I know for a fact that when most people first see the 5/3/1 workout program they feel it doesn’t have enough frequency.
I mean, obviously you don’t want to offend a legend like Jim Wendler, but it just doesn’t seem like enough to elicit strength gains or muscle growth.
So, should you be adding more exercises and perhaps even exercise variations?
Or will sticking with what Jim teaches us be enough to pack on some serious strength (and hopefully size too)?
Here’s what you need to know about 5/3/1 and frequency.
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Does 5/3/1 Have Enough Frequency?
The iconic Jim Wendler 5/3/1 program created in 2009 may lack some frequency. However, the original program was specifically aimed at training the 4 main lifts (bench press, squats, overhead press, deadlifts) for raw strength. With that being said, Jim has created multiple variations of 5/3/1, some of which provide a lot more training frequency, e.g. “Boring But Big” (BBB) requires you to perform 5 sets of 10 reps of accessory lifts to compliment the Big 4.
1. The Basic 5/3/1 Lacks Training Frequency
I guess if you’re talking about the original and iconic 5/3/1 training system, created in 2009, then this may lack some training frequency.
However, Jim Wendler created this program purely to increase raw strength.
So, you would simply perform each exercise, bench press, squats, overhead press, and deadlift, once a week.
The aim is to hit the percentages of your 1 rep-max, reps and sets for the first three weeks before deloading in week 4.
This allows your body ample time for recovery before you go through the cycle again.
The reason the volume and frequency is so low is because you are looking to add weight to each additional training cycle.
So, you would typically look to add 10lbs to your one-rep max per training cycle (every 4 weeks) for the lower body exercises, i.e. squat and deadlift.
Whereas, you would add 5lb to your one-rep max per training cycle for the upper body exercises, i.e. bench press and overhead press.
In effect, by following 3 cycles over a 12-week period you should add 30lbs (to your one-rep max) to your squat and deadlift, and 15lbs to your bench press and overhead press.
You can obviously continue training cycles until you feel you’ve plateaued.
However, this will usually mean that you’ve added some seriously extra poundage to each lift.
The Original 5/3/1 Program
The original 5/3/1 program would look as follows:
|Week 1||Week 2||Week 3||Week 4|
|Set 1||65% x 5||70% x 3||75% x 5||40% x 5|
|Set 2||75% x 5||80% x 3||85% x 3||50% x 5|
|Set 3||85% x 5*||90% x 3*||95% x 1*||60% x 5*|
When you see the asterisk (*) this means that you should actually perform the final set for maximum reps.
Your aim is to set a new record with each workout for the final set.
So, in week 1 you’ll perform 4 separate workouts (one for each lift) for 3 sets of 5 reps, while increasing weight each set.
In week 2 you follow the same protocol, but this time for 3 sets of 3 reps.
The 3rd week sees you performing decreasing reps with each set, whereas week 4, the deload week, will see you performing each lift with much lighter weights for 3 sets of 5 reps.
That is one cycle completed.
You then start the second cycle in week 5, but assume that your one-rep max has increased by 10lbs for squats and deadlifts and 5lbs for bench press and overhead press.
In effect, week 1 has the most volume, but you still only perform a total of 60 reps (15 reps per exercise) across the entire week.
In week 4 you’ll only perform 36 reps in total across the entire week (9 reps per exercise).
So, as you can see, both volume and frequency of each exercise (and as a cumulative total) is quite low.
But remember, you’re training for raw strength and to simply get better at each of the 4 exercises.
2. Increase 5/3/1 Frequency With “Boring But Big” (BBB)
As I’ve mentioned, Jim has created multiple variations of 5/3/1.
Plus, the workouts typically focus on different training protocols and often use different exercises.
So, you can use 5/3/1 to train for improving general strength, powerlifting, conditioning, or even for speed and vertical jump.
However, one of my favourite protocols still involves using the original 5/3/1, but you’ll also train additional accessory exercises.
The main version of this type of training is known as “Boring But Big” (BBB).
This training system still focuses on raw strength, but can also be used as a hypertrophy workout.
The most basic form of BBB will involve performing 5 sets of 10 reps with a lighter weight of the lift you have trained that day.
Now, based on 3 training cycles over a 3-month period your lighter accessory sets will change in terms of percentage of your one-rep max.
So, in month one you should complete 5 sets of 10 reps of each exercise (on separate days of course) at 50% of your training max.
This increases to 60% in month 2 and 70% in month 3.
Therefore, your week one deadlift workout would look as follows.
- Set 1 – 65% of one-rep max for 5 reps
- Set 2 – 75% of one-rep max for 5 reps
- Set 3 – 85% of one-rep max for 5 reps
Now, when you’re using the BBB method you should not perform the final set for the maximum number of reps possible.
Basically, just stick to the 5 reps in week 1.
And the reason for this is that you’re now going to perform 5 sets of 10 reps for deadlift at 50% of your training max.
So, as you can see, this adds a fair amount of volume to the original 5/3/1 training system.
This once more may not seem like a huge amount of volume, but trust me when I say you’ll feel extremely sore afterwards.
The fact that you’re strength training with heavy weights and then performing 50 reps of the same exercise will definitely add size to your frame.
3. Change the Order of “Boring But Big” For Additional Frequency
There is actually another way to perform BBB, and this will increase the frequency that each body part is trained.
Plus, with this variation, you will train a completely different muscle group, and you can even perform 2 different exercises at 5 sets of 10 reps.
Additionally, this version of BBB involves adding totally different accessory lifts.
Some of the more popular accessory lifts include lunges, pull ups, chin ups, rows, bicep curls, lateral raises and even some ab work.
So, let’s look at a squat day and how this will work out.
You complete your 3 sets of 5 reps (week 1) of squats at 65%, 75%, and 85% of your one-rep max.
You then perform 5 sets of 10 lateral raises and this is followed by 5 sets of 10 reps of bent over rows (remember that you’re performing the accessory lifts at 50% of your training max in week 1).
So, in effect, this workout will train legs for strength, then shoulders and back for hypertrophy.
However, you still have a separate day for strength training (5/3/1) for both shoulders and back to come later in the week.
In effect, each muscle group will be trained at least twice during the week.
And this is how you increase frequency with 5/3/1.
How to Do Wendler 5/3/1
So, hopefully you understand that the original 5/3/1 may not have enough frequency.
With that being said, it is a raw strength training system and has been proven to produce some fantastic results.
However, Jim Wendler has created various forms of 5/3/1 to focus on different training protocols.
So, if you’re more interested in hypertrophy (as well as strength) then you should try the Boring But Big training system.
In effect, you’ll be performing 50 reps more for each exercise.
Then again, you could kick things up a notch, and perform two lots of accessory exercises after your main strength lifts.
This would involve an additional 100 reps after your main 5/3/1 workout and you’ll hit each muscle group multiple times a week.
If you’re looking to take your BIG 3 lifts (bench, squat, deadlift) to the next level then I have just the thing. Chris Wilson of CriticalBench fame has created a workout program that simply uses 3 exercises. Chris claims that you can add 14lbs of lean muscle in the next 60 days. Check out my Review of the Anabolic Aftergrowth Workout Program.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.