Chances are, you’ve heard about the Wendler 531 program. But, what is it? How does it work? Can it help you build strength? We’ve got the details you need to help you decide.
Pure power and strength are two results most men and some women seek from a weightlifting program that focuses on using heavy loads. However, the issue is most people do not understand the concept of reps and sets with chosen load percentages. As a result, many people end up not increasing their strength even though they are pushing heavier weight.
That’s why well-known powerlifters such as Jim Wendler created strength training programs for the average Joe to start training hard. Aside from this, the Wendler 5 3 1 program can help every athlete from the intermediate stage on to the advanced work out schedule. The concept is easy to follow and has proven to work.
Let’s take a look at this Wendler 5 3 1 workout and see why it is so effective.
Commit To Strength Training
Before we dive into the Wendler 5 3 1 gym workouts, let’s first discuss why you might want to worry about your overall strength in the first place. Strength training is important for every single person and new research has shown that people even into their senior years should be doing strength-training workouts routinely as long as they are medically capable.
The truth is there are many reasons why you should want to increase your body’s strength. For one thing, it increases muscle and bone density. It strengthens your joints to help prevent injuries. As well, it prevents muscle loss especially during the older years in life. Increasing your body strength also carries over to real life settings. For example, you need strength to move things around. Body strength will also help to prevent fat gains. That’s vital if you want to avoid many health problems linked with excessive fat.
Reasons Why Strength Training Is Important
Your bones and muscles will begin to worsen over time, especially once you hit your 30s. But, the inactive lifestyles and bad eating habits of today’s generation have caused this to come much earlier in life. Both men and women are losing bone and muscle density in their early 20s these days. This is not a good outlook for the future.
Your bones and muscles need to be constantly active if you wish to maintain a healthy state of living. Strength training is well known for encouraging muscle growth, but not many are aware that it also strengthens bones.
You can’t fully prevent injuries from occurring, but you can take steps to help to greatly decrease the odds. Large numbers of people on a daily basis injure their shoulders, knees and hips because they have weak joints that just do not receive enough active attention through daily use. This causes them to weaken over time. The result is that you reach up to grab a box and hurt your shoulder. Strength training can help you avoid that fate.
Strength training workouts not only increase your flexibility and the strength of your joints, but it also helps move them through various ranges of motion. By doing so, your joints are used to make movements that place tension on them, thus helping them to stay strong to prevent possible injuries.
Unless you overtrain your muscles, you do not have to worry about muscle gains being lost through training. Cardio is well known for its benefits to decrease body fat, but is also a big factor in muscle loss when it is done too often for even 30 minutes at a time.
For example, a study took subjects and placed them into two groups. One group performed high-intensity interval training (HIIT) with strength training exercises for 20 minutes, three days a week. Another group did regular cardio such as running for 30 minutes, three days a week. The outcome was pretty noteworthy.
The regular cardio group burned more calories, but only lost around 0.3% body fat. They even lost a pound of muscle. The HIIT group lost 2% body fat and gained over 2 pounds of muscle. This shows that strength training can be quite powerful when used properly.
During your muscle building routine, you will most likely bend over to pick up something. You may reach up high for an object. You could even carry an item such as a box across the room or grocery bags from your car into the house. All these movements have exercises that relate to them, so strength training is going to carry over to real life movements outside of the gym.
Why Would Jim Wendler Design A Strength Training Program?
Jim Wendler is a powerlifter that could squat quite a heavy load. But, with over 20 years of experience under his belt, he realized there is much more to a workout than your one rep max. Being more flexible and strong in all movements is better than simply moving heavy weight just to say you lift that much.
This is one of the reasons he created his strength-training program.
You will come to find that his workout is based on the four fundamental movements that carry over to real life. These moves are called compound lifts. Compound lifts use many joints and muscles to complete a movement as opposed to only isolating one or two of them. These compound exercises are the bread and butter for all workout programs that focus on anything revolving around strength, power and muscle mass gains.
The exercises he focuses on are parallel squats, the bench press, deadlifts and the overhead press.
What does that mean to you?
In a nutshell, you will have to commit to four training days per week. Wendler states you can train three or four days. With that said, why not just make it four and strengthen your body better than with three workouts?
