5/3/1 By the Numbers
In 5/3/1, you’re expected to train three or four days a week. Each workout is centered around one core lift — the back squat, bench press, deadlift, and standing shoulder press.
Each training cycle lasts four weeks, with these set-rep goals for each major lift:
Week 1: 3 x 5
Week 2: 3 x 3
Week 3: 3 x 5, 3, 1
Week 4: de-loading
Then you start the next cycle, using heavier weights on the core lifts. And that’s where a seemingly simple system starts getting a little more complicated.
You aren’t just picking a weight to lift five times or three times or one time per set. You’re using a specific percentage of your one-rep max. And not your full 1RM. The calculations are based on 90% of it.
So if your 1RM in the bench press is 315 pounds, you use 285 (90%) as the base number for your training-weight calculations. Here’s how it works:
When you see 5+, 3+, or 1+, that means you do the max reps you can manage with that weight, with the goal of setting a rep record in each workout.
Let’s walk through the Week 1 workout for bench press. Using the example above, if your 1RM is 315, you calculate all your percentages from 90% of that max, or 285 pounds.
So you’re using 185 (65% of 285) x 5, 215 x 5, and 240 or 245 x 5 or more
After you finish the first cycle (4 weeks), you add five pounds to your 1RM calculations for the two upper-body lifts and 10 pounds to your 1RM for the squat and deadlift.
These specific instructions for 1RM percentages and monthly progression are what set 5/3/1 apart from less useful systems. With 5/3/1, you accomplish a goal every workout. Some programs have no progression from one day to the other.
Another unique feature is that final balls-out set in each workout. You don’t have to go beyond the prescribed reps if you don’t feel like it, but there are real benefits to doing so. Think of it like doing the prescribed reps as simply testing your strength. Anything over and above that builds strength, muscle, and character. Yes, that last set is the one that puts hair on your chest, but the system doesn’t work without the sets that precede it. There might be only one really hard set, but the other sets are still quality work.
Along with the bench press, squat, shoulder press, and deadlift, 5/3/1 includes assistance exercises to build muscle, prevent injury, and create a balanced physique. My favorites are strength-training staples like chin-ups, dips, lunges, and back extensions.
But don’t go ape-shit with these supplemental exercises. They should complement the training, not detract from it. You must have a very strong reason for doing an exercise. If you don’t, scrap it and move on.