Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 is based around four main lifts: squat, bench press, deadlift and overhead press. Once you’ve completed your prescribed sets and reps for each of these movements, you perform your assistance work.
What is Assistance Work?
Jim Wendler is a powerlifter and 531 is primarily about building strength. The concept of assistance exercises comes from the world of powerlifting where you train your main competition weights and then follow up with assistance moves.
Often assistance work is used to improve on weaknesses in the main lifts such as grip or failure at the top/bottom of a movement.
For example, if your grip is repeatedly failing on the deadlift your assistance might focus on farmer’s walks or dumbbell rows – without straps (If you’re using straps and your grip isn’t getting better, there is a good reason for this!).
So assistance exercises assist powerlifters to become stronger in their main competition lifts of bench press, squat and deadlift.
My before and after photos tell their own story. Jim Wendler 5/3/1 with intelligent assistance exercise choice works.
Dads Need to Train Assistance Smarter (Unless You’re A Competitive Powerlifter)
If you’re not a competitive powerlifter (Let’s face it, you aren’t. If you are, why they heck are you taking training advice from me?!) then assistance should serve a treble purpose:
Improve on weakness across the four 5/3/1 lifts
Prevent injury and muscular imbalances
Build muscle and size
The two assistance programmes I use are ‘Boring but Big’ – for when I want to add size and the ‘Triumvirate’. Both are described in more detail in Wendler’s book.
Assistance for Mass – Boring But Big
The principle behind Boring But Big (BBB) is pretty simple. Perform your main lift for the prescribed sets and reps. Then drop the weight and do 5 sets of 10 reps of the same exercise. That’s your assistance work. You then finish with a light movement like bicep curls or body weight dips. Sounds easy right?
This is hard work but it will result in bigger pumps and harder worked muscles. Follow this up with another assistance exercise of 5×10 reps. For more on Boring but Big, read this.
Assistance for Efficiency and Muscle: The Triumvirate
What’s a Triumvirate?
A heavy metal band?
A fungal infection?
A new brand of pick up truck?
None of these? Read on…
In Ancient Rome, a triumvirate was a coalition of three powerful individuals who worked together and complimented each other. The first example of this was Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus. Not a bad combination.
Translate this into the gym and you get the idea to pick three exercises that complement each other.
These assistance exercises can use the same muscles as your core lift – e.g. bench press and incline dumbbell press.
Or they can be antagonistic – using opposing muscle groups for example pairing parallel dips with deadlifts.
Because you only get three exercises for your entire workout these need to count. You will need to train with intensity. After all you’re looking at 13 work sets.
The Triumvirate is how I train most of the time. But how do I select assistance exercises and what are my top three?
Feel free to mix up your assistance exercises. Need to work on your biceps? Finish with a few drop sets of curls.
The Top Three Jim Wendler Assistance Exercises for Efficiency and Strength
Selecting assistance is a little bit of trial and error. You should try and experiment and see what works for you. Not everyone is the same.
I would suggest sticking with the same assistance exercises for at least one full cycle of 531 before changing. A change can help break up boredom/feeling like you’re in a gym based version of groundhog day. Just don’t do it for every workout.
Remember, as a time pushed Dad, the focus is on exercise efficiency so camping in the cable station is out.
There’s a pretty exhaustive list in Wendler’s Ebook (read the review here) so I’m not going to go into the merits of every single possible exercise.
Instead here is a rundown of three assistance exercises that provide a lot of training bang for your buck.
Chin ups/Pull ups:
Until about a year ago, I couldn’t really do these. That was my excuse: ‘I can’t do pull ups so I’m not going to.’ But one day I just decided to start and gradually worked up my numbers until I can do 5 sets of 6-8 reps. Maybe I’ll write about how I got there if there’s enough interest.
Chins/Pull ups are a great exercise for working your core, lats, arms, shoulders. Wendler recommends changing up your grip for every set. I would suggest starting with a more challenging grip (wide pronated grip) and work down to easier grip combinations (close neutral grip).
If you struggle with chins, stay away from the lat pulldown machine. It doesn’t work the true movement. Use bands or forced reps until you can do 3 sets of 6-8.
Best Wendler Assistance: Dips
Dipping on a parallel bar is one of the kings of exercises for building chest and shoulder size, strength and generally looking like a badass. Out of all upper body exercises, this has built up my chest and shoulders up the most. Some bench days, I just do bench and dips.
Add a 5 or 10kg weight plate once you can easily do 5 sets of 8 reps.
Recently my gym moved the dip bar to face the cardio and treadmill area. So now you can look like a badass while all the cardio kings and queens look on.
Assistance for Chicken Legs: Front Squats
I both hate and suck at front squats. The bar feels really awkward. I’m also a tall dude so I have to splay my legs out to get deep enough.
Which is why I do them regularly.
Front squats engage the core and other stabilising muscles which will help prevent injury. You can use dumbbells or even a pair of kettlebells for a bit of variation.
If you really struggle with these, start with an empty bar and work your way up, adding a bit of weight each week.
Leave your ego in the locker room, put some loud music in and front squat until you can’t front squat no more.
A Word about Conditioning
So you might have heard certain people on the internet saying things like ’30 minutes per workout isn’t enough’. Which I agree with.
However, from my own experience, working out with maximum intensity for an hour 5 times per week while working 2 jobs and looking after 2 kids is too much.
So a balance needs to be struck.
Which is where conditioning comes into the equation.
Wise use of conditioning will improve and maintain cardiovascular fitness, reduce body fat and improve overall health. Things like ‘finisher’ circuits, hill sprints, bodyweight/home workouts can all be part of your programme.
I’ll generally hit the gym three to four times a week with 3 or 4 conditioning/cardio sessions consisting of running, sprints/interval training and circuits.
Assistance exercises should be fun. They should be a reward for a good max set in your main lift. The trick is to not overthink them. Go for efficiency and if you find something that works, keep doing it.
I’ve trained 5/3/1 for over three years now – mixing your assistance up a bit helps with any monotony. In that time, I’ve mainly used the triumvirate for my assistance work.
Give it a go, you’ll be surprised at the gains you make with such few sets and in such little time.
P.S. I wrote a whole section on fitness and healthy living which features in my book A Father’s Mission which is out now. Get it here.