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Thoughts on strength and conditioning: Jim Wendler's 5/3/1

So today Chris and I finished our first 5/3/1 cycle. 5/3/1 is a strength training protocol designed by Jim Wendler. You can find some information on the program [here], a follow-up article to clarify some points is given [here]. Also, you can buy the 5/3/1 ebook [here].

After neglecting proper strength training for quite a while now, Chris and I realized it was time to get our weak butts back in shape again. One of my athletes, Alex, has successfully been on the 5/3/1 program for a while now, so instead of going for our [5x5] training again, we decided to give a try to Wendler's approach.

The protocol

Although you can find all information following the links provided above, I'll give you the idea in a nutshell.
First off, the program's goal is to increase maximal strength on the squat, deadlift, bench press and shoulder press. The original program has the athlete train four days a week, performing a different lift on every workout. Hence, each lift will be done once per week. After a warmup, there's three working sets at increasing intensities (i.e. amount of lifted weight). On the last set, the weight is to be lifted as many times as possible.

Each training cycle consists of three actual training weeks followed by one deload week. Intensity is increased from week to week. The following table illustrates the intensity progressions:


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 rep max 90% x rep max 95% x rep max 60% x 5

Thoughts

With the original 5/3/1, all training intensities are calculated from 90% of the athletes 1RM. I can see where Wendler is coming from when setting this starting point. Still, we calculated intensity based on our true 1RM. We did proper tests a week before starting the program, so our 1RM' aren't estimation, they're fact. Also, I feel that the whole program loses something of it's mathematical correctness after the first cycle anyways, so in the long term, it doesn't matter. When I say the program loses some of it's correctness that's because Wendler says to increase one's 1RM estimation by 5 pounds for upper body lifts and 10 pounds for lower body lifts after each cycle. Of course, that's the point when intensities start to differ between lifters.

Not convinced yet? Let's assume athlete a can squat 335 pounds with good form. Increasing the 1RM by ten pounds gives us a new 1RM of 345 pounds. That's an improvement by roughly three percent. On the other hand, let's assume a lighter athlete with a 1RM of 210 pounds on the squat. After the first cycle, that athlete has increased his 1 RM by five percent. One athlete increases his 1RM estimation by three percent, the other by five. That's a two percent difference. That's a rather subtle detail, but then this imprecision grows bigger with each cycle. Besides, the above example certainly doesn't tap into extremes - think of someone like Wendler who squats over 1000 pounds compared to a lightweight fighter with a squat of around 200. Adding the same amount of weight just doesn't seem right.

Our modifications

As stated above, we calculated our intensities from our true 1RM rather than 90%. This may be good or bad, I honestly don't care.

When it comes to training frequency, since we're martial artists, not powerlifters, we packed the whole plan into two sessions. We're performing two lifts during each of those. Also, to implement some form of explosive lifting, we exchanged the military press for a clean and press.

As for accessory work, we chose Wendler's "big but boring" option. This basically means doing the same main lifts again, 5 sets of 10 repetitions at 50% intensity. As there's no pulling movement whatsoever in the original protocol, we tossed in pull-ups (bodyweight, 7 repetitions per set). To further adopt the whole thing to our needs, we organized those three exercises (2 lifts + pullups) into a giant set, i.e. there's no break in between them. On each set, we stopped the time it took us to complete the set and then tried to beat that time on the next set. This is extremely intense, to say the least. Now while the added cardiovascular benefit definitely is a nice feature, this form of training is also very taxing. In fact, it's so taxing it effectively keeps us from performing at our best the day after the strength session. Also, since there's a couple of fights coming up in the next months, bulking ain't exactly the smart thing to do at the moment. Therefore, we'll swap the big but boring option for Chad Waterbury's [Iron Core] circuit. We're still thinking of a way to accomodate the pull-ups in the program, but that shouldn't be much of a problem.

The future

There's a kickboxing tournament on april 14th, so after today there'll be no heavy lifting until after the fight. Instead, we'll do the Iron Core circuit after our technique/sparring sessions to get a feeling for the exercises. After the tournament, we'll go back to following the 5/3/1 protocol, along with the [Iron Core] circuit. I'm pretty curios as to how our strength levels will go up and how this will transfer to my kicks and punches. Obviously, I'll keep you informed on the matter.

So long,

take care

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