I’ve been asked a lot over the years, and read thousands of blog posts about ‘the best way to train’. I’ve explored the cult of crossfit, strongman, triathletes, marathoners, powerlifters, and everything in between. My first question when training anyone is ‘What are your goals?”. Someone whose goal is to squat 600 lbs raw will have a wildly different training template than someone whose goal is to run a sub 5 minute mile. That being said, I think what most people are looking for is a program that integrates conditioning with strength and produces visible results.
I’m going to use myself as an example, because I know what I’m after better than anyone, and I invested an enormous amount of time and effort trying to design the perfect program based on my goals. I’ll start with goals because that should always be the starting point in designing any training program:
- Squat 500 lbs raw — increase 1RM squat by 10 lbs per month
- Deadlift 600 lbs raw — increase 1RM deadlift by 10 lbs per month
- Bench Press 400 lbs — increase 1 RM bench press by 5 lbs per month
- Overhead Press Bodyweight — increase OHP 1RM by 5 lbs per month
- Increase Conditioning — Run 800m in under 2:20, Row 1000m in under 3 minutes — Shave 1 second of 800m run time trial per month and .5 seconds of 1000m row time trial
I’ll be the first to point out that these goals don’t fall into the S.M.A.R.T. template that I encourage all training clients to use when setting goals – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely. Actually where they fall short is the timely component, but I think it would be difficult to put a timeframe on these goals — they are more like life achievements. I’ll be happy to hit any single one of them in the next 5 years or so.
With these goals in mind, I sit down every week on Sunday night and design my programming for the week. I’m currently using Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 Training program to work towards my first 4 goals, and additional conditioning work to aim for the fifth goal.
Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 Training Program
Before I go into summarizing Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program, let me start by HIGHLY recommending you buy his book. Rarely have I come across one piece of literature that has made such a difference in my life. This is a must read for anyone serious about strength training. You can buy his book here. The overview I am going to list below leaves out some details that are best summarized in his book, such as how to use the 5/3/1 program on a 3 day per week split, assistance work templates, and 5/3/1 assistance variations.
You start the program by finding your 1 rep max on each of the 4 main lifts – squat, bench press, overhead press, and deadlift. In my case, my current 1 rep maxes are:
Squat: 420 lbs
Deadlift: 500 lbs
Overhead Press: 200 lbs
Bench Press: 320 lbs
During the first week, your work sets will be 65% of your 1RM x 5 reps, 75% of your 1RM x 5 reps, then 85% of your 1RM x5+ reps. Notice on the last set your goal is to get as many reps as possible. This is important because each workout you will be trying to set a new ‘rep max’. So in my example, on Monday when I do my squat workout, my first work set (after thorough warmup) would be 273 lbs x 5 reps (420 lbs x 65% = 273). My second set would be 315 lbs x 5 reps. And my final set would be 357 lbs x 5+ reps. I repeat this template for my bench press, overhead press, and deadlift workouts. Wendler emphasizes this last set, because if you can squat 350 lbs for 6 reps one month then 350 lbs for 8 reps the next month, you have gotten stronger without relying solely on your 1 rep max numbers.
During the second week, your work sets will be 70% of your 1RM x 3 reps, 80% of your 1RM x 3 reps, then 90% of your 3RM x 3+ reps. Again your go for a rep max on the final set.
During the third week, your work sets are 75% of your 1RM x 5 reps, 85% of your 1RM x 3 reps, then 95% of your 1RM x 1+ reps.
The fourth week of the cycle is a ‘de-load week’ designed to let your body recover. Your work sets are 40% of your 1RM x 5 reps, 50% of your 1Rm x 5 reps, then 60% of your 1RM x 5 reps. You do not go for a rep-max on the last set during this week.
At the end of the 4 week cycle, you add 10 lbs to your 1RM in squat and deadlift, and 5 lbs to your 1RM in bench press and overhead press. You use these numbers to determine your weights for 4 weeks after that.
Wendler described many variations on assistance work and templates for doing so. If you want to read a detailed overview of his recommendations for assistance work, please buy his book. Here’s how I approach my assistance work, based on what has worked best for me:
- Test to find your 1RM for each assistance lift
- Week One – .5×10, .6×10, .70×10
- Week Two – .6×8, .7×8, .85×5
- Week Three – .65×5, .75×5, .85×5
- Week Four – .4×5,.5×5, .6×5
- Squat Days – After completing my 3 works sets of squats, I then do 5 sets of 10 reps @ 255 lbs. I increase this weight by 5 lbs per month…so for example next month I would do 5 sets of 10 reps at 260 lbs. I then do Romanian (straight-legged deadlifts) following Wendler’s assistance work template which is listed above. I find my 1RM on the Romanian deadlift, and week one I do 10 reps at 50% of my 1RM, then 10 reps at 60% of my 1RM, then 10 reps at 70% of my 1RM. I use the other percentages for weeks 2-4. I also do 5 sets of 10 reps each of leg raises and weighted back extensions to build my core strength.
