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The workouts revolve around Four Key Lifts: The Back Squat, The Deadlift, The Bench Press and The Overhead Press.
Beyond that I personally recommend Four Assistance Lifts: Back Squat, Romanian Deadlifts, Bent Over Row and Chin Ups/Pull Ups.
You can throw in additional assistance work as you feel like it, but generally only three exercises per day.
Why Is It Called 5/3/1
For your Key Lifts, the sets and reps you use follow a FOUR WEEK cycle.
Week 1: 3 sets of 5 reps
Week 2: 3 sets of 3 reps
Week 3: 5 reps, 3 reps, 1 rep
Week 4: 3 sets of 5 reps (light)
Any assistance work will be 5 sets of 10-12 reps.
How Much Weight Should I Use
Here’s where the program starts taking away some of the effort of writing your own routine. Each set you lift a percentage of your 1 Rep Max (the heaviest weight you can lift once for each exercise). To avoid you struggling on the first day, it’s recommended you multiply your weight by 0.9 before using it in calculations.
For example, if I can lift 100kg for the Bench Press, I would use 0.9 x 100 = 90kg in my calculations. If you don’t know your 1 Rep Max you can use a calculator like this to provide an estimate for you.
If you check out these tables you can find your calculated 1 Rep Max and see what you should be doing for each lift.
The consistent use of heavy, low reps has been shown as a great way to increase your strength levels. If you are a beginner I recommend including AMRAP for the final set each week.
What is AMRAP?
AMRAP is shorthand for As Many Reps As Possible. This means that each week, when you do the final set of your Key Lift, you keep going for as long as you can keep good form. I have trained some beginners with this method and it’s not unusual to see them do 15-20 reps on that final set. You should only do this on the LAST of the three sets for your Key Lifts, and not on Week 4.
What Happens After Week 4?
After Week 4 you increase the weight used in your calculations. For Overhead Press and Bench Press, add 2.5kg, for Deadlift and Back Squat, add 5kg. You don’t have to change your assistance lifts in weight, it’s up to how you feel.
Below is an extract from my training journal where you can see 5/3/1 in use. Full log is here. Ideally you would start week one of all four lifts in the same week, for me it was a bit messy. I also decided that if Week 3 wasn’t too hard I would jump straight to Week 5.