Compound lifts are also often called core lifts because your training for that day revolves around that movement, plus it targets your core muscles. Core muscles are the ones that help stabilize your body and allow you to move in different directions at the waist. Another reason you want to strengthen your core muscles is because they allow you to move more weight.
Wendler 531 Workout & How it Works
This training program is based on of a 90% of your one rep max (1RM).
Wendler explains that he uses 90% to ensure you are doing a workout that is actually increasing your performance and gains instead of remaining stagnant.
For example, people often say they have a 350-pound deadlift 1RM but are usually not really able to lift that much.
Usually, that 1RM happened a few months ago. That’s why knowing your true 1RM is not as common as you would think. It’s also why Wendler chose to go with 90% of your supposed 1RM. This makes you work hard for your gains with fewer exercises and reps needed.
Now, the 90% is of your 1RM. Let’s clear this up with an example. If you press 315 pounds for your bench press, then the weight you use for programming is based off of 285 pounds. From this point, you are given instructions to use something like 75% of the 285 pounds for your compound lift. So basically the 90% is actually your base weight amount, and then the program gives you percentages to use from the base weight and not your 1RM.
The 5 3 1 part of the program refers to the amount of reps that will be in each set. So you basically start off with five reps. From there, you slowly progress down. But this happens around the third training week. You actually get to this point by doing a 3×5 compound lift workout and then a 3×3 with the following week being the 5 3 1.
On the last set for each training week, you actually do as many reps as you can for the given percentage. The purpose behind doing this is so that you are actually gaining strength.
Isolation Exercises Are Still Used
Isolation exercises are also referred to as accessory exercises. These are the movements that complement a workout program that focuses on compound movements. The Wendler 5 3 1 program sounds like it is just a few sets of compound lifts. But, following them are these accessory exercises that help boost your compound lifts further.
Wendler doesn’t go into great detail since these exercises are not the bigger focus of the program, which is different than most workouts. You simply do some different types of isolation exercises and call it a day. The program really is that basic, yet effective.
But, it works!
The Controversy Behind Wendler 5 3 1
As with any type of training program, you get those who feel the methods are wrong. It is hard to figure out why so many people have this mindset that there is only one way to achieve a fitness related goal. In this case, the controversy stems from the fact that Wendler chose to use 90% of a person’s 1RM instead of sticking to the actual 1RM.
Basically, some feel this would cause people to go back in progression instead of forward.
But why question another person’s method?
Thousands of men and women have benefited from the Wendler 5 3 1 workout, and that says a lot about those who doubt it.
There is a lot more to muscle and strength gains than just lifting the heaviest loads possible. Many of the bodybuilders in the fitness community have taken the approach to almost always use moderate loads with 8 to 10 rep sets. This places less stress on your joints and encourages strength and muscle gains. Of course, this is different compared to the Golden Age view on lifting heavy almost all the time.
Would The Wendler 531 Training Program Work For You?
The answer to this question really depends on what your goals are. If you want to lose fat quickly, then a HIIT program for 20 minutes, three days a week, is better for you. But, if you wish to gain strength, increase muscle and be physically healthy, then the Wendler strength-training program may just be right for you.
If you are older, then you should consider skipping the heaviest week especially if you have little training experience. The program does get pretty intense. But, the basic concept of using weights to move for small rep counts is very good for strengthening your bones and muscles. Get the green light to train this way from your doctor if you have had any previous medical conditions or are over the age of 50.
The Wendler 5 3 1 training program is also good for athletes in any sport. The perk of having power behind your movements along with strength and flexibility carries over greatly. This could be great for football, basketball, hockey, tennis, bodybuilding and, of course, powerlifting. Think about what your goals are and if heavy weight training is right for what you seek to achieve.
All training programs have different methods and work differently for everybody, but the Wendler strength-training program is definitely recommended for those who seek to increase their strength and muscle growth significantly. If you are into breaking previous maxes, then this workout program is right for you as well.
The whole point of the workout is to steadily grow. Make no mistake about it, the intentions are not to get big in only two weeks. Wendler 5 3 1 is a realistic approach to actual muscle gains instead of just remaining at a stagnant state of strength and growth. Growth plateaus are common amongst people who lift weights, but Wendler 5 3 1 can help you bust out of a plateau.
By Brian Pankau, CPT