- Bench Press Days – After completing my 3 works sets of bench press, I then do 5 sets of 10 reps @ 190 lbs. I increase this weight by 5 lbs per month, so for example next month I would do 5 sets of 10 reps @ 195 lbs. In between sets of the 190lb bench press, I do weighted pullups – 10 reps at bodyweight +20lbs. I then do incline bench press following the format above under ”programming assistance work’. This is always 3 sets. In between these sets I do Kroc Rows – 3 sets of 15 reps with a 100 lb dumbbell. I would go higher, but the gym I’m at only goes up to 100 lbs. Wendler recommends Kroc Rows for building a strong back and improving grip strength — so far these have helped me greatly. Lastly, I do weighted dips and preacher curls – 5 sets of 10 for each. For dips I use a belt and add 20 lbs.
- Deadlift Days – After completing my 3 work sets of deadlift, I then do 5 sets of 10 reps @ 315 lbs. I increase this weight by 5 lbs per month, so next month I would be doing 5 sets of 10 reps @ 320 lbs. I keep increasing in a linear fashion until I cannot complete the 10 reps, then I stay at that weight until I can complete 5 sets of 10 reps. I then do front squats following the ‘programming assistance work’ template. So week one I do 10 reps @ 50% of my 1RM, then 10 reps @ 60% of my 1RM, then 10 reps at 70% of my 1RM. After I finish the front squats I do 5 sets of 10 reps of leg raises and weighted back extensions to build core strength.
- Overhead Press Days – After completing my 3 work sets of deadlift, I then do 5 sets of 10 reps @ 125 lbs. I increase this weight by 5 lbs per month, so next month I would be doing 5 sets of 10 reps @ 130 lbs.In between sets of the 125lb overhead press, I do weighted pullups – 10 reps at bodyweight +20lbs. I then do close grip benchpress press following the format above under ”programming assistance work’. The close grip bench helps build tricep strength and therefore lockout power in both bench press and overhead press. This is always 3 sets. In between these sets I do Kroc Rows – 3 sets of 15 reps with a 100 lb dumbbell. Lastly, I do weighted dips and preacher curls – 5 sets of 10 for each. For dips I use a belt and add 20 lbs.
Wendler has plenty of great recommendations for conditioning work, but my time and resources are limited. On days when I’m at the gym, I simply run on the treadmill at a 10% incline for 30 seconds on followed by 30 seconds of rest. Out of the gym, I devote one day to running actual hill sprints – 10 sets of sprinting up a 250m hill followed by walking down it and repeating. I also mix in 1-2 Crossfit workouts per week – for example 7 minutes of as many reps as possible of burpees.
On Saturdays I like to go down to Hybrid Athletics and complete a strongman workout. This helps with both my strength and work capacity. I find that the strongman movements translate very well into powerlifting and olympic lifts, both of which I’m trying to improve. The workouts also build mental toughness. I choose one workout per week from StrongmanWOD.com and do it on Saturday…that’s all I do on Saturday. Sunday is my rest day for the week.
I also try to squeeze in 2-3 Bikram yoga sessions per week. The flexibility helps greatly with recovery time and overall health. I also love the mental benefits and de-stressing effect from the yoga. I mix this in whenever time permits.
Putting it All Together
Given all of the above, here’s a snapshot of my week this week at the gym — I’m in the second week of a Wendler cycle, so I am using the 3-rep scheme as outline under the Wendler overview…my 1-rep maxes are listed in parentheses.
Monday (Squat Day – 415lb 1RM): 290×3, 330×3, 375×3+; 255 lbs x 5 sets of 10 reps; Romanian Deadlift – 185×5, 215×8, 245×6; Back Extension – 5 sets of 10 reps @ bodyweight + 25lbs ; Leg Raise – 5 sets of 10 reps. Treadmill Sprints @ 10% incline, 8.0 mph – 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off for 20 minutes. Bikram yoga for 90 minutes at night.
Tuesday (Bench Press Day – 320lb 1RM): 225×3, 255×3, 290×3+; 190 lbs x 5 sets of 10 reps; 5 sets of 10 reps of weighted pullups – bodyweight +20lbs; Incline Bench Press – 125×8, 147×8, 165×6; Kroc Rows – 3 sets of 15 reps each hand @ 100 lbs; Dips – 5 sets of 10 reps at bodyweight +20 lbs; Preacher Curls – 5 sets of 10 reps at 80 lbs. Treadmill Sprints @ 10% incline, 8.0 mph – 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off for 20 minutes.
Wednesday (Hill Sprints / Conditioning): 10 sets of hill sprints on a 250m hill – sprint up, walk down, repeat. 7 minutes of burpees. Bikram yoga at night.
Thursday (Deadlift Day – 470 lb 1RM): 330×3, 375×3, 425×3+; 315 lbs – 5 sets of 10 reps; Front Squat – 170×8, 200×8, 225×6; Back Extension – 5 sets of 10 reps at bodyweight +20lbs; Leg Raise – 5 sets of 10 reps;
Friday (Overhead Press Day – 200lb 1RM): 140×3, 160×3, 180×3+; 125x5x10; Weighted Pullups – 5 sets of 10 reps at bodyweight +20lbs; Close Grip Bench – 135×8, 160×8, 180×6; Kroc Rows – 3 sets of 15 reps each hand with 100 lb dumbbell; Dips – 5 sets of 10 reps at bodyweight +20lbs; Preacher Curls – 5 sets of 10 reps at 80 lbs; Treadmill Sprints @ 10% incline, 8.0 mph – 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off for 20 minutes.
Saturday (Strongman Training): 20 GH Situps 75 feet of Yoke Walk (the goal is 3x bodyweight) 5 Rounds for Time