.

2. Stop asking Wendler stupid questions on online forums.  You are only embarassing yourself.  If you cannot answer every possible 5/3/1 question with this blog post and google, then buy the book.  If you still have questions, you are too dumb and should not under any circumstances be allowed in a dangerous place like a gym.

3. Stop classifying 5/3/1 as an “advanced program”  That means you, lift.net.

4. Stop riding Wendler’s cock. This means you, T-nation.  Some jabroni invented a mod of 5/3/1 called  8/5/3, (or 8/6/3, i can’t care) .  The T-nation editor prefaced the article about this program  with this asinine quote: “The author has monkeyed with one of the greatest training programs of all time. Should we allow him to live?”  This goes double for his internet fan club at that site and elsewhere.  If you are gay, that is fine.  That is a personal preference, not a reason to choose a training protocol.

5. The book is 97 pages and apparently sells for 24.99.  Some of the pages are blank.  So the picture of Wendler and his son cost you more than a quarter.  The pages of people saying how good the program is cost you $1.75

6.  Please under no circumstances attempt to justify any of the above criticism by saying that “Beyond 5/3/1″ is better and people should spend more money on that.

7. Summary of summaries: The 5/3/1 program is adequate.  But in no way innovative.

4 thoughts on “Why 5/3/1 Sucks

  1. this was a funny post. also, it carries some truth along with the humor.

    of course wendler wants to make a buck where he can. namely, by writing an e-book and selling it to people like me: someone who wants to be strong but lacks the knowledge or intelligence to make their own program. a program that actually makes them stronger, that is. I do not hold that against him, and neither do you, it seems.

    what I would like to add on the plus side is that wendler seems to have a low tolerance for bullshit. this, I would say, is his biggest strength (pun intended, oh yes).

    • Greetings, my Swedish friend. Glad you liked the post. I see you are getting results from 5/3/1. Which is good – you are the target audience.

      To clarify, in cultural terms that you will relate to, Hrothgar and his men trained 5/3/1. Beowulf also started out with a basic program. But after a year or so, Hygelac switched him to something more advanced. (Grendel took too many anabolics – which strengthen the muscles, but leave the tendons weak)

      • the cultural reference gets an a for effort. using the characters from “the long ships” would be very impressive, though. :-)

        just out of curiosity I wonder: at what point, roughly, in your training did you switch from BFS to something else? and can this something else be a template be something from westside?

        for me personally, I feel that 5/3/1 still has plenty to offer with regards to strength development.

  2. @lyfta (I can’t figure out how to reply to a reply). I will check out “the long ships”. I studied Beowulf and Old English for 2 semesters. I have all my training logs and will have to look back to see. I personally have done westside program 2x for about a year each time and got almost nothing out of it. More about this in a blog post, but this is basically the same thing I will say: http://www.jtsstrength.com/articles/2013/05/29/west-of-westside/

    I switched when BFS stopped working. Which is when you should stop 5/3/1. I am looking forward to an archealogical/statistical study of my training. I do believe I made good progress on a HIT-type program at one point. Not the Mentzer “forced reps every 2 weeks” or the Darden “slow motion for weak muscles” programs, as those are rightfully mocked as gibberish. But on a Leistner/Kubik type of routine: “Squat a big weight for a lot of reps. Press a big weight for a lot of reps. Chinup/dip a lot. Deadlift a big weight for a lot of reps. Farmers Walk. Vomit!”

    I hope my next few blog posts will be useful to you.

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