Last year I overdid it. I was training up to eight times per week with one rest day in fourteen while working two jobs, looking after a toddler and an expectant wife. My weights workouts consisted of hour-long, sweat drenched pain fests. I used to try to make myself cry on leg day.
The results were great. For a time.
But then I got sick.
I knew my training had to change.
I was exhausted and unable to function. On the day my daughter was born, I was too weak to stand for more than a few minutes at a time. I had a fever, flu symptoms, breathlessness and my mum had to move in for a few weeks till I recovered. I lost most of my gains and didn’t go back into the weight room for two months.
Around this time, I found an article on T-nation.com by a guy called Jim Wendler. It spoke of a training protocol called 5/3/1 (Read the article here).
I’d heard of this but never understood it. Reading the abbreviated version in the article gave me a craving for more and I had to buy the book.
Jim Wendler is just an ordinary guy:
He’s a Dad and a businessman
He’s also a former competitive powerlifter
A long lay off forced him to develop 5/3/1 to improve his strength
I’ve been training the Jim Wendler 5/3/1 way for over year now. During that time my training has completely changed. I’m getting stronger every day thanks to this book. I’ve also put on more muscle.
Keep reading to find out the TOP FIVE things I learned from reading 5/3/1.
1. Everyone is Busy so Suck it Up and Get Some Work Done
Wendler is a guy just like me. He loves training but doesn’t have limitless amounts of time with work, family life and his impressive community pro-Bono work with local youths.
His programme can be done twice, three or four times per week depending on how busy you are.
Go hard and then go home.
The key point is that every Dad in my position is short for time. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I need to get in that weight room.
Once I’m there, I lift.
And then I leave.
When I over trained, there was no-one else to blame but me.
I’ll also do cardio – either running, hill sprints, cycling or some kind of conditioning circuit 3-4 times a week. Because I’m not doing crippling leg workouts, this is much more manageable.
When I run I’ll sometimes take the buggy for an upper body workout.
2. Less is not Necessarily More and More is not Necessarily More.
Wendler puts considerable focus on the main strength lifts and a few assistance exercises.
Each workout you do one main strength lift (dead lift, squat etc) followed by assistance work. How much is up to you but the recommendation is to go for efficiency over volume.
Each main lift culminates in one epic, all out, max set. You set a rep target.
Then you’re done. On the third week of each 4 week cycle you’ll work up to a 1 rep max or ‘single’.
If you can do more, great. The progression up to a single rep can be quite intense but feeling like you’ve achieved something every workout is worth it.
This has been a game changer for me. Instead of 20-25 sets per workout, I do 8-10 work sets, not including warm up sets. I’m done in 30 minutes, I can still walk and I’m still seeing better results than when I was training for double or even triple that time.
Jim focuses on efficiency (more bang for your buck) with compound assistance such as rows, chins and dips. These are designed to:
Improve your grip
Reduce the risk of injury
Ultimately increase your 5/3/1 maxes
The days when I used to camp in the cable crossover have long gone. It’s not more work, or less work. It’s better work.
3. Jim Wendler Plays the Long Game When it Comes to Improving Strength
Over the past year, all my core lifts are up (2016 update – I added 50 kilos (110lbs) to my deadlift 1RM in 18 months!) All my assistance lifts are up too. The progress isn’t linear but the general direction is up. One of the founding principles of Wendler’s protocol is slow, steady increases in strength. As he says:
People want a program that will add 40 pounds to their bench in eight weeks. When I ask how much their bench went up in the last year, they hang their heads in shame.
If you’re serious about training and lifting, this will make sense.
Hopefully its a lifestyle you’ve chosen, not something you’re going to do until that offer on cheap gym membership runs out. You’re prepared to wait for those gains because you’re prepared to invest the time to get them.
4. Train When the Gym is Empty to Avoid Distractions and get the Equipment you Need
I train at a small college gym. The staff are friendly and the weights room is well equipped. However there is only one Olympic platform, one squat rack and one bench.
If I’m to get in and out in 30 minutes, that kit needs to be available.
We all know that if you train at lunch, or in the evening on a Monday, you’re going to have to wait until 15 minutes before closing time to get that bench from the Gym Bros.
So I don’t.
I get up early and hit the gym (sometimes before opening time) while its quiet. And leave. Jim Wendler says that you either do 5/3/1 or you don’t. Substituting exercises isn’t really an option.
5. Don’t Over Think Supplementation and Nutrition – Simple is Better
In the past, I’ve been the biggest sucker for buying sports nutrition products and supplements. Wendler has a no-nonsense approach to the subject which is basically ‘Eat loads of protein, carbs and keep it clean.’ He advises using protein drinks to supplement if you need it.
However what I’ve found is that I get enough protein from my diet to cut my shakes to one post workout. I sip BCAAs during the day but otherwise my diet focuses on whole foods. Not only is this more satisfying, it’s cheaper.
After reading Wendler, I also ditched the ‘six small meals a day’ that the fitness magazines are fixated on. Instead I have four good meals which works better for me. A typical day would look like this:
Dinner – 7.00pm:ground beef, mixed vegetables, small piece of dark chocolate
Pre-Bed – 10.30pm: Greek yogurt
Fewer meals means less meal prep which is always a bonus.
Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 Transformed my Training
Before training Jim Wendler 5/3/1, my lifting was pretty random. I wasn’t making progress in terms of strength or muscle size. Any gains I did see vanished when I got ill.
Making the change to a more disciplined and directional approach to weight training has made a huge difference. If you’ve been training for a while and need a new challenge and focus, this is the book for you.